Sharing Stories and New Experiences through the Creation of Audio Art

One boy and two girls stand at music stands with microphones. An adult stands at the far right, helping a child adjust their music stand. Two white canes are visibly leaning against the wall in the background.The Jack Straw Cultural Center in Seattle, Washington, has a long history of working with students with disabilities to create audio art in a variety of formats. The hands-on arts experiences they offer to students provide a way to share stories and create something new. Executive Director Joan Rabinowitz says students in both the organization’s summer and school year programs get the chance to create, perform, and record original work.

The Jack Straw Cultural Center’s summer program for students who are blind or have low vision just completed its 22nd year. This program, done in partnership with Arts and Visually Impaired Audiences, the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind, and the Washington State School for the Blind allows students who are blind or have low vision from all over Washington state to create audio art. The students receive instruction in radio theater, public service announcements (PSAs), and music, and select one of those three interest areas to complete a project start to finish.

“We have a team of teaching artists that work with the students, including professional vocal coaches, musicians, writers, and audio engineers. One of our engineers is an alumni of our summer program, and legally blind, so that’s a great link for the students,” says Rabinowitz. She said the PSAs are typically created around a disability theme, offering students a chance to reflect on issues that are relevant and important to them. Rabinowitz continues, “Our summer 2018 elementary school students were so excited to make a PSA about guide dogs, even though none of them had one yet! One of our program alumni came in and helped them create and record a new song about guide dogs, and it was a great experience for everyone.”

A young girl in a wheelchair is behind a music stand. Two adults are kneeling on either side, one holding headphones and one holding a microphone.As part of its 2017-2018 in-school programs, the Jack Straw Cultural Center worked with second graders with disabilities at two schools, in both inclusive classrooms and in special education-only classrooms. Teaching artists went into those classes to lead the students in a poetry-writing project on a topic selected by their classroom teacher. The Jack Straw teaching artists then worked with the students on reading their poems out loud, and depending on the story, creating sounds or soundscapes to go with them. The project culminated with a trip to the Jack Straw Cultural Center’s recording studio so the students could record their original work on a CD for them to keep.

Rabinowitz said working with students with more significant needs challenged her and her team to think outside the box about accommodations and inclusion, and also to create good relationships with the classroom teachers. For instance, in the first year of the program at one school, the inclusive classes and the self-contained special education classes came to the studio on different days. In a planning meeting the subsequent year, the teachers suggested bringing all the students to the studio at the same time. “So we had all the students from that school there together and it was a huge success. If a student was unable to read their own work during the recording session, instead of having a teacher or aide do it for them, another student could read it. It was a great way for us to make the program more inclusive,” explains Rabinowitz.

Thinking about the traits that make their programming successful, Rabinowitz points to the importance of having a good partner. “Whether it is a special education teacher at a school, or a specific disability group, it is important to find someone to talk to. Starting from scratch is really hard,” she says, adding, “Finding the people who know the students best and listening to their suggestions and feedback tends to lead to the best outcomes.”

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