Discovery of the Week

New favorite blog in arts education. Holy awesome the classroom management stuff is fantastic.

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Children’s Literature Pt 1

One of the projects I’ve taken on this summer is to finally get a cross-endorsement to teach English grades 7-12, something that I was 2 classes short of for several years. The short version of that story is that I started out thinking I needed English certification to teach theatre in Connecticut, but when Connecticut finally added a “unique special endorsement” in theatre I jumped to add that instead. But I DID spend all that money on Praxis tests in English and a course in the History of the English Language (mind numbingly dull, if you were wondering), so I’ve always wanted to get it done. I took an Advanced Composition class in the spring, which was doubly beneficial because it got me finally getting into a draft phase of TWO articles I think I could eventually develop for publication– hopefully I’ll be posting more on those later on.

So now I’m well into my final course, on a subject I adore, Children’s Literature. I’ve tried to use the course to get acquainted with more books that I could use in my teaching work, and also to get a better sense of what works in children’s books and whether and how that connects to children’s dramatic literature. I’ve been thinking lately about what it is that draws me to theatre for young audiences and I know it’s roots are in my experiences with books as a child. Great children’s literature, whether it’s dramatic, poetic, fiction, or nonfiction, is great literature, first and foremost. Maybe it is the simplicity of the vocabulary or the limited length most picture books work within, but I’m taken lately with the realization that so much good children’s literature is so close to poetry. Story stripped to its most essential parts somehow catches the heart more often.

I’ve read quite a stack of children’s books for this course but one thing that I’ve really enjoyed is being exposed to so many outstanding children’s literature websites. It’s great to see what others recommend, and it occurs to me that there’s room for book recommendations on this blog. So,  for your reading enjoyment, here are a few of the best children’s books I’ve read this month, maybe for a later post I’ll brainstorm some lessons around them:

Questions for the World: What great children’s books have you read recently? Or not so recently? What do you think makes for an exceptional story for children?

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?

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?

Theatre Activities for Students with Special Needs – post 1 of many, I’m sure

I went to two sessions at the AATE/ATHE conference that dealt with this subject (specifically with students on the Autistic Spectrum) and I wish there had been more!  The first session addressing this subject that I went to was Autism: Strengthening Social Skills Through Drama. Special thanks to Lauri McCleneghan and John Muszynski of Maine South High School for sharing their work in a classroom that is purposely mixed with students on the autistic spectrum and those who are not, and sharing their strategies for creating social and theatrical challenges for both groups. The other session I attended was Autism Action: Drama Classes for Young People with Autism, presented by Brian Guehring, Sue Gillespie Booton, and Michael Harrelson of Omaha Theater Company, and focusing on drama classes coordinated by a professional theatre company. I’m glad that more schools and theatres are experimenting with ways to reach kids with autism– in my former position I had several experiences where I felt rather isolated in trying to adapt drama programs for students on the autistic spectrum, and I know there are many theatre education practitioners out there who’ve had the same experience.

When I was in grad school I had a friend who pointed out to me that the “Special Education” professors often had better syllabi than the regular “Education” professors. It was one of those things I never noticed until it was pointed out and thereafter noticed everywhere I went. Somehow the training to work with students with special needs seemed to translate to a better ability to put together an organized syllabus, and to be able to differentiate instruction on the college level in a way that I otherwise have not encountered. Perhaps this is why I would say the best resource I have found has been VSA Arts— so many of the presenters have strong special education backgrounds.  I’ve only been to one conference of theirs, in 2006, but it was fantastic– every workshop filled with practical use-tomorrow strategies and outstanding handouts. I wish they had conferences more often, I would go all the time!

I am interested in hearing about anyone’s favorite resources, books, activities, and/or websites for adapting drama instruction for any of young people with special needs. I’m especially interested in any insights into adapting dramatic play activities  for students PreK-Grade 3 who are on the autism spectrum and/or multiple disabilities, but any and all experiences and insights are welcome!

Question for the World: What are the best resources you’ve found so far that have assisted you in better meeting the needs of students with special needs?

Reading List

I purposely didn’t bring much money to the AATE conference this year, because the vendor area tends to suck me in and then not only have I spent all my money but I’m stuck trying to figure out how to transport all these new books home. I was very good and tried to just take notes about books I want to look into, publishers that seemed interesting, etc. And yet somehow I still ended up with a suitcase full of books– people were giving them away for free! The two that I actually got at conference that I think I will actually use are a collection of plays that Coleman Jennings handed out at his Jose’ Cruz Gonzalez session of his, and a book of theatre research sites in New York City.

Here’s the list of reading materials I didn’t get at session but am going to be seeking out at libraries everywhere very soon:

Playwrights I Want to Be More Familiar With

Carlos Manuel

Nicky Silver

Journals I want to Read More Of

The Journal of Aesthetic Education

Theatre Topics

Books I Need to Read

Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind by Margalit Fox

Multiple Intelligences Around the World, edited by Jie-Qi Chen, Seana Moran,  and Howard Gardner

Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon

Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, by Lois Hetland, Shirley Veenema, Kimberly M. Sheridan, and David N. Perkins

New Tax Guide for Writers, Artists, Performers, and Other Creative People, by Peter Jason Riley

Plays I May Check Out

9 Plays by Jose’ Cruz Gonzalez, edited by Coleman Jennings

The Hundred Dresses by Mary Hall Surface

Children’s Books I Really Should Have on My Bookshelf

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (already read but want to go back to it now)

Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin

Glass Slipper Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella by Paul Fleishman

Question for the World: What’s on your reading list?