Out of Community Need
Our journey began in Kings County, Nova Scotia, Canada during the early nineties. Through the Valley Parent Support Group, families shared their grief and frustration with accessing adequate education and community support for their special needs children. Kathleen Purdy and her husband, Kimberly Smith knew their son Brendon Alexander responded well to painting, sculpting, music, drama, stories, creative movement and nature. In their search for arts based strategies for teaching children who require special care, they soon discovered Waldorf Education and the Camphill Foundation. These models provided inspiration for a new option in Nova Scotia.
Exploring Camphill Special School
Kathleen Purdy volunteered to visit Camphill Special School near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA in February, 1999 to see first hand what pedagogical strategies they were employing. She was impressed by the way they integrated community life with intensive arts based special education classes. Students from primary to senior high levels came from all over North America to live in small family residences on campus during the school year. They were put into rich social situations that included academic subjects, various art therapies, music, hand crafts, physical education and practical life skills.
Kathleen was very impressed with many aspects of their setting and strategies. She returned to Kings County, Nova Scotia to share what she learned. Many parents in the support group liked what they heard. Why not bring these strategies to our community? Take a look at this. http://www.camphillspecialschool.org
Our First Guest Teacher
Kathleen formed a small committee* of parents and professional educators from The Annapolis Valley Regional School Board and Acadia University to initiate a series of workshops in these alternative teaching methods. They found a remarkable teacher who was well versed in the special education techniques used at Camphill Beaver Run. Truus Geraets, a teacher with considerable skill and over thirty years of special education experience in South Africa and the United States was invited to be their first presenter in November 1999. Ms. Geraets inspired and amazed teachers and parents with the effectiveness of her approach. She worked with eight special needs children over the course of three days, integrating storytelling, puppetry, creative movement, singing and drawing. The children responded to these activities with joy and enthusiasm. The parents and teachers had never seen teaching like this before nor had they seen their children flourishing in these ways. The overwhelmingly positive response to these workshops encouraged Kathleen Purdy to organize a small group of teachers, artists and parents to create an after school program based on the practical teaching ideas they had learned.
*Original committee members were: Jackie Trimper, Psychologist,John Sumarah, Professor of Educational Counselling, Linda Wheeldon, Professor of Education, Grace Moores, Resource Teacher and Kathleen Purdy, Teacher / Advocate.
The First Creative Arts Play Group and the birth of the Alexander Society for Special Needs:
Dr. Hilary Thompson, PhD. Children’s Literature and Drama, had recently retired from Acadia University and was so inspired by what she observed in Truus Geraets’ work that she agreed to join with Kathleen Purdy to design an after school program for special needs children. Dr. Thompson had studied with internationally renown drama educator, Dorothy Heathcote, and brought this perspective to the process. Melody McGrath, a music teacher who did a practicum with Giant Steps in Montreal (Music Therapy for autistic children), joined soon after. They launched the first Creative Arts Play Group in March, 2000. They chose a story which was developed over the course of eight weeks, one and a half hours per session. Each session included the telling of the story with lots of songs and actions, followed by movement, music and art; each activity brought forth a different element of the story, thus deepening the children’s experience. Parents accompanied their children, assisting them to fully engage in the activities. A few volunteers also began to come into the program. At the end of the eight week session, parents and volunteers wanted to keep this work going. The Alexander Society for Special Needs was incorporated as a non-profit society on November 17, 2000, and received Charitable Status on November 14, 2001. The Creative Arts Play Group continued, more volunteers were excited to join us, allowing the parents to have a break while their children were having fun and learning valuable skills. You can view a short video history of this program in two parts.
Creative Arts for Teens was initiated two years later as some of our participants were turning 13. Since the fall of 2002 we often run two weekly after-school programs: one for children and one for teens. In the fall of 2003, we were invited to pilot the first in-school program for high school students with moderate to severe challenges. An inservice was conducted for teachers and support staff, followed by an eight week program for students, their assistants and several student peers. In a final follow-up meeting with staff and student peers, we were delighted to hear that the beneficiaries were not only the students to whom the program was directed, but also their supporters were enlivened and inspired! View a 10 minute video of the first Creative Arts with Teens program.
Meanwhile, we initiated “Teaching with Arts” annual workshops. Internationally known teachers were invited to share their expertise in using the arts to teach those with special needs. The first presenter was Art Therapist Marie Chartrand from Montreal who presented workshops for teachers, support workers and the public on how to use painting, drawing and clay work with students. On her second visit she offered a two-day Biography workshop which included more painting.
The second artist was musician Veronica Jackson of Toronto who worked with teachers and children demonstrating how to incorporate music therapeutically into programs for challenged students. She also gave a wonderful concert of Hebridean music on the lyre.
Another two-time visitor to our community was Interactive Storyteller Louise Coigley from England. Teachers and educational assistants were invited to bring their students to demonstration classes where they participated in all the activities of the unfolding of a story. A memorable moment for me was when a bright young lad with severe Cerebral Palsy discovered that he could swing a stick back and forth. Louise invited him to be the “doorman” who opened and closed the door to the castle. He beamed with pride at this important role and asked to take the stick back to school with him.
In the first few years the programs were facilitated by a storyteller/drama animateur, a musician, and movement teacher and sometimes an art teacher. We eventually pared it down to a storyteller/drama animateur and a musician who also led music & movement activities. We have also worked with the Acadia Music Therapy program to offer practicum placements to many students over the years.
Thanks to all the facilitators over the years:
Hilary Thompson Lella Gmeiner Kathleen Purdy
Melody McGrath Erin Montgomery, Maggie Keppie