Susan Zemlin 2015I have always loved school. I go on vacations to see museums, historic sites, and cemeteries. I admit it – I am addicted to learning. I am not only addicted to learning; I am fascinated by the process of helping others to learn. My favorite class in undergraduate school was Vocal Pedagogy. The voice is so complex and individual that it seems like there is always a new mystery to unlock with each new student.

My fascination with the science behind figuring out Vocal Pedagogy has led me to conclude that, while there is great information about how to teach choral music in textbooks, the real kingdom of pedagogy lies in the creative and scientific regions of our brains – and that discovery and experimentation are essential tools in modern classrooms.

Through my collaboration with the DCD (Developmental Cognitive Disabilities) teachers and paraeducators from our Special Education department in recent years, I have developed a real fascination with exploring and unlocking capabilities in all of our students. If you really want to learn how to create modifications that allow for full inclusion for all your students, go watch the paras work: they are nothing short of amazing! Ben Henschel and I rely on them every day to help us discover hidden talents in our students. We have learned that there is a way for every student, no matter how significant the barriers, to participate meaningfully in our classrooms and performances. Beyond that, we have seen relationships form between the students of the DCD program and the general education population that are mutually beneficial and empowering.

Students from the general education population – who were previously unmotivated, frequent cell phone violators, and down on life – have discovered a new purpose for themselves through their choir partners from the DCD program. Some of them are looking at careers in health care professions and special education as a result of the friendships they have forged with their partners. Their partners are doing things we had no idea they would ever be able to do.

We have discovered that students who do not vocalize are able to communicate through gesture and sign language. We have two students who have severe physical limitations, but are very intelligent. They communicate only through movement of their eyes, yet carry on complete conversations with their partners. The partners have to use a little extra brainpower to frame their conversations in the form of yes, no, or multiple-choice questions that can be answered with eye movement. When we add simple ASL to the choruses of our songs, everyone can be involved. Partners put their hands on top of their buddies’ to form the signs, assisting those who are unable to move their own hands. Adding Curwen hand signs – or just the first sign of each phrase – can allow everyone to sing melodies.

Exploring ways to make doorways out of barriers in our special education population has heightened my awareness of the individuality of each and every student. Each comes with their own variations of barriers. Some of them are working through emotional wounds. Some are dealing with challenging voice change. Some are dealing with cultural differences. All of them are looking to us to help them find doorways. The more we learn about each student, the more likely we will be to help them open those doorways. Take the time this year to discover something new about every student. You will find the return on investment will inspire and uplift you, as well.

Sue Zemlin,
President, ACDA-MN