Teaching Students With Special Needs – Part 3

Earlier this week I went to Boston for Promoting Universal Access for Theatre and Out-of-School-Time Educators, a free event presented by Partners for Youth for Disabilities, Inc. Access to Theatre Program in collaboration with Wheelock Family Theatre, VSA arts of Massachusetts, and BOSTnet. The program featured a dance performance by Access to Theatre featuring a combined cast of dancers who required wheelchairs and those who did not in the morning, and a short workshop in the afternoon.

I am glad I went to this event, although I felt some of the activities were on a too-basic level for where I’m at right now. The majority of the attendees were teachers or administrators for generalized after-school care programs, and only a few were teaching artists or other theatre professionals. The workshop activities were focused very closely on dance more than theatre per se, and while I’m always glad to add another movement activity to my repertoire I had hoped to come away with more that I could apply directly to some of the freelance work I’m doing these days. The Artistic Director of Access Theatre was kind enough to talk to me after the event and answer some of my questions about working with children with blindness and/or sensory integration challenges. Overall the people at the event, presenting and attending, seemed very friendly and insightful– in some ways I think I would have preferred more networking and group conversation time to get to know people and share knowledge.

Some great thoughts and activities I got from this experience:

  • An awakening to open captioning and audio description. Very interested in investigating pricing for technology rentals in this vein in the future. One observation I had was that it really is important if you’re going to incorporate these into a performance that, just as with ASL interpreters in a live performance, the timing really needs to be as close to in sync with the live action of the performance. Otherwise, as a friend of mine once said, you might as well be interpreting the play in someone’s living room down the block for all the viewer gets out of it.
  • How essential it is, in doing theatre for and/or by people with disabilities, that issues of sensitivity are discussed and worked through on every level– from production assistant to facility manager to artists. There is a choreography that develops backstage in any production, but there are some unique concerns when a commitment to universal access comes into play. All may go well when things go as planned but technical “surprises” happen and attention to access can’t be thrown out. For instance, what do you do if the captioning suddenly stops working? If a dead microphone brings a crew onstage, blocking the ASL interpreter? If you don’t do anything then is access really being provided? Of course not– so the demands on the production team increase a great deal and the need for thoughtful improvisation is really required.
  • An interest in investigating some special education products, especially those developed by Edushape. I’ve encountered a lot of calls for materials with varying textures, as well as a need for latex-free products in general.
  • The beginnings of a brainstorm of all the ways bubble wrap could be used as a means for adaptation in theatre classes. In the “Poppin’ Dot” activity demonstrated at the workshop, for instance, a group of typical students and students with disabilities could all participate in a movement activity requiring travel from one colored dot to another if the dots were covered in bubble wrap. The wheelchair or child’s weight pops the bubbles and the child has a sense of where they are in space. The child with a need for sensory stimulation gets it and the child with limited vision can find their way as well. I’m thinking of looking at other types of materials that could be used in similar ways as well.
  • One really good point made at the event– always ask kids what their hobbies are. It’s the key to gaining insight into how they uniquely connect with the world.

Question for the World: Are there theatre activities you use in your work that incorporate small adaptations to serve the students with special needs within the group? What adaptations have worked for you?

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Howard Gardner’s Keynote

I know, it’s been a month since the AATE/ATHE conference, but it takes awhile to unpack it all!

The keynote speaker at the conference this year was Howard Gardner– the architect of Multiple Intelligences Theory, proposed in 1983. Basically MI Theory is an argument against the more traditional notion that Intelligence is a fixed entity– something that can be reduced to a simple IQ, but rather one’s overall “Intelligence” is a hybrid of competencies and talents in several key categories. The Intelligences currently accepted by Gardner are: Bodily-Kinesthetic, Verbal-Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalistic, Musical, and Visual-Spatial. Gardner’s work is considered revolutionary by many, and is cited often in arts education circles especially. For myself, reading about MI Theory as a junior high school student trapped in a failing inner city school system is probably one of the great inspirational moments that led me to become an educator.

Frank Episale tweeted his response to the keynote: “Underwhelming if occasionally charming,” which was more or less my reaction as well. In the “charming” category my favorite moment was Gardner’s explanation of traditional IQ measurements as ways to find out “who would do well in a Parisian school 100 years ago.” I found the keynote “underwhelming” in that in a room of theatre instructors, the vast majority of whom I am certain have had more than a passing introduction to MI Theory, I don’t think most walked away with anything new. Gardner was a great choice for a Keynote Speaker– I’m sure there are people who had his presence on the agenda on their list of Reasons to Come. I’m just not sure that his presentation added as much to the conversation that is Conference as it could have.

That said, here are some Interesting Points and Insights Gardner Made, with some of my thoughts after:

  • Gardner’s definition of Intelligence: “The biophysical potential to process information in certain ways, in order to solve problems or fashion products that are valued in a culture or community.” In what ways does my work in teaching inspire the innate potential in my students? What happens to potential that is untouched? Are there potentials that my students have that are simply not valued in the culture that is my classroom?
  • The traditional Western view of Intelligence is of one fixed capacity you are born with. The traditional Asian view of Intelligence is of a capacity reflected by your hard work. The Western reaction to MI Theory has largely been, “My kid may not be good at X but MI Theory has 7 other categories that will define him/her as smart.” The Asian reaction to MI Theory has largely been, “Here are 8 categories we need to make all of our kids smart at.” Are there ways I also take just what I want from particular theorists and thereby dilute their contribution entirely?
  • There has been exploration of “other” Intelligences but Gardner has not adopted them into his theory (for now anyways)– they include a Moral Intelligence and a Spiritual/Existential Intelligence. Could morality or spirituality ever really be reduced to a competency? Should they? I’ve never really been fully comfortable with the notion of the Naturalistic Intelligence– is it worthwhile to take what I agree with from this particular theory or is there something irreverent/disrespectful in this?
  • “The future in education belongs to those who can mobilize computational resources.” What does this mean for theatre education?
  • In preschool it is “precocious to cheat.” How come that stops being okay?
  • Gardner pointed out how the discourse about intelligence is limited at times by cultural taboos and biases. He argues for instance, that much could be learned from an examination/comparison of the strong interpersonal intelligence demonstrated by Slobadan Milsovic and Nelson Mandela. The intellectual potential, in his view, was the same– the differing moral choices of what to  do with that ability doesn’t change the innate intelligence. But many people would bristle at the notion of describing Adolph Hitler or Augusto Pinochet as “smart,” so if there are things to be learned from such an examination we really never find out. Where should an examination of ethics enter into education, and how could theatre better participate in such an exploration?
  • I was most interested in Gardner’s commentary on MI Theory as a means, rather than an end, to particular goals in educational institutions. It is clear that MI Theory has been co-opted for a myraid of purposes throughout the world, many of which have no basis in research or even fully in MI Theory. Gardner spoke to a tendency in arts education, in his view, to embrace dicta that support what we are doing (“Arts Make Everyone Smarter”) without necessarily holding such pronouncements up for a high degree of scientific backing. I think this is true and not true. Certainly some shoddy research has enlivened the public imagination, but there has also been a great deal of strong research (see Critical Links) into what impact the arts have on students and my only wish is that such advancements in the field were more publicly known.

Question for the World: How has Multiple Intelligences Theory influenced your work?

Must See Link of the Day

Teaching Tolerance’s Teaching Diverse Students Initiative.

Teaching Tolerance produces extraordinary FREE resources for educators at all levels. This is just their latest.

Question for the World: Whatcha think? Got another favorite resource for reaching all students that you want to share?

Screw Up Of The Day… OR Teaching Students With Special Needs Part 2

So I taught my first COLLEGE CLASS today and it was awesome-tastic! I feel REALLY good about how the first day went and excited for the rest of the semester. I’m sure I’ll post more about that soon. But I wanted to share my “screw up of the day” since it was relevant to the issues in this blog and involved a situation I’d never encountered before.

One of the activities we did in class today was have a class brainstorm session of all the different jobs in theatre we could think of — director, usher, grantwriter, actor, etc. The students shouted out their ideas and I wrote them on the whiteboard with a dry erase marker. I grabbed the one closest to me, which happened to be red. Later in the class I had the students do a writing assignment, where they also had the opportunity to jot down anything they wanted me to know that would help me as a teacher. So going through the journals tonight I come to one where the student wrote that one thing I should know is that if I write on the white board in red marker they can’t read it. It never occurred to me to verify whether any of my students might be colorblind or have any trouble at all reading what I wrote on the board before tonight.

Certainly I feel badly when I make a mistake like this, but there is something a little exciting about getting knocked over the head with my own privilege– in this case, able-bodied privilege— in that these are the moments that change my teaching FOREVER. Never again will I write an assignment in red marker and just assume that since I can see the writing perfectly well that everyone else in the room must too. Driving home tonight I was thinking that so many of the ways I know I’m good as a teacher are the result of royally messing up somewhere along the line and learning to change. This is comforting, since I make mistakes sometimes like it’s going out of style. I’ll never forget, for instance, that first day a child with cerebral palsy came into my drama classroom and quickly realized that my whole repertoire of first day activities was entirely dependent on the students being able to sit on the floor and actively change body positions throughout the hour. Or the day her second grade friends insisted they knew how to help her out of her chair and I… let them! What was I thinking?

I’m never as good of a teacher as I would like to be, but I hope I get better as time goes on. It can be painful to reflect on my mistakes but I try to be a model for my students in that I want them to be honestly critical of their own work at times and really, it’s only fair.

Question for the World: Screwed up lately? Share something you did as a teacher or director that you’ll absolutely NEVER EVER do again.