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phew !!!   Arts Residencies in Special Education

by Jasmine Pasch

Special education
2 - 19 years
Dance   Music  Visual art

In this article I will concentrate on one aspect of my work in the field of special education; the combined arts residency with children and young people in special schools aged from 2 to 19 years.

The term "special needs" covers a wide range of educational needs, from children with physical disabilities who are intellectually able, to children with moderate to severe learning difficulties, children with profound and multiple learning difficulties, youngsters who are deaf, blind, or who have epilepsy, or who experience emotional disturbance that affects their behaviour. It follows that with such a wide range of children, each special school is unique, and each project reflects this and is tailor made to suit the age, ability and interests of the school community.

Success through planning

The first step towards a successful residency is careful planning, at least two or three months prior to the start. I spend a day at the school meeting the children, the teachers and other school staff, and discussing what they hope to get out of such a residency, and which art forms they would like to work in. Some art forms are familiar and well established in a particular school; others are neglected or viewed with caution....particularly dance. In order to overcome resistance or embarrassment for staff who may be new to some of the activities, I give an introductory talk illustrated with relevant video excerpts and photographs of previous residencies, and leave plenty of time to answer questions. Effective staff partnerships are crucial to the success of a residency, and it is important for school staff and visiting artists to view themselves as a team. An evaluation meeting is scheduled for the end of each working day of a residency to ensure that staff and pupil feedback guide the work on course, adjustments can be made where required, and misunderstandings and problems tackled as they occur. The meeting also provides a forum for the exchange of ideas.

Major practical arrangements such as time tabling and grouping of the children require a great deal of cooperation to make such a week run smoothly. Such change can be disconcerting for some, but act as a stimulus in itself for others. Facilities and resources are discussed, and the notion of a theme for the residency is proposed.

Themes : Liberating ideas

The theme provides a focus which is intended to liberate ideas, not constrain them, and has to be carefully chosen to avoid artifice. It may fit in with the school curriculum, or be chosen purely for the arts residency. The theme can be decided following the planning meeting, giving pupils and staff time to fully identify what they want, and the ideas are then negotiated with the team of artists to see what is workable. The artists are all practising professionals in their respective fields, engaged in making their own work whether it be sculpture, musical composition, choreography or working as performers, and all are skilled at communicating their knowledge with children and young people. They have a different role to that of the regular class teacher, that of a newcomer with certain privileges that that confers. They have different expectations of the children as they do not know them so well, which can be an advantage in creative work, and produce unexpected results. The options for a residency include: dance and movement with live musical accompaniment; visual art, both two and three dimensional work; music making and songwriting; instrument making and sound sculpture; storytelling, poetry and drama; electronics and music technology, and sound and visual installation work. The team is selected following the planning stage.

Creativity : the residency

The working period, usually a whole week, is deliberately intensive. We aim to fire the children physically, intellectually, imaginatively and emotionally, generating starting points from the children which will form the basis of the creative work in the distinct art forms, and which in turn will spark off connections across the art forms. The artists take these starting points and ideas and guide them, giving them form and structure, valuing the first tentative thought, mark, step or sound through to the completed story, drawing, painting, dance, song or piece of instrumental music. We respect and act upon choices and decisions made by the children and young people within the context of the residency, and enable their ideas to come to life.

I can feel the point at which children engage with the creative process. I liken it to fishing. I can feel the "bite". I'll give a couple of examples from a residency at Eastfield Park School in Wellingborough, set up by the Firebird Trust. At the start of the week, the chosen theme of Winter into Spring was brainstormed with the children, all of whom had learning difficulties, and some of whom had behavioural difficulties. The resulting huge sheets of paper covered in ideas were displayed all week, and acted as a stimulus for creative work throughout. A simple warm-up ski-swing exercise developed into the "Eddie the Eagle" dance, at a suggestion from one boy. I found this a poignant example of a child with learning difficulties identifying with "Eddie", who fails no matter how hard he tries. He always comes last, but he is a hero in spite of this, and never gives up.

Another group of children from the school visited a recording studio with the musician, and created a tape using words chosen from the brainstorm lists. These were electronically transformed using a variety of effects, with the children observing all the stages. The resulting atmospheric tape was used to create a magical "Footsteps in the Snow" dance. Poorly coordinated and unconfident children became transformed by the image and sound of their voices, and danced with great sensitivity. This contrasted with an earlier winter "Welly Dance" where the more ungainly and extrovert they were, the better. The children explored a range of feelings and possibilities.

People and involvement

Staff take part alongside the children in the activities on an equal basis, and often bring new insight into their relationships with those involved. In addition, they lead activities within the residency timetable which might include watching a film, or film of themselves, listening to a story, and outdoor trip, an aromatherapy massage or a relaxation session. The residency acts as a springboard for classroom work. The intensive working period allows time for children to grasp what is happening, adapt to the new routine, and have enough time to fully learn and try out new skills. Concentration spans may be quite short, and so regular short bursts of activity over a period of time are more beneficial to learning than longer sessions. Children and staff get physically tired, and need to alternate periods of activity and rest. To ensure a good child:adult ratio, extra pairs of hands are often required. We enlist the support of parents, mainstream children from nearby schools, students, and we sometimes take on apprentice artists. Bodies are one of the resources on such a project, and extend the relationship the school has with its local community, often leading to future links. We need to make sure that people in supporting roles are aware that they are not there to do things for the children, or "puppeteer" the less able, but to support children to do things for themselves as far as is possible, no matter how long this takes, or how tiny the response.


The residency culminates in a celebration and sharing of the work achieved. This gives a clear focus to the week, generates a lot of excitement, gives a clear sense of community and marks a definite ending. Often children want to invite parents and carers to the event; and school can invite school governors, local press, sponsors, local T.V. and radio, helping to raise the profile of the arts within school.

We hope to leave behind a school community who have the courage and the confidence to continue to experiment, explore, and find new meaning for themselves in the arts. I will end with a quote from a teacher in a Devon school at the end of a residency:

"The race of life does not always go to the strongest or the fastest - often it goes to the one who thinks I CAN! Thank you for letting so many of us think   I CAN !"

With thanks to the Firebird Trust, and to Contemporary Dance Trust for their support of these residencies.

Please contact Jasmine if you would like a residency in your school. Click here to send an e-mail.

Jasmine Pasch
phew !!! arts company

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