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Teacher brings true diversity to his classroom

Coach John Wooden reminds us, “The best teachers never retire they only find new students.” Many teachers find the rewards of teaching go beyond the classroom. This case study includes several of the 20 educators selected in 2001 to represent the All-USA Teacher Team, an elite group of educators with diverse teaching styles.

Each has brought a passion for teaching to their students in a unique way that engages and sustains active learning. These teachers demonstrate how they find the joy in teaching. This case study examines the positive aspects of teaching as a career goal to help students get through their challenging GED prep and created in cooperation with Covcell GED programs. 

The goal: Integrate special-needs students into mainstream schools

With his up-tempo attitude and unbridled creativity, Larry Statler comes across as a teacher who was just hired yesterday. Blame passion for this illusion. The 28 years since Statler first set foot in Santa Teresa Elementary School have raced by in a blur of innovation, awards and, best yet, lasting student friendships.

All of which might sound routine for a well-liked grade school teacher. What is exceptional is that Statler has dedicated his life to special needs children, with a specific challenge of integrating them into this multicultural magnet school’s general population.

By parent choice, 100 of the school’s 500 students are part of his Discovery program, which also includes 11 special-needs children whose conditions range from autism to Down syndrome. Take a peek into the wall-less zone Statler and a dozen other teachers, aides and occupational therapists call home and you’ll see gifted children sitting side-by-side with autistic children, and you’re not quite sure who’s teaching whom.

“We have no stereotypes about a child’s ability to learn. Being so young (kindergarten through sixth grade), our kids do not yet have the ability to be prejudiced toward each other, so they take other students at face value,” says Statler, 53, a casually dressed cross between Kris Kringle and Mr. Rogers. “When they learn that lesson at this age, it stays with them their whole lives.”

Statler admits that Discovery is “not for all parents.” In fact, some emphasize that they don’t want their kids exposed to an innovative system that on the surface appears unstructured. Statler quietly counters that because of the extra staff on hand to help special-needs students, other Discovery kids benefit from lower teacher-student ratios (1 to 7) and more flexible learning methods.

At the heart of Statler’s success is a project-based teaching method of his own devising that is integral to his appointment to the 2001 All-USA Teacher First Team. Hundreds of themed Discovery Centers — often made up of ordinary items such as used telephones, plastic dinosaurs or colored blocks — help students learn tasks of varying complexity.

The flexibility inherent in Discovery Center-based learning eliminates feelings of inadequacy, Statler says. For example, a mound of small T. Rex Figurines in a rainbow of colors can be used to teach math concepts to both beginners (they sort and count the dinosaurs by color) and advanced tykes (they work on addition by adding colors).

Sometimes the centers have provided surprising results. When used phones were assembled to create a “communication center,” Statler found a special-needs child who had not uttered a word suddenly talking, handset pressed to her ear.

Launched in 1989, Discovery and its centers have mushroomed, thanks to dozens of grants yielding more than $50,000. Those funds came in handy after a 1994 fire gutted Statler’s rooms. “We would hit up yard sales to get new materials for the centers,” he says, laughing at the memory. “Now we’ve got plastic human torsos, we do dissections, we show kids insect collections, things that even some high schools don’t have or do. What’s more, it isn’t just Discovery kids who benefit there. All 500 kids do.”

For Statler, the mission is simple: Make learning fun. A diplomatic man, he refuses to disparage more traditional teaching methods. But it’s clear that test-focused teaching is not his cup of tea.

“Learning isn’t all about being prepared for a specific standard exam,” he says. “Whether our kids are completing a task we’ve set up, or simply exploring a puzzle on their own, we just try to make sure that, regardless of a child’s intellectual level, the learning never stops.”

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