How the acting aspirations of a student with Down syndrome changed this theater teacher’s approach

PHOTO: Hill Street Studios | Getty Images
Students practicing lines on stage.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When a student with Down syndrome signed up for her acting class at Lakewood High School in suburban Denver, theater teacher Tami LoSasso was worried. Could the boy succeed in a class focused on duet scenes? Who would she assign as his partner? Was she living her belief that theater is for every kind of student?

With support from another student, the boy completed the class and LoSasso worked with a colleague to create a “unified theater” class that pairs special education and general education students.

LoSasso talked to Chalkbeat about why she aims to reach a diverse set of students through theater, how she builds rapport with students, and what it means to be a student’s “cookie person.”

LoSasso was selected for the 2018 class of the Advocacy Leadership Network, a three-year initiative of the Educational Theatre Association, a professional group for school theater educators.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I don’t know if there was a defining moment. I always loved theater, but mostly storytelling, and the thought of sharing that passion with others was an intriguing idea for me. When I was young I had some teachers who left a mark on my life in unforgettable ways, and I realized the powerful influence a teacher can have. I thought the world needs more of that: positive influences and passionate storytellers. And so I became a teacher.

PHOTO: courtesy of Tami LoSasso

How do you get to know your students?

We do a lot of what I call “ensemble building.” There are the traditional ways of doing that -— through games and getting-to-know you activities — but a lot of times we just spend the first few moments checking in with each other. I ask them about their lives and I try to remember the conversations so I can return to them. I talk to them like they are people, not just people in chairs there to learn, and in so doing I build a rapport with students. I think one of the most important things a teacher can do, besides teach the subject with passion, is to teach students a little bit about who they are as humans. A teacher cannot do that if they don’t know — really know — the people looking back at them everyday from the desks.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I really enjoy teaching the “styles” unit that a student teacher of mine (now my teaching partner) came up with several years ago. In it, students investigate the dramatic stylings of three or four major playwrights and how to best bring their words to life. Students do an investigation and creative presentation on the life of the writer (some create social media pages for their playwright!) to immerse themselves in the world of the writers through music, costumes, and script analysis. They finish by performing a duet scene from one of the playwrights, and they gain a much deeper understanding of the material, the intention behind the material, and the themes of the work.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My ring of keys and a tall glass of iced tea.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

It’s theater so everything going on outside the classroom affects what’s happening inside of it. Theater is the greatest mirror we can hold up to society. When things get too close or too real, theater becomes scary and uncomfortable. And to me, that’s the best kind of storytelling — the kind where we see ourselves and question ourselves and try to make our world a better place.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Every student I come in contact with has changed me in some way. From the student I had early on who forced me to face my unrecognized biases to the student I have now who is redefining how I approach gender identity in the classroom, it seems there is always something to learn — even for the teacher.

One big ah-ha moment for me was my work with a student in my class I’ll call “AJ.” AJ has Down syndrome and he wanted nothing more than to be in a theater class because he wanted to be an actor. He was fine in my introductory class where we could all work together, but when he wanted to take my acting class, I was hesitant. In that class we do a lot of duet scene study, and I wasn’t sure who to pair him with, if he could be successful, who he could work with whose experience in scene study wouldn’t be altered as a result of AJ’s accommodations. But then I had the idea of seeing if there was a student — preferably not a theater student — who would take the class as a teacher’s assistant and work exclusively with AJ.

I found a senior — Olivia — who was interested in working with students with special needs and wanted to go into special education after high school. She agreed to be the teacher’s assistant. She and AJ struck up a wonderful friendship. She was his scene partner, working to enhance AJ’s experience, not her own, and helped him be successful with character work and even script analysis. Olivia and AJ’s partnership gave me the idea for a unified theater class where we have students with special needs paired with general education students who are there as partners and coaches. As arts educators, we always say, “Art is for all,” but AJ made me realize I was talking the talk but not walking the walk. I truly did want arts to be for all, and for one reason or another, traditional theater classes don’t speak to all. He helped me discover ways to make them more accessible and equitable.

Now at Lakewood, we have a unified theater class that does just what AJ helped me realize theater could do. This fall, we’re introducing a slam poetry class designed to reach out to marginalized populations — minorities, women, transgender students — to help them find their voice through the arts. At Lakewood, our team strives to make theater a place where everyone can find their voice. Thanks to AJ and Olivia, we are achieving that goal.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Letting go. I spend four years building up all kinds of love for these amazing young adults. And then I have to let them fly.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

That I would get more time off! Ha!

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I recently finished “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. It was powerful. My favorite writer is Khaled Hosseini. He opens my mind to worlds I’ve never known and his prose is so poetic, sometimes I forget I’m not actually reading poetry.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Sweat the small stuff and always be kind. My former principal used to say, “Be someone’s cookie person,” meaning the person a student can go to for help, gentle advice, a loving ear, patience, and a push in the right direction.

How the 2018 national teacher of the year manages a classroom with 12 languages with a white board and a paper clip

PHOTO: Ferguson Films
2018 national teacher of the year Mandy Manning.

Four years ago, Mandy Manning realized she wanted to have an impact outside her classroom, where she spent her days teaching immigrant and refugee students how to navigate their new school and new lives.

To do that, though, she also realized that she would need more than just years of experience. She would need a platform.

This year, she got just that: Manning, who teaches in Spokane, Washington, was named the 2018 national teacher of year.

“People need to know how amazing these immigrant and refugee students are,” she told Chalkbeat.

It’s a message she feels more urgency to spread as the current presidential administration takes a harsh position toward immigrants and asylum-seekers. Manning said she spent several months responding to students asking her when they would have to leave the country.

But the core of Manning’s work is to teach immigrant and refugee students foundational language skills and help ease their transition to the U.S. The students, who come from across the school district, usually spend one semester with her at the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School.

“I’m their ambassador. Hopefully I’m a good example of what we are as Americans,” she said.

This interview, part of Chalkbeat’s How I Teach series, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

Teaching really chose me, because I hadn’t intended to become a teacher. I finished my undergraduate degree, which was in filmmaking, and I really wasn’t interested in continuing in that line of work. A friend, who was a paraeducator — someone within a classroom who works one-on-one with students — suggested I become a paraeducator.

Then I taught in the Peace Corps, which really helped expand my worldview. Even after that, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a teacher. I moved to Texas and my aunt suggested I apply to teaching positions, even though I wasn’t certified or had a degree in education. It was almost as if teaching was pursuing me and I was just denying it.

How do you get to know your students?

I’m very welcoming to them. I think that’s so essential, because the very first day is where you set your climate and environment in the classroom. For me that means being very upbeat and excited and ensuring that I’m introducing myself to every student as they’re walking in and figuring out their name and where they’re from and what languages they speak.

I used to teach general education — film making, journalism, communications, English. With them I would just have conversations like, ‘You are an individual and I’m an individual and yes I am your teacher and you are my student but I’m still interested in who you are not just as a learner but as a person.’ With the newcomers, it’s a little more difficult because we’re starting with charades, essentially.

So slowly, every day, I learn something new about my kids and that’s my goal. As long as I learn something about one student each day, I’m moving forward.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

It’s our “Out in the Community” lesson. It has to do with the foundational language we’re teaching — giving and receiving directions and the basic ability to navigate your community. The reason I love it so much is that we actually get to go out and explore the neighborhood of the school and sometimes the downtown area of Spokane — the actual community in which they live and they’re expected to function as community members.

It’s so fun to watch the kids and what things are of interest to them and how they draw their maps. They also make connections back to their home country when they’re talking about the differences between their neighborhoods or schools or communities.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My whiteboard and markers. Personally, I need a paper clip, which is so dumb, but it helps me concentrate. I just play with it when I’m teaching and communicating with kids. But the thing I really need in my classroom all the time is the ability to write things down because it helps with that comprehensible input for my kids.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Right now, it’s the climate around immigrants and refugees. Spokane is pretty good, pretty neutral. There isn’t a whole lot of negative communication or messaging, but it does happen. It’s happened in our hallways at school where kids have been told to go back to Africa or horrible racist slurs have been called against Arabic kids or kids from African nations. It impacts how welcome and comfortable my students feel.

It also brings older students, who have gone beyond the Newcomer Center back to my classroom more often, because my room represents the first place they were comfortable and safe. They’re often returning to me and the bilingual specialist I work with just for the reassurance that they’re welcome and they’re safe here in our nation. That’s something we now have to navigate every single day.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

The first year I started to do home visits — at that time I had families from Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, and different nations in Africa. These home visits with all these different families showed me so much about individual differences between people of the same culture and between different cultures.

I got to see how they’re living, who they’re living with, the different type of homes — apartments, duplexes, single-family dwellings, or a house — and just how they interacted with each other. It broadened my perspective of family. there are so many different types of families within the students born within the United States, then to see it on a such a large scale with different cultures, it’s helped me to seek value in every single different type of family. And to understand that even though things operate differently in each home, that doesn’t diminish the beauty of that home.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is the middle of the year, semester-end. Kids at the Newcomer Center come from all over the school district. Usually after a semester, they then go on to their neighborhood high school. We have several practices in place to help with transition, but that semester break, it’s really hard to say goodbye to the kids.

It’s harder than at the end of the year because at the end of the year, we’re all taking a break. That semester, some of my kids are leaving and I’m not going to see them on a regular basis. And we’ve bonded with one another so much that it’s really hard, and I always end crying for the whole day because I’m going to miss them so much.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I didn’t know what I was doing at all when I had my first classroom. I didn’t even know how to read a teacher’s edition of a textbook. I sort of jumped in with both feet. I guess I assumed I needed to understand how to build a lesson exactly and that would be a hard hurdle for me, but I soon found out it doesn’t matter how beautifully you structure your lesson plan, because teaching is really about monitoring and adjusting for whatever the needs are of the kids at the time. You might have the most beautiful lesson but chances are it will shift and change in the first 10 minutes.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?  

Focus on your kids and everything else will fall into place.

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‘What if this was my son?’ How Newark’s Teacher of the Year pushes autistic students to succeed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Lourdes Reyes, Newark's 2018 Teacher of the Year.

A normal Monday in Lourdes Reyes’ classroom at the First Avenue School begins with a pleasant routine.

Her six students, a mix of first and second-graders with autism, eat breakfast quietly at their desks then brush their teeth in the restroom. Then they return to class, as they did one Monday morning this month, to recite the days and months and share highlights from the weekend — a trip to the zoo, playtime in the park, an evening bike ride.

“Alright,” Reyes said in a soothing tone as she moved the lesson along. “Everybody had a good weekend.”

But on Monday, May 7, things were far from normal.

That was when the district’s interim superintendent arrived unannounced in her classroom bearing balloons and a bouquet, with television cameras in tow, to inform her that she was Newark’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. Reyes tearfully accepted the award as her daughter, a teacher at Elliott Street School, looked on. Then she walked into the hallway, where dozens of students cheered and chanted her name.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Reyes told Chalkbeat during a recent interview.

In college, Reyes had studied to become a social worker. But after her son, Ishmail, was born with autism, she wanted to learn more about his condition. Before long, she had earned a master’s degree in special education and become a teacher of students with autism — a job she’s held for 21 years.

After two decades, she has yet to slow down. Every day after class she begins her second job as an early-intervention specialist, visiting families’ homes to work with young children suspected of having disabilities. After finishing around 8:30 p.m., she takes a late-night walk with her youngest son — a routine that, along with a healthy new diet, helped her lose 65 pounds over the past year.

Reyes stays just as busy at school. In addition to academic lessons, she teaches her students life skills like tying their shoes and cooking — sometimes on a portable stove, which Reyes used one day this year to cook green eggs and ham. In April, which is National Autism Awareness Month, she helped raise $2,300 for the school’s autism program and organized a performance where her students sang Disney songs. Reyes performed alongside wearing the red hat and spotted pants of Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl from “Toy Story.”

Principal Jose Fuentes, who was part of the 10-person leadership team at First Avenue that nominated Reyes for her award, called her “one of the pillars of the school.” She extends herself far beyond her own classroom, showing colleagues and parents how to challenge and support students with autism, Fuentes said.

“She’s giving new light to the possibilities of what it means to be an educator,” he said. “That’s Reyes.”

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get into teaching?

When my second son was born, Ishmail, he was born with autism.

I was first of all shocked that I had an autistic son. It was very difficult and devastating for all of us. My husband and I had to go for counseling. It was very hard. But then we overcame it. I decided I’m going to take something negative and make something positive out of it.

So I went to graduate school and I took classes on special ed. I loved it and so I took another class. One class led to another.

Then I started volunteering at my son’s school. I was there all the time. In the evenings my husband would get home, he’d watch the kids, I’d go and take my class.

Next thing you know, in two years I completed a master’s in special ed.

How has being the parent of a child with autism shaped the way you teach?

Everything I still do today is focused on, “What if this was my son?”

I think that’s what makes me a little different. Like if I was doing this for him, how would I teach it?

What have you learned about what it takes to be an effective teacher of students with autism?

You can’t feel sorry for a child. Just because they have a disability does not mean that they can’t do something. You have to put that aside and show them in a way that tough love to get them to master the skills. Which is hard for some of the parents to do.

We have to do a lot of what the parents don’t do. For instance, tooth brushing, that’s a life skill. At home they say, “He doesn’t want to brush his teeth.” But they do it here every morning.

It sounds like a big part of your job is working with parents.

I give them my cell number. They call me at all times.

Sometimes [a student’s mother] will say, “It’s a rough morning. He didn’t want to change. I’m sending you the uniform in the book bag.” Then when he comes in, we transition him. When we do toothbrushing we say, “You need to change now.”

Then when it’s 2:45, “You don’t want to wear it? OK, let’s go change you. Put on your jeans, go on the bus.” Happy trooper.

How are you able to make progress with students who come in without many academic skills?

It’s ongoing, and it’s repetitive. Teaching the skills. Pulling them out, teaching them [through] individualized instruction.

And it happens also with the assistance of the aides. I have four great aides. None of this could happen without them.

Ms. [Rasheedah] Jacobs, guess how many years she’s been with me. Fourteen. When I came here and interviewed, I said, “I’ll take the job under the condition that Ms. Jacobs could come with me.” She really, really is a great teacher. I call her a teacher, not even an aide. She’s my right hand.

Can you think of a student whom you had a lot of success with?

Last year, I had one of my highest functioning students. She has Asperger’s. What a thrill to have that little girl. Oh my gosh.

Every week the principal gives the word of the week. She memorized and knew every single word from September to June. And recited it in an assembly, with a sentence for each word. She’s unbelievable!

We had a student [at Quitman Street Community School] who had a band on his esophagus, and he had a feeding tube in kindergarten. We couldn’t believe it — he was in diapers.

I was like, “If we can get this little boy to be toilet trained, that will be a success.” Do you know we mastered that? We did it.

How do you know if you’ve been successful by the end of the year?

Seeing [a student] who didn’t know the letters of the alphabet, seeing him writing sentences, filling in blanks, reciting words.

Knowing [a different student] can tie his shoes. Knowing he can brush his teeth.

Knowing that parents are happy with the progress of their students. Them sharing with me the change in their child once they started coming into my classroom. Parents telling me, “Oh, that’s not the same kid who was in the school last year. That’s a different child.”

What’s your advice to teachers who are just starting out?

Have a lot of patience. Be real devoted.

And do not look at a student with autism as a person who is weak. Have high expectations that they are capable of doing everything and anything with the right accommodations.

It can be done, but it takes someone with dedication, sensitivity, and also someone who does not feel sorry for a child. Anything is possible. There are no limits.