Creation and Learning for All Students at an Arts and Special Education Conference
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?
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