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When I was first hired as a special education teacher for youth with Functional Mental Disabilities (FMD), Mild Mental Disabilities (MMD), Learning and/or Behavior Disabilities (LBD), and other Complex Disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) I was filled with a mix of emotions. While I had worked with youth and adults with complex disabilities for nearly 19 years I had never served in this capacity in the public school system. Working as a teaching artist in public schools was one thing but being in charge of a classroom is another. I soon realized that the special education classroom is akin to many of the theaters I have worked with. The school administrators are similar to the artistic/administrative staff of the theatre. My fellow teachers are like my network of teaching artist friends who toss around ideas on new ways to approach the curriculum. Finally, my students are like the imaginative young artists I have the privilege to work with.

Unlike other public school classes that teach core curriculum or other typical high school subjects (business, the arts, vocational subjects, etc.) the FMD class focuses on Life Skills. The curriculum of my classroom is centered around what skills my students need to be successful after they complete high school. This includes things like shopping, making and following a budget, social skills in both school and community-based situations, technology based communications (i.e. phone and email), and the list goes on.

There are countless worksheets, strategies, and tools available to special education teachers to help teach these topics and all have their place in the special education class but they weren’t for me. We are all familiar with the different learning styles, auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. I use a mix of all three learning styles in my classroom. I engage my students in discussion where I perform my formative assessment, or a low stakes assessment, gaging how much they know about the lesson we are working on. This allows me to see where every student is and tailor modifications according to student needs.

I believe it is important to not only introduce my students to the life skills that they need but to immerse them in the situation that the lesson teaches. For example, my students were working on budgeting for the grocery store. The students were given a budget of $20.00 and instructed on what they were shopping for. Once they had a grasp on what was on their list and what their goal was we went to the store. Not an actual grocery store, but Mr. B’s Grocery. A mock grocery store set up in the comfort of our classroom. Items are grouped together based on where you would find them in an actual store. We also have empty product boxes and containers. So if a student has to purchase a can of chicken noodle soup they will actually select a can of chicken noodle soup. The activity is complete with fake money, grocery bags, and even a mock check out counter where students can place their items and practice paying for their groceries.

While students are exploring our mock grocery store I sidecoach students to help them complete their task. This low-risk environment allows them to complete each step in the process and practice in a safe environment where they are not afraid to make a mistake. Many of my students display a low-moderate level of anxiety when put on the spot. Standing at a check out counter with a line of strangers behind you can be an extremely stressful experience. This simulation allows them to practice this important life skill without the stresses that can accompany a real-world setting.

Real-World Applications

So you might be wondering how this all plays out in the real world. How can a mock grocery store, fake money, and a grocery list really help? One of my students, let’s call him E for short, has learning goals and benchmarks that revolve around real-world application of skills. So as part of his work each week he prepares a budget and practices the next dollar strategy (The Next Dollar Strategy is very simple, you look at a price and you give one more dollar than the number of dollars in the price. For example, if something costs $2.75 you would give $3.00). In my school district we are very lucky to have a program called Community-Based Instruction (CBI).  The CBI program allows me to take small groups of my students out in the community to practice the skills we learn in class in a real-world setting. Each week my class votes and we select a menu for our Friday Cooking Class. After the menu is selected and recipes are found a grocery list is made and a few students are taken to a local grocery store to shop.

As part of his learning goal E goes to the store every week with me. At the beginning of the year he was able to use the next dollar strategy with about 20% accuracy. Now he is able to use the next dollar strategy with about 60% accuracy in real-world settings. That is a huge gain for E. The addition of role-playing in the classroom has allowed him to safely practice this important life skill in a low-risk environment where getting it wrong is a learning opportunity and not an embarrassment.

In addition to role-playing I also use theatre games in my class. One game that I use is Wax Museum. Of course we all know that there are only a handful of games in theatre that are called something different everywhere you go. But the premise of the game is to have a night guard and the rest of the participants are wax statues. While the night guard is not looking participants attempt to move into a different position without the night guard seeing them. If they are seen they are out. The theatre applications for this game are obvious but how does it help my students? In addition to helping them practice being still and to take risks, it teaches them about spatial awareness. Students who have issues with spatial awareness have difficulty seeing objects in relation to each other and to oneself. They may have visual perception difficulties, appear clumsy and bump into objects or people, or have difficulty playing games that require physical movement.

While this game is fun for participants the use of the game allows my students the opportunity to develop spatial awareness. Once they begin to understand and apply the concept in the game they can then generalize the skill to real-world situations without even knowing it. Another one of my students, let’s call her K, has issues with special awareness. Playing this game has not only helped her center herself and be still, it has helped her become more aware of her surroundings. K often bumps into people or things in the classroom. She also had difficulty in understanding the idea of personal space. This game has helped her become more aware of what is going on around her. While she still has difficulty understanding when she is in another person’s personal space, she has become more aware of things that are happening around her. For example, when walking in the hallway she is now more aware of the other people traveling though the space and makes adjustments to avoid bumping into others as she travels.

Her gains may not seem as impressive as E’s but I assure you they are! The way K has been able to apply what she is learning from a game without even knowing she is doing so is a testament to the power of drama in the special education classroom. And that’s what it is about in the special education classroom. Teaching students in a way they can learn and generalize skills in real-world settings. So shopping in a mock grocery store where you can actually pick up an item and pay for it and playing games that teach spatial awareness are fun and exciting ways to learn and practice new skills with the long-term goal of generalizing the skill in a real-world setting.

What’s Next?

I am in the process of talking to the other special education teachers at my school to see if we can revamp the way we teach skills. I would love to see more drama incorporated into their lesson plans too. The wonderful thing about incorporating the drama into the curriculum is that it doesn’t have to stop with life skills. It can cross over to every aspect of our curriculum. We also teach core content areas. Our students, with the exception of a small percent, take the same standardized tests (modified of course) as their typically developing peers. Utilizing drama as a tool and strategy to teach core content subjects has the potential to increase not only the level of understanding our students can attain, but rejuvenate special education teachers and give them new and exciting ways to deliver content to our students.

To outsiders looking in my class appears to be one big game where students are laughing, interacting, and moving. One thing that can’t be denied is that my students are actively learning. Nothing against worksheets but I’ll take a day of mock shopping, role-playing, and theatre games any day. Now, if only there was a way to make the paperwork fun.



W. Riley Braem is a 2013 graduate of Arizona State University’s MFA Theatre for Youth Program. Riley is a special education teacher at Christian County High School in Hopkinsville, Kentucky and as a freelance theatre artist. He is a performer, director, producer, digital storyteller, choreographer, and teaching artist and has worked professionally in Kentucky, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Arizona.

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