Talking Without Words: a Creative Movement Lesson Plan Designed for Inclusive Classrooms

By Portia Abernathy

Lesson Title: Talking Without Words: Using Our Bodies and Movement to Show Our Feelings
Designed for: Youth (8-12 years old), Inclusive
Length: 1 hour


Learning Standards

Responding: Respond to movement to match the emotional content, mood, or rhythm of music.

Creating: Use guided improvisation to explore, invent movement, and apply movement concepts.

Performing: Demonstrate movements in straight and curved pathways. Use movement to demonstrate various emotions (happy, sad, scared, surprised, angry).

Connecting: Move in different groups (pairs and duets). Make movement choices based on preferences.



Images of people demonstrating different emotions
Rubber floor markers
Music and speaker OR live musician


Preview concepts: using movement and our bodies to show emotions and feelings

  • Students begin seated in assigned chairs set up in a circle.
  • For attendance/check in, ask students (when their name is called) to freeze their face and body (while remaining seated) in a way that can show the group how they are feeling today.

Warm Up
Review concepts: personal and general space, level, shape, and size (large and small)

  • Lead students (with musical accompaniment) through the 8-step Brain Dance movement series. (The Brain Dance was developed and created by Anne Green Gilbert)
  • Incorporate movements that promote body isolations and highlight the previous weeks’ learning concepts; this can also include seasonal imagery (falling leaves or snow, flowers growing, wind, apple picking).

Concept Introduction
New concept: using movement and our bodies to show emotions and feelings

  • One by one, show students five different images of people demonstrating different emotions.
  • Ask students to silently observe the faces, bodies, movement, posture, etc. of the people in the images.
  • Ask students:
    • What do you see that made you choose that?
    • What is their body doing/what is their face doing/etc.
  • After each emotion, have students freeze their own body to demonstrate the feeling.


Review concepts: Traveling on straight pathways, practicing locomotor movements

  • Have students travel across the floor in straight and curved pathways, from one floor marker to the other.
  • For each round of movement have students (alone or in pairs):
    • March
    • Tip toe
    • Chasse
    • Skip
    • Jump (over another floor marker along the pathway)
  • At the end of each movement round, have students turn and talk to a partner and share which emotion the movement made them feel.
  • Demonstrate (or have students demonstrate) two different responses/emotions to the same movement.
  • Ask students
    • What was different?
    • What did you see or notice?
    • What makes you say that?
  • Ask for 2-3 students to demonstrate their emotion with a locomotor movement, like a gallop or hop, and see if students can guess the emotion.
    • Note that students can share and we can understand how people are feeling without using any words.



  • Return to seated circle.
  • Play a clip of music and allow students to listen and think about how it makes them feel.
  • In pairs or trios, have students go into the middle of the circle and free dance (structured improvisation), matching their emotion and movement to the music.
    • Remind students to use various body parts, levels, shapes, and qualities of movement.
  • Other students should demonstrate audience behavior expectations while observing.



  • Close class with group reverence:
    • Bow to thank teacher
    • Bow to thank musician
    • Bow to thank peers
    • Bow to thank self


A picture of Portia Abernathy, a smiling woman with long blonde hair and a blue jacket

Portia Abernathy, M.A., M.Ed., is Assistant Director of Education and Community Initiatives at Boston Ballet, where she oversees accessible and inclusive dance education and professional development programs.


Five Tips for Creating Accessible Conference Sessions

By Diane Nutting

Conferences are a vital part of our professional development. The opportunity to learn more about innovations in the industry, share new insights and approaches, and network with our colleagues provides inspiration and often results in new ideas, new work, and new partnerships. Creating an accessible conference session ensures that ALL our colleagues are included within these learning communities. The five tips below can aid in your planning facilitation.

1. Consider the room layout. Think about the environment you want to create for your session, and how you want your attendees to engage and/or share information with each other. Use this information to decide how you want tables and chairs arranged—taking into account the physical accessibility of the space before, after, and during the session. Once you are in the space, plan for the positioning of service providers such as sign language interpreters and real time captioning as well as the attendees utilizing those services, and keep an eye to lighting, glare, or other visual distractions in the room.

2. Create a safe space. Set the tone at the beginning of your session so that attendees feel safe to explore new ideas without the fear of making “mistakes,” or saying “the wrong thing.” Provide and accept a wide range of participation levels depending on comfort level. Encourage the use of “I” statements during discussions to frame opinions or thoughts. Create and encourage a session environment where attendees can ask for the support or clarification they need.

3. Facilitate accessible activities. Provide various entry points and participation strategies for your session activities. Make sure that hanging or displayed materials are at an appropriate and accessible height and distance for your attendees. Provide materials that can support engagement (examples: if using tennis balls for an activity, consider bean bags which can be easier to catch and grasp; provide markers that are both large and small). Make sure any handouts are designed for accessibility* (font, layout, etc.), and provide alternative formats of the materials (digital access, large print, etc.).

4. Support your slides. Design your PowerPoint so that font sizes, color schemes, and formatting aligns to accessible guidelines.* Throughout your session, be sure to audio describe any images or photos on slides, and spell out any web addresses. Avoid putting large amounts of text on the screen for attendees to read on their own; instead, read that text as part of your facilitation.

5. Make sure everyone is “heard”: Encourage one speaker at a time during discussions. If amplification is available in the room, ensure that everyone uses a microphone (including you). Repeat comments and questions, and clarify any acronyms or industry jargon/terminology that is used. Take note of participation that is only perceived visually and describe it verbally (examples: if you ask for a “show of hands,” be sure to indicate the percentage of response; if attendees are nodding their heads in response, share that information— “I see many of you nodding in agreement”).

Accessibility within conference sessions is about thinking ahead, maintaining a “read” of your session attendees, and being a flexible and creative problem solver in the moment. Even more importantly, when you take steps to ensure accessibility for your own session, your actions might very well influence the ideas of inclusion and accessibility within the overall conference environment as well!


* Resources for creating accessible materials (courtesy of Sina Bahram)


A woman with shoulder-length, wavy brown hair, wearing a red and white scarf around her neck and a red shirt.Diane Nutting works as a consultant at the intersections of disability, arts, and education—specializing in training design and facilitation, project coordination, and strategic planning. She has worked with artists and K-Adult students of all abilities as a teacher, administrator, and artistic collaborator; and also has extensive experience in conference settings as a conference coordinator, staff member, and avid session presenter.   She served for nine years as the Director of Access and Inclusion for Imagination Stage, working to provide accessible and inclusive performing arts experiences for all students, patrons, and artists.   

Urban Artisans Prepares Students with Disabilities for Careers, In or Out of the Arts

Two smiling, male students work with clay at a table in the ArtMix studio.It was more than 16 years ago that staff at ArtMix in Indianapolis, Indiana, and officials in the Indianapolis Public Schools identified a need to better prepare students with disabilities age 16-22 for life after school. Knowing that the arts could train students in pre-vocational skills and aid in personal growth, ArtMix began its Urban Artisans program, training students in the making, marketing, and selling of artwork in a professional studio setting.

Today, over 60 students with disabilities participate in Urban Artisans each year, according to Linda Wisler, ArtMix’s Vice President of Programs. Wisler says a key to the program’s success was creating the right environment for teaching those important pre-vocational skills. “Offering the students a learning venue outside of school really motivated and excited them. They all share a love of art and look forward to their time in our studios,” she explains.

All of the Urban Artisans participants are paid a stipend or hourly wage for their work in the program, where they create artwork alongside teaching artists that is sold in local galleries and creative outlet shops. Proceeds from the sale of the items go directly to support the Urban Artisans program. Katy Deadmond, ArtMix’s Manager of Community Outreach, says that the students work as a team and are paid as such, adding, “[t]hey have a real sense of pride and accomplishment when they get that paycheck.” Wisler notes that paying the students also promotes their leadership skills, saying they “start having high expectations for each other!”

Four rows of clay flowerpots are displayed on white shelves, with a tall plant to their right. There is a sign next to the flowerpots that says "ArtMix."

Flowerpots created by Urban Artisans students are displayed at a gallery in Indiana.

Wisler says the Urban Artisans line of products is known for certain items, like flowerpots, serving platters, and small animal sculptures, but also includes weavings, painted silk scarves, and large canvas paintings. “Many of the objects we make evolve organically, based on what the students enjoy creating and what is marketable,” says Deadmond. The students also work on commissioned pieces and contribute to some sort of community service activity; this year, they are making centerpieces for the Indianapolis Library’s gala.

Urban Artisans includes both a school year session, when students work in the ArtMix studio as part of their school day, and a summer session. Both sessions are designed for students to be in the studio three times each week, with about 25 students participating during the school year and 30-35 in the summer. ArtMix teaching artists also work with 10-12 Urban Artisans students in their school classroom, as a first step for those who may not be ready to participate in the studio environment yet.

A young woman, wearing a headband and blue, tie-dyed tee shirt, uses a fork as she sculpts with clay; a small dog sculpture sits on the table beside her.

An Urban Artisans student works on an animal sculpture.

Wisler and Deadmond emphasize that while the students’ technical artistic skills improve over the course of their time in Urban Artisans, they make tremendous gains in other skills that are transferrable to any job or life situation. “We see major improvement in the students’ social skills, including their ability to work in a team and accept one another’s differences. We even hear from parents that their students are more willing to clean up at home since it is part of the routine at the end of each Urban Artisans session,” says Wisler.

Deadmond also notes that the students’ self-awareness increases throughout the program, as seen in the self-evaluations they complete at each session. She explains, “Some of the questions we ask are about their behaviors and mood, and over time in the self-evaluations, we see the students begin to realize how they are impacting their co-workers. Ultimately, this leads to a hugely important, transferrable, pre-vocational skill: having respect for yourself and those around you.”



Read more about the work done by ArtMix (formerly VSA Indiana) and other organizations to aid young adults in their career development in the 2012 publication Transition to Employment: Model Projects Fostering Careers in the Arts for Youth with Disabilities.

Teaching Students with ASD “High Value Skills for High Value Work” at FilmAcademy360

A smiling young man wearing headphones works at a computer in the FilmAcademy360 production studio. There is a green screena dn other students working in the background.When Program Director David Di Ianni created FilmAcademy360, a part of Spectrum360 in Livingston, New Jersey, he was interested in teaching students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) “high value skills for high value work.” What he means by that, he says, is that with appropriate training and skill development, the young adults in the program could someday attain work that is both stimulating and well paid. A cohort of seven students with ASD recently completed the FilmAcademy360 program in advanced video editing with great success, opening doors to future professional opportunities.

The FilmAcademy360 program has three phases, beginning with introducing students to theoretical concepts of editing and basic filmmaking. Students, who visit the studio twice a week, learned things like thinking in shots and understanding the progression of shots as a basis for visual storytelling media. Di Ianni says understanding this cinematic language is “…a necessary skill for all filmmakers and digital storytellers.”

Two young men operate a video camera.Phase two of the program was the teaching of Adobe Premiere professional editing software. A major goal of the FilmAcademy360 program was for students to gain proficiency in 10 categories of skills using the software, demonstrated through a score of 80% or higher on assessments. Di Ianni says that, after realizing the recent cohort of students were very visual learners, they adapted the text-heavy Adobe Premiere curriculum and added video lessons. The video curriculum, in conjunction with their in-person classroom instruction, helped all seven students pass the skills assessments, several with perfect scores.

The third phase of the program exposed the students to a professional work environment, both at the FilmAcademy360 production studio and at nearby Elm City Communications. The young adults were encouraged to develop relationships with outside producers, hopefully leading to future work opportunities. Students created their own professional showreel to submit to potential employers, along with a resume and profiles on websites like Upwork and Di Ianni and the other instructors also worked closely with the students on verbal and nonverbal communication skills, using video recordings as a learning tool.

A young woman looks up from her computer where she is editing video. She is wearing a denim jacket and green shirt.Di Ianni emphasizes that even though the program may be over for their recent seven students, FilmAcademy360 will continue to support their professional development. “We have an open door policy to support these students,” he says, continuing, “If they get a freelance gig, they can come into our studio and do the work here. We made a commitment to these students, and intend to support their future progress to whatever degree we can.”

Five Tips for Using the Arts to Introduce Job Skills to Youth with Disabilities

By Damon McLeese

Young adulthood is a time of wonder, exploration, and often the time a person lands their first job. For teens with disabilities, this first paycheck may be rather elusive. At VSA Colorado, we use a commission-based project to strengthen their skill set, expose them to the concept of a job, and do amazing things for their self-esteem. The following tips are based on the concept of Commission-Based Creation or creating art for a client.


  1. There is no I in team – Very few jobs in this world are done in isolation. We all work in teams and must learn to cooperate, interact, and support one another. Many teens with disabilities have very little opportunity to work in teams, so at VSA Colorado we engage students in a team project. When the work is finished, everyone shares in the success.


  1. One coach – Creating art collaboratively is a new experience for many youth with disabilities. Creating art for a specific client is often a more alien concept. At VSA Colorado, we hire a lead artist that is the coach or boss for the team. The job of this coach is to make sure everyone is represented and the work is of the highest quality. It does no one any good if the work is not well presented.


  1. Research – Youth with disabilities often have no knowledge of corporate workplace culture. At VSA Colorado, we find visiting the client’s worksite to be critical to understanding the culture of an organization. By visiting the client, teens are able to see a workplace. We focus on the feel and look of the place, the colors, and furniture. Then ask the client what type of art they are looking for and develop ideas collaboratively. When possible, we have the client visit our studio during the creation of the piece.


  1. Money matters –A basic understanding of money is one important job skill to develop with youth with disabilities. At VSA Colorado, we create a project budget and share the budget with the team. We address questions like, “How much do you have to work with? What might the materials cost? Where are we going to get the materials?” If possible, we pay each participant to continue the lesson in financial responsibility.


  1. Expect professionalism – When teaching job skills, it is important to clearly outline the expectations of the work sessions. Who is responsible for the set up and clean up? What are the behavior expectations? At VSA Colorado, we hold the team accountable and check in with everyone at the conclusion of each session.


When the work is completed at our studio, we have every member of the team reflect on the piece and the experience. When possible, we have the team deliver the artwork to the client. Celebrating the teens’ success is important and encourages further use of the skills they have developed.


Damon McLeese is the executive director of VSA Colorado/Access Gallery. He has created and manages several innovative programs including the ArtWorks Program, which supports youth with disabilities as they transition from high school to young adulthood. Most of the programs Damon has designed aim to bridge the gap between disability and economic opportunity through the arts. 

Five Tips for Using The Arts and Special Education: A Map for Research

By Jenna Gabriel, Ed.M. and Don Glass, Ph.D.

The Kennedy Center’s recent publication, The Arts and Special Education: A Map for Research, is meant to be a living document that sparks conversation and incites action to support a shared, ambitious agenda around growing the field of the arts and special education. Thus, this resource should not be considered a “be-all-end-all” answer to large questions about the impact of arts learning on students with disabilities. Rather, it proposes priority areas for the field to focus new research, offers suggestions around the field’s responsibility to rigorous research design and methodologies, and charts a course of milestones by which we can measure our shared progress toward these goals.

Whether you are an individual researcher, a program evaluator, a funder, or a practitioner; whether you are working alone, as a program consultant, or with a large institution, there is a place for your work in this map. To get the most out of this resource, we recommend you consider the following:

1. This is not a prescriptive plan. This research map is far from comprehensive, and is not meant to be an exhaustive list of research questions to pursue or literature to reference. Rather, this is meant to be a jumping off point. The three priority areas proposed might help to frame your work or provide direction in a next step. The research questions could be investigated, and might also inspire other rich questions. The milestones are benchmarks by which the field might measure progress.

2. Contextualize your work to identify where you can contribute to this agenda. Just as this map is not exhaustive, it is impossible to think any one researcher or organizations could take on all of these action steps. Don’t think about how you can pursue everything in the map. Rather, think about where your work fits: Do you work with an organization that offers innovative programs for students? Perhaps you could consider how your work helps to contribute to a body of literature in Priority Area 2: Instructional Design and Innovation. Do you work at a large school district or state-level department of education? Perhaps you can look at large data sets that help us understand how students with disabilities participate in arts education in your area (Priority Area 1: Access and Equity). This work will grow and succeed when our efforts are aligned, not when all of us try to do a little bit of everything in isolation.

3. Look to other, more established fields as exemplars. The arts and special education is a young field, and the representative body of literature is still growing. However, this field draws on larger, established fields like arts education, special education, human development, curriculum and instruction, improvement sciences, developmental psychology, disability studies, and more. These fields have rich bodies of research literature that can offer theoretical foundations for our work as well as useful models of rigorous research methodologies.

4. Connect your work to practice and to policy. Remember—research can’t happen in a vacuum. Across the field, we work with real students in real classrooms; research should inform practice, and experiences in our classrooms should drive the next research questions we pursue. Findings should further inform policy decisions, so consider how your work (whether as a researcher or in the classroom/community) can influence systems-level ideas.

5. Be comfortable with discomfort. Close, rigorous examination of instructional practices might not show us what we want to see. Sometimes, teaching strategies we feel intuitively should work might not prove to be statistically effective. While that can be disappointing, it’s important to remember that that information helps us to better understand what does work and why—thereby improving instruction for the students we support.


Jenna Gabriel, Ed.M., is Manager of Special Education at the Kennedy Center. Don Glass, Ph.D., is Research Manager at the Kennedy Center. They are both editors of The Arts and Special Education: A Map for Research.

Growing a Field of Study in the Arts and Special Education

Image of a boy leaning over a paper and holding a pen; text: The Arts and Special education; a Map for ResearchWhen the Kennedy Center’s Office of VSA and Accessibility convened thought leaders from the arts education and special education communities at a forum in 2012, attendees identified a need to name and grow the relatively new field of arts and special education. This conversation has continued at the annual VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education conferences, with participants stating the need to both quantify the work of the field and get a handle on the literature and data that already exists.

In 2016, with these needs in mind, the Kennedy Center again brought together field leaders and asked them to envision how an action plan for research in the arts and special education might look. Seeking to create a series of guideposts for scholars, researchers, and practitioners, the group created The Arts and Special Education: A Map for Research, a new publication from the Kennedy Center.

According to Jenna Gabriel, Manager of Special Education at the Kennedy Center and co-editor of A Map for Research, three areas of focus emerged from those conversations in 2016: access and equity; instructional design and innovation; and effectiveness, efficacy, and scale-up. These topics became the three priority areas for the research map.

Image: a man helps a boy who is holding a pencil; text: "There is a need to develop and test new research methodologies which are more compatible with inquiry in arts education and special education."Gabriel says that while the group initially set out to create a five-year strategic action plan for research in arts and special education, they realized during their conversations “…that what we needed was more of a call to action, which the map provides.” Dr. Don Glass, Research Manager at the Kennedy Center and co-editor of A Map for Research, adds, “Some of the types of research we are advocating will take time to get going, so what we are saying here is the direction we want to move and the time frame is more flexible than just five years.”

Some of the goals articulated in the map are long-term and ambitious, especially those in Priority Area 3: Effectiveness, Efficacy, and Scale-Up. This section challenges researchers to study best practices on a larger scale, across sites and contexts. But Gabriel and Glass say members of the VSA network can incorporate every priority area into their evaluation designs through thoughtful planning and consideration of the research questions.

Glass notes that for organizations just beginning their research and evaluation efforts, the map can offer some starting points. “Research can be very overwhelming, and the map is providing some focal points and guide beams. For instance, in Priority Area 1: Access and Equity, we want to make sure we are counting students with disabilities in some way and not forgetting to do so. Collect data to see who you are serving; that’s a great place to start,” offers Glass.

For those already conducting research, Gabriel says the map can support what is being done. “When an organization is assessing their program, there is a way to situate that evaluation in support of the map’s priorities. If you are implementing instructional design or innovation and have studied its success as we discuss in Priority Area 2, start thinking about how it can be scaled up and ask the bigger questions addressed in Priority Area 3.”

Image: a girl with braids in her hair looks at an art lesson; Text: "There is a need to explore the development of more targeted research questions that focus on the arts and learning for all students, including those with disabilities."Both Glass and Gabriel emphasize the importance of not just studying program outcomes, but also how a program works for a group of students as discussed in Priority Area 2. “We want to see how diverse learners are supported by different kinds of instructional strategies,” says Glass, adding that many current program evaluations share information about the impact of a program, but not why or how it works for different groups or what adaptations were needed.

Gabriel notes that to conduct the rigorous and meaningful research prescribed in the map, the field has to be willing to look at results that are not pleasing to us. “We need to hold ourselves accountable to the standards of fields with which we want to be associated,” she explains. Glass adds, “When we see evaluation reports, what often gets featured are best case examples. They are informative, but it is equally helpful to learn how an approach that is successful for one child may present a barrier to another.”

Looking to the future, Gabriel and Glass urge researchers who are doing work in arts and special education to get their work out there so others can learn from it. They note that the VSA professional papers series is a great way to share information about practice and research, and hope to see more articles on arts education for students with disabilities in special education journals in the future.

Glass and Gabriel say the Kennedy Center is eager to contribute to the map, but emphasize that it is not a checklist they can accomplish alone. “The map is not a Kennedy Center plan, but a call to action for a broad field. We hope others want to join our effort,” explains Gabriel. Glass adds, “It is reflective of our internal thinking, but also an invitation to collaborate and help us advance the arts and special education.”

Five Tips for Using Universal Design for Learning to Promote Arts Integrated Literacy Instruction

By Heather Francis

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for curriculum design that supports students with and without disabilities in becoming expert learners.1,2 By proactively applying UDL, teachers can better support diverse learners in their classrooms as they engage with arts integrated literacy curricula. 

  • Integrate the arts into the representation. Through drama-based pedagogies (DBP), students represent shared stories by acting them out in class. DBP is a research-informed practice that supports the development of reading, social skills, expressive/receptive language, and creative thinking.3,4 Students take the lead as they use gestures, movement, and visual cues to convey meaning. This representation provides students with and without disabilities with additional opportunities to develop oral language and vocabulary skills.5
  • Use the arts to drive purposeful learning. Teachers can guide students as they engage in dance or movement activities to build both their social and academic vocabularies by incorporating movement into the heart of any lesson.5 Rather than using decontextualized movement breaks to promote self-regulation for students with and without disabilities, teachers can help all learners to develop foundational literacy skills while supporting their persistence across the school day.
  • Move beyond action and expression. The visual and performing arts may be logically added on to the end of a lesson or unit. After students have engaged with traditional approaches to literacy learning, teachers may support students in the dramatization or visual representation of what they have read. However, by proactively integrating the arts into how they engage students and represent literacy content throughout the lesson, teachers help students with and without disabilities to make more substantial academic gains toward their individual and grade level goals.3,4
  • Enlist local support. General and special educators may not think they know enough about the arts to integrate practices into their literacy curriculum. By collaborating with local theater groups, businesses, and parents who value the arts,3 students with and without disabilities will have opportunities to develop literacy skills in specific contexts while fostering collaboration and community.1
  • Support expert learning. The goal of using the UDL framework is to support expert learning.2 We want to help students become purposeful, motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic, and goal-directed learners.1 Infusing the arts into literacy instruction provides rich opportunities for interdisciplinary work while helping students with and without disabilities to develop flexibility, critical thinking skills, metacognitive abilities, and self-efficacy.4


Photo of a woman with shoulder length blonde hair, smiling and wearing a blue button-down shirt.Heather Francis is an Implementation Specialist at CAST, where she supports educators in infusing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into their practice. Prior to her work at CAST, Heather worked as a special education teacher, focused on supporting students’ language and literacy development.






1CAST (2014). Universal design for learning guidelines version 3.0. Wakefield, MA.

2Rose, D.H. & Gravel, J.W. (2009). Getting from here to there: UDL, global positioning systems, and lessons for improving education. In D.T. Gordon, J.W. Gravel, & L.A. Shifter (Eds.) A policy reader in universal design for learning (pp. 5–18). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

3 Carney, C.L., Weltsek, G.J., Hall, M.L. & Brinn, G. (2016). Arts infusion and literacy achievement within underserved communities: A matter of equity. Arts Education Policy Review, 117(4), 230–243.

4 Robinson, H. (2013). Arts integration and the success of disadvantaged students: A research evaluation. Arts Education Policy Review, 114(4), 191–204.

5 Brouillette, L. (2012). Supporting the Language Development of Limited English Proficient Students through Arts Integration in the Primary Grades. Arts Education Policy Review, 113(2), 68–74.

IRT Theater’s Westside Experiment Offers Career Development Opportunity to Deaf Students

Eight students are standing and stepping to their right while raising their arms to mid-chest level.

Students participate in a movement activity at IRT Theater’s Westside Experiment workshop. Photo credit: Rich Stillwell Photography

In July 2017, New York City’s IRT Theater wrapped up their sixth annual Westside Experiment summer intensive for high school age youth. This two-week career development program pairs experimental theater artists with adolescents working to find to find their identity and voice.

For the first time in 2017, IRT made the Westside Experiment fully accessible for students and theater professionals who are Deaf and have hearing loss. Nine students who are Deaf or have hearing loss joined nine hearing students in the program, and they worked side-by-side for the two weeks under the instruction of lead teachers Monique Holt and Luane Davis Haggerty.

American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters were present throughout the intensive, and ASL was incorporated into the workshops through lessons on ASL poetry and storytelling. Students also spent time studying other theater-making techniques, including movement, improvisation, nonverbal communication, mime, mask work, writing, stage combat, and collaboration. There were also opportunities for students to talk with arts administrators, including Julia C. Levy, Executive Director of New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company.

IRT producing artistic director Kori Rushton says that, in addition to the inclusive group of participating students, the teaching staff also included several theater professionals who are Deaf or have hearing loss. Rushton points to the diversity of the student participants, who came from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and with varying levels of experience in the arts and in Deaf culture, as one of the program’s strengths. “We had a goal of crossing linguistic and cultural boundaries,” she explains, adding, “it was thrilling to watch this cohort embrace the challenge and exceed expectations.”

The students called the program a valuable, enjoyable learning experience, with several noting how sad they were to see the two weeks end. One Deaf student commented that he learned many new things at the Westside Experiment, which “…changed my perspective of what I want to become in the future.” Rushton says IRT hopes to continue to nurture the young theater artists, Deaf and hearing, and make sure they know that they have an artistic home at IRT.

The Musical Theater Project Demonstrates the Value of Building Evaluation into Programs from Day One

One girl and two boys growl like tigers while wearing smock-style costumes.

Students participate in a Kids Love Musicals! residency. Photo credit: Heather Meeker

When leaders at the Musical Theater Project in Northeast Ohio decided they wanted to expand their Kids Love Musicals! residency program to serve students with disabilities, they were deliberate in their planning. They sought out resources and expertise from peer arts organizations already working with students with disabilities, and they attended professional development sessions on arts and special education topics. As they laid out their expansion plan, they identified program assessment as a priority and sought to include comprehensive evaluation strategies as a part of the new residencies.

With this in mind, Heather Meeker, Executive Director of the Musical Theater Project (TMTP), connected with leaders at the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), located nearby in Cleveland, Ohio. “CWRU is interested in being deeply involved in their community, so developing a mutually beneficial research project was of great interest to them,” says Meeker.

The Schubert Center introduced Meeker to psychology professor Sandra Russ and doctoral student Olena Zyga, who agreed to work with TMTP to assess the new residencies. TMTP agreed to support the academics’ work by raising money to pay for student researchers and faculty time, and Meeker says funders have been especially interested in supporting this collaborative assessment.

The Kids Love Musicals! residencies for children with disabilities aim to teach social skills and emotional understanding through the stories and characters from classic American musicals such as The Wizard of Oz, The Jungle Book, and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. The multi-year evaluation project with the Schubert Center seeks to better understand if engaging in the residency program impacted participants’ socioemotional skills, including the ability to make eye contact, engage with others, take turns appropriately, and demonstrate emotional understanding. A secondary goal is to understand whether gains seen during the residency program extend to other environments.

Russ and Zyga created a custom measurement scale for the program, using their expertise in the fields of psychology and play. TMTP initiated their new residencies for students with disabilities, collecting multiple forms of data throughout. Residency sessions were videotaped across multiple school sites and to include a range of student ages and ability levels; the videos were then coded and scored according to the measurement scale. Teachers were also asked to report on the same variables that were being coded in each session for every student, both before the residency program began and after it had finished.

Analysis of the first round of data, which specifically focused on The Wizard of Oz residency, suggests that students who participated in the Kids Love Musicals! program did make gains in eye contact, turn taking, engagement, and symbolic flexibility. These results were recently published in the Journal of Intellectual Disabilities. Meeker is thrilled that their collaboration with the Schubert Center led to the research being shared broadly, both through journal publication and in various conference presentations by her and Zyga.

Four children stand in front of two adults, all wearing curly gold ribbon on their heads and making roaring faces.

Teaching artists work with students in the Kids Love Musicals! residencies. Photo credit: Heather Meeker

The research collaboration between TMTP and the Schubert Center continues post-report publication, including a new round of data collection focused on identifying if similar gains are seen across curriculums presented to students. Specifically, they are asking if children made the same gains while learning The Jungle Book as made while learning The Wizard of Oz. Analysis of this data is currently underway, with initial results suggesting that curriculum differences do not significantly impact the student outcomes. A final phase of data collection, completed at the end of the 2016-2017 academic year, focused on comparing the active residency period with a pre-residency control period.

Given the success of their collaboration with the Schubert Center, Meeker encourages organizations interested in conducting robust program evaluations to consider partnering with a college or university in their own community. “If a project can be designed with the idea that both the organization and university students can benefit from it, a collaboration can really be a win-win situation,” she says.

Of course, Meeker also warns of the hard work and complications that come with conducting a large-scale assessment. She explains, “We had to make peace with the fact that we would not get 100% compliance from teachers in our data collection efforts, and that not all of the data we worked so hard to collect would ultimately be used in the study. We also did not anticipate the delays that sometimes come with working with a university, like waiting for internal review board approvals for everything from project proposals to parent permission forms.”

But the reward for that hard work is great, Meeker says, as their research has clarified so much for TMTP about the program internally. She concludes, “If you are constantly looking to improve your work, then thorough evaluation is crucial. This project has empowered us to do even more with our programming.”