5 Tips for Teaching Theater to Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Acting from the Outside In

By James Lekatz

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) present challenges for a typical theater classroom: possible deficits in communication, sensory processing, social skills, and fine motor control. However, students with ASD can also have wonderful strengths for a theater classroom: honesty, attention to detail, and creative thinking. Approaching a theater class from a physical theater pedagogy allows students with ASD to focus on their strengths, build confidence, and develop social skills. Here are 5 tips to start acting from the outside in.

  1. Adopt routine and structure. Begin classes with the same routine: conduct a verbal check-in with each student so everyone has a chance to share what’s going on in their lives; follow with a centering warm-up exercise (introduce a set of skills that students can improve on over time); then a student-led warm-up exercise (this improvisational process incorporates a repeated structure and lets students take ownership of their class); and finish by going over the schedule of the day. Always end class with the same structure: review what was completed and go over what will be accomplished in the next class. Routines and structures help foster a safe and welcoming atmosphere for the students.
  1. Create an atmosphere of playfulness. When playfulness is explored and expressed, the room is allowed to relax. Students are willing to take creative risks and make big choices. Usually, students don’t have a fear of failing or of doing the “wrong thing” when there is an atmosphere of playfulness. Often times, starting an improvisational situation, scene work, or other exercise by doing it the “wrong way” allows all students a chance to fully engage in what they are doing. Nobody can fail, that is the purpose! From this place of playful “failure,” students are able to fully participate and laugh at themselves and each other in a supportive way. Being playful does not mean being disrespectful, chaotic, or unfocused. Playfulness is structured, focused, and allows space for creative freedom, supported peer interaction, and a desire to try again. It also invites full body movement and a physical response with the voice.
  1. Use body, movement, and gesture. Typical theater is based on psychological realism, or memory recall of emotion—acting from the inside out. This is an absolutely valid way of creating theater; however, if we take a physical route to create theater, using physical representations of characters, spatial relationships, and whole body gestures—acting from the outside in—students are able to dive deeper into their creativity. They no longer rely on representing feelings; they can be active and actually show, not just tell, what they are feeling.
  1. Remain open to possibilities. Give students the choice as to who or what they want to represent on stage. The protection of a character lets students’ self-expression evolve in a way that is not possible if they are acting as themselves. It is the job, and joyful challenge, of the teacher to figure out how to put characters together into a story. When it comes to pre-existing scene work, let the students cast the scene as well. This not only sets in motion an interest in the work they are about to begin, but it gives them an ownership of the process.
  1. Ask, “What did you notice?” Leave time for observations and discussions. This allows the teacher to recap what has been accomplished, but also offers time for the students to synthesize what they have experienced. It gives ample opportunity for students who have minimal language skills to express their observations. Prompting the students with the question, “What did you notice?” takes away the personal opinion of a student’s work; the “I liked it when…” is thrown away. An actual critique occurs as students specifically noticed a particular moment. The follow up questions are, “How did it make you feel?” or “What did it remind you of?” These questions help the students bridge the gap from the classroom to their personal lives.


A picture of the author holding a colorful string instrument behind his head.

James Lekatz

James Lekatz is an Education Associate and Arts Access Specialist at Stages Theatre Company. He continues to be instrumental in leading the charge for Stages Theatre Company’s outreach and access efforts, and brokering new partnerships with community organizations. He is also a resident teaching artist in many Twin Cities school districts and is the lead teacher of CAST (Creative Accepting Sensory-friendly Theatre), a program for students ages 7-17 with ASD.  

Announcing the Winners of the 2016 VSA Playwright Discovery Competition

An image with the text, "2016 VSA Playwright Discovery Award Program Showcase, at the Kennedy Center, September 3, 3:00PM, Russian LoungeThe Kennedy Center’s Office of VSA and Accessibility is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 VSA Playwright Discovery Competition, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program. This annual competition invites middle and high school students to examine the disability experience and express their views through the art of script writing.

The winners are invited to participate in a weekend of pre-professional activities at the Kennedy Center during the annual Page-to-Stage New Play Festival. The young playwrights engage with seasoned professional playwrights, directors, and actors to refine their scripts and further develop their playwriting skills. The winning plays include: Fish Waiting for Trees by Lukia Artemakis; Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower by Ella Brett-Turner; Two Scoops of Ice Cream by Sophia DuRose and Katie O’Malley; Missing Pieces by Emma Filosa; Know Your ABC’s by Elijah Gaines and Jaleel Lindsey; Supernova by Andrew Projansky; and Time Stops by Brad Weatherford.

Lukia Artemakis (Fish Waiting for Trees) is a senior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago. She has always loved all aspects of the stage, starting with ballet classes at the age of two. Since then, she has danced in over 100 performances of Ballet Chicago’s The Nutcracker and she has choreographed two pieces for Guys and Dolls Dance Company. Lukia, who has a hearing loss, is an avid writer who is on the youth advisory board of Dave Eggers’ nonprofit writing and tutoring center, 826CHI. She is glad to finally combine her two passions for literary and theatrical arts, and eagerly looks forward to authoring more plays.

Ella Brett-Turner (Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower) is a high school senior living in Providence, Rhode Island. She began writing plays when her brother told her to stop yelling about bad scripts while watching movies. Her interest in history and public health inspired her to write about Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire, who made her fortune selling medicated hair products at the turn of the century. This is the second play Ella has written about Madam C.J. Walker and she has begun work on a screenplay.

Sophia DuRose (Two Scoops of Ice Cream) is a seventeen year old author from Orlando, Florida. With a steadfast determination to pursue her love for writing, Sophia has attended numerous summer programs in order to improve her skills, including an intensive workshop at Columbia University in New York. She has been selected for various publications across many different genres of writing and is well on her way towards her main ambition of being the best artist she can be.

Emma Filosa (Missing Pieces) is eighteen years old and attends The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York where she studies Music Industry. Missing Pieces was selected as a winning script at Hartford Stage’s Write On program, in Connecticut, where she studied playwriting and further developed the piece. She co-directed and produced Unified Theatre at her high school for four years and is an advocate for individuals with disabilities. Emma has performed in multiple musicals around Connecticut and plans to pursue musical theater as a career.

Elijah Gaines (Know Your ABC’s) is a sixteen year old high school student from Lindenwold, New Jersey. He enjoys spending time with his mother and two younger siblings, as well as reading books, playing sports, riding his dirt bike, and helping those in need. Elijah hopes to become and engineer and a writer and looks forward to the opportunity to learn new and exciting things by completing his education and exploring the country. His dream is to one day help his mother live out her dream of opening her own business in their community.

Jaleel Lindsey (Know Your ABC’s) is eighteen years old from Newark, New Jersey. He enjoys playing football and writing verses for rap, which has been incorporated into Know Your ABC’s. With an eye on choosing a path to success in life, Jaleel is enrolled in Youth Build Academy pursuing academics and career development training. He looks forward to what his future holds.

Katie O’Malley (Two Scoops of Ice Cream) is a senior creative writing major at the Osceola County School for the Arts in Florida. Her favorite pieces to write are ones which she can infuse with experiences from her many travels abroad. Aside from plays, she enjoys writing short stories, poems, and memoirs. Katie has had multiple pieces of writing published in the past and was even awarded a Gold Key for her short story by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

Andrew Projansky (Supernova) is a senior at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois. Since 2007, Andrew has been involved in theater by appearing onstage at his local community theater, and only recently developed his love for playwriting after writing about his experience with depression through Supernova. Andrew is a member of the National Honors Society, International Thespians Society, Tri-M Musical Honors Society, is a freshman mentor, and is part of two acapella groups, and much more at his school. Andrew hopes to continue playwriting into college, as well as become a biomedical engineer.

Brad Weatherford (Time Stops) is a senior student at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas. Time Stops is based on his personal experiences as an actor with a speech impediment. The script started out as a monologue, and then was lengthened into a one-act play and edited to create a female version inspired by two talented twin actresses at his school. Brad is a proud member of the National Honor Society, International Thespian Society, and Young Men’s Service League. He hopes to pursue a BFA in Musical Theatre in college.

Excerpts from the winning scripts will be performed on Saturday, September 3, 2016 at 3:00 p.m. in the Kennedy Center’s Russian Lounge.

Five Tips for Supporting Teaching Artist Inclusive Practice

By Nicole Agois Hurel, Ed.M.

Teaching Artists (TAs) bring incredibly rich resources and opportunities to inclusive learning settings. However, they often receive less formal instruction and supports than other educators to meet the wide-ranging needs of their students. VSA Massachusetts’ COOL Schools Program piloted an Inclusion Support Initiative this year, which involved the development of the MICC Check for Inclusion, a self-assessment and coaching support tool to improve inclusive practice. The tool provides a set of best practices under four categories: Materials and space, Instructional techniques, Collaboration and Classroom management. It allows TAs to assess their practice in each area and provides a framework for targeted coaching support. Based on the process we followed, here are five tips to support TAs to improve their inclusive practice:

  1. Create a system of training and support. Developing a system (group meetings, one-on-one meetings, feedback mechanisms) that is consistent and predictable allows for meaningful discussion and sustainable growth. Consider your staff and TA capacity when designing it. The system will allow for reliability and focus, and will help you get a clearer idea of common growth areas and how you can best support them.
  1. Describe and model best practices upfront. Setting expectations of what quality inclusive teaching and learning looks like upfront allows TAs to visualize those practices in their teaching and consider them in their planning. Getting input from TAs during the process of naming and defining these practices is essential to keep them relevant and useful in their teaching. Make sure these practices are articulated in a space TAs can access on a regular basis, such as a tool, website, or handout.
  1. Employ TA-relevant language. Avoid academic jargon and practices that are not relevant to the contexts in which your TAs work. Keep the language concrete and understandable. Again, include TAs in the process of articulating the language to avoid confusion and frustration later on. If you plan to use a framework such as Universal Design for Learning or Differentiated Instruction to guide the language, be sure to spend enough time unpacking it together and checking for understanding.
  1. Allow space for self-assessment. The MICC Check asks TAs to reflect on their strengths and growth areas and to identify the supports they would like to receive. This allows for coaching that is targeted and relevant. Make sure you are providing a mechanism not only for the self-assessment to happen, but also for meaningful conversation around it.
  1. Provide in-person coaching supports and articulate action steps. Be sure your system involves coaching supports that are grounded in real work. Visit your TAs in the classroom often and let their self-assessment on best practices guide the conversation. Focus the tone of the discussion on growth rather than evaluation. Furthermore, work together to articulate action steps for the TA to focus on and follow up on how they are being incorporated.


“Creating inclusive environments is an ongoing process of principled design and action, problem-solving and responsive teaching”

~ Glass, Blair, and Ganley.


A picture of a woman with brown hair.

Nicole Agois Hurel

Nicole Agois Hurel, Ed.M. is the Director of COOL Schools at VSA Massachusetts, where teaching artists and classroom teachers collaboratively design inclusive, arts-integrated learning experiences for students with and without disabilities.

Helping Teaching Artists Navigate Special Education Classrooms

A female teacher talking to a young boy in a classroom.

Katie Kirkman works with a student.

With their years of experience as special educators, Katie Kirkman and Andy Dakopolos know the structure and language of special education classrooms can be intimidating and confusing. Teaching artists, in particular, may struggle to uphold the creative integrity of their work while operating inside of a seemingly rigid special education framework. Kirkman and Dakopolos, both doctoral students at Teachers College of Columbia University, believe that with the right tools, teaching artists can creatively and confidently navigate special education settings.

Kirkman acknowledges that special education is full of jargon that may be unfamiliar to teaching artists. But both she and Dakopolos emphasize the importance of creativity in the classroom, and finding ways to be a creative person within the constraints of special education. At the 2016 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference, they presented a session offering teaching artists “pro tips” on creating helpful classroom structures, aligning lessons with Common Core State Standards and Individual Education Program (IEP) goals, and working with student behavior plans.

When it comes to classroom structure, Kirkman encourages teaching artists to incorporate visual cues and create routine so students can physically and visually construct their day. “Creating a visual flow for everything that happens helps kids understand their ultimate goal,” says Kirkman. She also emphasizes the importance of creating visual cues and directions in multiple modalities, taking into account the different ways learners might process information.

Dakopolos encourages arts educators to think critically about their objectives in whatever lesson they are teaching and focus on how they can adapt their instruction to meet the needs of diverse populations. There are many creative ways to make accommodations for students and modifications to the instruction that speak to general education standards and IEP goals. For example, Dakopolos says, children can be offered more time to complete assignments or can complete them in a different modality. “I think it helps educators to understand that they really do have a lot of freedom in both how they present information and in what their students create,” says Dakopolos.

According to Kirkman, behavior plans are where teaching artists can encounter a lot of unfamiliar jargon and acronyms, such as ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) and PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports). There are generally three levels of behavior intervention: school, classroom, and individual. Kirkman encourages teaching artists to seek information about the school and classroom behavior plans that are already in place, and buy into them from day one. She states, “When you start speaking the same language as everybody else in the school, you’ll get respect quickly.”

Individual behavior interventions typically exist to deal with problem behavior, and Kirkman recommends thinking about the purpose and function of the behavior, or why the child is doing it. Try directing the student to a positive reinforcement instead of punishing negative behaviors. If teaching artists are creating rules within a lesson, Kirkman suggests framing things in a positive way; for example, instead of simply saying don’t do this or that, teach students the right thing by saying we do do this or that. “Look at each kid and realize what motivates them,” says Kirkman, “then see if you can offer reinforcing, positive interactions or other social motivations to avoid the problem behavior.”

More than anything, Kirkman and Dakopolos emphasize the importance of communication and collaboration when working in special education settings. “When you work with a kid with an IEP, you are suddenly part of that child’s education team,” says Dakopolos, “and it’s important to be a team player. Being fluent in the language of the special education program and being willing to adapt and embrace that child’s system will benefit the student and make everyone’s job easier.”

The 2016 apps are here for LEAD® and VSA Intersections!

Want to have conference details at your fingertips and keep up-to-date on session information? Create your own, personalized schedule? Upload photos and connect with other participants? If yes, then we encourage you to use the 2016 LEAD® and VSA Intersections Guidebook apps (Check your e-mail for details on how to download)!

Once you have downloaded the app, there is a lot you can explore! Important tabs on both apps include:

Welcome Letter


Find up-to-date information about session titles, presenters, dates, times, and locations

My Dashboard

Find your to-dos, inbox, and use the my schedule feature

Photos and Social Media

Upload photos and interact with your peers about the conference!

Survival Guide

Find important participant information, such as Access and Accommodations, meals, session handouts, certificates of participation, acknowledgements, and more!

In order to interact more with the app, including creating your own schedule, you must first open a free account within the app. To do this:

  1. Click on the person icon in the top right corner of the app
  2. Select the Create an Account option and fill out the appropriate information
  3. Congratulations, you now have access to advanced features on guidebook!
  4. In order to create your own, customized schedule, click on My Dashboard, which is located on the left side of your screen; click on My Schedule to create your own personalized schedule

We look forward to seeing you at LEAD® and VSA Intersections 2016! Happy app-ing.


July 2016 VSA Webinar: “Underdogs in the Spotlight: Using Plays to Discover and Showcase the Talents of Students with Disabilities”

In “Underdogs in the Spotlight: Using Plays to Discover and Showcase the Talents of Students with Disabilities”, playwright Annie Hough will shares tips and humorous stories gleaned from her failures and successes as an artist with disabilities working with students with disabilities. Hough provides a simple checklist of play production tasks and roles, and offers advice on seeking out and developing valuable relationships with passionate allies. She shares photos, suggest ideas, and receive audience feedback regarding the transformative benefits that every interested child can attain through their involvement with a play production.

Click on the play button below to watch a free recording of the Webinar. (You will be prompted to enter your email address and contact information prior to viewing the Webinar.)

Webinar Video - Presentation


Annie Hough writes educational plays for children. She has been a speaker at literary conferences, disability awareness workshops, and in many classrooms. Hough loves providing positive opportunities for underrepresented children

Summary of Discussion Topics:

  • Hough’s experiences
  • How to create a play at your own school
    • Necessary roles and tasks
    • Initiating and maintaining positive collaborative relationships
  • Benefits of utilizing plays to discover and showcase the talents of students with disabilities

Links and Resources:

We want to know-what did you learn from this webinar?

June 2016 VSA Webinar: “Successfully Teaching Students with Disabilities: Supports that Make a Difference”

In “Successfully Teaching Students with Disabilities: Supports that Make a Difference”, Dr. Sharon Malley elaborates on the six guiding principles highlighted in the paper she authored: “Students with Disabilities and the Core Arts Standards: Guiding Principles for Teachers”. Emphasis is be on facilitating a greater understanding of communication techniques, individualized accommodations, and evidence-based practices. Given sets of specific examples/scenarios of implementation of techniques and accommodations, participants have the opportunity to choose the best examples. Examples will cover each of the five arts education disciplines.

Click on the play button below to watch a free recording of the Webinar. (You will be prompted to enter your email address and contact information prior to viewing the Webinar.)

June 2016 Webinar Blog Video



Sharon Malley’s career in the field of disabilities spans over 30 years. She has a BS degree in Art Education, MS in Therapeutic Recreation, and Doctorate of Education with combined studies in therapeutic recreation, special education, and psychology. She holds teaching licenses in K-12 art education and special education. Dr. Malley served as the special education specialist for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She is co-editing a book, “The Handbook of Arts Education and Special Education,” under the publisher Routledge, in collaboration with Jean Crockett at the University of Florida. She serves on the professional advisory board of the Catholic Coalition of Special Education. Prior to her work for the Kennedy Center, she worked as a special education teacher in public schools, therapeutic recreation specialist incorporating creative arts therapies, university adjunct professor, researcher, and arts and disabilities non-profit organization founder and director.

Summary of Discussion Topics:

  • Overview and Guiding Principles for Arts Teachers
    • Who are students with disabilities?
    • Categories and Prevalence of Disabilities under the IDEA
    • Arts teachers responsibilities
    • Guiding Principles for Using the Core Arts Standards with Students with Disabilities
      1. Maintain high expectations
      2. Promote communicative competence
      3. Use the principles of Universal Design for Learning
      4. Know how to select and use appropriate accommodations for individual students
      5. Make use of evidence-based practices
      6. Target instruction and use formative indicators of student performance
  • Communicative competence
    • Communication in a Music Lesson
    • Communication in a Visual Art Lesson
  • Individualized accommodations
    • Four Types of Accommodations
      • Presentation – how the student will access information
      • Response – how the student will demonstrate competence
      • Setting – where the student will be instructed and assessed
      • Scheduling – when the student will be instructed and assessed
    • Individualized Accommodations in a Theater Lesson
    • Individualized Accommodations in a Media Arts Lesson
  • Evidence-based practices
    • Evidenced-Based Practice in a Dance Lesson
    • Evidence-Based Practice in a Visual Art Lesson

Links and Resources:

We want to know-what did you learn from this webinar?


Five Tips on Exploring Transition Theatrically with Students with Disabilities

By Lisa Golda

As any actor will tell you, theatrical practice is a very powerful tool for self-transformation. The very act of embodying different roles in a cooperative context provides socially reinforced opportunities to realize the dreams and conquer the obstacles of one’s inner landscape in the physical world. Traits of characters played can, if invited, linger in the actor’s psyche long after the curtain comes down. Scripted character interactions allow opportunities to both share and assume perspectives in rehearsal for more spontaneous real-life conversations. Obstacles conquered onstage prove less problematic offstage. Here are five graduated ways to explore and empathize with the inevitable obstacles and unknowns of transition with students, teachers, and families entering life after high school routine.

1. Start small and safe. Actors simultaneously utilize literature, movement, speech, interaction, self-assertion, and physical tableau, but those elements are easy to tackle one by one while still offering effective opportunities for rehearsal of real-life skills. It’s important to build a sense of comfort and mastery into graduated assumption of the role one wishes to assume after transition from high school to adult life. It is also important to reassure parent and teacher participants that they can indeed apply theater to their own lives despite any potential lack of acting experience. Ask students and teachers to choose words they associate with transition, such as “birth” or “sunrise,” then invite them to create silent statues or ten-second tableaus of these concepts with their bodies, with a partner. This is a very non-threatening, failure-proof, and beautiful way to embody change and begin considering all that transition implies.

2. Embody and overcome metaphorical obstacles to transition before exploring interpersonal scenarios. Theatrical work can be very transformative, but most non-actors need to build trust and safety with each other before jumping into the emotional deep end of their imagined realities and relationships. Group participation in both being and navigating an obstacle course—for instance, cooperatively and safely guiding a blindfolded participant through an improvised classroom maze with vocal directions—can give the guided actor the experience of dependence, frustration, and trust. This activity also leads the guiders to an understanding of their own tendencies in helping situations: What tolerance do they have for watching their students and children struggle with obstacles? What can a student learn about their parents’ challenges by helping them navigate in the metaphorical dark?

3. Improvise an applicable interaction with secret agendas. Give two participants transition-applicable, opposing unknown agendas to explore in improvised dyad in front of the group. For instance: two teachers are partnered. One teacher is given the objective of staying out after group home curfew to see their only friend—it’s life or death stakes. Another teacher is told that they must not acknowledge the “resident’s” risky rule-breaking desire, but only repeat: You may not break curfew. In embodying this and other authentically applicable transition scenarios, participants can gain a better sense of what their students, parents, and teachers are experiencing, as well as rehearse positive potential responses and outcomes.

4. Collect and incorporate narratives to feature in a transitional showcase performance. It has been said that good acting is merely being present and listening to your scene partner with 100% focus. Foster the art of listening by having students, parents, and teachers gather narratives from each other about aspects of transition and its real, imagined, feared, and desired outcomes. Condense the narrative material into poetry, song lyrics, or simple monologues addressing the participants’ inner transitional landscapes. Then perform the original material in theatrical format. Embodying this personal source material further enriches the conscious processing and experiencing of transition.

5. Prepare and perform a relevant text, play, or book excerpt pertaining to the issue at hand. Our participants have now moved from simple frozen tableau to metaphorical obstacle mastery to perspective taking to experience sharing to the actual art of acting; that is to say, embodying an experience that is not literally one’s own, but which becomes one’s own through the art of acting. Having practiced presenting material and situations that are truly our own through gathered personal narrative, our final objective as actors is to take the perspectives of others alien to ourselves by rehearsing and performing plays. Students who choose to perform roles that may seem impossible to parents and teachers may end up embodying positive aspects of those characters in their actual lives, or successfully avoiding them, if negative.



A headshot of Lisa Golda

Lisa Golda

Lisa Golda spent seven years teaching for Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education and Chicago Opera Theatre. She is currently the Business Manager at Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee, WI. Her resume includes professional acting, singing, music directing, voice teaching, and arts integration consulting for orgs including Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Ravinia Festival, and the Chicago Symphony. www.lisagolda.com


Lisa Golda and Michelle Parker-Katz will present “Embodying Transition: A Theatrical Approach to the Transition IEP” at the 2016 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education conference on Monday, August 1, 2016.

Intersections Preview: An Interview with Presenter Susan Oetgen

As we prepare for the 2016 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference, we are highlighting presenters and sharing information about their sessions. This month, we feature Susan Oetgen, who is co-presenting a session entitled “Students at the Center: Youth Leadership, Self-Determination & the Arts in DC Secondary Transition Initiatives.”


A headshot of Susan Oetgen

Susan Oetgen

Office of VSA and Accessibility: Tell us a bit about yourself and your work in this field.

Susan Oetgen: My work focuses on providing professional development, designing programs, and facilitating interagency collaborations in the arts and special education. I currently consult with SchoolTalk, a nonprofit that prevents and resolves special education conflict in the District of Columbia. At SchoolTalk, I provide leadership in the integration of the arts into a range of direct service programs and interagency initiatives with and for students with disabilities, as well as support the development of operational and strategic goals for the organization. I also work with the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies as Professional Development Institute Manager, where I coordinate the professional development activities of state arts agency arts education managers. Prior to 2014, I lived in Brooklyn, New York, where I was an artist, teaching artist, manager, facilitator and coach with a variety of performing arts and arts education organizations.


VSA and Accessibility: What can conference-goers expect to learn or experience in your session? What do you hope attendees take away from your session?

Otegen: I hope attendees come away from our session feeling inspired and curious about the potential partnerships among arts education and special education stakeholders that very likely already exist in their own communities, and feeling confident that they have some new tools and resources (or at the very least, ideas) for jumpstarting those partnerships. I have been so inspired by the can-do spirit and incredible collaboration that I’ve witnessed here in DC among members of the DC Secondary Transition Community of Practice (CoP). This is a group of colleagues from different government agencies, DC public and charter schools, higher education institutions, nonprofit organizations, and community service providers, and, as often as possible, students themselves, who meet monthly to keep chipping away at the city-wide challenges that too many of our high school students face as they prepare to transition to their post-school life.

Even more importantly, I hope attendees come away with a clear vision of how arts engagement and education can help students attain their transition goals by teaching self-advocacy skills and promoting self-determination. Within the DC Secondary Transition CoP, there have been numerous opportunities—and extensive support—to introduce the arts as a pathway for developing self-determination into the collaborative programs and projects that SchoolTalk facilitates on behalf of the CoP with and for our young people. My colleague Sarah Grime (Program Director, Youth Leadership) and I are excited to share with VSA Intersections conference-goers stories of the exciting work that has taken place this year within our local context of partnerships, and to unpack specific examples of programs and activities that we have found to be successful in our efforts to integrate arts into self-advocacy and transition curricula.


VSA and Accessibility: As you know, a primary focus of the VSA Intersections conference is to advance the field of arts and special education. What do you view as the most important driver in this work?

Otegen: Simply put: the youth! The young people we serve are the most important drivers in this work. In my work at both SchoolTalk and at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, I am afforded the unique position of seeing what the intersection of arts and special education might look like at the hyper-local all the way to the federal level. Every day I am motivated and encouraged by the work of so many colleagues across the District, across the states, and in federal and national positions who ensure that students’ voices are heard loud and clear in our efforts to advance this field.


VSA and Accessibility: What is the most meaningful learning you’ve taken away from previous VSA Intersections conferences, and what do you hope to take away from this year’s conference?

 Otegen: This will be my third time attending the VSA Intersections conference and I’m looking forward to seeing colleagues from around the country and catching up on the great work I know they are deeply involved in during the year.  I find it very valuable to attend VSA Intersections so I can learn about new initiatives and programs, but I find it even more energizing to see how colleagues are sustaining and deepening their programs, finding new solutions to ongoing challenges, and generally persevering in their efforts to intersect arts and special education productively, day by day, month by month, and year by year. Especially in light of the changes in federal and state education policy that we will all contend with in the coming years due to the passage and implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), as well as the outcome of the presidential election, I’m hoping to learn about how colleagues are planning to take advantage of potential new policy windows and/or maneuver through shifting political landscapes with grace and ingenuity. VSA Intersections is definitely a highlight of my professional year and I’m looking forward to traveling to Pittsburgh to present and attend!


Susan Oetgen and Sarah Grime will present “Students at the Center: Youth Leadership, Self-Determination & the Arts in DC Secondary Transition Initiatives” at the 2016 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education conference on Tuesday, August 2, 2016.

May 2016 VSA Webinar: “Music & Math in Motion: A New Learning Approach to Counting in 4/4 Time and Tempo Concepts for Students on the Autism Spectrum”

In “Music & Math in Motion: A New Learning Approach to Counting in 4/4 Time and Tempo Concepts for Students on the Autism Spectrum”, viewers are introduced to a variety of systematic strategies on how to introduce the musical concepts of counting in 4/4 time and understanding tempos to young students on the autism spectrum. Not only do the viewers come away with strategies they can employ in their classes, but also a knowledge of the process of trial and error behind the development of these strategies. As a Jazz artist, Cecilia Smith has developed many music concepts for people with a variety of handicaps. After being introduced to children with severe autism spectrum disorder, she was presented with a new challenge on how to teach music concepts. Tapping into this population’s desire for routine and repetition, Cecilia saw how counting rhythms developed in a variety of repetitive motion games, could lead to meaningful music concept learning in children with autism. This engaging webinar introduces to students to three stages of music: counting rhythm, tempo through song, and repetition through tactile activities.

Click on the play button below to watch a free recording of the Webinar. (You will be prompted to enter your email address and contact information prior to viewing the Webinar.)

May 2016 Webinar Video Blog



Cecilia Smith is a jazz artist, composer, multimedia artist and teaching artist. As a teaching artist Cecilia has developed numerous music education programs that address individuals who are challenged with mental illness, intellectual disabilities and physical handicaps. Cecilia serves as a Master Teaching Artist in Marquis Studio’s Teaching Artist Training Institute (TATI), which trains arts educator to work with students with autism.

Maya Turner Singh serves as the Education Manager for Marquis Studios. Maya is also a founding member of Global Empowerment Theatre, a grass-roots Educational Theatre organization that brings English literacy and Gender equity through theatre workshops to under-privileged students in East Africa and India

Summary of Discussion Topics:

  • Background on Marquis Studios/VSA-NYC
    • Became VSA/NYC affiliate in 2012
    • Hosts the Teaching Artist Training Institute (TATI Program)
    • Annual Calendar created by NYC D75 Students
    • “A Year in Pictures” Gallery Event at Pratt Institute
  • Introducing Cecilia Smith
    • Internationally known Jazz Artist
    • Composer, arranger, multimedia artist
    • Currently developing multimedia piece entitled Decisive Moments
    • One of the leading vibraphonists in four-mallet technique
    • Graduate and former faculty member of Berklee College of Music
    • 25+ years experience as a teaching artist
    • 20 years of serving special populations, including both children and adults in therapeutic and school settings
  • Meeting the students at PS 37R and PS 94M
    • PS 37R – Staten Island, NY
    • PS 94M – Manhattan, NY
  • The search for a new method to teach counting and tempo
    • What didn’t work
    • The Time Machine
    • How do we measure time?
    • 60 bpm vs. 120 bpm
  • What was a challenge?
    • Different Point of Entry
  • What was a success?
    • Coordinated Partner Strategy
    • Rate of Speed and Tempo Changes
  • Conclusions

Links and Resources:

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