“What are you doing with him? He’s walking taller, smiling more and participating so much more in class.”
This was a colleague of mine back when I was just beginning my teaching career as a teacher of Special Education in a middle/high school. My colleague referred to a handsome, shy young man. For the sake of this story we’ll call him Tommy. Tommy had been identified as Educable Mentally Retarded. It was so gratifying to hear that feedback from another of his teachers as I had been seeing it too – ever since that magical day in English class when we were dramatizing a parody of Snow White. I didn’t know it at the time but that was to be the beginning of this idea that integrating the arts into my teaching was a powerful and effective way to teach all children, especially those who were not successful with more traditional methods.
This group of students in my English class had been studying fairy tales and identifying the basic elements in order to appreciate parodies of fairy tales. We had read the parody “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” by Roald Dahl and chosen parts that each student would play in our improvised dramatization of the poem. When our queen ordered the huntsman, played by Tommy, to kill Snow White and bring back her heart he replied, “Alright I’ll do it. But I’m not going to like myself in the morning.” The whole classroom burst into laughter.
Where did this come from, this clever, witty, assertive voice, and where had it been hiding? I don’t know where that expression came from but the smile on Tommy’s face after hearing that laughter seemed to dramatically alter the way he saw himself. That line was talked about for the rest of the year and represented the beginning of an amazing growth in self-confidence and a willingness to take risk for Tommy.
Another year I taught a very intelligent, curious, creative thirteen year old who had dyslexia.
He had experienced little success in school and had developed a severe school phobia as a result. Our department developed a program for him where he spent part of his school day as an apprentice to a local artisan who created stained glass. It astonished the artist how quickly this young man took to the process. Before long this student was creating 3D images like a sailboat with its spinnaker flying out of the pane. With his apprenticeship and an arts project-based approach to learning utilizing his strongest modalities this child slowly began to open up in school sharing his mischievous smile and keen sense of humor.
When I left that teaching assignment to pursue my MEd in the Creative Arts in Learning, I took a drama class with a master teacher, Prilly Sanville. She shared with us an experience she had in working with a child who had an intensive stuttering issue. When this child had a puppet on his hand and was speaking as that character, his speech was fluent and completely without stutter. I felt chills up and down my spine when I heard that story. What insight that gave to teachers working with that child! How empowering for that child to hear himself speaking fluently and confidently!
There are millions of amazing stories out there that demonstrate the power of the arts to reach those students who have trouble accessing content in traditional ways but I never tire of them. The results of arts integration are often impressive with any child but the transformation one may witness of a child with special needs can be simply miraculous.
Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.