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Skill-building through the arts

New York Teacher

As a special education teacher who teaches performing arts in a theater program for children on the autism spectrum, I have found that the arts give students an outlet for creativity and an opportunity to interact and socialize in a way students with special needs are not usually expected to.

I have also seen that art is an amazing motivator for these students. Students who have difficulty communicating how they are feeling are able to express their emotions through role-play and charades. Students who cannot answer questions create drawings and pictures instead. Working on performance skills during rehearsal time helps students build new friendships and connections through theater games and teamwork.

There are also many different academic skills that can be addressed through various art forms. Here are some ways I have incorporated skill-building in my arts instruction — but these activities could just as easily be integrated into the rest of the classroom day.

Reading: To teach stage directions outside of our performance space, I taped off a stage on the floor and made it a grid based on a stage map. Each square represented a different stage direction (stage right, stage left, upstage, downstage, center stage right, etc.).

In an activity called Reading with Emotion, I used two bins of cards labeled Lines and Feelings. The lines came from various plays with which students were familiar. Students had to pick a card from each bin and then say the line in that emotion. To add another level to it, I had the class comment on what emotion they heard, what the person could do differently to convey the emotion and how that person might use his or her body to help convey the feeling.

Math: I had students stand in a particular spot and asked them what fraction of the stage they were covering.

Speaking and listening: I gave a stage direction to a student and had the class comment on whether the student was in the right location based on my instruction. If the student was not, the class had to direct him or her.

Writing: Following the writing process. I first ask my students to listen to a particular song and then to brainstorm various movements they can do during the song. Next, I ask the students to describe verbally each move using speed, size, intensity and direction. Then, I ask them to put the dance moves and descriptions into sequenced sentences using “first, then, next, last.” They can celebrate by acting out their dance to the music. For another activity, I ask students to listen to a song and then write what the song is about and why they think the songwriter wrote the song.

History: I ask students to portray the voice of a historical figure or react to a hypothetical scenario as that character.

Visual art: Students look at a particular painting or picture and discuss the things they notice and wonder about the picture. I then use the painting as a writing prompt and ask students to write their own story about it. Sometimes I give them a story map with a picture in the middle and ask students to write what happened before and/or after that picture.

Vocabulary: Students use context clues to come up with a definition of a word from the song or find the word in the dictionary and discuss how understanding the word affects the meaning of the song. I then ask students to use those words in sentences of their own.

When activities related to art and music are taken out of the allotted “arts time” in the schedule and incorporated in the lesson plans for other content areas, it makes learning more exciting. And any time a child feels the spark of learning, amazing things begin to happen in the classroom.

Teaching