Two weeks ago, I attended (and presented at) the VSA Intersections Arts and Special Education Conference. VSA Intersections is a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program and is part of the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
I really valued the conference’s emphasis on all disabilities. As a special education teacher, I spend most of my time with students who have disabilities that affect their cognitive skills. I don’t usually teach students who have physical disabilities that do not require academic interventions.
Yet those other disabilities affect students’ daily lives as much as – sometimes more than – the issues of my kids who need extra help in math. Sometimes, other students’ conditions actually keep them out of typical public schools altogether.
The artists and educators at the conference teach an incredibly wide swath of students. Some may teach kids who have autism at one school, then work with private students or small weekend groups with kids who are legally blind, in addition to their typically-developing students. Others may focus exclusively on one particular disability. Still others may have physical challenges themselves.
I attended a session by theater professional Fran Sillau. He connects theater arts to students with special learning needs or disabilities. Using Universal Design principles, Fran showed how theater games can engage all students and encourage their participation in any classroom, regardless of severity of disability. The take-away? Be creative in how you help a student engage a topic. This follows the old adage, “Observe what the student CAN do, not what the student cannot do.”
Teachers and students from the DeKalb School of the Arts shared how students with physical and emotional difficulties are supported in the school’s arts-intensive curriculum. In a keynote presentation, the students shared their stories, then performed music and theater for the attendees. I was struck by the focus of the students, both when speaking and when creating the art that they loved.
Many of us want this kind of immersive learning for all our students, whether they are acing all their AP classes or are running out of reasons to stay in school, whether they play varsity sports or have never walked on their own. The VSA conference helped teachers to nurture talent in all forms of exceptionalities. Like artists through the ages, we learned to combine energy and enthusiasm with discipline and fortitude in our students.
And who knows what our students – with all of their unique challenges – will contribute to the world in return?
Do kids with dyslexia gravitate toward the visual arts? Does theater attract kids with attention issues? Many of us have hunches about how disabilities cluster in certain arts areas. Think of the stereotypical characteristics of an actor; can you imagine what kind of student will pursue theater?
I am researching the rates of disability in different disciplines. Right now I am focused on arts high schools because in those schools, students need to clearly choose which arts area they will learn. Though the sample size has been small so far, there is data to support an interesting conclusion: Kids seem to go into areas that balance, not reinforce, their shortcomings. In other words, people with disabilities may not exhibit our ideas of actors, musicians or painters. They actually may be quite different from those stereotypes.
For example, students with attention issues – the kids we thought would go into theater – seem to gravitate to music, an area that requires intense focus for hundreds of hours. Why would kids who struggle with concentration choose an interest that demands it? Does the structure of practicing appeal to them? After all, there is only one task at hand in the practice room. Once the door closes, it is you, your instrument, and a lot of notes. Maybe this minimalist and clearly-defined task is easier for these kids than a chaotic stage packed with emoting extroverts.
But let’s look at those emoters. We assume that they are the extroverts, the socially savvy kids who love to jabber in all situations. But my preliminary data suggests that some of those students are actually socially awkward, including a number with Asperger’s syndrome. Many struggle to show empathy and to communicate their feelings in real life. Perhaps these students are attracted to theater because it allows them to experience social interactions on stage, within the confines of a script. They can explore emotions in a regulated environment.
My thought is that by identifying whether arts disciplines tend to attract students with particular learning disabilities (and I do not have enough data to be certain of this), we can ask why trends occur.
- What cognitive strengths exist in arts areas and corresponding disabilities?
- What weaknesses are less important to success in a given field?
- What supports could be worked into specific arts training to help bolster weaknesses in young artists?
- Do kids go into arts areas because the disciplines balance their weaknesses, or do they go into areas where they might not need to use those weaknesses?
Other studies have examined the relationships between cognitive strengths and arts training, but few have looked at weaknesses and arts training.
I am finding this to be fascinating, and recently presented these findings at a conference at the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs in Boston. People who attended the presentation had many ideas, and wanted more information, so I hope to continue the research. Stay tuned, and please let me know if you know any schools who might be interested in participating!
I dreamed about my high school last night, the boarding arts high school Interlochen Arts Academy. In the dream, I was on campus as my current self, spending six months studying, living in my old dorm named Mozart-Beethoven, arranging bookshelves with my new roommate. As I exited the cinder block dorm, ambling through pine woods to the lake, I thought, “Wow, this time I’m really here. I’m not dreaming. I’m finally truly back. I’ll go to a concert tonight after I practice, then work on my poem for class tomorrow. This time, finally, I’m not just dreaming about it.”
Rewind twelve hours. I was sitting in the auditorium at Holyoke Community College, surrounded by proud parents at the spring concert of the Berkshire Hills Music Academy. I’ve written about the school and their performances before. I have described these young adults whose disabilities affect their movements, speech and social interactions and who will likely need some degree of assistance throughout their lives.
I was excited to see my former students and their families. Yet as the concert got underway, I felt unease. These young adults were not behind the safe doors of a classroom. Their disabilities were right up on stage with them. Some musicians stared at the floor through their songs, never looking up. What were they thinking about? A few talked too loudly as they set up, or they stared at the audience. Some musicians wore headphones because the noise of the event was overwhelming. I worried that some students with affected gaits would trip on the microphone cords. They all seemed so vulnerable. Suddenly the arts seemed dangerous, so very public.
After about three songs, I started noticing familiar magical moments, like the singer who was absolutely on beat and on pitch, no matter what else was going on. Or another, looking too cool in sunglasses, who performed a familiar song with a brilliant twist – “Hit me with your best shot,” in bone dry delivery. There was the student who started in a range too low for him, then as the pitches rose, his tenor voice opened and expression poured out. Like all concerts this was a moment when the critic in me stopped and just lived the music.
Also, like all concerts, there were pieces that lacked magic. That’s okay. Completely normal. The performers were still giving it everything they had. Maybe they spoke to someone else. Every audience member brings something unique to the event, like each performer.
When students weren’t performing, they sat in the audience along the right wall. The second half opened with a small group singing, “If you’re goin’ through hell.” The right side of the auditorium exploded in motion. Students head banged, snickered at the word “hell,” and screamed their appreciation as the rest of us adults applauded. A few songs later, “Dance to the music” seemed like a religious revival as the students in the audience jumped up and down, waving their heads and arms, while the singer leaped around the stage and the drummer tossed his sticks in the air. The magic of the concert wasn’t the parents who were recording it on tablets and phones. It was students sharing this moment with each other.
BHMA students are around music all the time – playing it and listening to it with each other. In lessons, classes, and weekly Friday concerts, music is how they shout and cry about themselves and the world. BHMA is housed in a single manor. Students literally live, learn, and perform under one roof. Their rock-star cheers at this concert for each other were the result of months of deep musical expressions and connections.
When I was in ninth grade my grandparents visited Interlochen and accompanied me to my classes. They were amazed at how supportive we were as we critiqued each other’s poetry. (Our teacher was the poet and author Jack Driscoll.) Four years later, my parents were struck how each graduating senior was cheered loudly by all classmates as her/his name was read. All 200 of us had shared an experience that made each student worthy of such joyful noise.
There were musical differences among us just as there are at BHMA – I play Brahms sonatas in my bedroom now, while my classmates play Brahms symphonies in the Cleveland Orchestra. But in school, we all practiced hard, and each day we walked onto the stage with our faults, weaknesses, and intellectual holes in full display. We stared too much, we looked at the floor, real or psychological, and we certainly made social gaffs. But we did it together as we expressed our own deep humanity through the music. On some level, we loved each other as we witnessed and were witnessed. Like the BHMA student sang yesterday,“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
This morning, I awoke. Shoot, I was so sure that I was at Interlochen this time. Alas, no lake, no pine trees, no “land of the muse divine.”
But the muses flew around that auditorium in Western Mass yesterday, conjured by musicians who appear to be so different from other musicians in my life.
Those muses laugh, playing tricks on me in my dreams, because they know that we humans are all so very very much alike.
Last fall, I wrote about two programs that combine music and special education. One of the programs was a the Boston Conservatory, now Boston Conservatory at Berklee. On March 1, 2017, the Boston Conservatory at Berklee website announced, “Berklee to Launch the Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs This Fall.” How exciting! The Institute will “provide opportunities for individuals with special needs to learn about, experience, and create in the arts” and will build on the Autism Program that was started at Boston Conservatory by Rhoda Bernard.
The announcement says that, “In addition to local partnerships, the institute will expand its list of national and international relationships, which includes Music for Autism International, and United Sound.”
This is great news for the arts AND special education! If you are interested in learning more, check out the Boston Conservatory’s conference in April 28-29, 2017. See you there!
Education and Music, Education and the Arts, Special Education and Music, Special Education and the Arts
Remember the Mozart Effect? We were going to become smarter by listening to Mozart? (Thank goodness I’m a violinist!) The theory was all the rage in the ’90’s. Ever wonder what happened to it? Dr. E. Glenn Schellenberg has researched this and other music / psychology questions at his Music and Cognition Lab at the University of Toronto.
His findings about the Mozart Effect indicate that, “Although the original researchers speculated that there was a special link between listening to Mozart and spatial abilities, our research showed that the link is simply one example of how music can make you feel good, and that feeling good often leads to good performance on a variety of tests.”
So listening to any music that we enjoy can increase our mood, and therefore can sometimes increase our performance. However, he also found that if the music is too loud or has lyrics, our performance can go down if we are listening to the music while we do a brain-intensive activity.
What about playing music? Schellenberg has found that music performance seems to cause a small increase in IQ. However, he “also documented that children who take music lessons often have much higher IQs than other children, and that they do even better in school that you would predict from their IQ scores (Corrigall, Schellenberg, & Misura, 2013; Schellenberg, 2006, 2011b), which suggests that good students are particularly likely to take music lessons.”
So if you are a parent, should you invest in music lessons for your child? Yes, if you love music and yes, if your child seems to enjoy it. There appear to be many benefits, both musical and non-musical. However, music likely will not dramatically change your child’s academic life.
Our brains do love music. As I write this, it is snowing and I’m humming, “Oh the weather outside is frightful…”
Recently, I have had the honor to visit two music programs for students with special needs. One is the Berkshire Hills Music Academy (BHMA) and the other is the program for students on the autism spectrum at Boston Conservatory. Each school attracts students who love music and who benefit from a somewhat specialized environment for their disabilities.
Boston Conservatory’s website states that it offers
a number of educational programs and opportunities for individuals of all ages with autism spectrum disorders. These programs, which range from private music lessons to Autism-Friendly Performances of the school’s mainstage productions, are designed to provide a safe, welcoming environment in which participants can nurture a life-long involvement in the arts—as creators or audience members.
Berkshire Hills Music Academy’s website states that it offers
a post-secondary transition program as well as a long-term graduate program for young adults with intellectual disabilities…BHMA offers a music-infused, college-like experience via the Two Year Certificate Program for young adults between the ages of 18-30…Many of our graduates choose to remain within our community as members of the LIVE (Long-term Independent Vocational Experience) program. We also offer a Summer Program for ages 16-25. All of our programming is complemented by daily music offerings that engage and motivate our students.
Each program is fairly new. BHMA’s first students arrived in 2001. Boston Conservatory offered private lessons to students on the autism spectrum in 2007.
To visit these programs is to witness idiosynchratic introverted students choosing to participate in groups. This is quite a feat for some kids with disabilities. A young child plays repetitively with a window shade, then notices and joins a circle of children singing a fun nonsense song. A young adult utters one-word answers in conversation, then strides onstage to belt out a classic popular tune with his band. Like centuries of performers, these unique kids have glints of stardom in their eyes.
Also, like all musicians, they bring their shortcomings to the studio, along with their strengths. The young child might boom a note too loudly for the small group. She might use vibrato like an opera singer, just to hear and feel the sound. The young man might not quite make eye contact with his duet partner as they coo a love song together.
It is clear that these students love music. Their teachers want more, though. Kids in chorus are taught note syllables do-re-mi to help them sing on pitch and to understand the structure of their songs. Instrumentalists are expected to play scales, arpeggios, and to practice each technique hundreds of times – like all musicians.
They get the full package – individual expression, group performance, creativity and disciplined practice.
These music programs challenge students with disabilities while celebrating their unique and shared characteristics. We are all fortunate to have schools like these.
“Really, everyone here is a special education student.” This was a dean at my high school. I went to an arts school. Years later, I was researching special education in arts schools, and of course I talked to my “home” folks.
I was skeptical of his assessment – you mean there aren’t specific services for kids who were on IEP’s at their previous schools? (This was years ago and not a reflection of what that school does now.)
And yet I wonder if my life in the arts led me to specialize in special education. The similarities are significant. Both require intense individual instruction. I had an hour-long private violin lesson each week; in theater I was critiqued for my individual performances. Visual artists receive specific comments on their works; each dancer knows that his/her body is being monitored at every moment.
Likewise, in special education, each piece of work is assessed to track a student’s progress toward individualized goals. For some students, behavior is chronicled and sometimes reported home daily.
Also, both the arts and special education celebrate uniqueness. Special education teachers see students adapting to the general curriculum in ways that make sense to the students. Yes, teachers give them tools. But the tools are – ideally – prompted by observations of the kids. The kids come first.
I took a class at my arts high school called Tradition and the Individual Talent. I don’t remember our discussions, but I remember that title. It speaks to the arts and to special education. Tradition is the great history that we inherit, it is the general curriculum that prepares students for life (we hope). Individual talent is the artist’s unique voice. It is the special ed student finally relating to geometry after noticing the shapes in a paper airplane.
In the daily slog of deadlines, meetings, and grumpy kids, we can lose the wonder of intensely individual voices. We forget our role in helping them become part of the world. But if we are involved in the arts or in special education, we are giving uniqueness an honored yet incorporated place in our communities and in our lives.