While most Rowan University students hunched over final exams Tuesday, a small group, caught in a volleyball net wrapped around them, pretended to be fish. Jostling one another, they waved their hands and tried to get free.
They were rescued by the kind but scary-looking "Big Al," a Rowan student paired with a Kingsway Learning Center student in the role of the performance's hero.
A few minutes later, to celebrate the story's happy ending, the "fish" - also college students paired with Kingsway students with special needs - were all dancing to "We're All in This Together," the High School Musical anthem. Soon, they had pulled the audience of preschoolers from Rowan's Early Childhood Demonstration Center into the dance-along, hands waving as they jumped about.
The 15-minute performance of Big Al, a children's book by Frindle author Andrew Clements about friendship that transcends personal appearance, was presented by 32 Rowan undergraduates in Theresa Purcell Cone's "Teaching Concepts of Adapted Physical Education" classes and 13 Kingsway Learning Center students.
"The kids really find something in the [Rowan] students that they really connect to," said Jill Coughlin, the Kingsway teacher. "It means that they're working with their peers. It means that they're worthwhile."
Beyond programs limited to observation of special education classes, Coughlin said, the Rowan program makes her students - whose disabilities include Down syndrome, autism, and mobility issues - more comfortable by involving them in physical activities with the college students.
"My kids aren't put on the spot," Coughlin said. "This allows them to participate, and there's no boundaries."
She refers to Rowan in a specific way when talking to her students: "We call it the magical place."
John Saaybe, a Kingsway assistant teacher who works directly with one of Coughlin's students, concurred: "You never know what's going to bring them out. An opportunity like this is priceless."
Tuesday's performance was the finale in a semester-long program that, each Tuesday and Thursday, brought Kingsway students to Rowan for an hour of physical activities tailored to them.
The undergraduates are required to attend at least two of the joint sessions. But many of the aspiring teachers opt to attend more, since the program gives them a place to put in practice what they're learning in the classroom.
"It definitely helps and gives you a lot of experience to prepare. . . . It was great," said Amanda Palumbo, a senior from Gloucester Township who is studying health and physical education.
Palumbo said she had learned "that everybody can work together to do anything," describing one session where students in wheelchairs had difficulty bowling in a traditional fashion. Cone modified the game by setting up ramps to allow students to push a ball instead of swinging one back and forth, Palumbo said.
The program teaches the college students skills and attitudes that will be useful regardless of whether they focus on special education in the future, said Jason Jenkins, also a senior studying health and physical education.
"It really gives you the hands-on experience. It's impactful because you never know. . . . You don't want to play a typical volleyball game with someone in a wheelchair," said Jenkins, who had paired with a 19-year-old Kingsway student named Jihad to play the role of Big Al, a strong but not beautiful fish who, in the book, worries about making friends.
Eventually, after breaking free the rest of the fish from the net, Big Al finds himself surrounded by plenty of fish friends who are no longer focused on his looks.
Learning to adapt physical activities to students' abilities is "an equal-opportunity thing," Jenkins said. "I feel like I'm better prepared."
And by bringing her students into direct contact with students with special needs, Cone said, she hopes to change expectations and comfort levels.
"They learn that students from Kingsway can do anything if you just give them the adaptations to help make them successful," Cone said. "It's a very satisfying feeling to see my students engage and accept students with disabilities with no reservations."