New Junior High elective opens doors of communication among students
Posted on 02/13/2024
Lori Dawson helps add food dye to cornstarch during an experiment.

Educators say a new elective revolving around growing plants is breaking down barriers between regular and special education at Poplar Bluff Junior High.

Plantastic is demonstrating something that cannot be taught out of a textbook, according to faculty members involved: inclusion. The project-based learning class is led by eighth grade science instructor Lori Dawson, in collaboration with the entire Life Skills Department.

“My students are modeling communication, giving directions, learning how to work as a team and doing things that I don’t think you can teach from a book,” Dawson reflected. “They are opening up a new world and gaining social skills that they will use for the rest of their lives.”

Having received inspiration for the class name from a plant-based baby food, Dawson sketched out the concept with a former building colleague. The seeds were planted with a monthly garden club Dawson started last year alongside special education teachers Christina Dell and Michele Steffan. A store credit on succulents donated by Home Depot helped get the class off the ground this school year.

Life Skills students relocate to the science wing each week, with the exception of Mondays, when Dawson’s class devises the experiments. The elective is primarily student-led, with faculty members and classroom assistants essentially serving as facilitators.  At the end of the week, the Life Skills students often bring a snack they learned how to prepare as part of their normal lesson plan.

“The moments they’re experiencing aren’t moments I can teach – the socialization, bonding and classroom behavior,” stated Courtney Rutledge, one of the Life Skills teachers involved. “We’re closing the gap between special education and what we call reg ed, creating an inclusive environment, basically allowing our students to take part in eighth grade science.”

Plantastic has been so well-received this first semester that plans are underway to extend the elective to a year-long class in 2024/25. Dawson is presently working on writing the curriculum with Rutledge to expand beyond teaching about the life cycles of plants and states of matter, to include the solar system and the biological classes of animals, perhaps even taking a field trip to a farm.

“It’s a hands-on opportunity for my students to meet their peers—not necessarily on their academic level, but outside of the classroom—that we couldn’t pass up,” Rutledge continued. “There are no cons. What we’re doing can be done in any building, in any grade, anywhere.”

During a brief survey asking what their favorite part of going to Plantastic is, the common theme for three Life Skills students was the friendship gained. The classmates variously responded: “My friends.” “I get to see Ray!” “I like to hang out with friends, and do cool science experiments.”


Cutline: With Life Skills instructor Phillip Lewis looking on, science teacher Lori Dawson helps add food dye to cornstarch in an experiment hosted last month at PBJHS.

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