In Amazement Square art program, students ask, “How Can I Help?”

A girl with black hair and a burgandy sweatshirt holds an art project made of cardboard boxes.

A student from the Amazement Square program shows off her creation.

Students who live in rural areas may not have access to the same kinds of cultural resources as their peers in metropolitan areas. For their VSA Visual Arts Discovery Program contract, staff at Amazement Square in Lynchburg, Virginia, sought out students with disabilities living in more isolated areas. Thanks to Amazement Square’s teaching artists and their expertise in using the museum’s Visual Arts Outreach Program framework, students with disabilities all over Central Virginia are having valuable arts learning experiences in their own classrooms.

According to Gwyn Tatum, director of education and programs at Amazement Square, opportunities for cultural engagement are very limited for students with disabilities in Central Virginia. The children’s museum jumped at the opportunity to expand their outreach to this community.

“We specifically reached out to schools that are far in the countryside, with students who are not going on field trips, so we can bring them lessons,” says Tatum, adding that their instructors are driving an hour or more to the school sites for the visual art residencies.

A girl with brown hair and a striped shirt holds an art project made of cardboard and plastic cups.

A student holds her creation from the “How Can I Help?” lesson.

Caitlin Seaman, one of the lead instructors for the Visual Art Outreach Program, says the teaching artists have been using two lessons from VSA’s 2016-2017 Teacher Resource Guide in their sessions with the students. Seaman says the “How Can I Help?” lesson, which focuses on the idea of service to one’s community, inspired the students to think outside the box.

“I was amazed with what [the students] came up with,” says Seaman, continuing, “…they had tons of ideas about problems in the world and many wonderful inventions for how to address the problems.” Seaman found the lesson worked best over the course of two one-hour sessions, so that they had enough time to make modifications as needed and ensure a meaningful experience for every child.

The “How Can I Help?” lesson is available on the VSA blog and on pages 9-15 of VSA’s Teacher Resource Guide. More information about Amazement Square is available on their website.

Children with ASD Learn through Shakespeare at OSU

Photo of teaching artists working with a boy.

OSU teaching artists work with students with ASD. Photo credit: Big Ten Network

Shakespearean language may sound unfamiliar or intimidating to some children, but at The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio, educators are successfully using Shakespeare as the cornerstone of theater workshops for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). OSU’s Shakespeare and Autism program not only offers an exciting arts learning opportunity for young participants with ASD, but also provides hands-on training for university theater students as teaching artists for students with disabilities.

The Shakespeare and Autism program grew out of OSU’s partnership with the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). While RSC actor Kelly Hunter was at the university in 2009 to lead Shakespeare workshops for graduate students, she proposed incorporating her program for young people with ASD, called the Hunter Heartbeat Method, into the partnership. The success of an 11-week pilot program led to a collaboration between the OSU Department of Theater and the Nisonger Center, a university center for excellence in developmental disabilities. The Nisonger Center embarked upon a 42-week longitudinal study on the impact of the Hunter Heartbeat workshops on children with ASD.

The results of the Nisonger Center’s study were published in 2016 in the journal Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. They showed that participation in the Shakespeare and Autism program led to significant improvements in social involvement, language skills, and identification of facial expressions for children with ASD.

A female teaching artist puts her arms around two boys in a theater workshop.

Students play theater games led by OSU teaching artists. Photo credit: Big Ten Network

Kevin McClatchy, assistant professor of theater and director of the Shakespeare and Autism program, says the Hunter Heartbeat Method is rooted in the rhythm of Shakespeare’s language and exploring the mind’s eye. “Shakespeare was so great at putting words to feelings, and our workshops help kids express what being alive feels like to them. It gets exciting,” says McClatchy.

McClatchy teaches a Shakespeare and Autism class in the theater department every spring semester. During the 15-week service learning course, undergraduate and graduate students spend the first five weeks studying the Hunter Heartbeat Method and learning about ASD from scholarly reading, research, and guest speakers. After the first five weeks, they begin to lead Shakespeare and Autism workshops with two groups of 12 children with ASD from the Columbus area.

The workshops always begin with a heartbeat circle, in which everyone pats the rhythm of a heartbeat on their chests and says hello. McClatchy describes the circle as a great transitional tool and acknowledgment of a shared moment. After the heartbeat circle, the teaching artists lead the children in games based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, which provides a central storyline throughout the workshops.

Photo of a male teaching artist holding hands with a girl in a red shirt.

A teaching artist works with a girl at a Shakespeare and Autism workshop. Photo credit: Big Ten Network

The teaching artists might begin with a game like “Changing the Face,” when they would introduce the half-fish, half-monster character of Caliban. They make an angry face, attach an angry heartbeat, and go around the circle doing an angry hello. That moves into throwing the face across the circle to someone else who will catch it, and ultimately involves attaching Caliban’s text to the throw as well. Teaching artists model the games, and for certain activities, break the children into small groups for practice before returning to the large group.

McClatchy says the play-based games aim to develop skills like recognition and replication of facial expressions, taking turns, sustaining eye contact, and understanding cause and effect, all using Shakespeare’s text as a starting point. He also describes the practical learning opportunity for the university students as “incredible,” adding that real learning for any teaching artist happens when you actually do the work, adding, “You must be present in the moment and respond to every particular need. A strategy that works one week may backfire the next session. The OSU students are amazing in their ability to respond.”

For more information about the Shakespeare and Autism program, visit OSU’s website.

Drum Circle Class Impacts Students and Educators

Three students play drums with two teaching artists. Photo courtesy of Rider University/Peter Borg

Photo courtesy of Rider University/Peter Borg

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.

A boy plays a drum held by a teaching artist while a girl watches, smiling. Photo courtesy of Rider University/Peter Borg

Photo courtesy of Rider University/Peter Borg

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.”

A teaching artist leads three boys in a movement exercise while playing a drum. Photo courtesy of Rider University/Peter Borg

Photo courtesy of Rider University/Peter Borg

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.”

Combining Movement and Classical Music at the Australian Chamber Orchestra

A woman plays a cello while a teenage boy in a wheelchair touches it with his right hand.At the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), access and inclusion are core organizational values. Their triennial disability action plan is a major part of the strategic plan, and comprehensively sets goals for inclusion in every aspect of the organization’s work. This includes their signature education program for students with disabilities, ACO Move.

ACO Move is a series of sessions for young people with disabilities featuring movement and live music. ACO Customer Relations and Access Manager, Dean Watson, who has a background in dance, conceived of the program six years ago to offer adolescents with disabilities an arts learning opportunity with the Sydney-based string ensemble.

ACO Move takes place over five two-hour sessions, with a group of approximately ten young participants alongside program facilitators, a quartet of ACO musicians, and a percussionist. Each session begins with a welcome, warm up, and introductions, followed by a series of music and movement exercises. Watson says the facilitators plan many exercises to allow for flexibility in the sessions and “are prepared to adapt.”

Two teenage boys raise their arms in the air while musicians play violins.Watson says some of the student participants have never heard classical music before, and creating a “soundscape” helps to familiarize everyone. The percussionist brings instruments for the participants to use, and everyone works together to build up sound based on a given idea, such as a storm or wave. This builds a sense of community and trust among the group, says Watson, adding, “Everyone performs together, including the ACO musicians, and by the end we’ve created a new ensemble with a composition we can call our own!”

The sessions focus heavily on the theme of dynamics, and Watson and his collaborators use musical terminology like crescendo, diminuendo, staccato, rhythm, and rest to convey this idea. When a term is introduced, the ACO artists first demonstrate the concept musically. The facilitators then turn it into a movement, and the participants imitate and improvise, ultimately building a theatrical piece.

Tactile and sensory learning are also core components of the ACO Move sessions. Participants touch instruments at rest, lay on the ground while a cello is played, or hug a double bass while it is played. Watson also incorporates the sensory learning and soundscape creation as major parts of the ACO’s education sessions in primary and high schools for students with disabilities.

Young adults with disabilities dance to live classical music.Each year, Watson seeks to engage a guest artist with a disability to collaborate on the ACO Move program. The upcoming 2017 sessions will incorporate original compositions for string quartet by a young Australian composer with cerebral palsy. In 2016, the young writer and actor Emily Dash diarized the project and created original spoken word pieces to perform at the presentation day that concludes each ACO Move series.

According to Watson, ACO Move’s success can be attributed to the organization’s commitment to the program, from the administrators to the board to the musicians. He says, “When we invite people to participate [in ACO Move], we want them to feel as though they are part of the ACO family. This means they have access to everything in the building, can communicate freely with the musicians and staff, and feel like an equal part of the ensemble we create.” ACO is currently investigating opportunities to expand ACO Move through partnerships with arts and disability organizations, as well as with the venues in which the orchestra plays.

For more information, contact

West Virginia Program Helps Teachers Utilize Music with Young Students

The West Virginia University Music Therapy Program will host its Creating Capacity Through Music professional development workshop this month for educators in Morgantown, West Virginia, and the surrounding areas. The five-hour, interactive, continuing education opportunity helps classroom teachers utilize music to engage all students and support various learning objectives for children ages three to seven years.

Picture of a woman wiht blonde hair, a green shirt, and a pink scarf.

Dena Register

Program Director and Associate Professor of Music Therapy Dena Register says she was inspired to create the professional development program by her work with preschool-age students with disabilities. She hopes the workshop will help attendees feel more comfortable using music in the classroom, and give teachers music-based tools for successfully conveying information to all students.

In addition to the workshop, which will be held for 20-25 participants at four different points during the year, teachers are also invited to apply for a six-week, in-classroom consultation opportunity. Those selected will have a music therapist come to their classroom once per week to lead a 30-minute group music experience tailored to the needs of the children in that class, and a 30-minute consultation with the teacher on implementing various strategies presented each week.

When asked what she would recommend to educators hoping to integrate more music into classrooms inclusive of students with disabilities, Register emphasized the importance of strengths-based assessments. She says, “It is helpful to focus on what students can do rather than what they cannot do. This is especially true for music, when many people think, ‘Oh, I’m not a musician.’ Everyone has a musical capability! They just need to focus on their strengths.”

Preparing Art Teachers to Work with Students with Disabilities throughout their Careers

Six adults looking at pieces of wood while they collaborate on an art project.

Educators participate in an art education symposium at Moore College of Art and Design.

At Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, preparing art teachers to work successfully with students with disabilities is at the core of their art education programs. From their undergraduate art education major, to the Master of Arts in Art Education with an Emphasis in Special Populations program, to their art education symposiums, helping current and future educators make art accessible to all students is an institutional priority.

Assistant Professor Amanda Newman-Godfrey says preparing Moore students to serve people with disabilities in the art classroom is a thread that runs through everything they do. That begins with first year undergraduate students in the Art Education program, who get hands-on experience in creating and implementing art curriculum for a diverse aging population thanks to a partnership with the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

From there, Newman-Godfrey says undergraduate students take several different classes that address working with students with disabilities, to include topics such as differentiated assessment and instruction strategies, Universal Design for Learning, and the history and regulations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The hallmark undergraduate course is a Special Populations class, which offers Moore students the opportunity to teach art to students with disabilities alongside a certified special education teacher. In Special Populations, Moore undergraduates plan lessons and learn how to be observant, reflective, and thoughtful in the classroom so they can be constantly adjusting, modifying, and adapting based on the needs of their young students.

Moore’s Master of Arts in Art Education with an Emphasis in Special Populations graduate program similarly launches students into a hands-on learning experience, through partnerships with the Barnes Foundation and SpArc Philadelphia. Graduate students create and implement lesson plans for the SpArc participants based on artwork from the Barnes Collection. Graduate Program Director Lauren Stichter notes that graduate students often enter the program eager for mentors and peers to connect with, as it can be hard to find others with an interest in art and special education in their home communities.

A woman with blonde hair and a black dress standing in front of an urn with branches

Lauren Stichter

For art educators seeking a continuing education opportunity, Moore offers semi-annual symposia on topics in art and special education. The next symposium, Going Beyond the Art Room: Engaging Diverse Learners in Museum and Community Arts Settings, is on April 1. At that event, attendees will have the opportunity to visit neighboring sites, including the Barnes Foundation and Franklin Institute, to experience hands-on learning with inclusive tools. Stichter says a goal of the symposium is to make teachers more comfortable accessing local museums with all students. The symposia, now in their eighth year, usually attract about 100 educators.

Stichter, Newman-Godfrey, and their students at Moore are eager to share their work in art and special education with others, and are able to do so through partnerships with local arts organizations and colleges. Stichter says sharing promising practices across the field can only increase everyone’s success in the classroom, and ultimately make more art teachers comfortable and ready to work with students with disabilities.

VSA Network Celebrates International Day of Persons with Disabilities

Around the world and across the VSA Network, communities will be celebrating International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) on December 3, 2016, with special events, performances, and exhibitions. The following celebrations, planned by members of the VSA Network, offer a glimpse into the diversity and breadth of programming throughout this community.

  • A drawing of a person covering the right half of their face with their hand.

    Featured artwork from VSA Egypt’s upcoming exhibition

    VSA Egypt is organizing a visual arts exhibition featuring the work of six artists with disabilities from all over Egypt. Featured artists include Zaynab Abd Alrahem, Rahma Kaled, Ahmed Nagi, Yahya Adel, Karim Alnagar, and Vivyan Anton. The exhibition will be held in the art gallery of the Cairo Opera House.

  • Kulttuuria kaikille (Culture for All) of Finland is participating in DiDa 2016 – Disability Day Art & Action in Helsinki on IDPD. DiDa offers a wide array of arts and events, including theater, dance, circus, poetry, and creative workshops.
  • VSA Philippines will celebrate with an exhibit bazaar sale at the Asian Development Bank in Pasig City. Items featured in the exhibit include Saori weaving (created through a community-based rehabilitation program), paper folding, rugs, bags, and cards.
  • The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh will host their “Come Say Hi!” program, where children can explore the world of calligraphy and experiment with creating their own lettering style. Attendees will also learn to say “Hi! My name is…” in American Sign Language and Braille to celebrate IDPD.
  • Dancing Wheels Company & School of Ohio will offer a public performance of The Snowman on December 3. Local children of all abilities and ages will participate in the Kids Around the World section of the show onstage with the Dancing Wheels Company
  • VSA Wisconsin is participating in an event hosted by insurance company WPS Health Solutions. They will have a public awareness table with information on their programs and merchandise to sell. VSA Wisconsin President Kathie Wagner says this is the second year they have participated, and they find it to be a good opportunity to get the word out; last year, they gained a volunteer from the event!
  • New Jersey’s Roxey Ballet is offering a sensory-friendly performance of the holiday classic Nutcracker on December 3, 2016. This performance is especially designed for children and adults with autism spectrum disorder and other sensitivities or special needs. Audience members can find a pre-visit social story and performance picture schedule on the Roxey Ballet website.
  • The River Performing and Visual Arts Center in Houston, Texas, is hosting their fall 2016 recital, Global Bazaar, on December 3. Students with disabilities and their siblings ages 4-19 will sing, dance, and act in musical numbers. The recital is free and open to the public.
  • At the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida, the Art Connections educational space will feature an annual Women of Vision show, produced by the museum’s class of women who are blind or have low vision. Art Connections will also have paintings by students at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind on display on December 3.
  • Two women sitting on a stage use ASL to communicate.

    Workshop leaders Kim Weild and Alexandria Wailes of IRT

    IRT of New York City is offering Space, Time, and the Body, a free introductory Viewpoints-based workshop for deaf and hearing artists presented by Kim Weild and Alexandria Wailes, on December 2.

  • First Stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will deliver a special curtain speech during performances of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on December 3, making sure audiences are aware of the day and the many ways First Stage is inclusive to all people.
  • VSA Massachusetts is participating in a December 3 event in the Atrium of Boston’s Prudential Center. Artist Jon Sarkin will display his work and give a spoken work performance about living with an acquired brain injury.

Celebrating International Day of Persons with Disabilities Around the World

UN Enable logoGovernments, United Nations agencies, and other institutions have been commemorating International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) annually on December 3 for over 20 years to promote awareness and mobilize support for issues related to the inclusion of persons with disabilities in society. Members of the VSA Network are celebrating IDPD all over the world; read on to learn more about arts education events happening on December 3 in Egypt, Canada, and the United States.


VSA Egypt is celebrating IDPD with an in-school event for 120 students ages 5-16 with physical and motor disabilities. The event is a collaboration between VSA Egypt, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Culture; it includes arts and crafts activities, as well as games and sports competitions. VSA Egypt is also presenting a performance of a popular Cairo puppet show at the school, and snacks will be offered throughout the day.


Creative Spirit logo

CSAC logo

The Creative Spirit Art Centre (CSAC) in Toronto, Canada is celebrating IDPD with a lunchtime ceremony on December 3. The ceremony recognizes three individuals who have helped CSAC through their professional contributions in the field of art and disability. Those receiving awards are: Christina Martins, a politician working to make artists with disabilities visible by creating exhibitions in her constituency office; Amee Le from the Community Head Injury Resource Services of Toronto, who has created art programs and workshops for people with head injuries; and artist Mayuko Ueda, a volunteer art facilitator, administrator, and independent scholar in Art Brut practice in Japan and Canada. CSAC artists are presenting the three awardees with works of art at the ceremony.



A VSA Tennessee artist works on a clay piece.

On December 3, 2015, VSA Tennessee (United States) is hosting a reception at the Sumner County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in Gallatin, Tennessee. The reception features clay art created through a VSA Tennessee workshop under the direction of artist Kathy Plourde with Project 22. The workshop and art are part of an international art and education exchange with VSA Egypt. The event also features several VSA Tennessee performers, including VSA Tennessee Young Soloist winner Logan Blade, the Dulcimer Choir, and the Movement Connection dancers.


ArtsAccess image

Art by King Nobuyoshi Godwin

Also in the United States, Arts Access in Raleigh, North Carolina, is celebrating IDPD with an evening event on December 3. Arts Access’ “An Evening with Friends” at the Roundabout Art Collective in Raleigh features inclusive art, music, food, and drinks. Attendees also get a sneak preview of artist King Nobuyoshi Godwin’s new exhibit at the event.


The United Nations (UN) recognizes IDPD with a series of events at UN headquarters in New York. For more information about UN celebrations, visit their website.

Providing Music Education Opportunities for all Members of their Community

A Music Conservatory of Westchester student plays the drums.

A Music Conservatory of Westchester student plays the drums.

The Music Conservatory of Westchester is a community music school in New York with a mission to provide high quality music education to students of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. This includes serving 1,800 individuals with disabilities annually through their outreach program in local schools and institutions, and their onsite program in adapted instrumental or vocal instruction. Executive Director Jean Newton and Director of Outreach Services Lisa Sandagata shared the history of their program, as well as some of their promising practices for working with students with disabilities.

When the Music Conservatory of Westchester began its music education program for students with disabilities in 1986, Newton says it was after staff realized a portion of their community was being excluded from the kind of music instruction the school offered. The program started small but grew quickly, and today the organization serves 1,800 individuals with disabilities, with about 70-75% of those being children, annually. The conservatory works in partnership with over 30 organizations for its outreach program, including public schools, hospitals, nursing homes, residential treatment facilities, and social service agencies.

Students sit at a table with their music teacher.

Students sit at a table with their music teacher.

Under their current VSA International Young Soloists: Music for Every Student contract, the conservatory’s outreach program will serve 400 elementary, middle, and high school students with disabilities in six school districts for a total of 1,148 music classes. The contract also includes an onsite program at the conservatory that serves 35 students with disabilities in adapted instrumental or vocal instruction. Participating students have a wide range of disabilities, from autism spectrum disorders to emotional behavioral disorders to cerebral palsy.

Director of Outreach Services Lisa Sandagata says the program for students with disabilities has received a great reception in school districts, which she attributes to good relationships between the school educators and teaching artists. Sandagata says, “There is a shared interest in creating an experience that helps students adapt and functionalize around music.” In fact, one of the program’s primary goals is to help students with disabilities develop skills in the music classroom that support their academic and social goals.

A student plays a drum while a music teacher holds a guitar.

A student plays a drum while a music teacher holds a guitar.

The Music Conservatory of Westchester tailors music activities to the specific needs of each class and individual student. Students learn basic music competencies (pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony), introduction to instrumental technique (keyboard, guitar, drums, voice), songwriting, improvisation, world percussion, and rhythm instruments.

Sandagata says Conservatory staff also work with in-school music educators to provide advice and support on teaching both self-contained music classes for students with disabilities and classes that are integrated to include students with and without disabilities. She advises music teachers that many self-contained classes need a little more structure than they might be used to offering in a music class; for instance, students might work better sitting in chairs rather than on the floor, helping to provide physical boundaries.

Sandagata also cited an example from an integrated class where she encouraged an elementary school music teacher to provide a student with autism spectrum disorder a music stand to hold his sheet music rather than asking him to hold it in his hands. “With the music out of his hands, the student’s head looked up at the conductor and many disruptive behaviors disappeared, keeping his attention on the task at hand,” says Sandagata.

A Music Conservatory of Westchester student plays a drum with her teacher.

A Music Conservatory of Westchester student plays a drum with her teacher.

When it comes to assessing their work, Newton and Sandagata say their focus is supporting the goals created for students by their schools. Individuals are assessed when they begin the music program to benchmark learning goals, and progress is measured, often in collaboration with a classroom teacher, throughout the semester. Newton points out that even specific music education goals, like learning to read music or play the piano, are often intertwined with social and emotional skill development like increased attention span and focus or improved communication and socialization skills.

A wide spectrum of skill development is a benefit of music education for all students, says Newton, and not just students with disabilities. “Any child that comes [to the Music Conservatory of Westchester] is learning valuable skill sets, from critical thinking to teamwork and beyond,” she says, continuing, “And that’s what is so special about our work, that students with disabilities are coming for a music experience that is comparable to their peers, creating an integrated community where everyone can share their musical interests and discoveries.”