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Open Features: Arabesques in The Hut – Part 2

,,,An Ofsted Inspector, while satisfied with what she saw of David's educational provision, asked the Head why he was in this school? Surely he would be better off in a Special School? The gist of the answer was, 'His mother wants him to be here. He's happy here. We are happy to have him.' In fact, his mother had not found a suitable 'special school' within reach of their home. And she was worried about what would happen when the time came for him to go to secondary school. In the meantime everyone did their best within the limitations.,,,

Jacqueline Finesilver concludes her inspirational account of the education of a very special boy.

To reads the first part of this story please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=jacqueline+finesilver

David and I were having a fine old time. But I was supposed to be a teacher, not a hoofer. I wasn't employed to perform high kicks. So, I persevered in my attempts to utilise Art in the pursuit of National Curriculum Attainment Targets. I converted characters from Giselle or The Firebird into visual aids and learning games. I tried to hijack the rhythm patterns of waltzes, polkas and tangos to promote David’s identification of number patterns. (Tried and failed) I loaded images from Coppelia into his computer to seduce him into some typing.

With a great deal of encouragement from his mother, David would build up a cluster of key words and phrases associated with each favourite piece of music, ballet or story. These she would pass on to me. For example, 'He climbed the ladder', 'She gave him a smack', 'Don't you dare to dance with that dolly!' all referred to incidents in the ballet Coppelia. The chanting of, 'ladies on hors-es, riding to ba-ttle' was associated by David and me with The Ride of the Valkyries. And he was usually willing to engage in literacy activities involving these words and phrases. Although we used a computer with suitable software, I was also keen on his producing 'real writing' on paper.

It was his mother who devised at home verbal cues to prompt his drawing of letter shapes. She would speak these in a dynamic, almost musical way. UP to the top, ALL the way down, then straight across. From the TOP to the bottom and allll the way rrrounnnnd. And so on. I took this up and also tried to utilise his dance movements for writing purposes.

”Aaarabessssque”, he whispered, holding on to a corner of the piano in The Hut and stretching out a leg behind him. And 'arabesque' was one of the first words he wrote, very large indeed, in red chalk on wallpaper, the strokes of each letter 'performed', the word appearing as the physical trace left behind by his sweeping and plunging arm movements. Other words followed. The walls of The Hut began to feature David's captions for a collection of favourite dance pictures.

I thought we were getting somewhere. But, discouragingly, his recognition and reproduction of letters, words appeared inconsistent, his recall seemed short-lived. Yet we teachers were required to continue trying to match David up with conventional patterns of behaviours and way-markers of development. We were obliged by the system which we served to hold him up against the National Curriculum to see where we could pin him down to educational Aims and Targets. He and the curriculum did not fit each other. As well try to force a Will o’ the Wisp into a collar and tie. Or so it seemed to me at the time.

An Ofsted Inspector, while satisfied with what she saw of David's educational provision, asked the Head why he was in this school? Surely he would be better off in a Special School? The gist of the answer was, 'His mother wants him to be here. He's happy here. We are happy to have him.' In fact, his mother had not found a suitable 'special school' within reach of their home. And she was worried about what would happen when the time came for him to go to secondary school. In the meantime everyone did their best within the limitations.

Fortunately, David's mother had the will and somehow found the energy to transport him to all kinds of activities and events. One of her best discoveries was a dance class for young people with special needs in West London. This class provided David not only with dance opportunities but with a social group. At school, his classmates were friendly enough but only one or two had the qualities to really connect with him. But David now had a ‘peer group’ who were more like a ‘pierrot troupe’. Absolutely ideal – lively young people making music, dancing, swanking, co-operating, performing on stage. A few years later Jay was to be prime mover in setting up another 'special needs' dance class in her local arts centre. All the more for her talented son, at my last count, was a member of three supported dance groups.

I had left teaching long before David's final year at primary school so I wasn't directly involved when another key element came to the fore in his development. This element was Facilitated Communication, a still-controversial form of computer usage for people with special needs. In school and out David had some sessions with a skilled facilitator in this form of communication. It was to give him a 'voice' that more people were able to hear.

When the time did come for him to move into secondary education Jay put an enormous amount of effort into finding somewhere appropriate. Eventually she got the co-operation of two parties: a centre which David had been attending for therapies and the Local Education Authority. Jay came up with a prototype timetable of activities and the Authority agreed to provide funding for a trial period. In this new educational set-up the number and length of Facilitated Communication sessions were increased, David's computer skills grew rapidly and his abilities became more obvious. (And his strong character gained another means of expression. In other words he was often opinionated and 'bolshy'. But few growing males are easy to live with and was more interesting than most.)

One day someone from the Education Authority arrived at the centre, unannounced, and conducted some tests on David. Once upon a time he would have baulked at the intrusion and at being tested. He would have 'refused to engage' with the tasks. On this occasion he performed, and performed well. 'He's a highly gifted young man', was the verdict of the visitor, a comment which would have been very surprising to some of his former well-meaning primary school teachers.

I'll end with an extract from a letter David sent me some time ago:

'....The opera last night was incredible. It gave me shivers of excitement – probably the most lovely music voices that I have heard on the stage....... my musical journey is much more attainable now that awesome questions have been answered about my cognitive levels of performance... Until the fantastic gift of speech was given to me others made assumptions that I am only childish. Painful indeed...The hope is that I can teach them. Doing college exams should be a way...'

The last I heard, David, with the active support of Jay, was working at various modules of a college course and writing an opera in his spare time.

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