'Inclusive arts support ākonga to communicate their lived experiences'

Issue: Volume 101, Number 13

Posted: 12 October 2022
Reference #: 1HAWyG

Educators are realising the value of regular involvement and accessibility in the creative arts for ākonga with disabilities and additional learning needs. Mt Richmond School, Lincoln Heights School and Ko Taku Reo Deaf Education New Zealand have all used Creatives in Schools funding to support ākonga to confidently express themselves, celebrate their identities, and strengthen their sense of belonging.

Ko Taku Reo students were encouraged to use their bodies to tell stories with Tim Bray Theatre Company.

Ko Taku Reo students were encouraged to use their bodies to tell stories with Tim Bray Theatre Company.

Mt Richmond School caters for ākonga aged five to 21 who are supported through Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS) funding. They have a main base in Ōtāhuhu, with satellite classes at six local schools. Some  of the students have high and complex needs.

The school is inspired by the Reggio Emilia philosophy, and deputy principal Therese Arahill explains the principles behind this.

“The child is the protagonist. The child is a communicator. The child is the collaborator. The teachers are the nurturers, guides, and researchers. The environment is the third teacher. So those are the principles that we use as a framework for teaching and learning here.”

Mt Richmond has different tools and access to support from speech-language therapists who help support communication, but the ability to engage in the creative arts engages students in a different level of communication and self-expression.

“It allows them to tell their stories. Our students, many of whom have extraordinary background stories as to how their lives are impacted on by their abilities, need to have their story told. It needs to be told to our community and to everyone because it helps develop a sense of empathy in the community.”

The school decided to explore visual arts as they had a connection with Māpura Studios, a creative space in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland offering inclusive, multi-modal art classes and art therapy programmes for people of all ages.

Therese says the creative who led the project, Sam Knegt, is “fantastic” and has been able to create experiences that best fit the students’ abilities and interests, without influencing what they do.

“It relies on the expertise of the teacher to be able to give those experiences without influencing, and that is a challenge with our students. Some can tell you how they want to do it, and yet they can’t physically do it for themselves.

“We need to be able to listen carefully, adapt ideas and adopt new ideas to allow these students to create their own expression, rather than what the teacher might think they want to do.”

Ko Taku Reo student using movement and lighting to tell the stories rather than music and dialogue.

Ko Taku Reo student using movement and lighting to tell the stories rather than music and dialogue.

Finding what suits ākonga

Sam says her approach at Mt Richmond has been guided by her experience with Māpura Studios.

“Every person that comes in has a different style of art making or communicating, and they may each want different things out of being in the open studio. So, it’s about getting to know each individual and figuring out what they might want out of the session.”

Sam strongly emphasises the need for good communication with the school and students, particularly in the early stages.

“There might be someone that really likes the feeling of paint on their hands. After the first couple of sessions I will have noticed ‘ahh well look at this person. She really loves just squeezing the paint and seeing it drip off her fingers.’

Creative Sam Knegt helps Mt Richmond students get creative in different ways.

Creative Sam Knegt helps Mt Richmond students get creative in different ways.

“So, when it comes to the following weeks, I’m going to make sure that she’s got a piece of paper underneath her and paint beside her so that when she’s squeezing, she’s making marks as well. I’m not going to tell her, ‘No, wash your hands. Get a paint brush.’ That’s not what she wants. She doesn’t want a paintbrush. She wants to touch the paint and see it slop around.”

Finding the right method for creativity can be trial and error, but Sam says putting the effort in to try different approaches pays off. Methods like having a paint-covered ball kicked around on paper, using different objects to make marks (including objects from the outdoors such as leaves and twigs), and paper sculptures. She says the only limitations are the materials that are available rather than a lack of imagination.

“Just do whatever feels right for you in this moment. Just make some marks. It doesn’t have to be a face, but it could be. It doesn’t have to be anything in particular. Just experiment with the materials and get a feel for them.”

Both Sam and Therese are keen to organise an exhibition of the artwork in a community space such as the local library. Currently Sam is working with staff member Saskia Nickless to achieve this.

Making music accessible

Lincoln Heights School in Auckland has a roll of 450 students and its own learning support space, Kahukura, that currently host 22 students.

Principal Leisha Byrnes says being truly inclusive of diversity makes them a better school.

“It makes us very welcoming to whoever comes along and whoever wants to be part of our school.”

Lincoln Heights has had a relationship with Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre for the past four years. In obtaining Creatives in Schools funding, they were able to extend their programme and relationship with music therapist Angela Jeong, who now visits the school for a full day, consistently each week. They also purchased new instruments for ākonga to use.

Students at Lincoln Heights School have a range of instruments to use.

Students at Lincoln Heights School have a range of instruments to use.

Deputy principal and learning support coordinator Kiri Steed says they wanted to ensure the sustainability of Angela’s progress with ākonga.

“We have children with physical needs as well as children with communication needs. Angela targeted the instruments we purchased so that everyone could be involved in the process and the therapies.”

Kiri says matching the instruments to the abilities of each student has allowed those with physical difficulties to be fully engaged in group work.

She feels the beautiful thing about music is that no matter what the communication, physical or social needs of the students are, every one of them is successful when participating in the programme.

“You notice the growth in their confidence and their participation over time. So, they might start with just being in the space and not participating. As each week carries on, they feel safer to be an active participant in the therapy and make some music.”

Something that is helping students gain confidence is the ability to communicate through music, particularly for those who are

Students can act independently during the sessions.

Students can act independently during the sessions.

“Their words aren’t there as such, or intentional communications are not there, but in this moment when you see them making music and engaging with their face and body language, their smiles, their laughs, and reactions to sounds… You don’t need words because you can understand how they’re feeling,” says Kiri.

A path to self-expression

Angela is keenly aware of how music can help people communicate and express emotions. At the age of 14, she encountered a seminar on music therapy and a short while after this her grandfather had a stroke. He was encouraged to do music therapy and she could see how it helped him to regain speech through music and to be expressive, which cemented the idea that music therapy was her path.

She holds a Masters degree in music therapy and has studied widely, including doing certificate programmes in DIR Floortime for music therapy, which is specific for music therapists but contains an element of play.

“It has the same the philosophy of the Floortime model. So basically, the same approach but looks at how to play with a child with disabilities using music instead of toys to meet their individual goals.”

Angela works with a variety of people in different locations such as care facilities, schools and in home care. One of her clients is autistic and has taught her what living with autism is like, based on her lived experience of it and how music could help.

Lincoln Heights School students develop fine motor skills by using instruments.

Lincoln Heights School students develop fine motor skills by using instruments.

“An autistic person’s sensory integration and sensory feedback are different, so they have a lot of trouble regulating all the senses, all the sensory information that they get. Hence why they may flap their hands, or they chew on things or stamp against something hard.”

Angela incorporates movement activities at the start of a session at Lincoln Heights, saying, “For some students to be able to engage, their body needs to be regulated first. This can involve breathing activities to be calm, or lots of dancing and movement activities.”

As well as helping some students to self-regulate, Angela says dance activities can improve balance and motor skills by creating body awareness.

Music therapy works on many levels

Angela also leads cognitive activities such as asking students to tell her a word that starts with a particular letter. She then incorporates those words into a song for them.

“They don’t perceive it as a task, they perceive it as play and music. It’s a great tool to keep students activated and motivated to engage.”

Other activities can include getting students to start and stop the music, as well as play softly or loudly on cue to help with impulse control. Doing group work also allows the students to gain social skills and an awareness of others.

“The behaviours occur quite naturally because I designed the activity in that way – it can only keep going if they apply the social behaviours.”

Angela will work with some students on a one-to-one basis to assist them with interactive skills.

Music therapist Angela Jeong at Lincoln Heights School.

Music therapist Angela Jeong at Lincoln Heights School.

“I create a sense of interplay by initiating musical ideas they can respond to. I also respond to their music to create a sense of dialogue and reciprocity for them to apply the same concept to interacting with others.”

Her methods can also support students who have experienced trauma and may struggle to communicate their emotions.

“When I improvise, I play music based on the sounds students expressed, so they do not have to talk about it.

“I play what I think I heard, what they are trying to say through their music. I support their music and I accompany their music. I create a space for them to know, ‘Oh, I’m being heard, and I’m being embraced’.”

Deaf theatre

Ko Taku Reo Deaf Education New Zealand provides a range of education services for Deaf and hard of hearing learners, from early learning through to transition to the workforce. This includes tailored support for over 2,500 students in mainstream schools through integrated Outreach Services to support their educational success. The cornerstone of community is provided through an ‘Enrolled School’ of approximately 120 students who attend Deaf Bilingual (NZSL/English) Provisions at partner schools in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Director of Teaching and Learning, Louise Roe, explains that these bilingual provisions enable ākonga to be able to learn, progress and achieve as Deaf and hard of hearing.

A group of 18 Auckland-based ākonga from Ko Taku Reo took part in a Creatives in Schools project using their existing connection with the Tim Bray Theatre Company. The company’s youth theatre outreach manager Madeleine Lynch explains that the professional company usually puts on productions four times a year, based on New Zealand children’s books. The company has a ‘Gift a Seat’ programme that enables schools to see the performances for free.

The school became familiar with the company by attending one of the special shows each year which provides them with an interpreter, says Kaori Kobayashi, Assistant Head of Enrolled School.

“In the past, we’ve always been just audience members. With this Creatives in Schools funding, we’ve been able to be performers on the stage, which is something that’s very new for us.”

The theatre company had two youth theatre directors working with ākonga and were impressed with the skills they displayed.

“One of the first things they found was that the physicality of these students was amazing. They really knew how to move their bodies because Deaf culture is a very physical culture,” says Madeleine.

“It was amazingly easy compared to some mainstream students at the same age. Easy to get them to physicalize and use their bodies because that’s what they do.”

There were some challenges that the directors needed to adjust to, one these was finding the best place to stand to allow the students to view them as well as the interpreter who was in the room. However, Madeleine says that any adjustments were relatively easy to accomplish.

Senior students led games designed to get everyone used to using their bodies to express concepts and emotions as well as encouraging improvisation. This led to ākonga being asked to tell their stories, and express things that interest them.

“Students were asked to act those out with little scenes and scenarios. Some of the young students loved the idea of a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, which became part of the show. It was a short piece, where they were wrapped up in a blanket and emerged into these beautiful butterflies.”

Kaori says the butterfly is thought to be Deaf and is the symbol of NZSL. She also says the performance was a visual rather than audio experience because dance, sign and expression through the body is much more important.

Thora Huebner, Deaf Culture Learning and Teaching lead, adds to this, saying, “It’s the embodiment of movement that shines through, like fingers through body rather than the sound. We don’t take sound elements, we take visual elements, and we embody movement.”

While the show relied on movement and lighting to tell the stories rather than music and dialogue, some students did act as MCs for each section of the show by providing a description of what was about to be performed.

“The MCs were amazing, and it was a big deal. Louise spoke to me after the show and said, ‘It’s so great to see them get up and use their voices strongly and confidently’. It was amazing and was something that some of the teachers have never seen.”

Ko Taku Reo students performing an impromptu haka for kaiako on the final night.

Ko Taku Reo students performing an impromptu haka for kaiako on the final night.

Key points of growth for ākonga

Ākonga experienced many benefits, explains Kaori, saying, “To see these students really come and grow into their own as leaders and gaining confidence by being able to just step forward and take on these opportunities is amazing.”

Kaori says they had one student who had grown up using spoken English and hadn’t mixed with other Deaf and hard of hearing students as he had been in a mainstream school.

“I think it was quite a bit of a culture shock for him coming into Deaf and hard of hearing education. One of his goals is to become aware of who he is as a Deaf person, a young Deaf person.

“He was involved in the theatre group, and he learned from several other students how to use New Zealand Sign Language. His comprehension of New Zealand Sign Language and his expressive skills have developed. He’s still on his journey but that’s just one example of how we’ve seen someone really develop into strongly culturally identifying as a young person who is Deaf.”

Tuakana teina mentoring has been a key part of the programme – where older students have helped to guide younger students.

Thora says working alongside peers and being able to stand up in front of an audience to express their stories and voices, whether that be New Zealand Sign Language or spoken English, has helped to validate them as young people.

“To be able to come together as a group of Deaf and hard of hearing students and have those common experiences that they’ve had through life, that their hearing peers haven’t had, and being able to build and grow with one another and then share that to an audience has been an amazing experience.”

Kaori recalls one particularly special moment, saying, “We have one student who has quite complicated needs. When we got him to stand up on the stage, the parents were just overwhelmed with emotions at being able to see their child perform on a stage.”

The project has given the school a lot of encouragement to go further with their work. One of the aspects that they want to work on is producing Deaf art, not just Deaf and hard of hearing artists.

“There is a difference between Deaf and hard of hearing artists and Deaf art. Deaf and hard of hearing artists are students being able to express, being able to explore, participate, gain understanding and meaning through participating. When we talk about the Deaf arts that’s more about sharing the Deaf worldview. It’s not just any topic, it’s specifically about Deaf people and our journey being Deaf in a hearing world,” says Thora.

Māpura Studios is a creative space located in central Auckland with satellite groups in other areas. For more information about the studios, visit mapurastudios.org.nz(external link).

Tim Bray Theatre Company is Aotearoa’s longest-running professional children’s theatre company. For more information about what they do, visit timbray.org.nz(external link)


Celebrating diversity in the music industry

Logan Park High School is a co-ed school with over 700 students, and a strong reputation for creative learning and opportunity. They have had several students go on to become successful in creative industries, such as acting and music. One of these ex-students is Abby Wolfe, who returned to share her talents as a creative for a commercial music programme.

Darcy, Year 13 music student is enjoying learning about the music industry

Darcy, Year 13 music student is enjoying learning about the music industry

“We were really excited when the offer came up to be part of Creatives in Schools, it’s a fantastic opportunity and project in its own right, but it was extra special to have someone like Abby come back,” says co-principal Kristan Mouat.

Abby identifies as a queer artist and is dedicated to increasing diversity, and appreciation fordiversity, in the music industry.

“Abby’s passionate about representation and people being able to see themselves in the industry. So that is powerful for students to see that there can be a diverse range of people finding success in the music industry.

“We’ve got a strong Rainbow community here at our school. So, celebrating that diversity and allowing students to see themselves represented everywhere in all spheres is also important.”

The aim of the project is to give students the opportunity to work with a practising artist to experience the process of song writing, from inspiration through to production.

By designing a programme that works though the entire process of commercial music, Kristan says students can engage regardless of performance skills. Those who are not confident in writing or singing can explore production or marketing.

Abby has also been educating students about the nature of the music industry, and some of the demands to be commercially successful. At the same time, she is encouraging them to create what feels authentic.

This authenticity is important to Kristan, who says, “We’ll have plenty of artists who won’t necessarily see themselves or identify within the mainstream. So, it’s great for them to have a voice and to be mentored in a supportive way where they don’t feel like they must change to fit.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 12:13 pm, 12 October 2022

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