Sunday, September 2, 2007

Les Miserables

Over the years I have taken my student to a variety of theatrical performances. We have seen "The Freedom Train" about the underground railroad and the musical version of "Aida", among others. This November we will be seeing Les Miserables.

Some of my colleagues have questioned why I do this. Why do I take my high school students, who have significant, multiple disabilities to the theatre? Why such difficult shows? Why don't I take them to one of the quality children's productions? Do they understand the shows? Do they behave themselves?

I have so many reasons. First off is the fact that my students have the legal and ethical right to participate in any activity that any other high school student participates in. The theatre is full of high school students when we go, so my students have a right to be there as well.

My next reason why I take them is cultural competency. One of the things that holds individuals with disabilities back is lack of exposure to all aspects of culture. We, as their teachers and caregivers, are happy to let them keep listening to N'Sync years after it is out of sync, or worse, Raffi at the age of 18, because we assume that is all they will like and we know it will be a struggle to introduce something new. Having seen Les Mis or having listened to some Broadway soundtracks increases our students exposure to the cultural world. It gives them a new way to connect with others, by communicating about cultural experience.

My next reason is that a performance like Aida or Les Miserable gives me an opportunity to create a six to eight week thematic unit that teaches about history, geography, language and sociology of the setting of the performance. I can also weave the topics into reading, math, life skills and even adaptive fitness.

Take life skills for example. While preparing to see Les Mis we will talk about hygiene during the early 1800's in France. That will lead to discussions about body odor and dirty clothes. We will take that information and learn how the women of that time and place (and it was mostly women) did laundry. We will try some seventeenth century laundry routines and compare them to doing a load of wash now. We will talk about how much easier it is to do laundry if your body is clean so your clothes aren't as smelly and the importance of using just the right amount of soap. My students may not understand all of it, but they will remember that you need to use soap in the laundry. Thematic units excite me and make my teaching more interesting, this engages my students more completely, this leads to higher comprehension and better retention.

Do my students "get" the performances? Maybe not every subtle piece and probably not things like symbolism, but they do get it. The first performance I ever took my high school students to was "The Freedom Train". I pre-taught for seven weeks about Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, slavery and more. My students knew the chronology of Tubman's life. One student had not been paying particularly close attention during some of the lessons, or so I thought, and I wondered what he had retained. As we took our seats in the theatre he turned to me and said, "Harriet Tubman gonna get hit in head?" I was astonished. He had been paying attention. I confirmed this information and he told me, "She a slave. She owned. Master hit her." Correct again. He "got" it.

My students still talk, years later, about seeing "Aida". We studied Ancient Egypt for nearly two months before the show, read parts of the play and listened to the soundtrack, but nothing could compare with seeing the performance. The girls all fell in love with the handsome prince and wanted to meet him. The boys, well, they were stunned into silence by the beauty of Aida. The few students who are still in my class now still beg to do more research about Ancient Egypt. They "got" it.

As to the behavior issue, my students are invariably the best behaved students in the theatre. We spend weeks learning about theatre behavior. We make charts and signs. We review behavioral guidelines on the way there. We practice "theatre sitting" during various lessons so they are used to it. They understand they must take their seats and stay in them or leave their power chairs turned to off for the performance. They know not to talk or otherwise communicate in ways that distract others from the performance. They never take photographs and have never laughed inappropriately. My students may have some "behavioral issues" but none of them seems any worse than the way that the "typical" high school students act at the theatre.

So you see, the my reasons are sound (at least to me), my students do understand and they do behave. Therefore on November 1st we will see Les Mis.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, "The play's the thing."

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