Special Needs NYCCT theater program

NYC Children’s Theater & Students with Special Needs

NYC Children’s Theater Education Department is proud to partner with schools in District 75, the Special Education District within the New York City Department of Education. Our arts programs for students with disabilities support language and social development with a focus on emotional literacy. This blog post chronicles NYC Children’s Theater Education Associate Sara Hunter Orr’s recent site visit to a District 75 school in Queens. NYCCT teaching artist Matt Mazur is currently leading a Literature at Play residency there for students with autism and other developmental disabilities.

When “Mr. Matt” walks into the brightly-lit classroom, he is welcomed with a loud chorus of excited “Hi!’“‘s and “Hello!’s” from the students. He waves to the group as he unlatches his guitar case and sets down his heavy bag. The twelve students are scattered throughout the classroom; some children are sitting alone at their desks and others are in wheelchairs accompanied by para-professionals. Many students shout with excitement as Mr. Matt reveals his guitar and starts singing the familiar welcome song. He walks around the room to greet each student by name: “Hello Laura, it’s so good to see you.”

Next, he dives into the lesson and over the next forty-five minutes, engages the students in several songs and theatre exercises to explore the current book under study, Wings by Christopher Myers. Throughout the lesson, Mr. Matt invites the students to rise from their seats to interact physically with the book’s content. “Let’s all fly like Icarus! Can I see you flap your wings?” The students enthusiastically act out several parts of the story by speaking lines of dialogue to each other. Mr. Matt prompts them to “try on” the characters’ emotions: “What do you think Icarus is feeling in this moment? Can we all make that surprised face?” Mr. Matt consistently weaves music into the lesson with his guitar to narrate the action in the room, transition to the next exercise, and prompt the students’ responses.

Although Mr. Matt entered the classroom with a clear lesson plan, I am impressed with how he is able to change and adapt to the needs of the students. For instance, if the students become anxious or distracted by all of the noise in the room, Mr. Matt returns to his Mary-Poppins-like bag to retrieve an instrument called a thumb piano, to play a soothing melody. It is clear that he has built relationships with each of his students and has created a comfortable environment in which the students feel confident to participate and be themselves. When it is time for Mr. Matt to leave, there is a new feeling of calm and and happiness in the room. While slinging the guitar case and bag back over his back, Matt smiles and shouts over his shoulder, “See you again tomorrow!”