This is the second year that I have taught a freshman course at Berklee College of Music about Neurodiversity. Over the 15-week semester, we examine topics and issues in neurodiversity and their relationship to the arts. We start by talking about the origin of the term “neurodiversity,” and we go on to consider issues of language, power, and representation as they relate to individuals with disabilities. We work with scholarly writings in disability studies and the arts to better understand and question the rhetorical frames at play in various cultural contexts when it comes to artists with disabilities.
As part of the course, the students gain direct experiences getting to know and work with individuals with disabilities. The freshmen perform service learning assignments by volunteering with the Arts Education Programs that I direct at the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs. The Berklee students make music along with individuals with disabilities, ages three and up, who come to us for a variety of arts education opportunities. On a given Saturday, one student might find herself playing bass with our Rock Band Ensemble, keeping a steady beat and passing a bean bag with the youngsters in the Music Class for Young Children, or singing along with the soprano section in the Inner Harmony Ensemble.
Every time I teach this course, I am struck by the openness with which these freshmen—brand new to Berklee, just getting to know each other, only recently living on their own—share their personal experiences and challenges. Individual students reveal that they have been diagnosed with a particular disability, or that they take medication to help them manage certain symptoms or issues. I am impressed to see that the other students are thoughtful listeners. The respect and kindness that they show their classmates helps us all to create a safe space for learning and vulnerability for every student.
The common thread that I continue to hear from my freshmen—who have just completed their K-12 educations—is that school is impossibly difficult for students who are different. Again and again, I hear stories that break my heart. Stories about teachers who don’t believe in a student because that student learns differently. Stories about students who feel isolated, bullied, or given up on because of their struggles. Stories about students’ overwhelming anxiety at the thought of going to school. And stories about the ways that music saved these students—gave them a home, helped them prove that they could succeed, empowered them to create an identity, provided them with friends.
Now, I can’t validate whether their stories are true. And I know many, many incredible teachers and have seen firsthand dozens of generative, rich school environments where all students can learn. So I am not going to make any grand claims about the state of public school education based on the stories that my students tell me. But it is staggering that I hear these stories again and again, from students who join us from around the country and around the world.
While I certainly can’t say that a majority of schools have these issues, I can say that, based on what I hear from my college freshmen, we need to do better in public education. We need to transform our schools into places where all students know that their teachers believe in them, and where bullying is not tolerated. We need to transform our schools into safe havens for learning.
As arts educators, we have the opportunity to be agents of this transformation. We can close our classroom doors and open up the world of the arts to our students—a world where differences are celebrated and multiple perspectives are valued, a world where all students can find their way to create, express themselves, and succeed. A world where students can reach out for the wide range of possibilities—possibilities for their artistic expression, and for the world around them. A world where Maxine Greene’s wide awakeness comes to life in the ways that people engage with one another, interact with their surroundings, and create their future.
We might not be able to change the aspects of educational institutions, bureaucracy, and policy that can frustrate us, but in our classrooms, with our students, we can create safe havens for learning and transformation, so that our students can make and experience art, construct their identities, and imagine their futures.
Maybe the educators out there who are the subjects of the stories that I have heard will someday learn from our examples. Then, we can work together to transform public education by spreading the wide awakeness of artistic engagement across the curriculum and throughout the school community. Perhaps then my Berklee students will have different stories to tell—stories that won’t break my heart. Until that day, remember that you already have the power as an arts educator to engage your students in imagining what can be, who they can become, and how they want the world to be. You are an agent of transformation in education and in your students’ lives.