Special Education in the Drama Classroom

Sheri Dorsett


Michael silently entered my drama class last January and slid into a corner seat.  Curling into a fetal position with his head upon his knees, he remained withdrawn and mute for the entire period.  This pattern of behavior never changed over the course of three weeks.  I was baffled; determined to counteract Michael’s withdrawal, I met him daily at the classroom door and attempted conversation. He simply ignored me, gliding past to the safety of his seat. Normally, the first few weeks of Drama I are the most eye-opening for my students.  We start with pantomime, vocal and relaxation exercises, theater games and small group storytelling.  Freed of seat restrictions and self-consciousness, students find the class to be strangely invigorating.  Michael, however, remained in his unapproachable shell. 

            Fourth block is a difficult period to teach as it is the end of a long day.  Special- needs students have a hard time following directions and staying on task in fourth block.  No one wants to teach these students at that time of day because of the discipline issues that overtake the classroom.  Admittedly, I was struggling with this group. I did not have a planning period, but I found the time to search out Michael’s record.  As I suspected, Michael was a special education student.  I was not surprised to discover that fifteen out of twenty-seven students in that fourth block class were also special needs. How would we ever survive eighteen weeks together?  

            Clearly, I was sinking and fast.  I shifted my lessons away from the theater textbook and written exercises to spend more time with controlled kinesthetic activities.  This strategy only worked for a few minutes before pandemonium took over.  These students were not used to any out-of-seat work; they quickly became over-stimulated and could not remain focused.  All but Michael.  He was a motionless lump in the corner.  Michael never looked up, never smiled, and never, ever spoke.  His peers told me if he ever spoke, you could not hear him.  I was intrigued by this shell of a boy–frustrated but intrigued.

            We began a unit on improvisation.  Most of my students have enjoyed this part of the course because it freed them to become children once again–to live in the world of pretend and play.  The regular education students stepped up quickly to take part in the fun.  I changed the topics, used props, and switched out partners to make the process less intimidating to all members of the class.  The magic slowly worked its way around the room, thanks to Koreen. 

            Koreen was a muscular football hero, a senior with a Division I scholarship.  Koreen had it all–looks and brains.  He was not afraid to do any assignment I could throw at him; he especially loved performing solo.  Koreen inserted perfect timing into his line delivery to take any situation and make it humorous. When we got to improvisation, Koreen offered to help the kids who refused to perform.  Koreen reached out to the overblown bad boys who became giggling, nervous little children in front of an audience.  He showed them how to relax by creating scenes in which they could shine. 

            When it came to Michael’s turn, Koreen took Michael and led him before the group.  Instead of turning away, Michael remained onstage.  I was stupefied.  Koreen and Michael performed an incredible scene:  Koreen was the father, and Michael was the rebellious teenage son who had stolen his father’s car.  They did not rush the action, but allowed the storyline to fully develop.  Michael spoke; he showed a range of emotion we had never seen before.  He did not move much, but the scene was natural.  For Michael, this was a huge moment.  Fighting tears, I stood and applauded.  So did the entire class.     

            I realized something powerful that day. Without the burden of script and with peer support and modeling, special education students were on a level playing field with regular education students, limited only by their inhibitions.  Naturally, they wrestled with staying in character and focusing, but their imaginative reconstructions of reality were believable and, frankly, good drama.  The secret to success with these students had been the creation of a classroom environment that opened up the creative possibilities, coupled with strong regular education students who were willing to care for their classmates with differences, even physically showing them how to participate.  Koreen’s unselfish act set the tone for performances in the remaining weeks we shared as a community of actors.

            With encouragement, Michael went on to write (yes–he was a decent writer) and direct several short pieces for his peers.  His role changed from passive non-participant to group leader.  He taught his actors the lines by allowing for interpretation of his intent rather than strict memorization.  For that group of boys, it worked.  Michael’s growth was overwhelming and shined in his posture, his eye contact, and especially his confidence.

            When the semester ended, I felt a tinge of sadness to see this class move on.  I had learned that students with special needs are capable of much more than I had judged.  Instead of feeling persecuted by the large numbers of special education students I had been assigned, I saw the advantages of working with the diversity of that group.