2018 VSA Playwright Discovery Competition Winners

18037-105 croppedThe Kennedy Center’s Office of VSA and Accessibility is pleased to announce the winners of the 2018 VSA Playwright Discovery Competition, a Jean Kennedy Smith Arts and Disability Program. This annual competition invites young writers with disabilities and collaborative groups that include students with disabilities to examine the disability experience and express their views through the art of writing for performance.

Selected winners attend the prestigious Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Washington, D.C., April 13-15, 2018. Theater professionals work with these students on their scripts, culminating in a staged reading of the winning plays. The young playwrights also participate in the festival’s award ceremony.


The winning 2018 plays include:

One’s Self Perception
by Cathleen Freedman
Grade 12, Houston, TX

Confessing a Chronic Illness
by Elizabeth Schriner
Grade 12, Olivet, MI

I’ll Do Anything
by Taryn Seif
Grade 10, Louisville, KY

More information about the VSA Playwright Discovery Program is available on the Kennedy Center’s website.


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Five Tips for Teaching West African Drumming to Students with Disabilities

By Aidan Owens

West African drumming is a great way for teachers and students to address a variety of goals in a fun, supportive, and musical environment. This social, sensory, and scaffolded music is energetic and participatory, and can be an excellent arts learning tool for students with disabilities.

Here are five quick tips to help get your West African music ensemble off the ground!

  1. Get everybody involved. You don’t have to be a master drummer to participate in this music. Give all students a role, regardless of their ability or musical background. Stress to the whole group that every part is important; whether someone is playing a rain stick or the lead drum, they are integral to the ensemble’s sound!
  2. Get creative with instrumentation. Rain sticks, egg shakers, and rhythm sticks are fun ways to get emerging musicians involved in music making, and they sound great. Buckets and other everyday items can be stand ins for traditional instruments in a pinch. Encouraging students to experiment with different instrument options allows everyone to find which works best for them.
  3. Teach multimodally. Expose your students to new information and musical parts in a variety of ways—drum language, modeling, written notation, and color coding can all be used. West African drumming is great for all kinds of learners because there are always numerous ways to teach and learn a part.
  4. Give context. Talk about the background and history of the music. Show videos, do research projects, or even find pen pals abroad. Context and a personal connection will make the music more powerful and provide an outlet for students with disabilities to work on non-music skills.
  5. Have fun! Play games with your students that work on rhythm, tempo, and dynamics. Allow time for improvisation and encourage students to take turns leading the class in a drum circle or game. This is complex music, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun! These informal music activities boost morale and allow for informal assessment opportunities.


Photo of Aidan Owens


Aidan Owens is an educator from Western Massachusetts who is passionate about learning, teaching, and innovating new ways to integrate music and special education.

Five Tips for Working with Families of Students with Disabilities

By Alyson M. Martin, Ed.D. and Emily R. Shamash, Ed.D.

Effective communication is the foundation for promoting an enduring trust between families and educational professionals, including arts educators. It is trust that is imperative for successful long-term partnerships between families and educators to enhance the teaching, learning, and progress of students with disabilities (Cox, 2005; Dunst, 2002; Turnbull et al, 2011; Wellner, 2012).

The tips below include guidelines for communicating effectively with families of children with disabilities in order to initiate and maintain positive and collaborative working relationships in and out of the arts classroom.


  1. Initiate contact before it is a necessity. It is crucial that we build a trend of positive contact with families prior to contacting them about a problem with their child. Ensure families have information about what is happening with their student; some parents/caregivers may not be aware an in-school arts residency is happening in their child’s classroom. You can set a positive tone on the first day of a program by sending a brief personal email or note introducing yourself to parents/caregivers and letting them know how their child’s first day went.


  1. Always begin with the positive. All students have positive attributes and have skills that are worthy of praise. Be careful not to define your students by their weaknesses, but rather what they do well. Always share something positive with families prior to sharing negative reports or feedback. This is important when writing reports, reporting progress/updates at a meeting, and when sending emails or notes home. This will set the stage for establishing a positive and trusting relationship with each family.


  1. Keep parents in the know. Providing parents with information about their child’s progress can empower them to be true team members and can help eliminate mistrust. Doing this does not need to be extremely time consuming; you can simply send parents a brief email or a note weekly or bi-weekly reporting something positive and providing suggestions for a skill that can be worked on at home. If your program happens at your own arts venue, be sure to alert parents of important events or changes to their child’s day such as a schedule change, staff change, new behavior plan, field trips, special classroom events, and/or significant behavioral occurrences (this can be positive behavior too).


  1. Invite carryover, but do not expect it. It is wonderful when families can carryover skills worked on in the arts classroom at home. However, we need to remember that families often have more than one child, busy schedules, and outside stressors. It can be helpful to ask parents what types of activities are easiest for them to do at home. Then you can offer ideas and strategies tailored to each family’s needs.


  1. Our students are not the only ones who benefit from positive reinforcement. Parents need positive reinforcement too! Praise parents and primary caregivers for how they are supporting their child and point out successes big or small. We all need encouragement, motivation, and support, including families of students with disabilities.


Emily Shamash, Ed.D., is a Visiting Assistant Professor and Co-director of the Special Education Program in the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professionals at Fairfield University. She is a certified special educator who specializes in working with children with autism spectrum disorders and their families. Alyson Martin, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor and Co-director of the Special Education Program in the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professionals at Fairfield University. She is also a certified special education teacher. Together, Dr. Martin and Dr. Shamash have over 25 years of experiences working with children and families of children with disabilities in school, home and community settings.

South Carolina Visual Arts Program Adapts Lessons to Serve Students with Disabilities

Two boys hold paintbrushesin their right hands while looking at the paintings on the table where they are sitting.

Students paint during a lesson led by Alana Adams of the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina.

In Beaufort County, South Carolina, over 100 students with disabilities are participating in a series of visual arts classes through an in-school residency program run by the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. Alana Adams, Senior Director of Education at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, leads the classes, which feature lessons from the fifth edition of the Teacher Resource Guide from the VSA International Art Program for Children with Disabilities.

Adams goes into eight classrooms throughout Beaufort County to teach the biweekly art classes, serving 5th-12th graders with disabilities in mostly self-contained classrooms. One of the biggest challenges with the program, she says, is adapting the art lessons for a broad range of disabilities. Adams explains, “I see students with developmental disabilities ranging from very moderate to very severe; some students who are nonverbal and some with mild learning disabilities. We want the lessons to be fun, accessible, and valuable for everyone.”

One way Adams addresses this challenge is through careful planning and lesson selection. “I really like the ‘Motivated by Music’ lessons in the Teacher Resource Guide because it offers two options. The first Motivated by Music lesson is more abstract, about painting non-objectively. That lesson was great for my students with more significant disabilities.” For the classes who are higher functioning, Adams used the Motivated by Music II lesson, which asks students to create cover art for a music album or song.

Three students sit at a table, smiling, holding chalk pastels in their hands and using them to color on black paper.

Students work with chalk pastels on the World in Color lesson.

Another lesson that worked well for all of Adams’ students was The World in Color, the first lesson in the Teacher Resource Guide. In this lesson, students create a glue resist and chalk pastel image of a familiar area in their community. Adams had students bring in or take pictures of places nearby, transfer the images to black paper, add a white glue outline, and color the drawings with chalk pastels. “The method used in The World in Color, I call it glue line batik. The technique creates really lovely pieces, and every student was wowed by what they made,” says Adams.

In May, the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina will host a live exhibition to showcase many of the artworks created during the VSA program. The student artists will be invited to attend an opening reception with their families, along with other community members. Adams is also compiling the artwork each student creates over the course of the program into a portfolio for him or her to keep at the end of the school year. She adds, “We hope the portfolios will help the students see their progress and success over the course of the program.”

More information about the visual art program for students with disabilities at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina can be found on their website.

Creating the 2017-2018 VSA Teacher Resource Guide: An Interview with Author Shannon Hayes

Picture of two children looking through a container of beads; text reads: "Yo Soy...Je Suis...I am...Motivated to CreateThe recently published fifth edition of VSA’s Teacher Resource Guide provides visual art lessons that challenge students to use their artistic voices to explore how the arts contribute to our understanding of the world, to our relationships with others, and to the betterment of our communities. This publication is a companion for the VSA International Art Program for Children with Disabilities, Yo Soy…Je Suis…I Am…Motivated to Create.

In this interview, author Shannon Hayes offers some insight into the inspiration behind the 2017-2018 Teacher Resource Guide and what she hopes arts educators and students take away from the publication.

VSA and Accessibility: How did you come up with the lessons in the Teacher Resource Guide, and how were you inspired by the principles of Understanding, Harmony, and Change?

Shannon Hayes: When I was first came on board to the project, Jenna Gabriel [Manager, Special Education in the Office of VSA and Accessibility] had mentioned the idea that the lessons might be influenced by the work of composer Leonard Bernstein, so I began researching him. I read some resources available on his eponymous website, writings from his daughter about him, and excerpts from a speech he gave following the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy. His daughter wrote about how she associated her father with the Hebrew phrase “Torah Lishmah,” which she translated as “a raging thirst for knowledge” and talked about how he was a lifelong learner who studied in multiple disciplines and brought what he learned back to music. I think that this idea translated into the interdisciplinary or multiple modality aspect of the project—music, and indeed other artistic modalities, as an inspiration or resource for creating visual art.

In his speech following JFK’s death, Bernstein spoke about the importance of learning and reason as the antidote to ignorance and hatred. When I read that excerpt, I thought about the multiple meanings of the word harmony, meaning a combination of simultaneous notes in music, but also agreement and peace. Out of that research, three central themes emerged—Understanding, Harmony, and Change. Each of the lessons takes one example from the arts and asks students to create their own interpretation of how they contribute to our understanding of the world, to our relationships with others, and to the betterment of our communities.


VSA and Accessibility: What are one or two of your favorite lessons from the guide?

Shannon Hayes: Two of my favorites are Motivated by Music and Portrait of a Leader. Motivated by Music is a lesson that I’ve done numerous times with students in first and second grade and it allows students to create visual representations of how they hear and feel music without any restrictions or specifications of how the end product “should” look. The option for students to work alone or in groups opens up the discussion on the multiple meanings of harmony and allows students to think about their role in a group and reflect on how they work together.

I wrote the lesson Portrait of a Leader prior to artist Kehinde Wiley being commissioned to create President Obama’s official portrait and I was so excited to see the final result of that commission recently! The lesson in this guide challenges students to consider who has been historically identified as a “leader” and how they have been portrayed in traditional Western portraiture through symbols and ornamentation. Using the example artwork of Kehinde Wiley, as well as discussion and reflection, students are asked to determine their own values and definitions of power and leadership and create a portrait of a leader of their choosing in the highly ornamented style of portraiture from which Wiley took his inspiration.


VSA and Accessibility: You provide useful suggestions throughout the guide on supporting students with disabilities. Are there any particular strategies you would encourage educators to consider as they prepare to use the lessons with their students?

Shannon Hayes: I think many educators know their students best, so the suggested strategies are there to give a couple of ideas about tailoring lessons to the students, space, and materials you might have. It’s my hope that all of the lessons can be broken into smaller chunks, extended over longer periods of time, or adapted to match the interest areas and enthusiasm of students.


VSA and Accessibility: What do you hope educators take away from this edition of the VSA Teacher Resource Guide?

Shannon Hayes: In creating these lessons, my intention was to provide educators with a handful of ideas to facilitate students’ exploration of how the arts represent, create, and challenge our perception of the world around us. There is such inherent joy in the process of exploration and creation through the arts, and I hope that these ideas provide opportunities for students to actively participate in the arts as a vehicle for creating understanding, harmony, and change.

Five Tips for Art Teachers Working with Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

By Bev Johns

Estimates show that 46 million children are impacted every year by trauma. The content and processes of art education can play a vital role in the education of children who have experienced trauma, are at-risk, are homeless, and/or are incarcerated. As educators, we must be very sensitive to the needs of children who have experienced trauma and better understand why they may behave in the way they do.

In order to establish positive rapport and to meet the needs of children who have experienced trauma, we must gather as much information as possible about what types of trauma they may have experienced. That may be possible because we have learned about their background or the child has told us. However in some cases we may not know what has happened to the child until an incident occurs and we investigate what may have caused him or her to behave in a particular way.

1. Learn as much as you can about the child’s background without being invasive with the child. We must be careful that we are not asking too many questions of the child. They may be guarded and afraid that someone will find out something that will get them into trouble. Art teachers can learn a great deal through observations, keeping their eyes and ears open, talking to previous educators, and reading past records. We must be vigilant and when students have unusual reactions to specific events or rooms or noises, we need to explore the reasons for those reactions.

When children build trust with the art teacher, then they may give verbal or non-verbal clues about their behavior. Teachers must be good detectives to determine what is happening with the student. You may learn that you or your colleagues remind the child of the person who abused them, or trigger another traumatic memory.

2. Avoid surprises with children who have experienced trauma. Remember that they are on heightened alert and are worried about what might be happening next so we should not come up from behind students. In some cases we may want to seat these children so that no one is behind them. While some teachers like to turn lights off when children become noisy, this isn’t advisable for some children that were locked in a dark room. A high level of noise might trigger a reaction from a child because he remembers the loud noise when his brother was shot on the street in front of his house.

3. When planning activities, think ahead about what impact the activity might have on the student. Even activities that an art educator might perceive as straightforward or simple can become loaded due to a child’s traumatic experience. Offer choices to students about what they can create to help avoid triggering bad memories. For instance, children who have been recently removed from their families or placed in foster care might struggle with assignments that involve drawing or painting their family; it is helpful to offer another option for the assignment.

4. When planning activities, be cautious about the materials you use. The child may have been hurt with a particular object so you would want to avoid an activity where the same object is used. The child may have limited clothing or may have been beaten if their clothes got dirty. In that case, the art teacher will want to provide students the option of wearing protective clothing when utilizing art materials that may get on clothes.

5. Make sure that your art room is a safe and happy place for the child. Create an environment in the art room where lots of positive feedback is given, the child is recognized for his or her strengths, and the child knows that the teacher will not allow them to be bullied in any way. The teacher must be supportive and engage in active listening with the student. Rather than devaluing what the child says, gather more information. When the child says, “I can’t do that,” the teacher can say, “How can I help you?” When the child says, “This is too hard,” the teacher can say, “Can you tell me why,” or “Let’s try this together.”

The art room is the place where there are no right or wrong answers, It is a place where children have multiple opportunities to be creative, express their feelings, and experience success.

Photo of a smiling woman with short, blonde hair wearing a red jacket, black shirt, and round gold earrings.


Bev Johns is a Professional Fellow at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. She has worked with children with significant emotional and behavioral disorders for over 35 years and is the author of 20 books in the area of special education.

Helping Arts Educators Understand and Prepare for a Spectrum of Traumatic Experiences

Research shows that traumatic experiences impact a child’s ability to learn and process information, and traumatic experiences can affect student behavior in and out of the classroom. Unfortunately, educators are often unaware of which students have experienced trauma; this is especially true for arts educators, who may have limited access to student IEPs or knowledge of social/emotional concerns that impact students’ lives. But according to Dr. Lisa Kay, Chair of the Art Education and Community Arts Practices Department at Tyler School of Art/Temple University, art teachers and teaching artists can prepare for and better serve students who have experienced trauma by learning more about the spectrum of trauma and its invisible effects.

Photo of a smiling woman with white hair, wearing a gray jacket and silver pendant necklace. Photo credit: Amy Ragsdale

Dr. Lisa Kay

“I say there is a ‘spectrum of trauma’ because when we think of trauma, we often think of a dark place, things like physical or sexual abuse, but trauma for a child can also be the loss of a parent. It can be divorce,” says Kay, who has over thirty years of experience as an art therapist and art educator. She adds that trauma can be compounded by things like poverty or disability, adding to the spectrum of experiences.

Kay says that one of the most important things an art educator can do in preparation for working with students who have experienced trauma is to recognize that we have all experienced trauma of some sort in our lives. She explains, “Understanding that we have all experienced trauma and witnessed resilience helps develop compassion and empathy for our students. It also makes the idea of working with students who have experienced trauma less daunting.”

For teaching artists who may be entering the classroom with little or no information about the students they are teaching, Kay offers a few practical suggestions. “Think about how you move around students. It is never a good idea to come from the back and hand materials over a student’s head because that can seem scary,” she says. Kay also encourages teaching artists to find support in the classroom teacher. “Ask questions,” she urges, “Is there anything you need to know about this class or a particular student?”

Arts educators should be prepared to make accommodations and modifications to their lessons when working with students who have experienced trauma. “We may want to ask questions differently or assess students differently,” explains Kay. She also points out that students who have experienced trauma may need more physical and emotional space than their peers, and emphasizes the importance of listening to them and allowing them that space.

Kay has a background in fine art and design, and when asked if she recommends any lessons that work well with students who have experienced trauma, she immediately mentions bead collages. “With bead collages, or story beads, students create a wearable piece, three dimensional object, or even a small installation using beads and found objects together to tell a story,” she describes. Kay adds that while the final piece is often very pleasing for a student to see, the tactile process of putting it together is equally satisfying. She explains, “The objects can help children connect to deeper meanings. Plus, the process is easily adapted for different ages and abilities, and the materials, things like costume jewelry and recycled materials, are easily accessible.”

Working with students who have experienced trauma can be challenging for an arts educator, but an arts classroom can also be where that child finds compassion, creative growth, and a stronger sense of self. “As arts teachers, we must be as supportive as we can of our students,” encourages Kay, “and try to remember that we are all part of a collective spectrum of trauma.”


Dr. Lisa Kay is Chair of the Art Education and Community Arts Practices Department at Tyler School of Art/Temple University. She is a contributor to Art for Children Experiencing Psychological Trauma (pub. April 2018) and is writing on a book entitled Therapeutic Approaches to Arts Education (anticipated pub. late 2018).

Five Tips for Working with Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disturbances

By Sophie Lucido Johnson

Emotional and Behavioral Disturbances can take myriad forms. Some students act out in the classroom, while others turn inward and demonstrate quietly self-destructive behavior. The tips below are guidelines for using visual arts as a tool to help students establish their own self-worth as they move forward in multiple school settings.

  1. Celebrate small successes. Just picking up a paintbrush and creating a simple line can be an accomplishment for some students. Be sure to mention and honor students’ willingness to engage in basic artistic tasks, and don’t push too hard toward form or function at first.
  2. Know that progress does not travel in a straight line. It’s normal to see bursts of success and then periods of emotional unrest. If a student has a meltdown, it doesn’t mean she isn’t growing. Expect hills and peaks, and normalize relapses.
  3. Use abstract art. Shapes and lines that don’t have to resemble something specific offer the kind of freedom that can be tremendously liberating for students with emotional disturbances.
  4. Allow variant workspaces. Sometimes students like to work under tables or in corners; many children work best outside or in particular rooms. Experiment with spaces to find the ones that make your students feel safest and most creative.
  5. Don’t punish. Many children with EBD are used to being punished for “doing things wrong,” which can be a trigger for meltdowns and behavioral disruptions. Let art be the one class where students can’t get things wrong. Use neutral language when students don’t follow directions.


Sophie Lucido Johnson is a writer, comedian, educator, and artist. Her article “Emotional Intelligence Through Art: Strategies for Children with Emotional Behavioral Disturbances” is published in 2013 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Exemplary Programs and Approaches.

Five Tips for Using Embodied Storytelling to Build Student Vocabulary and Communication Skills

By Arianna Ross

Embodied Storytelling is an art form utilizing the body and voice to tell, analyze, and create a “story.”  Its process directly leads participants into comprehension of the material they have embodied. In its presentation in the classroom, a teacher will use a combination of dance, storytelling, drama, and visual art elements to teach various subject matters.

Having students move and speak in front of their peers builds self-confidence, body awareness, and vocal strength. The tips in this article, originally developed in collaboration with Suzanne Richard, Open Circle Theater, and Story Tapestries, provide effective tools for increasing a student’s ability to comprehend and effectively use vocabulary through arts-integrated instruction.

The strategies listed below are inherently accessible to multiple types of learners and are consciously inclusive, regardless of students’ developmental or physical abilities. These educational tools, geared at students in preschool through 8th grade, can also be used to tie into STEM, language arts, writing, and socio-emotional learning. A teacher can utilize these tips in various subjects, using a combination of dance, storytelling, drama, and visual art elements. The tips also serve to allow teachers to assess knowledge and students to demonstrate their ability to communicate clear, creative ideas both verbally and non-verbally.


  1. Act out everyday words to jump start learning. We encourage students to focus on increasing their “Power Words,” which are any words that empower students to feel more confident about their vocabulary. They can do this by acting out, vocalizing, and visualizing vocabulary they see and experience on a daily basis. Additionally, the meanings of simpler words are reinforced as they are being physically and mentally learned.
  2. Utilize partners to explore words and ideas. For students who find it difficult to move, we have found it valuable to employ a “Gesture Partner” who models and speaks to their partner about how to move to reflect the meaning of a word; if this student is comfortable with being touched, the partner can move the student’s arms for them. Likewise, students with difficulties in speaking can use a “Voice Partner” to verbalize ideas. This partnership can be employed in games that provide exercises in mirror imaging, body or voice sculpting, and puppet play (in which one person is the marionette and the other is the puppeteer).
  3. Consider introducing one step or one exercise per day. For example, spend a day using your voice to play with a word. The next day, ask students to turn off their voices and show the word, and on the third day, practice putting word and gesture or movement together. Once students have broken it down into pieces multiple times, they will be able to do all three activities at once. Also, it is helpful to draw a picture of the word so diverse types of learners have a visual, kinesthetic, and audio demonstration of the meaning of the word.
  4. Physicalize words. Model and use tableau (a grouping of motionless figures, representing a scene from a story, painting, or from history; also, known as a tableau vivant) to teach a specific concept, in this case, vocabulary. It is important to model one word before you have students create their tableaus alone. Tell them that although a tableau is a frozen picture, they will be moving into their tableau from a neutral position. Their movement should not be robotic, but should illustrate the meaning of the word just as the tableau does. Once they do freeze, their tableau should clearly demonstrate the meaning of the word.
  5. Connect words and story one section at a time. It is important that when you apply the acting out of words to develop students’ understanding of a story, you read through the story one section at a time, repeating it using multiple strategies. This is especially useful for students with autism spectrum disorders and intellectual disabilities. Just as it takes time to explore words with voice and gesture before putting them together (see tip 3), it is important to break stories into a beginning, middle and end. Also, it is helpful to draw out a story with students so they have a visual, kinesthetic, and audio demonstration of the meaning of the words.


_MG_6147Story Tapestries and Arianna Ross create international, dynamic programs that weave the power of dance, music, theatre, and spoken word. For 20 years, Arianna has performed and taught students and teachers across the United States and Asia at festivals, concert halls, colleges, libraries, and schools and for organizations such as the National Writing Project @ West Virginia University, East Tennessee State University, Hillwood Museum, and Washington Performing Arts. She is also a contributor to the book Storytelling Strategies for Reaching and Teaching Students with Special Needs.

For more information on Embodied Storytelling, check out our 2015 interview with Arianna Ross and Suzanne Richard.


Breaking Down Barriers Through Storytelling: an Interview with Sherry Norfolk

Picture of a woman in a black shirt and necklace, with short, light brown hair, smiling with her arms crossed.

Sherry Norfolk

Sherry Norfolk is an award-winning storyteller, author, and teaching artist. She performs and leads residencies and workshops internationally, introducing children and adults to story making and storytelling. She is also the co-author and co-editor with Lyn Ford of a new book, Storytelling Strategies for Reaching and Teaching Students with Special Needs. Here, she discusses the value of storytelling in the classroom, the motivation for the book, and how educators can start using storytelling with students with disabilities.


VSA and Accessibility
: What is special about using storytelling in the classroom?

Sherry Norfolk: Storytelling provides instant response. Looking at children and telling them a story orally, making eye contact, I can see an instant response and respond to that immediately. I see a big grin and I can put more of whatever spurred that in. I see confusion, and I can slow down, define. Instant response is really powerful.

Our human brains are hard wired for story. The oral stories that we use are really effective and efficient because the mind translates the sensory detail. The gestures, facial expressions, movement, pitch, volume, and tone of voice we give all help students to comprehend without additional mechanisms.



VSA and Accessibility: How can storytelling be especially effective in reaching students with disabilities?

Sherry Norfolk: Storytelling breaks down barriers; it engages everyone. Kids’ bewilderment and frustration turn to understanding and wonder, making them part of classroom. Last week I was in a high school classroom with students with multiple disabilities. Most students could not talk and several could not move, but all could participate in one way or another in retelling stories; they could demonstrate understanding.

My co-editor, Lyn Ford, recently shared an anecdote with me about working in an inclusive classroom. She was using a poem and had kids acting out different parts of its story. One of her fourth grade students said it was the best storytelling she ever did. She was a leaf blowing around, but she understood she was telling a story in her actions.


VSA and Accessibility: What was the motivation behind your new book?

Sherry Norfolk: Lyn Ford and myself both work in storytelling in inclusive and self-contained classrooms. Teachers saw over and over again how incredibly powerful storytelling is as a tool for students with disabilities, and they often asked where they could learn more strategies. Unfortunately there were very few resources available that really focused on using storytelling with students with disabilities.

We set out to fill that void. Since the children we work with are very diverse, and the perspectives storytellers come from are very diverse, we wanted to have as many perspectives as possible in the book. We went to the best story teaching artists we know around the world and asked them for their very best material; all said yes without hesitation. Everyone wanted to share their expertise because they know how much teachers and their students need it.


VSA and Accessibility: What would you recommend to an educator who wanted to start using storytelling in their classroom?

Sherry Norfolk: If possible, bring a professional storyteller in—someone who is used to working in the classroom—so the teacher can see before his or her eyes the transformation that is possible. If they cannot do that, teachers can start by finding a story they know and telling that story with voices and actions. Get rid of inhibitions, look kids in their eyes, and let them know you are there together. Find a way to involve students in the story. Use puppets, voice, and movement to help develop and demonstrate understanding. But above all, jump in with absolute confidence that storytelling will work and let your students know you are enjoying this and they will too!


For more information on storytelling, check out Sherry Norfolk’s Tips for Using Storytelling to Engage Students with Disabilities, originally published in the October 2014 VSA Update newsletter.