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The Story of C.: Teaching Poetry to Children with Disabilities

Nicole Hefner and one of her studentsCommentary by Nicole Callihan, Teaching Artist for Teachers & Writers Collaborative and Language Lecturer at New York University

Spring seems to be rearing her pretty little head again, and I find myself back in the Staten Island classroom working with students who have moderate to severe cognitive and mental disabilities. It is a welcome respite from my New York University classroom where we discuss ideas and complicated syntax, organic forms and rich tension. In the Staten Island classroom we are terribly content with nothing more than the small glittery cardboard box that we call the “Magic Poetry Box.”

Each week the Magic Poetry Box is presented with great fanfare. After the oohs and aahs (given without a trace of irony), a student volunteers to reach in and unearth the day’s lesson. On Valentine’s, the box contained hearts, and we wrote love poems; on a particularly gray day, a tiny squirt bottle of “rain” was tucked inside, and we wrote March Rain Songs. Yesterday, though, the box contained nothing. I thought C., a nine year-old boy with autism, might cry. “Nothing?” he asked. He grew panicked, rocking back and forth in his chair. “Nothing?”

“But wait,” I said. “I think I hear something.” I pulled the box close to my ear. All six students (all on the lower functioning end of the autism spectrum) looked at me. They waited. Before we knew it horses galloped, dogs barked, wind blew, and we were standing on the beach getting ready to fly to the sun which would, they told me, keep our wings warm.

This is my tenth year of working with students with autism. I had no formal training, and my knowledge, like so many other Americans a decade ago, was limited to Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in the film Rainman. In the years since, autism has come to be far more recognized and diagnosed. Everyone seems to know someone whose son (boys diagnoses far outnumber girls) has some form of autism. But even with the prevalence, we still know so little about the condition.

I was at a loss when I first entered the classroom with these students. I had been accustomed to working with second and third graders for whom the “imagination” was the Ferris wheel of the mind. They loved it. “Be a shell,” I’d say, and they’d whip up notebook pages filled with stories of basking in the sun, of Puerto Rico and mangos, of being found by a lonely little girl who ever so gently brushed the sand off the edges. “Be a bear! Be love! Be anything! Just pretend,” I told them, and they did.

But my tricks got me nowhere in the new classroom. The students didn’t even stare blankly at me. They stared away, one biting his hand, one banging the table, the others simply not there. As I was leaving, the teacher pulled me aside. “They don’t really get the imagination thing,” she said. It was winter, and I was in Harlem. I had a long walk to the subway station, and even now I remember the bleak ice patches on that walk and thinking “The imagination thing? What do you mean they don’t get the imagination thing?”

For years, I took this advice to heart. I read up on how children with autism thrive on repetition and systematic learning. I would hold up a blue circle, make them touch the circle and say blue. “Blue,” they said over and over, one by one around the table: “Blue, blue, blue.” But something was still missing. Yes, the students were “doing the poetry lesson,” but there still lurked a terrible lack of connection—and connection, if you’ve ever known someone with autism, is exactly what you crave when you’re near them.

Trapped by the monotony of that blue circle, my lessons grew increasingly animated. I thought that if I could flap my wings hard enough or raise my voice loud enough I could actually get—and possibly even keep—the much coveted eye contact. I was careful, though, very careful about the way in which I approached issues of the imagination. We weren’t birds; we moved our arms as if we were flying like birds. I tapped into two things, however, with this last bit of arm-flapping.

What I first came to realize—and have employed ever since—is the necessity of a movement component in working with these students. They respond particularly well to yoga, but any sort of directed movement speaks to them. It seems that once the body really gets to move, the mind follows. I also realized that with enough repetition of imagining the students found that they could use their own imagination. It was as if we had exercised that muscle as well.

Years ago, I replaced my blue circles with the Magic Poetry Box; the “color drill” was no longer satisfying for anyone involved. Yesterday, though, was the first time I took the risk of letting the box contain “nothing.” We passed the box from student to student, each one holding it to his ear to tell us what he heard. When I got to C., I was a bit nervous as he’s known for his very physical fits of frustration. “Can you hear anything?” I asked him. I looked over to one of the teachers who shook her head ever so slightly and shrugged. “Anything at all?”

C. was silent for some time. I couldn’t shake the fear that he’d push the chair back and fly into a rage breaking the delicate atmosphere that the teachers and I worked so hard to maintain. I played the lesson over in my head wondering why I hadn’t just brought in shamrocks or a lucky pot of gold. I thought back to the teacher from Harlem who had so long ago warned me about the imagination thing. And then, finally, C. spoke, “dog?” he said, almost asking, but then he said it again, louder. “Dog,” he said, “barking. Barking loud and chasing a cat.” And we clapped—the other students, the teachers, me, even C. clapped. The rest of the hour slipped past us, and we said our goodbyes as I placed the lid back on the small empty box.

It’s interesting because there are days when I’ve felt silly carrying that box into the school; its campy unveiling has struck me as ridiculous, its paper hearts clumsy. But yesterday, carrying the box down the well-lit hallway, the box was nothing short of what I’ve been calling it for years: magic, absolute magic. I can only hope that it will continue to work its magic in the years to come, letting imaginations—especially those that seem locked so deep within—find their way to the delicate surface.

  1. Linsey Miller

    I was once privileged to see Temple Grandin, PhD,( with autism) speak at a conference about Autism. She said, “All my thinking is visual, like videos played in my imagination.” I wish my students with autism and indeed, my very own godson/nephew could one day exhibit an “awakening” and tell us what’s really going on. If only it were that easy! My students are lucky enough to work with the author of this article. We affectionately call her “Nicole-the-Poet.” She does incredible exercises in our classrooms and encourages our students to share their creative thoughts and processes. There are no right or wrong answers in Nicole’s poetry lessons! Every idea is valued and accepted. It is too sad that outside of Nicole’s classroom, our children with autism, are otherwise being told that most times they are wrong.

  2. Joe

    This is absolutely wonderful. I am in tears now just reading your words…words that speak to me and my imagination. Keep it up.

  3. Mary

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with these kids. I have seen you work with them and I know they care about you. I was tearful when I read about C. with nothing in the box. I was sad when he said “nothing?’ and I cired when he heard the dog bark. I heard the dog, too. Thank again for being who you are with these kids.

  4. Nicole

    Thanks so much. I love this work. My favorite thing about this particular class in when I leave they say, “Fly away now,” and I do.

  5. Medical

    I have a cousin who has autism and a mother who teaches school- I know how difficult it both can be. I am just in awe that not only are you “handling” this class of beautiful autistic children, but that you are helping them “fly”. Thanks for being an inspiration to us.

  6. Nicole

    Thanks so much for all of your comments. For any of you drawn to this subject matter, there’s a how on HBO right now, Autism: The Musical. Highly recommended!

  7. kathy garofalo

    I have just taught 2 classes of children with varying degrees of autism, about birds in our park (the students came to my park for a class trip-they were approx. 4 years of age) and when they arrived, a couple children were crying. I’ll never forget, how they left, happy and blowing kisses-the children connected to nature, their sense of liberation was blatant.
    I have pulled out my college textbooks on teaching children with special needs, but after reading these responses, I plan on making a box with birds, words, feathers, feet, etc., to create a variation on the box described in this blog, for the rest of the classes that are to follow. Thank you for your advise.

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