As the school year approaches, we are getting ready to provide amazing arts opportunities for students of varied abilities through our VSA arts program (Vision, Strength, Accessibility!). Once again, as for the past 30 years, Youth in Arts is working with the Marin County Office of Education to provide arts classes in 30 Special Day Classrooms around Marin. Mentor Artist Rachael Bouch-Dimondstein’s work at Vallecito Elementary is an outstanding example of the beauty created in a classroom when arts are incorporated:
Rachael Bouch-Dimondstein & Katie Bonfilio at Vallecito
I have had the pleasure of working with an incredible group of children over the past several months. Their classroom teacher, Katie Bonfilio, and I have been working together for over 6 years, and I have known many of her students for even longer. Katie has been an incredible support, and inspiration for these children and their families, and my appreciation goes out to her for her dedication, openness and generous spirit with the children.
The kids in Kate’s classroom each have a unique gift, and also a unique challenge in life. They each have some form of “disability” (or as i prefer to call it ‘super-power’). Some of the children are in wheelchairs, and many of them wear braces around their torsos, necks, arms, legs/feet. Others can walk and move around independently, but have difficulty with cognitive comprehension. The verbal skills in the classroom are limited, and those who speak do so with great effort and concentration, and have access to limited vocabulary. That being said, this group of children have demonstrated tremendous courage, insight, respect, grace, compassion, trust and patience over the time I have known them. They have done magnificent work! In their willingness to go beyond what’s comfortable, they have expanded their boundaries and broadened their comfort zones, and re-defined what’s possible for them in this world.
“What” you might ask, “can a group of children who have difficulty moving and speaking possibly gain from a music/movement class?” The answer is simple: Everything. My time with these children is about freedom of expression, trusting their own process of learning, and expanding their horizons.
Society defines these children by their limitations- by what they can’t do: the tests they can’t take, the material they can’t absorb, and the things they will never accomplish. Adults commonly speak about the children as if they don’t understand them. I have repeatedly over-heard therapist and “specialists” say to parents and teachers (in front of the children), “This child will never walk/talk/read/etc)”. These kinds of statements are destructive, and often incorrect predictions about that child’s potential. The children are defining their own visions for their lives, and these kinds of statements can be devastating. No one knows what these children are capable of, except for them- and this is theirs to discover throughout their life’s journey.
What if we were to define these children for their potential, instead of by their deficiencies? What if we were to begin to relate to them as if they understood exactly what we are saying? These are the questions i have begun to ask, and i allow the students to show me the answers over time.
What I have seen are “miracles” during almost every class- students doing things for the first time, and finding new possibilities. I have seen parents and teachers moved to tears by what they see. We play, sing, dance, drum, laugh, breathe and cry together, and we all remember something essential about being human.
The children have helped me to develop and refine my approach over the years. Here are the basic guidelines we work with:
I approach the children with respect and curiosity.
I see them for the wholeness of their being, and for the possibilities that live within them- instead of for their limitations.
I suspend all judgement or ideas about what a child can or can’t do, and allow them to re-define that for themselves… in each moment.
I meet them where they are, invite them into my space, and allow for them to invite me into theirs.
I earn their trust, by allowing the children to make their own choices.
I offer them the chance to respond, by asking, then waiting.
I will ask 100 different ways- by testing their boundaries (within a container of respect), they are challenged to try new things.
I don’t force a child to do anything, nor do i “help” them by moving their arms/legs for them (this prevents them from making their own choices, and robs them of the opportunity to try and succeed!).
I am available to receive the response, in the way they can deliver it.
I am ultimately more interested in the child’s authentic response, in whatever form it comes- even if it’s different from the one I may be expecting.
I practice deep listening and careful observation, noticing all the tiny changes and subtle responses in the children. For these children, body language is crucial, and they use it as a primary way communicate. The breath, eyes, and facial expressions all offer clues into the experience, comfort and engagement of a child. (Sometimes, the eyes are the only way a child has to communicate with us- noticing EVERYTHING becomes very important).
I strive to create a sanctuary with my presence. By witnessing them with my whole being, and coming from a place of love and kindness, I create a safe and tender place for them to exist with me.
Essentially, we are saying to the children:
-I HEAR you
-I RESPECT you
-I allow space for your RESPONSE
-I see you as WHOLE (not as parts or a ‘disability’)
-I WELCOME you here
-I celebrate YOU!
The work is subtle, but the responses and shifts that occur when we approach the children in this way are deep and profound. I take this work very seriously. I feel deeply honored to have the opportunity to work with these children in this way. I have tremendous gratitude for the children, for being willing to step outside of their comfort zones. To them I say “Thank you for trusting me, for inspiring me, and for teaching me about love and life”.
YIA Mentor Artist, Rachael Bouch-Dimonstein
If you have any questions about our programming for students of all abilities, or would like to support our work, please contact VSA arts Director, Nydia Gonzalez at firstname.lastname@example.org or 415-457-4878 x16.