At Dorchester School, Inclusion Through Art

By Andrea Smardon   |   Tuesday, April 26, 2011
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Students at the Henderson School practice the "Earth Dance" during a movement class. In the background, teacher Cynthia Archibald looks on. (WGBH)

BOSTON — A public elementary school is Dorchester is getting international attention this week. Policy makers and educators from 17 countries are coming to Boston as part of a conference focused on using the arts to improve the education of students with disabilities. 
As part of the event, the conference is highlighting the work of the William Henderson Inclusion Elementary School for its pioneering work incorporating the arts into its classrooms. 

A classroom at the Henderson School, a full-inclusion Dorchester elementary school that emphasizes the arts as a learning tool. (WGBH)

Tim Archibald is a professional musician, but he looks more like a gym teacher in his warm up pants. And he seems poised to jump into action at any moment.

In his office, which doubles as a supply closet for student drama productions, he seems pretty confident about today’s big project for the second graders, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony arranged for xylophones.

“Last week we did Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, today we’re really upping it and we’re moving to Beethoven’s 9th,” Archibald said. “The idea of being able to move from a traditional simple lullaby to something you might learn in Symphony Hall is ah… we’ll see how we do, right?”
In class, a couple dozen students are eager to work on the piece. In one corner, a student drops his head onto the desk. A teacher’s aid works to get him on task. The aid himself has cystic fibrosis -- as well as perfect pitch.
Overall, about one third have special needs ranging from severe disabilities to minor learning impairments, but in some cases, it’s hard to tell which ones.
“Often times people from the outside come in and they say which are the students with the disabilities because they’re all learning together in the same classroom, that’s the whole idea,” Archibald said.
“In our world, people have all sorts of different success rates at being able to do different tasks and being able to learn different things. I think the Henderson Inclusion School kind of reflects the way of the world.”
Before approaching the xylophones, the students worked on keyboards with technology that allows each to work at their own pace. A second-grader demonstrates how the keyboard calls out numbers to get her back on track if she misses a note. The correct keys light up as she plays.  
Archibald says the keyboard can provide as much or as little support as you need. This, he says, is the essence of how teachers at the Henderson design all of their curriculum. And it’s how students at different levels with different learning styles are able to learn in a classroom together. It’s a method called Universal Design for Learning.

Students at the Henderson school play outside during their recess period. (WGBH)

“This type of universal design, here it is in an electronic instrument, but it can be built into the thought process of how you develop curriculum for students to learn,” Archibald explained.
William Henderson was the first principal at the school, and the man for whom the school is named. He himself is blind, and says working with disabled students requires creativity.
“When you have kids who do not read regular print, whether it be because of blindness, learning disabilities, or cognitive delays, or because they have difficulty holding a book because of physical disabilities, you find other ways of accessing information.” 
The school was originally founded 22 years ago in partnership with VSA Massachusetts, a state chapter of a national organization on arts and disability. Henderson says the artists hired and trained by VSA have been helping the school find new approaches to learning.
“We found that the arts engage children, it embellished the curriculum, brought life to social studies. So that children talking about the Boston Tea Party, in addition to writing and reading about it, they’re doing role plays, they’re making murals, they’re doing poetry,” Henderson said.
Henderson said that makes the learning experience richer. “It’s something that the children remember a lot more, and both teaching and learning are more fun and a lot more meaningful.”
As it turns out, Henderson says, this approach to learning benefits all students, not just those with special needs. In the school auditorium, visual artist Mary Dechico is working on a backdrop for the school production of “Singing in the Rain.” She’s a parent with two students at the Henderson school.  
“I’m going to cry the day my older son leaves here. He loves it. He’s usually above the curve in his learning, but he just adores this place,” Dechico said. “He loves all the different kids, he’s grown up with these children, in the same classroom, doing the same things. It’s part of life, I feel likes it’s just so nice to see him approach the world that way.”

Students are seen in movement class. (WGBH)

Back in music class, the students are making progress on Beethoven’s 9th.  Within a half hour, they’ve learned to play the first two lines as a group.  Eight-year-old Grace Kiwaunaka says she takes piano lessons at home so it’s easy for her, but she thinks the class is doing a fine job.
“Everyone does it really well, and everyone has a different way of doing it, but they all do it really well even though it’s different,” Kiwaunaka said.

Pressley Defends Sexual-Assault Awareness Efforts

By Jess Bidgood   |   Tuesday, April 5, 2011
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Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley visited WGBH studios on Tuesday. (WGBH)

BOSTON — Ayanna Pressley pulls a postcard out of her purse. It’s one of many pieces of mail the Boston city councilor has received since she revealed last month that she was raped while she was an undergraduate studying at Boston University.
“There is no question in my mind you are a liar, phony, bitch just looking for headlines,” reads the postcard. “Smart citizens will know what you are doing, and they will know in the future that you are no damn good.”

A letter received by City Councilor Ayanna Pressley admonishes her for telling the public she was raped while a student at Boston University. (Courtesy) 

Pressley is working to change university policies on sexual assault, which she says is a massively underreported crime. She says women who come forward with stories of sexual assault face distrustful, negative accusations, like the one on the postcard.
“It can make one feel incredibly vulnerable to disclose this sort of crime,” Pressley told WGBH’s Emily Rooney on Tuesday. “It is a crime of silence, the fear of judgment, accusations.”
That, Pressley said, is what keeps many victims of sexual assault from coming forward – and it’s why she went public with her own experience (although she has not said whether she came forward about her attack during college).
Pressley and co-sponsor Councilor Felix Arroyo will hold a hearing at the end of the month about what Boston’s colleges and universities can do to create campus environments that better encourage students to come forward if they are raped or otherwise sexually assaulted.
Pressley isn’t alone in her work to prevent sexual assault. On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden announced a new set of federal guidelines for educators about their responsibilities to prevent sexual violence.
“Look folks, rape is rape is rape,” said Vice President Joe Biden in New Hampshire on Monday. “No matter what a girl does, no matter how she’s dressed, no matter what she’s had to drink, it’s never okay to touch her without her consent.”
Biden said the Obama administration would now view sexual assault not just as a crime, but as a human rights violation.
Pressley says an important key to whether new regulations will help is whether they help change the way sexual assault perceived on campus. “In order for us to really have the change we’re looking for, you have to change culture,” Pressley said.
To that end, Pressley is calling on Boston-area colleges and universities to establish top-down change, establishing an environment of zero-tolerance for sexual assault that better encourages victims to come forward.

Weston Meets Woburn Memorial

Thursday, March 10, 2011
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College 2.0: The New Face of College Education

Wednesday, June 26, 2013
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Helping Children See Gender Roles Differently

By Liz Breen   |   Saturday, June 1, 2013
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breen and davis
From Left: WGBH's VP for Children's Media Brigid Sullivan and Production Assistant Liz Breen, Winship teacher Heather Nord, actress and advocate Geena Davis, Madeline Di Nonno, Executive Director of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media and Winship principal Louise Kuhlman pose with the class at Winship Elementary School in Brighton. (Photo: Liza Voll/WGBH)

At the start of my senior year at Boston University, I had the opportunity to produce a children’s short for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. I knew this had the potential to help my career, and that turned out to be true in ways I couldn’t have imagined initially. I thought I would be creating a video for a celebrity client that I could watch on television, and one that ultimately I could use in a portfolio to land an entry-level job out of school. However, this production changed the way I view my entire career and my role within the television industry.
The task sounds almost impossible: explain and combat gender stereotypes in media to children ages six to nine, and do this in around two minutes. After a few audible GULPS, a little bit of stressed-out pencil chewing and a lot of group brainstorming, we had our idea. We were going to build on the rise of superhero movies by focusing on real-life heroes – a nurse and a firefighter. The twist was that we would feature a male nurse and a female firefighter.
We started the filming process by interviewing two classes of second graders. I went in a little skeptical. I thought of these kids as born in the 21st century, where we have female politicians and stay-at-home dads. I didn’t expect to be giving them any surprising information. Yet the answers to some of our questions were astonishing. When describing a nurse, several of the students said matter-of-factly, “She wears dresses,” despite the fact that they have probably never seen a nurse in a dress outside of old-timey war movies or Halloween costumes. And when describing a firefighter, the children had a definite pronoun of choice: “He wears boots” or “He is fast”. Most confounding of all, when we revealed that the nurse we were featuring was a man and the firefighter was a woman, many children were shocked by this idea or even resisted the idea altogether, stating that they didn’t think the opposite gender would perform their duties as well.
Where could these children possibly be getting these stereotypes from? Certainly, many if not most had mothers who worked, so these stereotypes aren’t being reinforced in the home. Then it hit me – the media. The television and movies they watch (AKA my career).
Geena Davis
Actress Geena Davis talked about gender and media during a visit to WGBH. (Liza Voll/WGBH)
Suddenly, I felt a burden of responsibility that I had not otherwise felt. I thought I was going to school to learn to create things that people could watch, enjoy and ultimately walk away from. But it doesn’t work like that. Media is sticky, even stickier to young minds.
That weight of responsibility only grew heavier the more research I read about gender disparities behind the camera. Only 7 percent of directors, 13 percent of writers and 20 percent of producers are female. Men outnumber women in key production roles 5 to 1, and that singular female in production—that’s me.
So was I scared? I ain’t scared o’ nothin’! I felt empowered. There are fewer of me, that’s true, but that only means that my voice can carry more weight, that my viewpoints are needed that much more. Also true, I’m consistently the youngest person on my production teams nowadays, and yet I feel compelled to do more than exist on the periphery. I know that creating responsible media is in my best interest as well as the interest of future generations.
Is it a coincidence that months after this video wrapped I took a job working for public television at WGBH? Probably not, but who can say for certain? What I do know is this: I created a project that I am tremendously proud of to this day, with some of the cutest darn stop motion animation you can make out of construction paper. Most important of all, that work prompts children and adults alike to think about the media they consume. 

Frontline: Dropout Nation

Sunday, September 23, 2012
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Jess Bidgood is's news editor and producer.


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