Making Magic: 'I did it, Papi!'

Auditioning was difficult. It's very hard for these children to show emotion, no less learn lines or sing songs or look at each other.
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I am the principal of a company (Musical Theatre International) which has Juniorized well-known stage musical theatre titles and you may think me biased, and I probably am. In an effort to educate myself, I attend performances, get feedback from teachers, principals, school boards, students and parents across the United States about the support materials we create and deliver (to all 50 states) and I try to learn about problems and obstacles.

To be dispassionate in my judgment, I sought a micro laboratory for study in New York City. The Shubert Foundation is the principle funder of this program which is a test in collaboration with MTI and the New York City Department of Education solely for middle school students in schools with no recent or current programs of singing, dancing, acting or visual art: what happens when teachers in a NYC public school with modest support, limited resources and guidance worked with grade school children and observe and document the results over a school year. An independent team assembled to observe a sampling of schools during the course of the school year 2009.

For any blog reader, the full report of what happened, how it worked, what the teachers had to say, what the students had to say, is called WHY WE TELL THE STORY. (You can contact and it will be sent to you free of cost.)


P94M has only 60 students in their population. Each student is a special needs student. Because of the desire to use the autistic children as well as the other special needs kids, the school's lead teacher Ms. Derfner chose WILLY WONKA JR. because a group of characters don't have to a lot of script to recite, but they get to be on stage and to interact and perform. Auditioning was difficult. It's very hard for these children to show emotion, no less learn lines or sing songs or look at each other. It is not the electrifying competitive "I've seen this on Glee" experience that you would find in a typical middle or high school. Those school shows seem to produce happy, positive results. But how do you do it at "94"?

Teachers are dealing with students with significant emotional, developmental and social deficits, pervasive developmental delay, Autism (on different levels) and Asperger's. Most of the 60 children come from deprived families including kids who are shelter kids and who almost exclusively have a single parent. Ms. Derfner said that the school was seeking a long-term project to "provide structure." It was important to teach the kids to "stay focused over a period of months."

At initial rehearsals (Jan. 2009) students are constantly moving, not interacting, not speaking to each other, kicking and jumping up and down. Kids practice the lyrics of a song from the show using repetition with variation, viz: with clapping; with whispering; do it sadly; do it happily. The technique works. When they practice a dance step -- (something as simple as a grapevine crossing one foot over the other) -- it becomes a bigger challenge. Ms. Derfner explains that special education students frequently get flustered when they have to cross the center line of the body which requires both sides of the brain.

They are praised every time they do something well. A crisis counselor attends sessions. The students and their behaviors are monitored because of the medications they take. As the day wears on, medications wear off. Students sometimes have a meltdown at rehearsal. Labor intensive and distracting from "let's put on a show"...but part of teaching special needs students. It's rough going.

The teachers and teacher colleagues of theirs plan the set, locales and tried to make the show look like professional "theatre." The amount of money for P94 is woefully inadequate. The principal says: "when they say to a middle school, you need one staff member for every 25 students to rehearse in the afternoon; we at P94 need one for every three to four students. So whatever amount of money is needed, we need four to five times that amount." P94 has been unable to get any local business to help them. The school itself is unable to get any interest from their city council member to even attend the show despite multiple invitations.

They ask for special technology funding. The city council members direct funds to other schools in their district. Un-provable, unspoken (maybe) is a subtext of "why help the un-helpable." The school finds ways to cut corners. The school system is poor. The kids are poor. The kids are difficult. Fights break out. Four students are let go. They can work their way back into the show by good behavior and writing a letter explaining why they want to return to the show, which is doable only because the show by now has to become important to the kids. They do their best to come back. But the reality is that there is much attrition. In the prior year (2008), 19 students were in the actual performance, but 42 kids had started the process and were in the original cast!

In January, it took 20 minutes just to get the kids to make a circle. The children refused to talk to each other. By April, the kids are getting into a circle immediately by themselves, engaging in a theatre games right away. Children who would not talk to each other in January are, by April, choosing teammates. This new dynamic is reflected in the performances on the stage. They get to perform through entire numbers. They are having fun. They are validated. They are breaking out of their shells. There is optimism. Then, wrenchingly, the little boy who is playing WILLY WONKA is suddenly taken out of his family home by Children's Services. He's sent to a special facility upstate! Another boy playing Charlie Bucket gets the flu and is out.

Finally, P94 has to perform WILLY WONKA, delayed by one week and when they do, it is in a hot auditorium that can only run a single fan, because students cannot be heard above the noise of any other cooling device.

The kids now seem calm and confident. They know the music, the words, and the dance steps. They are acting supportive and helpful to each other. During the performance, they reach out to help move a cast member gently if he or she is in the wrong place. They don't get flustered if they get off-track to the music. They are proud of their achievement.

One of the Oompa Loompas (a little boy who is Autistic and really non-verbal) is so pleased at his success that when he finishes one of his dances, (in the middle of the show,) he looks down at the audience and shouts, "I did it, Papi!" The audience responds, cheers in kind yells, "Go star!" "You're beautiful!"

So what happens to P94 next?

They perform with the other schools at "SHARE" where they were referred to as P.S. 94 -- which is a really big deal. "P" is a stigma. All the other kids know it's a "special" school. By being "P.S.", they became like any other school. When the "P.S." 94 students saw the other performances, they saw mistakes. They realized that the other kids had a lot in common with them. That no one was perfect.

P94 has integrated and institutionalized the school show as a program built into the life of the school. It has adapted its school day to engage the entire school community and accommodate working on the show for the challenged population.

At the end of P94's performance, each member of the cast individually was called out by name for recognition, so that family and friends could celebrate their children for something positive.

This is a documented case study where students can't sit still, cannot relate to each other, cannot communicate with each other, and get into fights and are lacking focus. Four months later, the same students help each other out, are resilient during all technical problems and emotionally disturbed autistic children discover a "pretend" vehicle for creative self-expression and sense personal success.

They have shown compassion, support, care and connection with one another. The "experts' are in shock.

When she asked her kids, "what do you feel?" Ms. Derfner's kids say: like "normal" kids.

The autistic boy who yelled out to his father, "I did it Papi" incredibly made an impromptu speech although he is non-verbal! But what came through was his enthusiasm, happiness and joy in the process he had experienced and his fellow students cheered him on, not only for what he said, but for actually speaking. Emotionally disturbed students who would normally tease someone for that kind of disjointed performance were being supportive of him. The positive behavior coach at P94 said this single moment was worth more than an entire year of verbal therapy.

The principal said "I wanted them to get that they are special. That they are creative. And most of all, that there are possibilities for them.

If you didn't see it, you can't believe it. But it was MAGIC.

"I did it Papi!"

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