A new partnership between the Westminster Center for Community Engagement and Critical Pedagogy and Trenton Public Schools in New Jersey (U.S.) offers children with autism the opportunity to learn drumming alongside Westminster music education students. The program, called Junior Vitamin D after the Westminster Choir College’s own Vitamin D Drum Circle, provides students in self-contained classrooms at three elementary schools and one middle school the chance to participate in a drum circle, play a variety of rhythms, and perform original compositions.
Frank Abrahams, Director of the Westminster Center for Community Engagement and Critical Pedagogy, says a Westminster alumnus experienced in drum circle facilitation leads the Junior Vitamin D classes. Six current music education students assist that teaching artist. The elementary school session for Junior Vitamin D began in January, and concludes in April; approximately 18 students attend each class, and 75 young students with autism are served in all.
Abrahams says the children have learned a host of skills during the Junior Vitamin D classes, from how to hold and where to hit a drum, to how to copy and improvise rhythms, to how to work collaboratively on a project (like hitting their drums at the same time). He adds, “[The children] learn how to express their own musical ideas through the drums.”
The young participants with autism aren’t the only ones having a valuable learning experience at the Junior Vitamin D classes. Abrahams says the experience has had an enormous impact on the six college students helping facilitate the sessions, teaching them about adapting lessons for students with disabilities and thinking on your feet. “I’ve seen a dramatic change in their perception about what teaching is about, and their give and take to go to plan B if plan A isn’t working,” he says, continuing, “I think the college students are coming away as kinder, gentler, more understanding teachers.”
When designing the Junior Vitamin D program, Abrahams and his collaborators made sure it maintained the integrity of a high quality school music program. They set measurable goals for the program in three areas: arts learning, academic learning, and social and emotional learning. The instruction also aligns with National Core Art Standards for Music Education and New Jersey Core Curriculum.
Abrahams says it is exciting to observe how the program has changed both the children and college students. “The children are learning to express their own original thought and emotion in playing drums,” he says, “…and the music education students are having a participatory, pre-service experience you cannot get by reading or watching a video.”