The accessible theatre classroom
How to teach and direct students with special needs
BY SHELLEY NOWACEK
WHEN TEACHING THEATRE, I usually maintain decorum and keep the roar (as my colleagues describe it) at a fairly low decibel level in the end of the hall where my class is located. Today is different. Today is a special day: a final performance for students in our building. There is a lot of excitement, and nearby classes are generously flexible about the noise level.
Eleven students rehearse their puppet show. One student speaks very slowly, and another accompanies the narrative with action, as both move handmade fabric and paper puppets, complete with wiggly eyes, in their makeshift puppet world. Their classmates roar with laughter, or clap if able, as the performance concludes.
“What comes after any show?” I ask.
Two students yell loudly, “Walk off!”
“What about before that?” an aide asks.
“Bow!” screams the puppeteer, who bows in a flourish with his puppets.
At the end of a semester, students usually know the basics, such as stage bows and audience etiquette. However, these young people are in a theatre classroom modified for students with special needs in physical space, curriculum pacing, or educational goals.
When students with special needs attend classes with neurotypical peers, this is often referred to as mainstream or inclusive education. Aspects of this article about adapting your theatre classroom to serve students with special needs may apply to either situation, but the personal experience I’m writing about took place within a self-contained setting.
What happens in a theatre classroom for students with special needs? What does it look like? How do you teach students with special needs such as autism and nonverbal behaviors? Where does one even begin?
Where to begin
Begin by jotting down the following questions. Who are your students? What are their learning objectives? How can theatre help them achieve those objectives? What are the students’ individual needs? What are the expectations of their special education teachers?
A good first step is to review student files (typically accessible to teachers of enrolled students) and curriculum standards. Though there are some standard curricula for theatre (including Virginia state standards or SOLs), the division curriculum and state standards may not always be appropriate for special needs students. To find your state standards, review your state’s education website. The curriculum standards for your division can usually be found by searching within your division’s website.
Next, meet with the primary teachers of your students. Your colleagues are your most valuable resources. Where I teach, there is one full-time intellectual disability/autism teacher in the building, in addition to two teacher assistants and one personal assistant. The teaching assistants work with the students as a group, reinforcing directions and lessons and helping to manage the overall classroom dynamic. The personal assistant is assigned to give one-on-one support to one or more particular students. Both positions are held in standard compliance to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
I also informally polled my colleagues who teach theatre to special needs students at other schools to learn what works for them. We shared lesson plan ideas before, during, and after the course, mostly through casual conversation or email. “Have you tried?” became our mantra.
Our students’ abilities in academic and emotional capabilities range from pre-K to third grade. After I learned the landscape of my students and their abilities, I reviewed my collection of lesson plans. I wanted to see what might be changed to fit the needs of the students. Most of the lesson plans I use for my standard theatre students were too advanced. However, many pantomime exercises, theatre games, and icebreakers could easily be adapted to fit these students’ skills range and learning objectives.
Activities and exercises
One primary skill that theatre can teach students with intellectual disabilities and autism is the ability to read emotions appropriately. Begin with simple facial-expression exercises. For example, have students form a circle and observe large prints of facial expressions. Ask students to identify the expression and describe the emotion behind it. Identifying emotions even as simple as happy (smiling face) can be difficult for some students on the autism spectrum. Repeat this warm-up during each class. The photographs can later become part of the final exam.
Viola Spolin’s mirrors exercise is another excellent device for exploring expressions. This activity calls for students to mirror the expressions of their peers, such as smiling or frowning, then discuss the attendant emotions. The same mirroring activity can next apply to movements, such as slowly lifting arms and lowering them or pretending to do an activity like pouring and drinking a cup of tea or putting on a hat.
After students have practiced a few mirroring pantomimes, take the exercise one step further by asking them to act out how they think a cowboy, chef, firefighter, or football player might move through an empty space or talk. This was a favorite of my class.
Another variation begins with students moving through space and describing environments familiar to them as though they were there. Depending on mobility limitations, students can also move through space with just their hands or imaginations.
For students having trouble coming up with places, suggest settings that might be familiar: a beach, the woods, or a swimming pool. Talk about or demonstrate what it feels and looks like to walk on the beach with the sand sinking beneath your feet, to walk in the woods with low-hanging branches or rocky paths, or to wade through a pool of water up to your waist.
Modify these as necessary. Students can remain seated and pour sand from their hands or imagine sunbathing poolside. This may take several days of practice. Once this activity is mastered, have students move through unusual materials or objects, such as peanut butter, ping-pong balls, or worms. My students loved this activity.
When students master these activities and facial expressions, they may be ready to move to playing with tempo in pantomime. Have students stand or sit in a circle and perform slow-motion activities, such as washing a car, making a sandwich, or meeting a friend on the street. Direct them through the activities, saying things like, “Hold your bread in your right hand. Easy not to crush it!” and “What do you say to a friend when you meet them?” Adaptive theatre activities like these can help students with essential skills such as maintaining eye contact, following directions, working together, and expressing themselves.
Puppets, either purchased or made, are an excellent way to explore storytelling, express emotions, communicate collaboratively, explore vocal variety, and practice appropriate social interactions. You can start by reading stories and having students use puppets to respond to the story, then move to having them act out parts of the story with the puppets.
Working with puppets allowed me and the special education teachers to pair students in our self-contained track with students in my regular theatre courses. The students all worked together to create the puppets, take part in writing a short script, and present their work to other students. The applause and laughter reinforced positive social interactions and led to the final performance at our school.
Student achievement is the goal in education, and there is no exception for students with special needs. However, objectives should be individualized, depending on a student’s educational plan. I found that simple rubrics with check boxes served the needs of my class and students. A basic rubric with a 10-point grading scale served for most activities. I left the forms partially blank to add goals once I knew what skills would be assessed.
Keep in mind, too, that students with special needs may need more time to master a skill, if they are to master it at all. As a result, I keep daily, weekly, and monthly participation grades. The monthly participation grades become summative assessment grades.
Most importantly, remember the main goal in adaptive theatre is to help students explore social interactions and express emotional reactions appropriately. As theatre educators, this is what we do every day. We can impact lives, build a bridge between students with special needs and their peers, and make a difference in education simply by doing what we do best. Finally, we can share our love of theatre and create a place where all students can learn, regardless of ability.
Read more Teaching Theatre.