Spreading joy through song to Baltimore’s youngest learners

By Sue Trainor, Young Audiences artist and singer/songwriter

Sue_August 2013

In 1998, I sang for the first time in a classroom for and with children who have profound special needs. That 45-minute gig rocked my world: the children may not have been “typical” physically or cognitively, but their connectivity was palpable and potent! I still get goosebumps thinking about it. Ever since, my motto has been, “meet people where they are,” because you miss out if you don’t reach out.

This spring I had the opportunity to work with William S. Baer School in Baltimore City, another school attended by children with profound special needs. During my eight-week residency at the school I worked in four preschool classrooms with children who were three to five years old, but were approximately 12 months old developmentally. Many of them were very fragile medically, most were non-verbal, and some were non-locomotor. Several were blind and/or deaf.

This residency followed the Wolf Trap 16-Session Literacy Residency model. I have been on the roster of the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts since 2003, and I’m thrilled that Young Audiences has just joined the Wolf Trap family as the Maryland sponsor of Wolf Trap programs! In the Wolf Trap model, the teaching artist’s primary goal is to provide professional development for the classroom teachers by modeling arts-integrated strategies and coaching the teacher to practice the strategies in the classroom with students. It sounds serious and technical, and it is in some ways, but didn’t we just have the best time ever!

I’m a musician, so the artistic interest for me is the exploration of my art form’s fundamental expression and interpersonal connectivity. What does it mean, for example, to sing with someone who is non-verbal? It’s not singing in the traditional sense, but what is it that makes singing together work? Can we still engage in a more basic element of joined vibration? We can, and it is joyful—all the more so because it’s usually a brand new experience for the children and the response is profound.

I think fondly of Sean, a four-year old student at Baer. He is blind and non-verbal, and he loves music. I would play my ukulele and he would belt out his sounds. It was delightful! One day while we were waiting for the class to assemble, I sat face to face with him and joined his vocalizing, using his sounds. He was surprised at first, but he leaned in, kept “singing,” and together we created a joined sound-space and a profound connection. Now his teacher understands and can do this as well.

One of my favorite lesson experiences that came out of this residency was “Funky Duck.” The children were learning shapes, and the traditional math teaching strategies had them focusing on a specific shape which was velcroed to a felt board. The student’s task was to pull the shape off the board (or focus on the shape with their eyes if they were immobile). More advanced students were supposed to choose a specific shape from a small group of different shapes

I used the same fundamental teaching strategy, but I transferred it to a puppet that I dubbed “Funky Duck.” I velcroed shapes on the puppet’s chest, taught the teachers basic puppet manipulation, and created a chant for them to recite to a steady beat:

“I’m Funky Duck, hey hey
I’m Funky Duck, hey hey
I want to know, can you find
My circle today?”

We had 100% success—the children loved the puppet, focused intently and reached out to pull off the shape. The teachers promptly scoured their classrooms for puppets of their own that they could adapt to this and other purposes, including lessons about numbers, colors, and letters.

I look forward to returning to Baer School this fall, to reconnect with my preschool friends and to develop new connections in classrooms with older students.

Click here to learn more about Maryland Wolf Trap residencies. To schedule a program, please contact Young Audiences at 410-837-7577.

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