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.
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.
“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.”
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.