400 SEND Students, 250 Staff, 9 Performances, 5 Conservatoire Students, 4 Days, 3 Departments (Autis
When we think of a Christmas Nativity, we see beaming little faces wrapped in tea towels. The songs hold similar topic every year but have different musical twists. Parents are proud of their children and the children have a great time.
But what does a Christmas performance look like in a special needs school? A question I have asked myself during my teaching career.
Year 2012 & 2013:
Consisted of the recognisable nativity, but as I looked around the church at the hundreds of children who struggled to see or hear the action or who didn’t have the physical ability to take part, I knew year 3 had to be different.
When my colleague Chris Worrell arrived, he also saw the need for change and introduced new visual aspects to the show; giant puppets and oversized props were paraded round the church, a run-away turkey ran away and gazebos with hanging lights and props were erected to lower the ceiling. We did what we could with the space and audience size, but it still wasn’t quite the “all inclusive” show we were after.
We deliberated what Christmas looked like for some of our more sensory learners; deciding community, friendship, family, being together and exploring the beautiful church we inhabited were more suitable themes. We grouped pupils based on their needs and devised three performances with different foci. For pupils with SLD (1), they created a performance resembling a nativity set up including the big props and songs. Later that day, the chairs were cleared and sensory Christmas stations were set for learners with PMLD (2) and later learners with autism to explore. There were lights, Christmas smells, tinsel, wrapping paper, sellotape, Music provided by Birmingham Conservatoire musicians and most importantly lots of space; for pupils to explore and enjoy in their own way. As you can imagine it was chaotic and noisy, but the show was for them.
We turned our focus to the show for pupils with SLD by involving all pupils in the performance. Improving the accessibility of the stage by turning chairs to face the middle meant the pupils would see and hear the performance as the action moved along the stage. Draping huge pieces of fabric the whole length of the church created a new visual. Devising the story ourselves made it appropriate for pupil understanding. One highlight was the whole school song where departments had the verses divided between them but everyone stood to sing the chorus; pupils beamed with pride as the sound suddenly erupted around them. The children were a unit, no matter their age, gender, ethnicity or disability, they were performing together. Oh, and Santa turned up, obviously stealing the show.
The show for pupils with SLD took a similar structure this year with new songs, new story line and a guest appearance by Elsa from Frozen, a giant elf, and as expected, Santa stole the show again. This year we wanted to get the sensory show right.
With permission to perform eight half hour sensory shows over two days, pupils were grouped in age groups of three classes combining pupils with PMLD and autism. All we had to do now was set their scene by creating a giant ice cube to consume them
Shrink wrap was wrapped around the pillars to create two giant walls of ice filled with snowflakes, lights and sparkly things. Two giant white curtains were strung across the ends of the ice cube, adding a ceiling using lightweight, blue fabric (learning a valuable lesson at this point, always have lots of pegs!) strung with jingly ribbons and bubble wrap. Mats were on the floor covered in tarpaulin and instruments for an accessible, crunchy floor space. The Conservatoire students returned to help make music again; three Christmas songs were performed in C major one after the other gradually, so pupils had time to connect with the music and join in. And obviously Santa and Elsa were there, we weren’t letting them get away that easily
The two days were a joy to behold. Pupils were beautifully behaved and were engrossed in their exploration, play and music making. Some sessions were calmer than others, but it did not take away from the Christmas magic, we followed the pupils in their music making.
I felt this was the year we had done our pupils justice, all 400 of them. They were all part of a Christmas performance which wasn’t, I admit, the traditional nativity scene, but the performances belonged to them.
Parents loved the new setup and enjoyed it with their children. Not one hole was found in the shrink wrap walls, surely, in a special needs school that is how our pupils communicate their acclaim and sense of appreciation.
(1) SLD- severe learning difficulties
(2) PMLD- profound and multiple learning difficulties