Professional Development through VSA – Kennedy Center – by Suzanne Richard

Arts integration in special education seems so fundamental to me that I welcomed the chance to present at a series of Professional Development programs on that very subject.  Thanks to a grant from VSA Arts, Arianna Ross and I, of Story Tapestries, had the chance to share the ideas of Embodied Storytelling to groups of teachers who I knew would VSAbenefit immensely from this work.  The inclusion of multiple styles of learning are vital to a well-rounded education. That benefit increases exponentially when dealing with students whose various disabilities may affect their ability to receive and retain information in a traditional classroom culture. This post will focus on two vastly different programs we offered, the first to a large group of approximately 80 high school and middle school special education teachers and aides, and the second, a much more intimate group of approximately 20 teachers that work with elementary school students with special needs.

With the first, larger group, after introducing them to our basic embodied storytelling tools which, among other things, allow teachers and aides to create a collaborative and focused work environment, develop and enhance the acquisition of new vocabulary, and begin to get them to explore kinesthetic modes of learning, we focused on exploring texts that illuminate different scientific processes.  We broke them into groups based on their self-selected seating choices at various cafeteria tables and asked them to use the tools we shared with them to first draw out one a paragraph they constructed from one of the steps in texts we gave them on the water cycle, photosynthesis or metamorphosis.

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First they were asked to draw, in pictures, the elements of this paragraph (main idea, supporting details and conclusion) on a graphic chart we gave them. Then they put together a presentation of these paragraphs for the rest of the room with each person embodying a different element of the paragraph. The end result was a tableau at the end of the process.  I found it fascinating to watch groups who had previously seemed unimpressed with the tools we were sharing begin to grasp the process as they worked with their fellow collaborators and colleagues.  They began to relate the process they were using as it pertained to the children they were working with on a daily basis.

Because of the size of the workshop, we had the groups share their presentations with other groups and then chose several groups to present to the whole room.  We were able to single out groups who had seen the value of our work immediately and those who had only really understood how this fit into their daily classroom culture after they had gotten up on their feet.  It was a beautiful example of the existence of different styles of learning and the value of arts being integrated into daily learning activities.  During reflection time at different points in the program, teachers and aides shared with their colleagues specific areas where they thought our activities could really enhance the learning experience and foster retention in their classrooms.  By the end of the workshop, many of these ideas were coming from former skeptics and the whole group was engaged.

The smaller group of elementary school teachers required a different approach.  These were all teachers from the same school used to working with each other.  In a sense, we not only had to address their classroom culture, but also the culture of their own engagement in a professional development workshop based on their previous experiences with these colleagues.  There was the “class clown”, always throwing in an occasional quip. The “cool kid” who sat in the back of the class and rolled his eyes at everything and carrying a portion of the participants into his unimpressed disengagement. The “star student” already prepped and familiar with and employing the techniques of arts integration and eager to learn what embodied storytelling had to bring to the table. There were also aides, who were not necessarily included in professional development opportunities and feeling a little like intruders.

20141203_131028The first thing we did was get them into a circle around the room, allowing them to keep their cliques, but forcing them to see all of the participants on an equal basis.  As we began the basic tools and vocabulary acquisition techniques, we encouraged full participation by individually engaging with different individuals at certain times while having them act as a single group in other activities.  For example, as we focused on the process of metamorphosis with this group, we took them on an imaginary physical journey around the classroom as butterflies, visiting different colored flowers and creating a world to embody the story in.  The sheer silliness of the activity allowed for laughter and commentary in an active process that was also easily identified as a fun activity for their students.

As the target student age of this group was younger, we had them work on a sentence about one aspect of the process and then illustrating that concept on a graphic.  Once they were broken into groups, they each presented their sentence as a part of a group. Although it was not a competitive atmosphere, even the “cool kid” in the back of the room took great pride in showing what he had created as part of a group and by the end, everyone was eager to share how they thought this work could be applied in their classrooms.

The main body of our workshop was similar to embodied storytelling workshops we give to general education teachers.  The thing about all of these workshops that was most gratifying, was the missing information we were able to provide all of these teachers about common tools we use to create what we call an inclusive classroom.  As I use a wheelchair, we often demonstrate this early on by staging teachable moments where Arianna will ask us all to stand in a circle, and I will step in with a reminder that a better way to say that to a room full of students, some of whom might have mobility issues, is to instead ask everyone simply to form a circle.  We also discuss varying traditional ways to create tableaus and concept sculptures the students do with a partner by adding things like voice requests and imaginary strings that can move limbs and other body parts into the desired positions instead of directly touching their classmate, being sensitive to students who are averse to physical contact.  And what I really found surprising was the gap in knowledge among these groups of special educators on disability etiquette.  Few had heard of “person first wording” and politically correct language for various disabilities and differences.  This led to many in depth discussions and knowledge sharing within the groups.

All teachers can enrich their classrooms using Embodied Storytelling.  But more importantly, the creation of inclusive classrooms in any classroom environment can add to the power of arts integration.

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