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[singlepic id=515 w=320 h=240 float=left]Thanks to Youth in Arts, I was fortunate to work at Grant Grover; an MCOE program located at the College of Marin for 30 students ages 18-22 with Autism and other special needs. After meeting with the three Special Ed teachers to learn more about the students’ various needs, interests and challenges, I worked with them for 10 weeks as a Performing Arts/Creative Mentor. The teachers suggested that we combine the students from the three classrooms into new groups so that they could work with peers outside of their daily classrooms and recognize and appreciate individual differences among their peers. I worked with each of these groups once a week, for 10 weeks, and here is a summary of what developed during this time…

The first group named themselves “The Thriller Monster Gang”. This unique blend of teens shared a love of singing, dancing, and Michael Jackson. Initially they had difficulty standing in a circle and facing each other. Staff support and re-directing students to come together was essential.
Establishing group cohesion and a sense of teamwork was the first task for this “gang”. I introduced the song “We’re All in This Together”, from High School Musical, and this became our weekly theme song, at the beginning of each meeting.
Increasing awareness of others around us, respecting each others personal space, initiating conversations, taking turns conversing, identifying feelings, and learning to problem-solve as a group, were some of the main goals for this group.
I structured every session with a physical warm-up and a series of dance and/or dramatic acting activities. Students were given the opportunity to shine, singing their favorite song with a microphone, for the rest of the “gang”. Learning how to be a good, attentive audience was just as important as being a star performer. Every session ended with everyone moving slowly together, in a circle, with music.
By the 4th week, I could see how the students were more aware of each other, and beginning to come together in a circle, without arguing or getting in someone’s personal space! “Thriller Monster Gang” was singing “We’re All in this Together” song, with ownership and enthusiasm!
[singlepic id=516 w=320 h=240 float=right]I selected a particular song for this group to work on, called “The One Shoe Blues” by B.B. King. (It’s a humorous story about a person who misplaced one shoe, and looks all around for it, with frustration, and in the end finds his shoe already on his foot and feels relief!)
I brought in a large mirror so the students could look at their own facial expressions, while acting-out this song.  “How do you look when you feel frustrated?… angry? … happy? … etc.  And, how do you show these feelings with your gestures, movements, and voice?”
This was a fascinating process to see!  Suddenly, one of the most quiet students became the most expressive and actively involved with the song.  He became the role model for healthy emotional communication., which inspired the rest of the group to experiment with various sounds, facial expressions, and gestures.  To add a little humor to all of this emotional work, everyone made a shoe puppet, to sing the chorus in the “One Shoe Blues”!
The second group named themselves “The Singing Dog Walkers”.  This diverse and playful group had a great sense of humor, and they liked to laugh!  (Sometimes, a student would purposely knock something off the table, so everyone would laugh.)  Each week the “Singing Dog Walkers” learned a little more about each other and their interests.  These students came together from 3 different classrooms, and had a wide range of cognitive, physical, and communicative abilities.  Yet, over the 10 week period, they became a cooperative, respectful, and motivated team, who truly enjoyed working together. Two of the students in wheelchairs, arrived extra early, in excited anticipation of this fun, weekly group!
[singlepic id=519 w=320 h=240 float=left]”The Singing Dog Walkers” planned and created their own, recorded Radio Show, Along with an original “iDog” (their version of an iPod)!  This Radio Show included, the Students’ selection of favorite songs, a sports announcement, weather report, 2 commercials, and a song with actual barking sounds, along with their own, unique, canine voices.  It was really a comedy-driven experience for everyone.  Students joked and laughed with such joy and gusto, that people in the next room told us that we were too loud!
The creative process seemed to unite everyone, and increased appreciation for one another, in listening to their voices, tape recorded as a Radio Show.  Building a 3-D “iDog” was another collaborative and creative project, where students decided which colors and images to use, while designing this.
The third group called themselves “The Rhythm Giants”, (being S.F. Giants Fans and having an interest in rhythm, initially tapping the table).  The ten students in this group also enjoyed dancing. “The Rhythm Giants” were typically quiet, shy and needed more verbal prompting from staff.
I introduced a metronome, which is used for practicing music in various tempo.  This brought everyone together rhythmically, by playing the same rhythm with the metronome. ” The Rhythm Giants” used the metronome to move in synchrony, and learn a “Christmas Rap”.
Together, we wrote an original song, called “Rainy Day Song“, sharing what each person likes to do indoors, when it’s raining. We[singlepic id=522 w=320 h=240 float=right] added a rainstick musical instrument and expressive gestures, to animate our song.  Every student’s lyrics were sung, and supported by all.  As students grew more comfortable and confident, some wanted to teach their peers their latest achievements in gymnastic dance, songs, conducting with a baton, and even recipes.  Taking leadership position among peers, within a newly formed group, was a great reflection on this group’s comfort level and increased confidence.
In summary, 30 students with a wide range of Special Needs and abilities, participated with enthusiasm, motivation, and focused engagement, in a carefully tailored, 10 week Performing Creative Arts Program.  Music, Dance, Drama, Art, Puppetry, Songwriting, and tape recording, were used and tailored to meet the various needs and interests of each group of students, with success.  Considering this brief amount of time working with together, it’s amazing to see how much was accomplished and acheived by all, on various levels.
The Performing-Creative Arts program taught students different and effective ways to socialize and communicate, and develop an increased appreciation for each other as individuals.  In addition to having a fun, pleasurable time together, the students experienced their own creative ideas come to life through the Creative Arts, which enhanced self-esteem and confidence!
YIA Mentor Artist, Lizz Domash, RMT. MCAT, Registered Music and Creative Arts Therapist
At the culminating event, students presented “Lizzie Dizzy” with flowers and MCOE teacher Tim Bucy praised her work, saying

“This is amazing… I’ve seen some things that the Students have done that I’ve never seen before!   Like the way they connect with people, and the ways they go about enjoying participating in a Group.  And I wanted to thank you very much for that!”

Thank you to Lizz Domash and all of the amazing artists that make our program amazing, and thank you to the Marin Community Foundation for their generous support of this program!
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  • karen

    I had the pleasure of seeing Lizzy do her amazing work at Oak Hill School. She was one of the founding faculty who embraced the idea that by identifying a students interest and taking their lead she could expand their communication expression and understanding,increase their reciprocity and support their emotional vulnerablity through creative arts methodologies.
    It is my hope that Lizzy will have many more opportunities to make a difference in the lives of children, teens and adults with special needs.
    Karen Kaplan
    Executive Director
    Wings Learning Center

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