Thursday, May 26, 2011

Autistic kids taking Shakespeare to the Next Level and the Woman that got them there

Recently through Twitter I had the good fortune to find a very special lady, Heather - aka@AlaskaGrace. This is a little bit about her story of working with special needs kids and Shakespeare and the amazing growth their parents and educators saw as a result. I’ll start you off with a taste... a quote. It's the passion of her heart that got me hooked on her…

You just have to experience it. That's all I can say. Even if for a moment, it changes their lives. And for a very precious few, it changes their life forever.

Tell us a little something about who you are.

My younger brother Philip and I grew up in Memphis, TN. Our parents are both classically trained musicians and we spent a great deal of our time as kids at orchestra or play rehearsals. I grew up watching musical theatre on a stool sitting next to my dad in the orchestra pit. Later, when our parents' paths split we were blessed with a loving and involved step-father. When he naturally ended up spending time waiting at the theatre for my mom during rehearsals, we put him to work in the sound booth, lol. As time went on, I became even more involved in make-up, sets and other behind the scenes stuff.

After receiving my teaching degree from Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis), I moved to Alaska in 1992 and accepted a position as a special education teacher with the Anchorage School District. Today, I am mom to two step-kids who have grown up and (mostly) left the nest, along with two special needs children my husband David and I adopted in 2003. Our family has now lived in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley north of Anchorage for almost 14 years. In 2009, I retired from teaching.

How did you get into teaching Special Education?

I had a dear friend in junior high who was hearing impaired. I took sign language as a class in high school and joined the National Junior Association for the Deaf. I decided I wanted to be a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing, but my school didn't offer that as a major. The closest I could get was a degree in Special Education.

Why did you choose to teach and perform Shakespeare with the Special Education group?

I didn't. It was their idea- I actually tried to talk them out of it! I had always loved Shakespeare, but I had no idea how to teach it! There was a young man in one of my classes who asked if I would teach them Hamlet. “Oh, you don't really want to do that, do you? A Shakespeare play?!” Well, yes, he did. So I said to the class,

“Come on, you guys really don't want to do this, right? Raise your hand if you want to do Hamlet.” Darn if every hand didn't shoot up into the air! I was pretty-much stuck.

So I went down to the English Dept. book room, found the Shakespeare plays, and dusted off about 10 copies of Hamlet to take back to my classroom, mumbling to myself the whole way. At what point had I lost control? I've got to read this and figure out how to teach it. Wonder if I bring donuts maybe they'll forget about it? Of course, in the light of 20-20 hindsight, it now looks like a brilliant idea, as the kids were successful beyond my wildest dreams.

It is clear that you do not see a ceiling with these kids; as a result, they rise to the occasion. What were some of the reactions that you received from parents, therapists, and fellow teachers regarding what you had accomplished?

Well, first, it’s not what I accomplished. It is about what the kids found within themselves to accomplish this. When we started, there were no sets, no props, no costumes- just an overhead projector to provide “stage” lighting. We were performing for ourselves. Then I thought that, since the kids have put so much into this, I might as well have my department chairman and a couple of teachers come down to see it. Afterwards, they asked the kids questions about their characters and about the plot, and by golly the answers they got showed that the kids knew their stuff! So I got an approving “atta girl” and that was about it. We never looked back- within a few years I had parents coming. From such a tiny start I wound up with parents of autistic kids and of non-readers in the audience crying over something that I just took for granted.

It was in talking with these parents that I soon came to realize that what I was seeing in my classroom and on our “stage” was not generally what was being seen at home. The really amazing thing, though, was that some parents had begun to see positive changes in their children that appeared to be connected to what we were doing at school. We all started putting the puzzle pieces together and realized something truly significant was happening. At the time, the high school I was teaching at was going through extensive changes in being remodeled and organized into communities of learning and “houses”. As a result of all those things, and support from the administration, other teachers became aware of what we were doing . We now had a common indoor courtyard area which became the perfect spot for us to move out of our classroom and into a practice area. With this added visibility, word spread even further.

I talked to the Life Skills teacher about a student during his senior year, a student I had in my classroom during his freshman year. He was autistic, had inappropriate responses in social situations, would perseverate on things, and would get upset and frustrated easily if touched or if someone entered his personal space. My special education English class was the first class he was able to leave his life skills classroom to attend. By his senior year, he was attending general education classes, with support. The teacher I was talking to said that the change started with his participation in our class's production of Taming of the Shrew. It had made all the difference in the world for him. I had never realized this- I had just seen the kid around the school over the years and figured it was a natural progression from the program he was in. But what his teacher said hit me right between the eyes. This student came out of his shell, began to understand how to be more socially appropriate, and WANTED to be that way as an apparent result of having the opportunity to participate in our little home-grown Shakespeare program. He was no longer afraid to let others hear his voice, and to speak his mind.

What advice would you give other special education teachers who would like to take on Shakespeare?

First, there is no right or wrong way to teach our kids as long as they are learning.

Second, you are the educator who knows your students the best. If things begin to bog down when you are sticking strictly to the lesson plan , switch things around and do something fun. I start each year’s “Shakespeare” plan with a movie so the students gain an understanding of the basic story (my guys all thought Elizabeth Taylor was a hottie!), then we would start reading the play. This part can take a long time and a lot of patience, especially working with students with low reading skills. My first couple of times doing this project, I insisted on reading the entire play, which I came to understand was too much. In later years we focused on certain parts of the play we were working on. If I had five classes, I had each class pick a different scene or sometimes an act. By doing this we’d end up with nearly an entire play at the end. Each of my classes would focus on their portion of the play, making sure each student understood his and her character's motivation and the things that had lead up to the character’s current situation. We’d break the reading up with days where the kids write in their journals as their character. Doing this breaks up the reading and provides the students a chance to work on writing skills. For the teacher, it gives an opportunity to check on understanding.

Through practice the students would learn to read their lines and by the end each will have mastered quite a list of new vocabulary. My experience was over the years that this can all be done in just bite size chunks well suited to a class period. There are also numerous opportunities to work with each individual child’s disability. For example, if you are working with an autistic child, remember that what you are teaching besides the play is that it is okay to make eye contact if that is what the character would do. It is okay to touch someone's arm or grab their elbow and shout, “Evermore cross'd and cross'd; nothing but cross'd!” If I was teaching emotionally disturbed students with anger issues (who, by the way, ALWAYS choose Act V of Hamlet!), I found myself always marveling by the time we were at the end at Laertes and Hamlet holding each other's arms and declaring, “But till that time, I do receive your offer'd love like love, And will not wrong it.” Horatio gently holding Hamlet's head, “Now cracks a noble heart: Good night sweet prince, may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” I always made sure the discipline principal would see that one!

So, tell me some stories...

I can tell stories that would break your heart. There was a 16 year old boy who was afraid to pin some material to a pattern because, “I never do anything right.” He confided to me he was doing community service for getting into some trouble and the person overseeing his work at the local thrift shop was always getting on him because he couldn't understand what she wanted him to do. He wound up making an achingly beautiful Horatio crying over his lost prince.

There was the native Alaskan girl, a senior, who would never look up, never look you in the eye, never raise her voice enough to hear, wore a size 20, and who was ready to quit school. As soon as she donned Queen Gertrude's dress, you could see the light come up in her beautiful eyes.

One year, we were doing Taming of the Shrew. We had borrowed costumes from the school’s theatre department (they had just done Merchant of Venice, how lucky was that??). We carved Styrofoam into castle walls and gates, painted, made delightful messes, and had kids who said there was “no way I was going to get them up in front of anybody.” “Just go ahead and give me the ‘F’.” In the end, one of those kids wound up bringing in a hinged frame he made at his vocational school class to help support the set pieces, and suddenly he became a part of it; became involved. When I brought in the things to put our lights together, dumped the boxes on the floor and said “have at it, here's the directions”- well, talk about teamwork! Reading, following directions, hands name it. Then wait 'til you turn the lights on them for the first time when they are reading their lines. Oh, my God. Something happens. It's almost tangible.

I have special memories of the time when all we had done at that point was just our performances for ourselves in my classroom. As they went far better than I ever imagined, I went next door to the teacher who ran the Seminar Program. His students were used to presenting in front of each other in groups with the rest of the class providing constructive criticism. The teacher said his class would love to watch our class and do what they would do for their own classmates. I ran back to the room, announced to the kids that we were moving into the courtyard area in House 2 (we had clusters of classrooms around an open area which could be used for a variety of purposes). We grabbed our sets and lights and hauled everything down the hall, plugged in the lights, got everyone in position, and here came the seminar students. My kids started to get real nervous. I just told them to do what they had just done. If they could do it for themselves then they could do it here. The added stress took its toll on one of the spectrum kids, more rocking back and forth, and the occasional hand flip, but the other kids in the scene with him gently cued him and he took the cues and made it through. After the scenes were done, my kids gathered together and called upon the seminar students. The seminar kids in turn would ask questions of particular kids, commenting on how clearly they spoke, or if someone needed to face out towards the audience more, or if they stayed in character well, etc. Very polite, respectful, and my students took it very well. We got back into the classroom and my kids could hardly contain themselves! It was the most amazing feeling! The kid who swore at the beginning he was just going to take the "F", the girl with the cutting issues who played Katharina with her head held high, my autistic Petruchio who grabbed Katharina by the elbow and with raised angry voice said, "Go on, and fetch our horses back again. Evermore cross'd and cross'd; nothing but cross'd!" and pulled her back through the archway! This is a young man who would not make eye contact, who wouldn't touch another person, who was worried about yelling at the girl playing Katharina! You just have to experience it. That's all I can say. Even if for a moment, it changes lives. And for a very fortunate few, it may change their life forever. I know it changed mine.

I always had to struggle though with priorities. Mine versus the school district's, or those of the No Child Left Behind Act. Could I afford to take an entire quarter to do this with my students when there are exit exams (Alaska’s Graduation Qualifying Exams) they had to pass? We continued to write and do "English", but not with the intensity other teachers might in preparing for the exams. I was constantly faced with whether I should teach to the student or to the tests. The best way I can answer this is to note one young man in my class for a couple of years who was full of anger. Freshman and sophomore years he was always blowing up in class at the teachers, any authority figure, and peers. His writing and reading ability were very low. We did Hamlet, and I believe he was Hamlet (or Laertes, can't remember) in scene 5. It had a profound effect on him. When it came to his senior year and English electives, he got out of special education English and took the Shakespeare class; not the easiest elective English, and passed. He made it, and I think I know why.

At the end, as I reflect on all this, I see clearly that the success my students enjoyed had very little to do with me. I was just there to give these kids an avenue in which to find themselves. We, as teachers, are just the guides on this incredible journey of discovery. My advice is just to do what you always do- give the kids what they need, and at a pace where they can gain the most from every moment spent. If it takes 9 weeks to teach a Shakespeare play, then it takes 9 weeks.

You are an amazing woman. What is next on your bucket list of items to take on?

If I had my dreams come true, I would find a way to open a performing arts center for children with disabilities. I am not exactly sure what that would look like. It's just a dream.

There is something magical that happens when teaching Shakespeare to special needs kids, especially to kids on the Autism Spectrum. The first time it happened, it was an interesting surprise; the second time made me sit up and take notice that something special was happening. The third, fourth and fifth times- well, they speak for themselves. And why Shakespeare, you ask? There is the language, its rhythm, imagery, imaginativeness and power, and the relevance that his great works have today.

To learn more about Shakespeare for Kids books, Playing With Plays, or Brendan P. Kelso, check them all out here:


  1. What a beautiful story. Makes life worth looking forward. Someone should build that woman a statue.


  2. Words can't describe how proud of Heather I am... Having had a recent tragedy in my family - I can tell you she is just as amazing at giving support and advise to those far away family members she loves. She is my sister-in-law and jim 157 was right - Someone SHOULD build that woman a statue!!

  3. No way, absolutely no statues, that's where I put my foot down! Unless, of course, it is carved out of blue insulating styrofoam and sponge painted! Thank you, Brendan, for taking the time to put my story out there. And thank you to jim157 and soozykd (even if you are the greatest sis-in-law!) for your kind words.

  4. I really think its important to help out those with special needs, and I also think youre amazing Heather

  5. P.s i've shared a link to this on my own blog

  6. Well Heather, I told you that you were awesome... can't wait to read your book! Yes, I am still encouraging you to do this!

  7. Just now checked back in and saw the new comments. Thank you, "Shakespeare Love Poems". I am very grateful, and still surprised at the reaction people have. Brendan, I hear you. I know. Thank you for the encouragement.