by YIA Mentor Artist Suraya Keating
As I entered Ms. Peter’s class for the first time, I am struck by the friendliness of the staff, the relaxed atmosphere of the classroom, the authenticity of the students. Each of Ms. Peter’s six students at Redwood High has a special need of some sort, as well as many special gifts. It is my role, as a teaching artist with these students, to bring out their special gifts – to identify and nourish whatever talent, potentials and joys each student possesses. Whether working in a mainstream classroom or a special need classroom, this is no easy task. I take this challenge quite seriously , and with hope in my heart that in the time we have allotted to work together, each student will be able recognized for his/her gifts and contributions.
While I have been hired to teach a theater residency, classroom teacher Ms. Peter is very flexible, and gives me space to teach in whatever way most creates a bridge with the students. As the first few weeks go by, I notice that 4 or the 6 students are mostly non-verbal. While they seem to enjoy simple theater warm-ups, my repertoire of activities that I often use in special needs classes is not landing in the way I am accustomed to. Knowing that flexibility is key to effective teaching, I realize it is time to change direction.
I have noticed that ALL 6 of the 6 students share one thing in common: a love of music and movement. Whenever I use music in our warm-ups, smiles arise on their faces, and I realize something important has happened: I have found a bridge. About a month into the residency, with the support of the classroom teacher, I shift from focusing on theater to focusing on dance and movement. As we explore dance for the next few months, I see each student come alive in different ways. “Sara” gets her groove on with upbeat music, and adores being the leader in pairs’ mirror dances. “Calvin” loves shouting out and practicing whatever dance principles we are working on during a particular day, such as “big vs. small movements,” “sustained vs. staccato movements” or “straight vs. twisted shapes.”
As is the case with VSA residencies this year, at some point a group of about 10 mainstream students (this time from Mr. Berkowitz’s drama class) join the dance program. Integrating the mainstream students into class seems to inspire everyone: the students with special needs and the mainstream students get to explore various dance principles in duos, in small groups, and in the large group. When the music comes on and students are invited to explore moving in straight or zig zag lines, or with slow or fast tempos, and in many other ways, I see smiles come to their faces as they explore how their own bodies move, as well as how they move in connection to others. Students are mutually supporting one another, acknowledging each others’ strengths, and supporting one another when there is a challenge. I feel grateful to work among students who at a young age seem already so capable of doing with one another what I aspire to do with each of them: to bring out and celebrate each other’s gifts.