VSA Massachusetts

VSA Massachusetts develops arts-based teaching strategies so students with and without disabilities can learn together more effectively. The organization promotes the inclusion of people with disabilities into the cultural life of communities and develops ways to incorporate arts-based teaching strategies in schools, opening new windows onto the general curriculum for all students.

When first entering the VSA arts of Massachusetts (VSAM) office, a new tenant at the NonProfit Center (NPC), you might feel as though you have just entered a gallery. No ubiquitous office trimmings clutter the space; instead, innocuous desks yield to a wall displaying an exhibit, the work of public school students with and without disabilities.

In addition to showcasing the work of artists with and without disabilities, VSAM develops arts-based teaching strategies for all students, as well as pioneering performances which are accessible to audiences who are hearing and/or vision-impaired.

“We’re not just an arts organization, a disability rights organization or an education organization; we’re an organization working to change the communities around us,” described Charles Washburn, the organization’s executive director.

“Now VSA arts is more collaborative, open and visible,” Washburn added, gesturing towards his transparent glass office. “By subsuming the office, we’re giving expression to the gallery. Moving to the NonProfit Center has enabled us to redefine ourselves as well as to join a community of other social change agencies,” he shared. Additionally, he extolled the benefits of being able to participate in the NPC’s wide range of professional development trainings, as well as fun activities like yoga.

Jean Kennedy Smith founded VSA arts in 1974 as part of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Today, VSA arts represents a global network with affiliates nationwide and in over 60 countries.

VSAM’s Artist Residency Programs Transform Students With and Without Disabilities

During the current school year, VSAM has offered artist residency programs in 22 public schools in Boston, Worcester and Pittsfield, reaching an estimated 3,600 students. Funding for the program is secured from the public schools and matched by VSAM. The artist residency programs are based on a model called Universal Design for Learning, created by the Center for Applied Science and Technology (CAST), which integrates teaching strategies that stimulate students’ different types of skills from visual to oral. The model can be used for teaching students with disabilities by adopting audio texts for those who are visually impaired and American Sign Language for those who are deaf.

“There are many pathways to information that challenge students in a way not typical in the classroom. Teaching in and through the arts accomplishes the goals of Universal Design for Learning by taking advantage of all the ways that children learn,” Washburn explained.Through integrating the arts into teaching, students with disabilities tend to “more naturally excel” than their peers, Washburn said. “The typical roles are reversed; it is a very powerful learning experience,” he shared.

Washburn related an example in which a child with a low level of motor skills control learned how to hit his hand to a drum during a music residency at the Boston College Campus School. “The ecstasy of the moment was unparalleled. This child would be completely missed elsewhere,” he observed.

Another striking example involves a non-communicative autistic student who participated in a VSAM artist residency which exposed the student to music. During one of the sessions, the student started to sing as he held a guitar for the first time.

“[The arts] completely changed the realm of possibilities for this child. The child revealed through the arts capacities that adults didn’t see – hidden competencies,” Washburn described.

Other Universal Design for Learning classroom lessons include having students spell out the word “cat” by physically creating the shape of each letter with their bodies rather than only phonetically spelling out the word, or instructing students to draw pictures as they read the book Where the Wild Things Are.

“Universal Design for Learning uses all the senses. The arts are the tool to do it,” Washburn noted.

Sustaining Arts Education in the Recession

With the unstable economy, seemingly few programs are unsusceptible to possible budget cuts. As usually one of the first to face this fate, arts organizations and programs are especially vulnerable. Despite this gloomy reality, Washburn exhibits an upbeat outlook. For him, the tangible effects of arts programming on students of all abilities not only enhances their learning, but offers a viable component to public school education.

“We have part of the answer to How do we make American schools better. One way is doing a better way of teaching everyone. In Massachusetts, [that means] engaging those with disabilities. The resources we bring to the table are highly valued because we improve the quality of life in schools. Teachers receive a fresh perspective and come alive. The kids are motivated and engaged, rather than being slumped down in their chairs,” Washburn vividly affirmed. “The paradigm is changed because teachers think of students differently,” he added.

To extend these practices to teachers and other educators, VSAM offers forums which explore how students learn through the arts, such as the recent What Do We Learn by Participating in the Arts? event at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on May 8. This forum was sponsored by the Partnership for Arts-based Instruction whose members include VSA, UMass Boston and Lesley University.

Experiencing the Arts with New Eyes and Ears

In addition to its arts programming, forums, and festivals, VSAM has pioneered Inclusive by Design,performances that are accessible to both the hearing and vision-impaired. An Inclusive by Design performance could include an artist painting a mural of the live performance on stage, a blues musician, an American Sign Language interpreter signing, captions and audio description.

“The use of language to tie in the sensory elements creates a different kind of performance and experience for everyone,” said Washburn, commenting on the power of audio description. “People get so pumped!” he added.

Typically, all-inclusive performances feature blues and jazz musicians, but future plans include country and folk/contemporary singer songwriters. A recent show featured Henry Butler, a blind pianist from New Orleans.