Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Special - build on what you know

Many years ago I attended a week-long piano master class at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. One of the presenters was Tinka Knopf, who was leading the Preparatory Program at Peabody and  becoming increasingly interested in working with special needs learners.  She told the story of helping design a prosthetic left hand for one of her students. She didn't know anything about constructing prosthetics, but she knew a lot about what a left hand does in piano literature. When the engineer asked her how wide the hand would need to open, she simply opened her left hand on his desk to the span of octave. When he later double-checked this distance on an actual piano, he discovered that she was 100 percent accurate. She was literally helping him build on what she knew.

As I stated in the first of the Special posts, I'm not an expert on special education, but I can build on what I know. As both an Alexander Technique Teacher and a piano teacher, I have worked with students with a variety of challenges. Here they are, in alphabetical order:  allergies, arthritis, asthma, Asperger's syndrome, attention deficit disorder, auditory processing challenges, Bell's palsy, blindness, broken bones, congenital eye muscle problems requiring surgeries, cystic fibrosis, epilepsy, fibromyalgia with lesions, focal dystonia, Irlen syndrome, leukemia, loss of fingers, Lyme's disease, Meniere's disease, muscular/skeletal injuries, obsessive compulsive disorder, Parkinson's disease,  profound hearing impairment, scoliosis, sliced tendons, symbol recognition challenges, and tendinitis.  Time to hang out my medical shingle, right?

Some of these students were in my studio for a very short time or were students that came to workshops where I was teaching. Some of them were in my studio for extended periods of time. I think in particular of Amy, a bright and talented young woman with cystic fibrosis who played piano and flute well. When she came for a lesson I never thought, "here comes cystic fibrosis," but "here comes Amy, that delightful student." She rarely missed a lesson, and I loved working with her all through her public school career. I did not love sitting in the pew at her funeral, a potential piece of working with students dealing with serious health conditions.

Some of these conditions, dire as they may sound, did not require any adaptations out of the normal. Amy would occasionally cough due to the build up in her lungs, but I knew that it wasn't contagious. She also had slightly clubbed fingertips, but that did not stop her from moving her fingers well. Even though she had a life-threatening illness, she functioned extremely well in her lessons and practice.

Students with symbol recognition challenges are more than likely to live a full, healthy life, but they require accommodations for score reading and hand-eye coordination development. This is the sort of thing you will recognize rather quickly, even if you have no idea what axons and dendrites and neurons and grey matter actually are. Have courage! You will build on that discovery in the best way you know how.

If you are a public school teacher, you will have access to private records about your students that will reveal challenges. Legally you are required to make accommodations for identified students. A private teacher does not have that access, and some parents will not tell you that their children have been identified in the hope that music lessons will somehow be easier than other learning situations. If you are noticing learning patterns that are not close to normal, you may need to go the parent and get more information to make proper adaptations. Or you may decide that you don't have the skills and/or tools to work with that student, which is also fair to all.

The best way to guide your decisions is to place the well-being of the student first. Decide what goals are appropriate and what tools and common sense you can access to reach those goals. Build on what you know as well as what you are willing to learn.

The next part of this series of blogs will be devoted to some of the common challenges you may find in your students and some basic suggestions for each of these. Keep in mind that flexibility is key.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Special - the ground rules

If teaching special needs students is something you are considering, it is best to start with some very basic ground rules:

1. Abandon perfectionism. Embrace creativity.
Most independent teachers have figured this out already and do this with all of their students,  but it is a mindset that is required when working with special needs students.  This doesn't mean they can't be successful. It does means that the road to success is likely to be a little different, taking more time and more twists and turns. If your studio goals center on competitive settings with high-level performers, maybe special needs students will not fit your agenda. If you like to encourage students to get just a little better, and then a little better, go for it.

2. Student first, label second.
One of my wonderful and wise friends taught a student with Asperger's syndrome (usually defined as high-functioning autism)  to become a fine pianist. The student developed excellent listening and improvisatory skills.  I was not alone in begging her to give a presentation on the teaching techniques she used.  She refused, explaining that this was the only Asperger's student she had ever worked with, and that she couldn't possibly generalize.  Right. Like I said, wise. Every student is different, no matter the diagnostic label. The labels give you a general outline of what you may experience, and that is all.

3. You are a teacher, not a diagnostician or therapist, unless, of course, you are.
I know one person who gave up a career as an MD to become an independent piano teacher. This person is legally allowed to diagnose. If you are a person with some kind of legal authority to diagnose or provide therapy, you will know this. If you don't know this, you can't. However, you may recognize certain traits in students that could benefit from further exploration by people who can diagnose. Likewise, you are not a magician or healer. You are a facilitator.

4. Throw a wide net.
Be open to a large number of resources because you will need them. Your best help may come from someone you already know, or from recently printed resources, or from information-rich websites. Parent involvement is a must in order for you to get information about your students that will allow you to plan a course of action.

My resources include Dr. Kimberly Councill, music education specialist, and Kathy Morris, retired special education teacher and supervisor. The text they suggest is Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label-Free Approach, by Alice M. Hammel and Ryan M. Hourigan, published by Oxford University Press.

I am in the learning stage here, so I don't consider myself to be my best resource. I'm keeping my eyes and ears open. I do have some common sense, however, and that is also very important. More on this as the blogs continue.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Special - an introduction

True confession - I could not believe that one of my colleagues had no idea what ADD is. We were discussing a common student whose challenges were in line with what I had read and experienced concerning attention deficit disorders when I casually dropped in the three-letter moniker as an umbrella explanation. I had no idea that he had no idea.

IDEA, by the way, is the abbreviation for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, started in 1975 around the time I was finishing my masters program. I had no idea what IDEA was when studying music education because, well, it wasn't. We were taught in a time of smart, dumb, lazy, responsible, talkative, shy, stubborn - not in the time of OCD, ODD, LD and the increasingly long list of acronyms for manifestations that prevent students from learning the way we think they should.

For my generation, learning about learning differences and challenges had to be done the old-fashioned way, by trial and error, talking to parents, and self-motivated study. As tutors/mentors, independent teachers have the freedom to do this, and we gain a lot from doing so. We also have the opportunity to provide a positive learning experience for students who find traditional learning settings less friendly.

In Pennsylvania students in teacher education programs are now required to complete 9 credits of special education courses. This semester I'm sitting in the back row of one of these classes. I'm quietly linking the research and suggestions to students past and present. I'm keeping up with the reading assignments and asking questions and making mental notes of the ways I could help certain students.

I'm also realizing that a lot of these approaches work with any student, but perhaps in differing proportions. Ways to improve listening through tools and adaptations are not just useful for hearing impaired students, for example. Many of my students enjoy hearing themselves sing into my "elbowphone", which is a PVC elbow pipe purchased for a few bucks at the local hardware store. And students who are identified with particular challenges also have accompanying strengths, exactly like the so-called "normal" students.

With this blog as an introduction, I will follow up with information I'm learning that could be applied in the private lesson situation. There is a lot of information out there, making it a much better time to "specialize" private teaching than when I started decades ago.