Sunday, January 23, 2011

Every Child Will Participate

We're all swatting at the same mosquitoes
Eating burned-up burgers
At the picnic of the world.

-- Tom Chapin, "Picnic of the World," to the tune of the CanCan

It was an ambitious project. I first heard about it at a PTO meeting last November -- Joy & Rose's school had won a grant to host a dance residency in January. For three intense weeks, a university dance professor and one of her doctoral students would swoop into the physical education classes, teaching grade-appropriate dance curriculum while choreographing (with major student input) an hour-long all-school performance.

"Every child will participate," said the principal.

I raised my eyebrows. Even the non-verbal second-grader with CP who relies on staff to wheel her chair around? Even Joy, who follows very few directives and has trouble with noises and large groups of people?

Come January, though, Joy's staff was ready and willing. PhyEd is one of Joy's best bets as far as being in class with her peers, and her gym teacher and special educator collaborated with me on how best to make the experience successful for Joy, and the initial dance-class sessions went reasonably well. We hammered out a plan whereby Joy would participate in only the first of two evening performances, with her trusty special educator at her side the whole time. We cancelled Joy's therapy for the evening of the performance, re-scheduled Rose's piano lesson, and went second-hand-store scrounging for the right color of shirt for each of them to wear. Brown for Joy, yellow for Rose.

The first hint of trouble came from Rose. She wasn't enthusiastic about the dance residency from the beginning, and ramped up the complaints as the performance neared. It's too chaotic -- this isn't coming together -- we don't know what we're doing -- everyone is SCREAMING in the gym, it gives me a headache!


Then on the day of the performance, the whole school had dress-rehearsal all afternoon, first class-by-class, then as an all-school group. When I came to pick up the girls at the end fo the day, one mama (who had come to see the rehearsal) told me that Joy had danced and done just fine. But then out came the special educator with a teary-eyed Joy, and gently told me -- the performance might not be such a good idea. As long as Joy was sitting on her lap in the noisy chaotic rehearsal, it was at least manageable. But when she and her group were "on," Joy had been frustrated, tearful, lashing out. Her special educator had had quite a dance herself, trying to guide Joy through the motions while anticipating and blocking all the other-directed acts-of-ow. It wasn't fun for anyone, just an unfortunate spectacle. (That last was my summing of the situation, not her words!)

One on level it felt like the first days of kindergarten all over again. All that prepping, all those plans, lost in a whirl of tears and frustrated injurious outburst.

On the other hand, I've had some practice now in adjusting expectations on the fly. Plus Joy's special educator was great. She was willing to hold and sing to Joy through the whole performance if we wanted, or to care for her in another room while we watched Rose perform. We decided, though, that Joy would be happier at home, and did a parental tag-team instead: JoyDad went to the first iteration of the show that evening, I went to the second.

It was entirely the right decision.

The gym was way overcrowded, and noisy, and hot. This stood in contrast to the outdoor temperatures which were plunging toward zero and beyond! By the second performance, the one I saw, even some of the NT kids were tired and teary. SO not Joy's scene.

The show came together really well, though! They were working on the school's motto, the theme of "Growing Strong." Then they divided it into four things you need to grow strong: sleep (kindergarten), shelter (first-graders), food (2nd/3rd graders), and clean air (4th/5th graders). Then each division had a wide latitude for interpretation. Joy's class, for example, had learned about Great Horned Owls -- sleep, night, owls... toldja it was widely interpretive! -- and moving with bodies held tightly and loosely. Best moment: watching the kindergarteners pounce and consume their prey, and then mimic regurgitation!

Rose's class, on the theme of food, went with a Picnic of the World dance. Their movement goals included African dance forms and cross-rhythms, which brought in the international component. Then for the picnic/food component, they split into small groups, each of which designed its own dance moves incorporating a picnic blanket.

Rose's complaints about the dance residency vanished for the performance. And I realized I didn't have much to complain about either. Joy had gotten the benefit of the instructional part of the residency, really quite a neat experience in itself, and Rose got to perform (which she loves to do, even if she couldn't articulate one single thing she'd learned from the dance residency.) Each child participated on her own terms, and at the end of the day, I guess that's really what it's all about.

We're all knowing at the deep-down heart of it,
We're all a part of it,
The picnic of the, picnic of the, picnic of the world!


Bethany said...

I love how both Joy and Rose got to participate to the best of their abilities, to their level of desire, and have a wonderful experience. Not every child, regardless of disability label, enjoys performing or the "organized chaos" that accompanies these types of programs. I commend how you read Joy and did not push her, knowing that the experience of learning was enough while you celebrated Rose's performance. I also commend the school for including every child - all too often I had to fight to have my students acknowledged let alone included.

Anonymous said...


And I'm impressed with your girls. You, JM&JD, blow me away with your thoughtful and wise parenting. (Except only you, JM, get credit for this wonderful post!)

For future reference:

JoyMama said...

I see it's the educators who are especially impressed with this! :-)

I should include the detail that this school has over 400 kids, over 40 of whom have IEPs.

Bethany - indeed, this sort of thing isn't every child's cup of tea, disability or no! I resonate with Rose on this -- my tolerance for organized chaos has grown over the years, but it always threw me for a loop as a kid.

Barbara -- you're too kind! And the link you included brought tears to my eyes. I'm going to re-post it as a clickable here:
Adaptive Dance Recital, with video!

Professor Mother said...

Because we educators know the joys- and the heartaches- of chaos turning into order when you're dealing with large groups of children. Discovery learning can be wonderful- but it's often painful getting there!

The key is, as you stated, is that everyone gets somewhere- even if that "somewhere" is different for each kid.

JoyMama said...

Professor Mother - "everyone gets somewhere" -- I like it -- quite contrary to the Tiger Mother (or perhaps Tiger Teacher) approach!