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Special Education and Music


Band Director Earns Doctorate at Teachers College Writing About What May Be Only Band of Its Kind In Nation

The ninth-grader was very timid. He almost never spoke, and, as a special education student, he may have felt there was nothing he could do well.

Then he took the beginning band class for special education students at Curtis High School on Staten Island and began to play the alto saxophone. As the weeks went by, other students in the class complimented him and asked for his help with musical pieces. Sometimes the teacher would have him demonstrate a selection to the class.

After a year, the boy was able to join the regular band. He is a junior now and "he has become a leader musically," according to Paul Tooker, who teaches the special education beginning band class.

"If you went into a band rehearsal today," Tooker said, "you would not be able to pick him out as a special education student. He still doesn't communicate verbally very much, but he is popular and feels important because of his music."

The special education beginning band class at Curtis--which may be the only one of its kind in the nation--was the subject of Tooker's doctoral dissertation at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Tooker's experience with the class proves to him that, given some modifications in the curriculum, special education students can develop both musically and socially in band. Every year, Tooker said, one or two students from the special education class are mainstreamed after their first year into the regular band, where they "function on par with the regular students."

In fact, most of the other students in the regular band do not even know that some of their fellow musicians are special education students, Tooker said.

The students in the special education beginning band are either learning disabled or emotionally disturbed, and the ones who suffer from emotional problems seem to get the most out of the band class, Tooker said.

"The harder I work with them musically," the teacher said, "the more I keep them focused on the musical tasks at hand. It's a tough job for me as a teacher, but it's worth it."

Some of the special education students have a great deal of musical talent, Tooker said. "They have innate skills that have not been developed. It makes me wonder how much they could have learned musically if someone had discovered them in the fourth or fifth grade."

"I have found that developing music reading and performance skills to the special education students' potential is the most effective way to prepare these students for possible mainstreaming opportunities," Tooker added. "That was one of the things that led me to begin this program, to give the students an opportunity to be mainstreamed appropriately."

In researching his dissertation at Teachers College, Tooker videotaped 15 weeks of classes. He also drew upon experts in both music education and special education to help him analyze what happened in the class.

Although the special education band usually does not perform in public (and therefore, Tooker said, "I enjoy the process and do not teach to the concert."), the musicians did perform for a group of administrators from around New York City in the spring of 1994. At that performance, the students talked about and demonstrated their instruments and then gave a 15-minute concert.

The students in the special education band class always choose their own instruments--sometimes with Tooker's advice. This year, the class is made up of four drummers, two trombone players, one baritone horn player, two alto saxophone players, two trumpet players and two clarinet players. Nine of the musicians are boys.

Tooker, who has taught at Curtis High for 11 years, is also the performing and visual arts coordinator at the school. He grew up on Staten Island and earned his bachelor of music and master of music degrees at Manhattan School of Music.

At Teachers College, he took classes in music education and special education, and his doctoral dissertation committee was made up of professors from both departments--including Lenore M. Pogonowski, associate professor of music education, and Margaret Jo Shepherd, professor in the Department of Special Education.

Lately, Tooker has been presenting workshops on "Instrumental Music for Special Learners."

As more and more special education students are mainstreamed into regular classrooms, including music classrooms, Tooker says that teachers, as well as band and choral directors, need to have more information on how to develop teaching strategies for these students.

"The music education literature is rather bare on this issue, especially when dealing with high school students," he said. "Everyone needs more information. That's why I want to share what I know."

Teachers College, a graduate school devoted to learning across the lifespan and both in and out of the classroom, is an affiliate of Columbia University but retains its legal and financial independence. Some 4,000 students are currently working toward both master's and doctoral degrees.

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