Vocal music in secondary education can be challenging, exciting, and especially rewarding for a student with special needs. In most cases, students are in the middle school or high school choir purely by choice. Legally, schools are required to make special accommodations for special needs students desiring participation in the music classroom. As with younger children, secondary aged students with special needs can look to music class for leadership opportunities, socialization, emotional outlets, and of course, rewarding musical experiences. As the choral director/music teacher in a secondary setting, it is of utmost importance to know your students and their musical skills, as well as their needs and educational requirements as stated in IEPs.
On March 20, 2002, I was given the opportunity to meet with the choral music teachers at my old high school, Cherry Hill High School East, located in Cherry Hill, NJ. The school is one that strives for academic excellence, having been awarded several times at the state level. "East" is a large high school, educating over a thousand students. The music program at the high school is a thriving one; participation in choral ensembles is strong and the quality of music learned and performed is excellent. Laurie Steele, who has been at Cherry Hill East for about four years, directs the choral department. She is assisted by Cindy Ferguson, who teaches at both the elementary and high school levels. It was a pleasure to meet with my former music teachers as a colleague, rather than a student.
Throughout my studies at the University of Hartford, I have observed numerous educational apparatuses, thus familiarizing myself with the key elements involved with creating a successful learning environment. The choral room at Cherry Hill High School East is one that promotes learning, musicality, and acceptance. There were many visual aids present throughout the room, including charts of solfege and rhythm syllables, rhythm trees, the National Standards, steps for sight-reading, piano keyboard, color collages, rhythm examples, and trophies from prior competitions. Each class/ensemble is run efficiently, which provides some sort of comfort level for both the teachers and students in the classroom.
Ms. Steele and Ms. Ferguson devoted most of their free period to speaking with me and answering any questions that I had about special education and music. I learned that most of the students with special needs were in "Vocal Workshop," the school's entry-level, non-auditioned choir. Both teachers cater to the needs of students that are mildly retarded, physically disabled, learning disabled, as well as a student that has Tourette's Syndrome. All of these students are hard workers and contribute a lot to the learning environment and choir. Most special needs students participating in secondary school music ensembles enjoy them as much as they do because they are glad to be accepted and part of a group.
Ms. Steele was very informative, breaking down situations and informing me of her teaching methods in terms of special needs students. She maintained a strong level of professionalism, in that she ensured confidentiality by refraining from using any specific names. Ms. Ferguson spoke about her experiences at both the elementary and high school levels, comparing and contrasting parental/student attitudes, involvement, and her own feelings in dealing with students with special needs. The amount of knowledge that both women have dealing with this particular subject is due largely to experience, which leaves me confident in terms of my intended career path.
The first student spoken about was one with Tourette's syndrome. I learned that this student has a rich, tenor voice and contributes greatly to the choir in which he sings. Ms. Steele mentioned that he will comment excessively at times, but she is able to make him think about whether the thoughts are music/choir related and appropriate to share with the class. Through this mutually understood system, the student is given the opportunity to think, as well as practice self control in the classroom. He is able to "filter" his comments and questions, which enables him to positively contribute to the choral atmosphere. Ms. Steele explained that mutually understood signals, such as visual cues (for example putting her hand on her ear when a student acts up), words, glances, and so on, can be greatly effective in maintaining classroom order and grasping the attention and concentration of students with special needs.
When I visited Cherry Hill High School East, Ms. Steele and Ms. Ferguson had completed auditioning students for the 2002-2003 academic year. This was the perfect opportunity for them to share how the auditions can be/were altered for students with special needs. I was informed that there were a few students with learning disabilities who auditioned for the choral ensembles and alterations to the procedures were made. These particular students have difficulties in the area of processing; therefore, sight-reading becomes a great challenge, leaving students frustrated and disappointed. Ms. Steele explained that students were able to write the solfege syllables underneath the notes, which ensured total success in the sight-reading.
Another student we spoke about is physically and mentally handicapped and requires an aide to accompany him to choir everyday. I have even seen her sing with a parent/faculty choir, perhaps due to increased interest gained from working with him. He has been participating in choir since his freshman year and sings in Concert Choir, which is an intermediate level ensemble. He is a good musician, but has great difficulty with sight-reading. Ms. Steele and Ms. Ferguson felt that if he were to be placed in the top choir, he would become overwhelmed and lose his passion for music making. They did not want music to become something that he would dread. This particular student is incredibly active in the performing arts department at the school, participating in both the choral and drama departments. The set pieces for the Spring musicals have been built handicapped accessible in order to include him in the productions. In speaking of this student, I gather that he is a hardworking, diligent, and musical young man.
Throughout her years of teaching, Ms. Steele has adapted new practices to better suit her students. She has established a classroom buddy system in a tasteful manner; the buddy is given a sense of leadership and the student with special needs does not feel inferior, but important and accepted instead. She enthusiastically makes practice tapes available for those in need because she does not want any students to feel overwhelmed by the intense nature of learning music. The practice tapes were especially helpful when Ms. Steele taught a student who was visually impaired. He was able to learn his music with ease, listening to the tapes, as well as reading text that Ms. Steele had put into Braille for him. In order to teach to different learning styles, Ms. Steele writes on the board a lot for visual learners and has the class use hand signs when sight-reading/warming up, to appeal to kinesthetic learners.
As I listened to the remarkable comments and suggestions set forth by my former teachers, I did not feel overwhelmed, but instead refreshed and excited to be entering such a rewarding field of work. I am confident as I enter my final year of schooling and student teaching assignments. I have acquired great knowledge from professors, friends, professional literature, future colleagues, and students. While my first years of teaching will be intimidating and frustrating, I am prepared to assist all of my students, especially those with special needs.