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.

“How Can I Help?” – A visual art lesson plan from the VSA’s Teacher Resource Guide

A robot made of clay with a red top, square body, and striped legs.

A clay sculpture inspired by the “How Can I Help?” lesson.

In this lesson, students investigate possible solutions for concerns and/or needs in their community. They will design and create a machine to serve their community by addressing this need. The machine sculptures will be made out of clay or from found objects.

NOTE: This is an abridged version of the “How Can I Help?” lesson plan. To view the complete version, including in-depth adaptations and modifications for students with disabilities, example artworks, and a vocabulary list, see pages 9-15 of VSA’s Teacher Resource Guide.

GRADE LEVEL: K – 12
EXPECTED LENGTH: 2 – 3 class periods

MATERIALS
For clay sculpture:
Clay tools – simple tools such as plastic knives and forks
Clay mats
Acrylic paint
Newspaper

For found object sculpture:
Recycled materials (cardboard tubing, plastic bottles, cardboard)
Embellishments
Glue/Glue gun
Scissors

LEARNING OBJECTIVES
Art Making: Students will create a machine that can solve one of the world’s problems using found objects or clay and exemplifying the artistic principle of unity.

Critical Inquiry: Students will investigate how the title character of Wall-E was designed and created to solve a problem in the fictional society created in the movie.

Art History Inquiry: Students will reflect on the art- making of Michael Rakowitz and Tim Rollins + K.O.S. and how the artists talked and listened to the individuals they worked with (in other words – did research) in order to create their art.

Aesthetic Inquiry: Students will uncover how art can be an agent for social change through their examination of the stories behind the creations of Tim Rollins + K.O.S. and Michael Rakowitz.

PREPARE/DISCUSS
Show a clip of Wall-E that establishes the reason for Wall-E’s existence. Point out the vast and lonely landscape. Ask: Where are the people? Why would Wall-E be alone? Who created Wall-E and why?

Begin to generate ideas of problems we need to solve. What are some of the challenges that you or others must face each day? How could these challenges be made easier? Consider investigating topics being covered in other academic areas (e.g. if science class is addressing climate change). Make a brainstorming list on the board. Be prepared to pepper the list with suggestions to expand ideas. Record (or have a student record) this list for future reference.

Share the work of Michael Rakowitz and Tim Rollins + K.O.S. Highlight the research aspect of their work. Both artists asked questions and honored the voices of community members in their artistic process. In advocacy communities, this approach is embodied by the slogan: “Nothing about us without us,” which implies that people doing services that affect others (for example, policymakers) should do that service with the people it affects, not for them. Have students share times when things have been done “for them” but “without them.” Has someone ever helped you with your chair when you didn’t need it? Or answered a question for you without asking your opinion?

Revisit the brainstormed list created at the beginning. Who do we need to talk to and what do we need to ask in order to find out what is really needed?

A sculpture made of plastic cups, pom poms, and styrofoam balls.

A found object sculpture inspired by the “How Can I Help?” lesson.

METHODS/CREATE
Students should begin by identifying the problem they wish to address and thinking about a machine that could solve it. They should focus on how the machine would work, and what this will tell them about its design. For example, if the machine is designed to plant wild flowers on highway medians to support the Monarch butterflies during their migration, it might need something to rough up the soil to prepare for the seeds, something to sprinkle the seeds onto the dirt and something to water the seeds to help them start to germinate.

Choose the studio—clay construction or found object. Base your decision on either your access to the materials (clay construction will require access to a kiln), or the issue being addressed. For example, if investigating the concern for the excess trash that has created the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the use of recycled materials for the artwork would be most relevant.

Clay Construction

  1. Construct slabs of clay. Using a rolling pin, roll out clay with even pressure until it is 3/8” thick. Consider making the slabs in advance so the clay begins to dry out, which will make it easier to construct the machine.
  2. Create a base. Cut out shapes from a slab in the shape students want their machines to be: a square, rectangle or circle. If a square or rectangle is selected, then sides can be cut out using the base as a guide for the width of the pieces (2 for each dimension). If a circle is the base, a slab can simply be cut into a rectangle the length of the circumference of the circle.
  3. Prepare clay slabs to be connected. Have the students score the slabs by scratching the surfaces of both edges using a plastic fork or knife.
  4. Spread slip over the scored edges.
  5. Press the pieces together and smooth out the seams for a firm bond. Sides can be supported while drying with wads of newspaper.
  6. Once the frame of the machine is built, additional elements can be added using the slip and score process.
  7. Allow the work to dry, then fire in a kiln.
  8. The fired piece can be painted with acrylic paint to add details.

Found Object Construction

  1. Select materials from found objects, such as cardboard, toilet paper or paper towel tubes, or water bottles.
  2. Cut, tear or bend the selected material to match the students’ plans.
  3. Using glue or a glue gun, assemble the objects.
  4. Add embellishments, using glue for details (eyes, feathers, pompoms, etc.)

REFLECT
Have students write artist’s statements about their work. What does the machine do? How does it work? How does it address the identified need?

December 2016 VSA Webinar: “Arts As Inclusion: Holding Ourselves Accountable in Reaching Students with Disabilities”

As schools work to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environments, oftentimes the first place a student learns alongside his peers is the arts classroom. Indeed it is the assumptions on which arts learning is based—every student has something to express, there is no “wrong answer,” everyone can participate—that make the arts classroom an inviting place for all students. How, though, do we move beyond the intuitive belief that the arts work for all learners and hold ourselves accountable to the promise of inclusion: to provide opportunities for students with disabilities to access instruction and meaningfully engage in learning with their peers?

This session challenges the notion that arts instruction is inherently differentiated, thereby pushing practitioners to demonstrate (in concrete, assessable ways) differentiated instruction for students with disabilities in the arts classroom. It provides arts educators with frameworks for designing accessible arts lessons, tools to evaluate student learning, and language to effectively discuss the performance of students with disabilities in inclusive settings with other members of a student’s IEP team—transforming art educators into powerful advocates for the inclusion of students with disabilities throughout the school day.

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.)

november-webinar-blog-video

Presenter:

Jenna Gabriel is theIMG_1603_credit_Sarah_Hitchcock_Burzio Manager of Special Education at The Kennedy Center, where she supports all education initiatives affecting students with disabilities or their teachers, including the annual VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference.  Ms. Gabriel was previously based in Boston at IBA-Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, where she designed and supervised out-of-school-time programs for ELLs and struggling readers. Ms. Gabriel is the Founding Executive Director of Daytime Moon Creations, a NYC-based nonprofit providing arts programs to children with disabilities, and has led arts-based special education programming throughout NYC. Her most recent publication, “Use of Theatrical Techniques and Elements as Interventions for Autism Spectrum Disorders” was released in 2016 by Bloomsbury Press. Ms. Gabriel holds a BFA with honors in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and studied Intellectual Disabilities and Autism at Teachers College, Columbia University before completing her Masters in Education at Harvard University.


Links and Resources:

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

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.

Watercolor Fountain Painting: A Visual Art Lesson Plan for Students with Disabilities

Created by Darren Thompson

Creative Arts Specialist Darren Thompson teaches art in a fully inclusive setting, which includes many students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). His goal is to provide a rich environment that supports creative exploration for all students. Many of the art experiences he designs that are especially effective for children with ASD involve motorized devices that he creates or adapts from common objects. Here, Thompson offers a visual art lesson plan utilizing a battery-operated tabletop fountain.

Grade
Preschool, ages 3 – 6 years

Materials

  • Battery-operated tabletop fountain
  • Semi-moist watercolor set (such as Crayola or Prang)
  • Heavy white paper

Goals

  • Become acquainted with watercolor as a medium for self-expression.
  • Demonstrate that the marks a person makes can represent a thought or a feeling.
  • Provide an opportunity for social interaction.

Procedure

  • Fill fountains with water and turn them on.
  • Demonstrate the sequence of first dipping the brush in the water, then in the paint, and then touching it to the paper.
  • Tell the children they can paint whatever they choose.
  • Express interest in and remark upon what you see in a child’s piece and ask him or her to share thoughts or feelings. For example: “I see you’re using red and you’ve made some straight lines and some circles. Tell me about it!”
  • Ask if you can share their painting and words with their friends.
  • If the answer is no, respect the child’s choice. If the answer is yes, then make an impromptu announcement to the group. For example: “Hey everyone, Fatima has painted a picture of her mom and her ” Show the painting to the class. As you hand it back, speak loud enough for the class to hear you say, “Thank you, Fatima!”
  • Make your way around the room, interacting with each child in this manner.

Notes
A tabletop water fountain immediately engages children. They are eager to explore it and are delighted that they are allowed to do so. The sound and feel of water has a regulating effect for everyone, but is especially effective for individuals with sensory processing delays, including those sometimes associated with ASD. Children should be allowed to paint with their fingers if they choose.

I recommend using relatively small-sized paper, as it requires finer movements of the hands, which helps to calm and focus the children. I use 5” x 8” blank index cards.

Children always welcome positive acknowledgment from a caring adult. When they are asked to tell you about their work it sends the message that what they are doing, thinking, and feeling is important. It also gives them practice in reflecting on their actions and recognizing that actions have causes. When you share their work with the class, you are helping each child feel connected to their peer group. You are also demonstrating that every child has something to offer.

 

This lesson plan aligns with the following Early Learning Content Standards in the state of Ohio:

  • Use imagination and creativity to interact with objects and materials.
  • Express individuality, life experiences, and what he/she knows and is able to do through a variety of media,
  • Express interest in and show appreciation for the creative work of others.
  • Demonstrate understanding that symbols carry meaning and use symbols to represent thinking.
  • With modeling and support, explore the properties of objects and materials (e.g., solids and liquids).
  • Use language to communicate in a variety of ways with others, to share observations, ideas and experiences; problem-solve, reason, predict, and seek new information.

 

A headshot photo of Darren Thompson, man with light hair and a beard, wearing glasses.Darren Thompson is a Creative Arts Specialist employed by Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities in Columbus, Ohio. He teaches art at The Early Childhood Education and Family Center in a fully inclusive setting. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art, a Master’s Degree in Education, and is a licensed Early Childhood Educator and Intervention Specialist. He is a frequent guest speaker at The Ohio State University College of Social Work and College of Arts and Sciences. Thompson presented at the 2016 VSA Ohio Arts and Autism Conference and is on the planning committee for the 2017 convening.

KC Special Ed: NAEA National Convention 2017

Photograph of Jenna Gabriel in the Grand Foyer of the Kennedy Center

I walk into the Hilton 2nd floor lobby to pick up my NAEA registration materials and one thing is abundantly clear: I am not in Kansas anymore. The largest education conference I’ve ever been to topped out at 400 people and when Patricia Franklin, the President of the National Arts Education Association (NAEA) welcomes 7,000 art educators to the NAEA National Convention, my jaw drops. There are more than 350 sessions each day to prompt noisy, messy, and vital discussions of how we ensure that every child receives a well-rounded education enriched by meaningful participation in the arts. I feel like Dorothy in the wonderland of Oz.

I had the privilege of spending 4 days in this glorious cacophony last week, when I travelled to NYC to present “Arts as Inclusion: Holding Ourselves Accountable in Reaching Students with Disabilities” at the NAEA National Convention. In addition to my own presentation, I got to observe sessions, participate in conversations, and connect with arts teachers from around the country. I learned a lot, but want to share 3 things that have stuck with me as I return to the real world here in DC:

1.)  Our work at the intersection of arts and special education is vital—perhaps more so now than ever before.

Spare me a quick moment for a #humblebrag: My session was packed. In a room with chairs for 50 people, between 80 and 100 tried to cram in. People sat on the floor in the aisle and by my projector, stood in the back and spilled out into the hallway. As uncomfortable as they must have been, these teachers were actively engaged the entire time, asking questions about IEPs and instructional practice, offering insights from their own classroom experiences, and staying after to continue the conversation.

I want to be so flattered by this—surely it’s because people *really* wanted to see me present, right?—but the truth is that every single session about students with disabilities was like this. Every single session I went to that covered strategies to support inclusion or adaptations for students with disabilities had a full classroom, ran out of handouts, and had attendees pushing through to make more space. Because art educators need this material.

Let me say that again: Art. Educators. Need. This. Material.

We know that, despite the fact that almost every arts teacher teaches students with disabilities, only 21.8% of arts educators had university coursework that prepared them for this work, and that (according to one survey) only 26% feel comfortable preparing engaging arts learning experiences for students with disabilities, compared to 93% when asked about instruction of non-disabled peers. What I saw at NAEA supported this: I met art educator after art educator seeking out resources to better support their students with disabilities. What was so incredible about this, though, was their perspective. I didn’t meet a single teacher who needed to be convinced that students with disabilities should be in the art room. Instead, every single teacher I met was asking questions that spoke to the incredibly high standards they set for their instructional practice: How can I set up an environment that encourages my students with disabilities to develop agency in their creative process? How can I advocate for my students with disabilities to ensure that the supports they are legally entitled to in academic settings follow them into the arts classroom? How can I develop new and better methods to support diverse communication methods that allow students with disabilities to express themselves fully? What adaptations can I create that allow students with disabilities to participate in the same arts activities as their peers, instead of modifying the activity or diluting content?

And the presentations met them there. Laura Hubbard and Kelley DeCleene shared simple but powerful adaptations that art teachers can make to increase access in the classroom. Maude Wiltshire offered visual supports that can integrate with students’ AACs to support communication and agency. Juliann Dorff and Linda Hoeptner-Poling presented the VSA Teacher Resource Guide and introduced the inclusive lessons published late last year. Samantha Varian spoke on choice-based instruction in the inclusive classroom. And the amazing folks of the Special Needs in Art Education interest group grappled with the responsibility to share our knowledge widely with art educators across the country to improve learning outcomes for students with disabilities.

In a changing educational landscape with rapidly diversifying classrooms, I saw a hunger for more tools to reach our highest-need young folks, and an incredible opportunity for those of us who work at this vibrant and fertile intersection. 

2.)  Continuing professional development and inservice trainings are important, but we must prioritize preservice instruction.

Photograph of Jenna presenting at a conferenceInservice trainings like those offered to the working arts educators at the NAEA National Convention are critical to reaching students with disabilities learning in today’s classrooms. But as a field, we must recognize that this need is the symptom of a larger issue at play in art teacher development: arts educators are not receiving adequate training to reach students with disabilities before they enter the classroom. Innovative and incredible programs like the MA in Arts Education with an Emphasis on Special Populations at Moore College of Art and Design and the Masters of Music in Music Education with a Concentration on Autism offered by the Boston Conservatory at Berklee are efforts to address this problem, but these programs should be the standard. The norm, not the unique.

In addressing the critical questions facing art educators in higher education today, Rhoda Bernard highlighted this truth, and the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs she manages will undoubtedly be a leader in this work. Steve Seidel, Program Director of the Arts in Education Masters Program at Harvard, described the current educational landscape as particular and frightening moment in the history of public education in this country and argued that today’s young arts educators will have increased responsibilities to advocate for their students’ needs. For students with disabilities, this advocacy begins with arts teachers having a foundational understanding of strategies and practices that support meaningful engagement in and through the arts.

This starts in preservice.

Photograph of conference name badge, agenda book, other swag and materials.3.)  The arts matter.
Arts education matters.
Students with disabilities matter.

This work matters.

Perhaps one of the most impactful moments of NAEA National Convention came in the first general session, when President Patricia Franklin asked us all to rise and say together: The arts matter. Arts education matters. Hearing 7,000 voices in chorus affirm this simple truth was beautiful. We spend so much of our time fighting to convince others that our work in the arts is important, so the 4 days I spent alongside educators who share this belief was a powerful moment to draw inspiration and energy from.

I add to this mantra that students with disabilities, and their access to high-quality arts learning experiences, also matter. It is critical that the voices and life experiences of our students with disabilities not be left out of conversations about well-rounded and holistic education. The right to participate, and to participate fully, must be guaranteed for all of our students. It falls on us as educators to ensure this right is protected and advocated for in the art room and beyond.

It was a joy to travel on behalf of the Office of VSA and Accessibility and to share our resources and knowledge with a national audience. I’ve got a busy spring on the conference circuit, so I encourage you to follow along on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We’ll be using the hashtag #kcspecialed to share photos and anecdotes from American Alliance for Theatre & Education’s DC Theatre in Our Schools Regional Event, Council for Exceptional Children Convention & Expo, the Woodruff Arts Center Educator Conference, and the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention. Of course, it all culminates with VSA Intersections in Austin, and I look forward to seeing you there!

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.”

Five Tips on Using Picture-Based Visual Supports for Students with Complex Communication Needs During Music Instruction

By Lisa Pierce-Goldstein, M.M., M.S. CCC-SLP

Visual supports are an integral part of the day for all of us, from street signs to calendars to scrawled reminders on Post-it® Notes. Visual supports in the form of pictures can be an effective and integral part of music instruction for students with complex communication needs, who cannot rely on speech as their primary means of communication. Unlike manual signs or verbal cues, which are transient, pictures provide a stable form of support, as they are fixed and can be referred to repeatedly. This is especially helpful for students who need extra time to process information. Picture symbol software is not necessary. Some assembly is required. So fire up your smart phone, Google Images, or your favorite word processing and presentation-making software to make:

An image with two columns: the left side is labeled

1. Visual schedules: A visual schedule uses pictures to show the sequence of activities that will take place during a class. For example, for a chorus rehearsal, a visual schedule might consist of pictures representing welcome, warm up, pass out music, practice song 1, practice song 2, put music away, all done.

Five side-by-side images showing where to place fingers on an oboe while playing Mary had a Little Lamb.

A visual sequence for the fingering of Mary had a Little Lamb.

2. Visual sequences: The cousin of the visual schedule, the visual sequence uses pictures to depict the steps necessary to complete a specific activity. This can be useful for showing steps for instrument fingerings, changes in body movements for a physical or vocal warm up, or setting up and putting class materials away.

This image contains pictures of instruments in small yellow square boxes. The instruments include egg shakers, triangle, maracas, sand blocks, rhythm sticks, bells, xylophone, tone block, boomwhacker, and sound shape.

3. Choice boards: A choice board has pictures of choices available for a specific activity. For example, pictures of several instruments may be presented to a student, from which they could make their choice. A choice board could also consist of pictures of the covers of pieces to be practiced during class or rehearsal, from which students could choose the order.

4. Scripts and social stories: Using PowerPoint or Google Slides is an easy way to pair pictures with sentences. Putting several pages together, you can create a script to help a student know what to say and do at an audition. A social story can show and describe what is expected in a specific situation, such as being an audience member at a live performance.

A two column image with the word first and a picture of a person singing on the left, and the word 5. First Then boards: A ‘first then’ board consists of two columns with the headings ‘first’ and ‘then,’ with a picture beneath each word representing the present activity and the subsequent one. It might show a non-preferred activity (practice scale), followed by a preferred one (sing ‘Alexander Hamilton’). This is useful for helping students manage transitions.

To see examples of all of these visual supports, head to Google Images and search. There are hundreds of examples to fire up your imagination. Now have fun downloading, formatting, printing, laminating, and using in class!

Lisa Pierce Goldstein croppedLisa Pierce-Goldstein is a speech language pathologist who has spent the past 15 years working with students on the autism spectrum, first in New York City’s District 75 and now in the Boston Public Schools.  She is a classically trained singer and a guest lecturer at Boston Conservatory’s program for Teaching Music to Students on the Autism Spectrum.  She is a frequent presenter at conferences on the topics of augmentative and alternative communication, autism and adapting arts curriculum for students with complex communication needs.  

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.”

Five Tips for Preparing New Teachers to Work with Students with Disabilities in the Arts

by Rhoda Bernard, Ed.D.

Many of the strategies for teaching the arts to students with disabilities are components of what is widely considered to be good teaching practice for any student population. The critical difference is for teachers to magnify, deepen, and personalize these aspects of their teaching when they work with students with disabilities.

  1. Learn as much as you can about each student. Read IEP (Individualized Education Program) documents, and meet with Special Education staff members at your school, other teachers, administrators, and parents. If time permits, observe your students with disabilities in other settings. Use what you learn to personalize your teaching for each student. For example, a drama teacher learns that a student who has difficulty with expressive language is more successful when she writes down responses to questions asked aloud in class. The drama teacher can incorporate opportunities for the student to answer questions by writing rather than speaking.
  2. Provide structure and schedules. Arts teachers should use a similar structure to every class session, and should put the day’s agenda on the board and go over it with the students. A typical structure for visual arts classes could be to begin with a whole-class demonstration, followed by student work time on individual projects, with a whole-class wrap up during which students share their works in progress at the end of the lesson.
  3. Use simple, clear instructions. When working with students with disabilities, arts teachers should use specific words and instructions whenever possible. For example, a student with autism spectrum disorder may not understand when his music teacher speaks about a note being “on the line” in music notation. The teacher could shift the wording to “with the line through it,” which is a more literal explanation of how the musical note looks on the staff.
  4. Engage multiple modalities. Sometimes arts teachers give more emphasis to the modality that dominates their art form—for example, music classes may be more focused on the auditory modality, or visual arts classes may emphasize the visual modality. Arts teachers who work with students with disabilities should engage two or even all three modalities in their lessons. For example, a dance teacher can incorporate visual cues in her instructions by using diagrams or color-coded charts to illustrate the form of a dance.
  5. Remember that fair doesn’t always mean equal. Rather, fair means giving each student what he or she needs to succeed in your class. Some students with disabilities require modifications to tasks, assignments, expectations, or the environment in order to succeed. For example, a music student might need to play only certain notes or sections in an ensemble piece. A visual arts teacher might offer all students a choice of materials, such as playdough or clay, so that options are presented to students of all abilities to set them up for success.
A woman with dark, wavy hair in a gray short-sleeve shirt.

Rhoda Bernard

Rhoda Bernard is the Director of Autism Spectrum Programs and Chair of the Music Education Department at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. As of 9/1/17, Bernard will become the Founding Managing Director of the Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs at Berklee College of Music. She is the author of many essays, articles, and book chapters.