Success with Special Learners: One Member’s Tale

“I feel I have learned just as much from the students with special needs as they from me.” — Dana Van Slyke

Dana Van Slyke teaches six different vocal groups at Herndon High School in Virginia. Her Concert Choir is a “chorus for everyone” – a beginners’ level, mixed-voice, 65-member group spanning grades 9–12. Every year, between 15 and 20 students with special needs enroll in the choir. Some are intellectually disabled, and some have less obvious impairments or challenges. These include ESL students and students with reading or math deficits.

Van Slyke has taught at Herndon High School for 16 years. Before that, Dana had never had special needs students in her classes. She has never had formal training in any special needs work and has just “felt her way” with these students.

Van Slyke feels her Concert Choir represents the world, and is a snapshot of the school’s population. “This is a community….. everybody is different, everyone has strengths/weaknesses, everyone should be respected for what they bring to the table. I never say this specifically, or tell this to my students, but I just model it with how I act. I don’t treat students with special needs any differently from any other student, really. I include them in what we do…..I just go along and work it out as we go. I ask myself at the start of school year how I will make this experience legitimate for all and have high expectations for everyone.”

When asked if she thought music education majors should be taught about working with special needs students, Van Slyke agreed that it would probably be helpful to new educators to have some introductory coursework in working with special needs students. Music teachers in training need to know that they will most certainly be teaching students with special needs, and so they need to be prepared.

Van Slyke pointed out that there are no easy answers about teaching methods for students with special needs. Each student is an individual. His or her special challenge manifests itself uniquely, and will probably be distinct from how the “same” disability manifests itself in other students with special needs.

NEXT WEEK: Success with Special Learners: One Member’s Tale, part two

Thanks to MENC member Dana Van Slyke, Herndon High School choral program, for her time and insights.

–Sue Rarus, October 7, 2009. © National Association for Music Education