"How they celebrated" Celebrations in schools for children with Special Needs

The Warnock Report defined the aims of education for all children as being, First to enlarge a child’s knowledge, experience, and imaginative understanding and thus his or her awareness of moral values and capacity for enjoyment; and secondly to enable him or her to enter the world after formal education is over as an active participant in society and a responsible contributor to it, capable of achieving as much independence as possible.

As with general aims, so with the aims and objectives of Religious Education — they are intended for all children. Celebration is one way of achieving these objectives, and, in schools for children with special needs, celebrations are a particularly important part of the pupils’ Religious Education.

My Chambers dictionary gives one definition of celebrate as to do something enjoyable because of a feeling of pleasure at some event or achievement. This kind of celebration is part of every day experience, although many of us may not register it consciously. Pupils celebrate coming together, perhaps with an Hallo song as they come into school in the morning. In one classroom pupils greet each other by name and share orange juice and perhaps a biscuit with each other; in other classes there may be a quiet time at an appropriate point of the day, when pupils can share their news with each other and their teacher; a time when they can talk about life and sometimes death; anger and frustration, grief and joy. Of course, special days and seasons are not forgotten. In one school for children with moderate learning difficulties an Eid assembly at the end of Ramadan provided an opportunity for exploring the meaning of Ramadan for Muslim fellow pupils and a teacher, for singing a song about a donkey who went clip clop, clip clop to the mosque, and exchanging cards wishing each other and their guests from a nearby primary school, ‘The Blessings of Eid’.

Often major celebrations are enjoyed by the whole school. Two teachers write of their experiences: Gerry Carton is a teacher at an ILEA residential school for mentally handicapped children (from a multi-ethnic background).

“In October I was planning a lesson and assembly on Diwali and wondered how I would hold the attention of pupils whose concentration span can be very limited. The assembly began with a projected slide of a Hindu girl at a shrine. A number of lights in small earthenware vessels were lit. The lights in the semi darkness held the children’s attention and I began to ask what were some of the things they liked best about Christmas. Presents, decorations, trees with lights, Christmas dinner, pudding and cakes were among the replies. A final question concerned bonfire night. I now had my basis to work from, as presents, lights, special food, decorations are all features of Diwali. It was then possible to describe how all these things play a part in the festival.

“Fireworks (sparklers) were given to some of the children to hold, especially effective in the half light. One of the girls who is a Hindu was given an orange coloured garland. All the pupils were promised that there would be special sweets at teatime. My promise was not forgotten. As I walked through the dining room at tea a voice called out ‘Gerry, where are the sweets?’

“All lessons and assemblies have a practical element which has contributed towards more meaningful activities. Other festivals have been approached in a similar manner. Greetings cards are exchanged by the children and are sent to parents on special occasions — a move which has been much appreciated. The Domestic Bursar is also involved. We discuss, and she provides special foods relating to festival days, which helps to consolidate learning from experiences earlier in the day.

“The response of the pupils to lessons and assemblies has been better than I could have expected. I am very grateful for the encouragement and support of all my colleagues”.

Marion Evans teaches children with very severe learning difficulties. She writes of their celebrations. “This was our first attempt at celebrating the Chinese New Year. Many of the children had worked out their birth years and made the appropriate masks. Pictures of tigers were well in evidence and red paper surrounded the doors of the building to keep the dragons out and our good luck in. Lots of children by now had cooked and eaten Chinese food with, of course, chopsticks. Despite a lack of materials initially, Chinese artef acts appeared from many sources giving us a variety of displays.

“In the assembly itself we burnt Chinese incense, played the Phases of the Moon, and wore Chinese dress. We sang our usual Hello song but substituted the Chinese word for Hello. We talked abut the clothes we were wearing, the objects on the display table and last but not least, we sampled Chinese food.

“The school band played music to accompany our singing of a song devised for the occasion by the music therapist. We then looked at all the different animals representing each year, shown by children wearing masks. The transition group acted out the story of how the Rat represented the first year in the calendar by winning a race across a river.

“The highlight of our assembly was the arrival of the dragon (an authentic dragon dance head with a body of fabric and foil made by some of the older pupils). Two adults and eight children were underneath and we danced to traditional dragon dance music with much banging and cymbal crashing.

“We finished the assembly by offering prawn crackers to everyone and singing our goodbye song, but of course, in this case Zai Jain”.

At the end of the autumn term I sat spellbound, as did everybody else in the hall, while profoundly deaf children mimed the Christmas story from the Creation to the Visitation of the Kings and then, still in mime, reminded us of the spread of the news of Jesus’ birth, and finally entertained us with a dance presentation of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Food was not forgotten — two beaming eight-year-olds arrived disguised as the Christmas dinner table and the pudding. The scenery and costumes were arresting but uncomplicated; the timings of exits and entrances of movement and dance were perfect, which spoke volumes for the meticulous rehearsals which had taken place. The youngest children were just over two, the oldest were eight. The sensitivity and dignity of the children’s presentation gave their parents and other adults present a fresh insight into the meaning of the Christmas story.

The preparation for these celebrations is always meticulous and often lengthy. Gerry Carton’s preparations for Harvest Festival begin very early, for he and his pupils prepare the ground, buy the seeds, plant, nurture and harvest the produce which they display at their assembly before wrapping and delivering to different groups in the town where their school is sited. Another group of pupils with severe learning difficulties planned a festival with their teacher, went shopping for the resources they needed, made decorations, costumes and food.

Celebrations of this kind involve not only all the pupils but also most of the adults in the school in one way or another. Parents, too, have a part to play. They may lend resources or expertise. One Indian mother who was persuaded to overcome her own shyness added greatly to the children’s enjoyment when she dressed Sita in her sari at the beginning of a Diwali celebration so that all could see how it was done.

These celebrations give the pupils and their guests an opportunity to explore the meaning behind the festival story and to become involved in the feelings involved at an appropriate level. The care taken of Sita on one occasion was so great that I began to wonder if Ravana would be defeated before the kidnap took place. The subsequent joy when she was rescued and returned home with Rama was equally real.

Pupils also gain in understanding of the people whose faith is expressed in the celebrations. When a group of boys visited a London synagogue to participate in the Shabbat experience they were forced by the warmth of the welcome they received and the way in which the Shabbat ceremony was interpreted for them, to rethink some of the prejudices which they had expressed when the visit was first broached. There has been space to mention only a few of the delightful ways in which the schools celebrate. Certainly, through the use of materials and methods which challenge the imagination and assault the senses — “the pupils”, said one teacher, “must be able to handle, to see, to listen, to smell and to taste” — pupils are introduced to story, encouraged to wonder and stimulated to care and to share.

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