A school in harmony with special needs

Music and art have always resonated deeply with people, regardless of ability. The creative forms can often move, inspire and teach in a way words alone cannot. This is perhaps no more apparent anywhere than at the Future Centre for Special Needs, in Mohammed bin Zayed City. The school accepts children with a range of […]

Music and art have always resonated deeply with people, regardless of ability. The creative forms can often move, inspire and teach in a way words alone cannot.

This is perhaps no more apparent anywhere than at the Future Centre for Special Needs, in Mohammed bin Zayed City.

The school accepts children with a range of developmental challenges, from age 3 to 20. This year is the first for a specialised art department headed by Hamilton Villapando.

“The kids that we have are very special, and they are naturally creative and artistic,” says Villapando.

“Sometimes, due to limitations in verbal communication, they use art to express their feelings and their emotions. We can see the fruits of our labour – the kids are having fun and it’s sort of a relaxation time for them.”

Villapando, who worked at two Filipino schools before joining the Future Centre’s behavioural department, is a largely self-taught artist. Aside from teaching regular classes, he also conducts one-hour bonus sessions for those who excel.

One such group was working on abstract pieces that were auctioned at the centre’s annual gala dinner in February.

Although the school keeps the names of its students confidential to protect their privacy, among Villapando’s star students is an Emirati boy who is not only adept at art but has also won medals for swimming.

The teenager likes to edit photos in Photoshop. One of his most recent projects involved cropping a character out of a screenshot from the video game Call of Duty and placing him against another background.

“This week, we’re going to start in the foreground, using dark colours for the silhouette and then working on the background,” says Villapando.

Other gifted artists include a deaf and mute girl and an autistic child, who has already had a solo show. Every week, students work on different themed art projects. For example, they celebrated Earth Day by working with newspaper.

“We made some skyscrapers, and one of the senior girls made an Eiffel Tower,” he says, pointing to a well-made replica. “We’re going to paint it, too.”

Recycled art is a passion for Villapando, who reuses old canvases. He recalls creating this art and selling it online with his friends, donating the money they raised to schools in the Philippines.

The environmental message is one his students seem to respond to.

“It’s a risk, because the kids have limitations in terms of their understanding, but it’s all worth it,” says the teacher.

“They make baby steps towards saving the environment by reusing materials for their artwork instead of buying new materials from school suppliers.

“We’re hoping next quarter to work on mixed-media art – using different materials on one canvas – so, if they wanted to, they could use Photoshop and add it on the canvas.” 

Raymund Alvarado, another pioneer at the centre, introduced its music programme four years ago.

“Mr Villapando and I have had almost the same experience,” he says. “It was experimental – and we believe that the kids here really have that gift. Whatever gift they have, we will develop it. It’s a mission.”

Previously, Alvarado worked at another school in Abu Dhabi for 17 years, where he introduced its first music programme and formed a small orchestra. It took time for the programme at the Future Centre take shape.

“I started with the beats and rhythms – that’s why I let them play maracas and percussion instruments,” he says.

“As they progressed, I introduced musical notes – C and G, just two notes. I think repetition is very important here – they keep on practising and repeating things, and then they master them.” 

Four years later, some of those children are playing pitched percussion.

One of his students, who is partially blind, learnt to play the keyboard – and performs the UAE national anthem during school assemblies.

Alvarado’s work with the boy began when he became aware that, in some cases, people with impaired sight have more sensitive hearing.

“I was able to help him play, after three years, even though he is half-blind,” he says. “You know what I did? I put Braille on the keys. You should innovate, you know? But it was in Arabic and before, it was hard for me to speak Arabic. I can read Arabic, but I don’t understand it.” To overcome this, Alvarado would research Arabic songs, find lyrics and check them with Arabic language teachers.

“I have a good relationship with the teachers here,” he says. “I try to communicate with them, because I cannot really help their students without their help. I am an instructor, not their class teacher – I do not know their cases.”

Although not a music therapist by job definition, his work could easily be described as such. Spending time in the classrooms, it is hard to imagine the centre without music. Many teachers use songs as a way of engaging students.

During lessons, Alvarado accompanies the students on the piano, as they sing instructional songs in English and Arabic.

The choir can be heard singing: “Twist your right arm, twist your right arm, twist your left arm, twist your left arm,” accompanied by the appropriate movements. “Turn around, shake it down, and twist, twist, twist, twist.”

Alvarado explains that music has the power to cut through perceived limitations – even the physical. Melodies and rhythm make learning easier to digest.

He then sings a song encouraging students to move their fingers in different motions, and the children happily oblige.

“I’ve noticed that music really is the key to other knowledge and other skills,” he says. “For example, some of the students have cerebral palsy, it’s hard for them to shake hands.

“But when I sing the song, they try to shake hands or reach their hands out. Through music they are able to do something. Because it’s rhythmic, their bodies are moving, their muscles are moving, so there will be some exercise too. It helps them a lot and it’s a therapy. It makes them happy.”

Moving from teaching at a mainstream school to a special needs centre was a huge challenge, says Alvarado. One must not only love teaching but also have a passion for the subject.

“Without that, all your knowledge is useless,” he says. “A music teacher should have a talent for music – you can’t just know the notes. If you don’t have the inner talent, it’s difficult for you to teach. If it’s innate, then it’s easy, it will just flow.

“That’s why I am sharing it with them, because I realise they are special. At least I can give them hope of happiness. They’re really happy, they’re really learning.”

Villapando admits his job is “not the most profitable” of professions, Teaching children with special needs is “one of the most personally rewarding careers a person can pursue”. It’s a mission, not just a profession,” he explains.


Source: art & life

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