917 "C" Street
San Rafael, California 94901
I walked into the special day class classroom I have visited for years, and “L” was having a fit. Yelling, rolling on the floor and spreading general unhappiness. The teachers and I tried numerous interventions, but nothing worked until we decided to pull out one of the “magic scarves.” This simple, oversized scarf works miracles in my classes. Once the scarf was over “L,” she immediately calmed down and even participated in that day’s music lesson.
This is just one of many times this scarf has come in handy. It is hard to say what makes it so engaging. Students of varying abilities find it fascinating. They follow it with their gaze, dance with it and will generally follow any direction as long as they get to interact with it.
There are a few specific ways I use this scarf. First, I use it to encourage eye tracking or to bring focus to an area of the room. It also helps to remind students to change levels in a dance and encourages a specific quality of movement, I also have students hold one end of the scarf while I move the other end. Using this technique, almost every student will match my movements.
Though I am not sure of the reason for my students’ fascination with my scarves, I am grateful for its effectiveness, and I plan to continue to use it in years to come.
Last year I wrote a blog suggesting that students’ behaviors should whenever possible be seen as an attempt to communicate. I encouraged my fellow teaching artists to:
1. Find the hidden messages in “behaviors” or “breakdowns”
Those of us that work with special needs students are very familiar with behaviors or breakdowns. Initially the crying, repetitive gestures and outbursts from these students may seem random, but they rarely are. These students have no way of saying “I don’t like this song,” or “The volume is too high.” Ask yourself:
What activity preceded the outburst?
Has this happened before?
What did you or the classroom staff do that calmed the student?
When does this student seem most content?
Sometimes there are even messages in the sounds and words said while in the midst of a tantrum. One of my students “J” threw a tantrum in one of my classes, and after close listening, I realized that he was yelling, “e-i-e-i-o.” He wanted to sing Old MacDonald but didn’t have the vocabulary to express it. So we sang Old MacDonald and he was immediately calmed.
2. “Read” your audience.
A great many skills we develop as performers are transferable to teaching special needs students. One such skill is being able to “read” your audience. After a while we instinctively know when to slow down, speed up or drop a section completely. The same goes for working with students.
If you find your students engaged in a song, repeat it. This populations thrives on repetition, and those with language processing delays will have an opportunity to learn your material. On the other hand, if the class is losing focus or individuals are starting to show behaviors, find a quick stopping place and move on. It takes patience and flexibility to work with special needs kids, and sometimes no matter how wonderful your lesson plan is, you may have to make a quick change.
3. Your greatest resource: The classroom teacher
The special day class teachers are an amazing group of individuals who know their students extremely well. Ask them for advice and listen to them when they make suggestions.
This year I have been considering the difficult situation when I realize what a student is trying to communicate and I have to decide to honor the request or continue with the class. For instance, if a student breaks down in the middle of a song, is it best to stop the song or continue in the hopes that ignoring the behavior will not reinforce it. The simplest answer I have come up with is to look to the classroom teacher for advice, but I am realizing that being a teaching artist with the same children over several years and sometimes through several classrooms can help in this situation. We are in the unique situation of knowing students on a very deep level and can plan and react accordingly sometimes even surprising the classroom teachers. There was a specific instance where we were singing a song, and one fo the students was obviously not enjoying the experience. The classroom teacher and I looked at each other considering what to do. I shared that in the past if I get to the next verse, this child usually calmed down. We tried it, and it worked!
YIA Mentor Artist Hannah Dworkin
Brain Dance at Marindale Early Intervention
“I FEEL my brain getting smarter! I feel my head getting bigger!” “B” from Meriam Granger’s pre-K language immersion class after her third session with “Brain Dance.”
Brain Dance was developed by Anne Green Gilbert, and it is comprised of eight types of movements based on the developmental stages of a baby goes through during the first year of life. The steps are: Breath, Tactile, Core-Distal, head-tail, upper-lower, body side, cross lateral and vestibular. There has been quite a few encouraging studies about the use of Brain Dance with students of all ages. I have been using it in variations in my VSA classes this year. Each of my classes have very different ability levels, and I found myself adjusting it to fit each scenario. Below are ways in which I found it most effective.
Class of autistic students age 3-5:
This group thrives on routine, so the key to having brain dance work with this class was to introduce it early in the 10 week residency and practicing it daily. I gave the steps to the teacher, and she made sure to reinforce the movement.
Class of students with limited mobility:
This class was challenging because they were not able to move their bodies enough to participate in brain dance, so we all, classroom teacher and aides included, were very hands on. We helped them manipulate their limbs and as needed, and listened to gleeful shouts when we spun their wheel chairs at the final stage of the dance.
Class of language delayed preschoolers:
There were two important things to keep in mind with this group. First, they were very young, so keeping the pace up was essential. I also used high energy, fun music to keep them engaged. I also needed to be very clear with the language I used. I needed to keep in mind that they needed me to use simple vocabulary to describe and demonstrate each movement.
Thank you to the Marin Community Foundation for their generous support of this and all of our programs serving students of different abilites!
San Ramon Elementary School, “Arts Unite Us”
Teaching Artist: Suraya Keating
How can we create a world where we learn to enjoy our similarities and our differences? Where we can use imagination to work out conflicts and different ways of being? These are the questions that catalyzed my residency experience at San Ramon Elementary School, where students from three 4th grade mainstream classes joined forces with students from Mrs. Lake’s 3-5th grade special needs class to learn skills of drama, and to put on a mini-performance of their work together. In 7 action-packed drama classes, students worked collaboratively as they developed skills of acting and ensemble work, including: group pantomimes, creating tableaus, and using their voices and bodies in expressive ways to communicate a story. They then combined these skills to act out three different modified versions of a traditional African folktale, “The Laughing River.”
At its core, “The Laughing River” is folktale which invites us to contemplate how to live in the world with all of our differences in such a way that we can all not only get along, but THRIVE. It also invited the students to contemplate the question: how can we effectively resolve conflict when we have differing preferences and needs? In watching the students in the three groups that I directed at San Ramon School, I loved observing how the students in each group used their imagination to come up with a multitude of ways to solve the particular conflict in their version of the story. For example, in one version of “The Laughing River,” one group of people became upset because another group was cutting down too many trees to make wooden drums. How can this conflict be solved? Students came up with a variety of imaginative and peaceful ways to resolve this. Below is an excerpt of what they said:
How about if the people who want to make drums only cut down dead trees?
How about if we get half the trees and you get half the trees?
How about if the people who make drums find a different material to make their drums so that the trees can live?
Listening to students come up with their own ideas about how to solve conflict made my heart smile. What also made me smile was to observe how the students listened to one another – taking in each other’s ideas and considering them rather than throwing them away. In our short time together, it felt to me that students truly became an ENSEMBLE, with everyone wanting the best for everyone else.
Thanks to the students and teachers at San Ramon Elementary for their wonderful work! And thanks to the generous contributions that support the Arts Unite Us program from The Lester Foundation, The Green Foundation, The Marin Community Foundation and Marin Charitable.
The students in Ms. Stuart’s class for 3-5th grade students with special needs have something in common: they love to play. What is it about play that makes it such a powerful learning tool for youth? In my theatre residency at Vallecito, they have exercised their ability to play well while cultivating imagination, focus skills, body and vocal expressiveness, and the ability to work together as a team.
At the start of our 10 week residency, Ms. Stuart’s students were very enthusiastic about drama, and eagerly “played” with each other using theatre games such as move and freeze, pantomime and the group mirror game. Students moved as their favorite animals, portraying cats, dolphins, birds, elephants and others, and then told and acted out stories about these animals. They told stories of animals who wanted to make friends, animals who needed help, animals who were happy, and animals who loved their families.
By the middle of the residency, after students had some practice with storytelling, we chose puppetry as a way to deepen their storytelling and story enactment skills. Each of the youth created his/her own puppet that embodied an animal or a hero/heroine that he/she wanted to portray. Puppet interviews followed, and during these interviews we learned lots about these puppet characters! For example, one student, Carl, created a puppet with a magic eye that could see into the minds of all creatures. Another student, Amber, created a bird puppet with many wings that could fly animals who were hurt to any hospital in the world so that they could get help.
In the end of the residency, students playfully enacted scenes with their puppets. As so often happens, these scenes were full of real-life themes and lessons. In one of those scenes, an elephant puppet named Ray was sad that his friends had left town, and asked for help from a monkey puppet named Chris. The monkey puppet offered to help cheer Ray up by sharing his snack and inviting him to play a game of catch. In the puppet world, as in the human world, the power of play to help us solve problems is an invaluable tool. It is certainly a tool used and cherished by the youth I worked with at Vallecito, and a tool whose value will continue with every new child born on our planet. Thanks to the youth who remind us about the power of play!
YIA Mentor Artist: Suraya Keating
Theatre Arts Residency Spring 2013
This year, I worked for 20 weeks with Linda Breakstone and Stacy Hall’s class, with students ages 5-10 with a wide range of learning, cognitive and physical disabilities. My strategy was to try to engage each and every student, focusing on routine and repetition. I’d always begin my class with the same opening song, go through a series of activity songs, and end the class with our “goodbye” song.
Music time with the kids consisted of interactive songs, identifying the sounds, and physical play (i.e.. Row your boat, Hokey Pokey, London Bridge). We use icons for non-verbal students so that they could make choices in the songs and activities. For example, for “The Wheels on the Bus”, we had photos of windshield wipers, a baby, windows, etc. When singing the song, students had the option to participate by holding up their icon.
Often, I’d bring in rhythm instruments. The highlight of this 20-week project was that my sister, Terry, came to share her trumpet on two separate occasions. Kids LOVED blowing the horn, pressing the valves and marching (those who could) to “The Saints Go Marching In”
The teachers seemed to really enjoy music time, noticing that it was the one time of week when all the kids, teachers and aides get together with no interruptions. It was a fun session, I look forward to having the opportunity to come back next fall!
YIA Mentor Artist, Olive School MCOE Special Day Class 2012-13
I look forward each year to working with special needs children at Mill Valley Middle School who are diagnosed as ‘Developmentally Delayed’.
I have found that they are capable of doing all of the projects that I take to the other schools. The first day they paint on canvas. Acrylic paints give them control of a medium, and they end up with beautiful paintings. I cut out a drawing of a tulip, and brought in a bouquet. I found that some children just painted inside of the drawing, others, used it to copy from as they looked at the still life.
Shrinky Dinks, heated plastic art, provided an exciting new material for them. There was some confusion at first, but after their first piece we almost ran out of material.
Mock stained glass made with laminated plastic and colored tissue provided them the concept of transparency and what happens with light. They all wanted their pieces hung in the window. They are still hanging, and will probably be up until the end of the school year.
Watercolor landscapes were created from photographs that I brought from my personal photo library. I made enough copies so that the students could keep the photograph. It was interesting to see how well they studied the photo, and painted what they saw.
Glass fusing continous to be fun. Most of the children had done this, so they were eager to begin. I was a little tense doing this, as a member from MCOE was in the classroom doing an observation. The smile on his face as he watched all of the children engaged soon settled my nerves. In this project they are picking up cut glass with their tweezers and gluing them onto a base of glass. (I take them to my studio to fire them andreturn them the following week).
We made some beautiful books from the marbeled paper, and one of the aides patiently wrote on the board the words that the students wanted spelled. This project is interesting for the child that is more interested in the paint in the water then the actual painting. I brought in finished sheets of marbeled paper that were able to use in their books. This gave them a chance on how to see their own projects could be used.
I look forward to another year with this group. It is delightful to see them all eager to see me, asking “What are we going to do today, Marty?”
Students at Oak Hill worked with mentor artist Julia James. Students explored color, textures, papers, brushwork and a combination of art materials. They gained confidence and learned to joyfully express themselves, building on skills and personal discovery.
Oak Hill School serves students aged 5-22 with autism and related developmental differences, and their program is guided by the principle that relationships are central to building skills in relating, communicating and thinking. Students experience a comprehensive academic program with integrated speech, psychological and occupational therapies, as well as visual and performing arts provided by Youth in Arts Mentor Artists.
Julia’s personal goal was to enhance confidence and expression. She wanted to create an environment where students could feel listened to and individually known. When she began the residency, students could only sit for a few minutes at a time. By the end, most enjoyed their art-making experiences for 20 minutes and more!
In preparation for our Samba Reggae performance tomorrow, students from Peggy Koorhan’s AP Spanish class and Rachel Hughes Special Day Class created a beautiful canvas backdrop for the stage. In previous sessions students from both classes brainstormed ideas about the program and came up with themes including Friendship, Unity and Compassion. Students came together to create beautiful individual flags to represent these themes.
As a visual representation of the two classes working together, students from Ms. Hughes’ class decided that they wanted to paint a tree and have every student “leave” their hand print. YIA Mentor Artist Suzanne Joyal led the two groups in creating this beautiful canvas mural which will hang as a backdrop in the amphitheater during their lunchtime performance tomorrow.
YIA thanks the support of the Marin Community Foundation, The Green Foundation and the Lester Family Foundation for helping to make this program possible.
This past weekend May 17 & 18 Arts Unite Us premiered an original production which combined educator Ben Cleaveland’s advanced theatre students and students from educator Michael Lovejoy’s Special Day Classroom. Students engaged in a collaborative theatre program, written, created, designed and performed by the youth under the leadership of Youth in Arts Mentor Artist Melissa Briggs. The packed performances received standing ovations and praise from all involved.
Tam High student creators Victor, Glyn, Julia, Jake, Cate, James, Maribel have some words to share with you about their experience writing, directing, producing and performing as an integrated ensemble of young artists from Conservatory Theatre Ensemble and Marin County Office of Education!
“We took two of the most atypical programs in the county, and mashed them together, and it was extraordinary.”
At the beginning, “I was a little afraid of making new friends. I wasn’t sure we would get a long but by week two I felt so welcomed into the process.”
“I liked rehearsing, all the exercises and breaking up the scenes.” Working hard together in rehearsal was “one of the reasons the performance went so well. But even when things on stage didn’t go so well we were there for each other.”
“It went perfectly! I wasn’t nervous. For this one I wasn’t nervous coming into the process knowing whatever happened would happen and it will be great. Something different will happen and you have to react accordingly.”
“It was more about the process more than the product. That is something I’ve learned to value the most.”
Together on stage
My feeling in performance “its good!” I felt “happy”. But “the writing part. I like it cause the writing part was hard, the best.”
“I liked the acting part cause I like to dress up.”
Rehearsing a favorite scene
“It was a different experience. I felt really accomplished afterwards.”
One student was scared to go on stage for his cue with the packed audience. He finally worked up the courage and exited the stage whoop!ing it up! He said afterwards “I felt great! And happy! And I did my line!” He was also quick to praise his classmate’s funny delivery of his lines.
Another student praised her castmate too, “Maribel inspired me. I know she was always there for me on stage and as a writer.”
“I want to keep doing my lines!”
Actors playing campers
One of the co-directors had an interesting insight; before seeing the play some Tam High peers seemed to plan on “seeing it as if it was a kids show. It was like they didn’t really want to see or really think about it. I don’t know what to do to change that.” You want to know what to do to change that? You are doing it!
Other people would say our collaboration is going to be “so cute or sweet.” When people talked about the play preparation in a patronizing way “I got angry and stopped talking. It was discouraging.” Another said “you just have to see us working in rehearsal to know our work is just as hard, just as good!” But “The people who saw it and really thought about it, they loved it. They felt something. One guy said he had a horrible day and our play made him happy! They saw we worked so hard for so long together. We made people think and feel something! And I think that’s like the whole point of theatre.”
A moment backstage
Feedback on campus was super positive all around. “A lot of people say they heard it was good even if they didn’t see it. People were really talking about it, like, everywhere. Everyone said it was really entertaining to watch.” The audience “liked the ensemble aspect of it. How we were there for each other.”
Castmates and friends
“Everyone was so generous with themselves. Everyone put their peers before themselves but still worked hard on their work, their part of the pie. I think the world could use a little more of that. We put so much of ourselves and risked so much and the audience got to see that.”
“I know what we should do for our next play…”
Well… this project may be over, but high school students of all abilities from across the Bay Area are invited to apply for admission to a groundbreaking new integrated Dramatic Art Project (iDAP). This two-week intensive will be led by a professional artist and will culminate in a live multi-media performance. This is the beginning of the Youth in Arts Performance Company.
Your world isn’t typical.
Your art shouldn’t be either.
Exceptional young people with diverse experiences and abilities collaborate to produce an original piece of dramatic art. Explore elements of playmaking and filmmaking in this exclusive intensive at Youth in Arts in San Rafael this summer. Create an impactful live performance using forms of theatre and digital filmmaking.
Mentor Artist Melissa Jones Briggs will guide a small ensemble of students as they explore their collective authentic dramatic voice. Young artists will also work with professional guest artists to create, design, produce and perform an original piece of dramatic art. The Project meets at Youth in Arts Studio in San Rafael July 22nd - August 2nd, M-F, 10AM-3PM.
Many voices, one story: come share yours!
Apply @ youthinarts.org/idap