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Winter 2001 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

The V.I.P.s: Visually Impaired Players and Very Important People

By Mary Carrilee Adkins, Vision Teacher, North East Independent School District and Deborah Thompson, Educational Specialist for the Project for Students with Visual Impairments, Education Service Center Region 20, San Antonio, Texas

In the fall of 1998, Rebecca Kilian-Smith, a Teacher of the Visually Impaired in the North East I.S.D. in San Antonio, made a suggestion to her colleagues with a resulting impact that many would long remember. She suggested that dance classes might be of interest and value to our middle and high school students. A suggestion was made for a small group, but the ultimate outcome would affect all students with visual impairments in the Education Service Center, Region 20 (ESC Region 20) area.

Where could we start looking for a dance teacher?

Carrilee Adkins, another North East I.S.D. VI teacher, had taught adult and community education classes for the district for many years. She suggested the Adult/Community Education department as a logical place to begin looking for a qualified teacher. One name was mentioned - Ms. Pat Wells, dance teacher, judge for international dance competitions seen on television, and director of children's theatre. A phone call was made, an appointment kept. Soon, not only were ESC Region 20-funded dance classes a reality, but a dream of summer theatre for students with visual impairments was born. Pat told us that for several years she had conducted summer theatre camps for sighted students, although she had never worked with students who were visually impaired. Still, she was willing and anxious to try such a project with our students, making any necessary adaptations and modifications.

Next question - who could sponsor such a project?

It was definitely more than one school district could handle alone. We approached Deborah Thompson, Educational Specialist for the Project for Students with Visual Impairments at ESC Region 20. She, in turn, presented a proposal to members of the Region 20 Visually Impaired Regional Advisory Committee, who deemed the project worthwhile. It was soon realized that additional help with funding was needed. The San Antonio office of the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind) (TCB) was invited to join the project. Judy Wright, BVIC caseworker, agreed to work with us, perhaps not truly realizing all the INTERESTING skills she was about to acquire.

Rationale and a budget

Rationale

Before we could really get started, two major items were needed - a rationale for our project (Chart 1) and a budget. Our rationale, or expectations for the project, was based on evaluation of data from informal student surveys and Regional Student Performance Indicators.

In the area of vocational skills, students would be expected to exhibit skills required to maintain a job. These included punctuality, problem solving, staying on task, following directions, interaction with others (both peers and adults), following a schedule, etc.

In the area of orientation and mobility (O&M) skills, students would learn safe movement within the theatre (particularly on the stage), getting to and from the camp each day, and use of appropriate O&M skills. They would also need an understanding of the body concepts required in the performing arts.

Social skills were emphasized on a daily basis when students were required to exhibit appropriate interactions with adults and peers in both large and small group activities. They had to exhibit good listening skills, respect for others, and think of ways to involve parents and other family members in the theatre camp. Theatre skills were addressed as the students rotated through classes in singing, dancing, acting, and set designing.


Chart 1 - EXPECTATIONS FOR SUMMER VOCATIONAL SKILLS, SOCIAL SKILLS AND THEATRE PROGRAM

ESC Region 20

Name:__________________________ D.O.B.:__________________

School District:___________________ School/Grade:_____________

Goal:

The student will master appropriate vocational skills through a summer theatre program at the 9-22 years age level, to be measured by participation in a stage production at completion of the program.

Objectives:

The student will exhibit appropriate skills required to maintain a job:

PROGRAMMING

Goal:

The student will master appropriate social skills through a summer theatre program at the 9-22 years age level, to be measured by participation in a stage production at the completion of the program.

Objectives:

Goal:

The student will master appropriate orientation and mobility skills at the 9-22 years age level, to be measured by participation in a stage production at the completion of the program.

Objectives:

Goal:

The student will master appropriate pre-vocational skills at the 9-22 years age level in the areas of acting, music, art, engineering, clothing manufacturing, carpentry, and commercial painting, to be measured by a stage production upon completion of the program.

Objectives:


Budget

Creating a budget was a more difficult task. We did not really know all that was involved with such a project. We certainly had no idea about how much money to allow for each aspect of the program. There were personnel costs (salaries for HOW MANY people?) and production costs (royalties, Braille, large type, taped scripts, tapes, sets, light and sound equipment, rent on the location, air-conditioning, custodians - the list seemed endless). After many hours, we finally had a budget that seemed workable and included funding from ESC Region 20, Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind) , and small private donations.

Our greatest budget expenditure has been for staff. We basically have two different groups of personnel: Certified VI teachers / O&M staff, and theatre personnel. Theatre personnel were handpicked by Pat Wells, Director, and each is very capable in his/her particular field. They include a music coach, an acting coach, and a dance instructor. Last year, we added a sign language interpreter to assist a deafblind student who planned to participate. What a great Indian our interpreter made in the production! We have employed two certified VI teachers and two certified O&M specialists each summer. They have been real troopers. They really didn't expect to be on stage, but have done a terrific job assisting students through all the rehearsals and the final successful performances. We were very lucky to have had two O&M interns who provided their expertise without additional cost to us. We owe much to the combined talent and perseverance of all these gifted and dedicated people.

Parents play a key role

We have been very excited by the parental involvement each summer. Parents brought their children each day, provided lunches, helped make costumes, applied makeup on performance night, assisted with serving refreshments at the cast party, gave words of encouragement to the staff, and in general were a very positive influence throughout both of our camps. We would never be able to have a successful camp without these fabulous parents.

Location, location, location!

As every business person knows, location is everything. It seemed simple enough. Little did we know that it would become our greatest challenge. Not just for one year, but for each year that we have worked on this project. Just as we had solved a problem, other potholes occurred in the road we thought was so smoothly paved the year before. Finding a site for our project involved much more than we had ever imagined - liability insurance, accident insurance, air-conditioning, custodians on a daily basis (as well as prolonged service on the day of the final performance), parking lot security, lighting and sound equipment, a stage, musical instruments, practice and classroom space, restrooms, a place for lunch each day, tech personnel to operate equipment, appropriate stage equipment, and on and on. We have used the North East School of the Arts theatre for the last two years and hope to do so again this next summer. Their facilities have been ideally suited to our needs, and their staff has been very helpful and accommodating.

Time to Invite the Students

Once all of the above tasks were accomplished, it was time to invite the students. Thanks to the efforts of the VI teachers in the San Antonio area, we were able to enroll our first group of V.I.P.s - twenty-one students from ten different school districts in Region 20. The "Wizard of Oz" was our first great success for students, parents, camp staff, and guests. Our second production in the summer of 2000 was "Peter Pan." This camp differed from our first in that we permitted our VI students to invite a sighted friend or sibling to participate. We had several visually impaired students who returned from the year before. What a delightful experience everyone had.

The reviews are in

The results have been phenomenal! The most significant gains in student performance were seen in acting and public speaking. By the end of each two-week camp, all students were able to project their voices and recite lines from memorization with 80% or better accuracy. Perhaps the most impressive student achievements that were not measured formally were in the areas of peer relations and self-confidence, especially in those students who attended the first camp and then returned for the second summer. Shy students became some of our best actors and actresses and were outstanding role models for first-time participants. Students who were afraid to speak above a whisper were belting out songs with all their hearts. Students who had never had a close friend before were exchanging phone numbers with other students (both VI and non-VI).

It is difficult to measure these skills. However, in conversations with the children and families during and after the camps, we have determined that these positive effects prove to be lasting. Friendships that blossomed during the camps have been maintained through telephone calls, letters, and e-mails. One mother called recently and said that her child's experiences in the camp had led her to try out for her campus' drama group. We are happy to report that this very talented young lady is now a part of that group and performing extremely well!

Positive results as noted by the parents include: "meeting more friends outside his small circle of friends;" "helps Mom realize there are many things in life available for my son;" "he [son] was proud to be given responsibility of a part when he didn't expect it;" and "she [daughter] looked forward to going every morning." We appreciate all of the feedback and kind remarks.

Still some challenges for the future

There are still some problems that need to be resolved - daily transportation has been our toughest nut to crack. We have primarily relied upon parents and VIAtrans, San Antonio's door-to-door transportation system. San Antonio I.S.D. has provided a school bus for their students both years. We hope to expand bus service by asking other districts for their assistance in arranging transportation for their students.

There is still much to learn. Each year is a new experience. Everyone involved has learned something they didn't know before. Judy Wright probably never dreamed that she would be communicating with big New York production companies for the rights to produce our plays. She certainly did not expect to become an insurance agent or leasing agent. Ask her to bend your ear sometime about contract negotiation. The VI staff learned more about the theatre, and the theatre staff learned more about making adaptations and modifications for students who are blind or visually impaired. VI students and students with normal vision learned how to work and play together. They also learned how important each and every person is to a successful production. Exhaustion and fatigue have nearly overwhelmed us at the end of each camp. However, we come away each time with a deep sense of satisfaction and gratitude for having been privileged to work with these groups of truly talented and wonderful students and to celebrate their tremendous gains.

Plans are already underway for the next camp. Meetings with Connie Pressler, Regional Director for Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (formerly known as Texas Commision for the Blind) in San Antonio, and Judy Wright, have begun. We're on a fast and furious time schedule to facilitate our Summer 2001 production. Permission has been requested to produce "Cinderella." We are negotiating for our prime location. If you're in the San Antonio area on July 21, 2001, stop by and watch our kids in action - you'll be in for a spectacular treat!


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