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This Brooklyn teacher is making theater more accessible to students with all abilities

A teacher in a T-shirt and jeans stands on a stage directing two teen students, one standing in a red T-shirt and blue pants pushing the other who is in a wheelchair and wearing a white T-shirt and blue shorts.

Brooklyn theater teacher Michael Pantone, right, works with his students at District 75’s P721K, the Roy Campanella Occupational Training Center.

Courtesy of Michael Pantone

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

A serendipitous subway ride about 20 years ago led Michael Pantone from his acting career to teaching theater at a Brooklyn public school serving children with disabilities.

On the No. 2 train, Pantone had run into an actor friend as she headed to direct an after-school theater program for middle school students. She invited Pantone, who was between acting gigs, to check it out. He went the next day and ended up assisting her. That led to them co-directing a summer student theater program. Then, the private school that housed the program offered Pantone a full-time position teaching theater.

For the past eight years, Pantone has taught theater at District 75’s P721K, the Roy Campanella Occupational Training Center, where he splits his time between working with high school students with multiple disabilities and K–2 students with autism. He often leads workshops for other teachers and teaching artists working in general education settings, as well as in District 75, a group of specialized schools serving students with the most significant disabilities. Pantone, who holds master’s degrees in theater education and special education, was among 20 teachers recognized by the city’s education department in this year’s Big Apple Apple awards given to outstanding educators

Each year, after Pantone works with his students on performance skills, he also helps them turn their ideas into fully realized theater pieces.

“When devising an original scene, some students can easily verbalize ideas, preferences, and concerns. For many, however, this is not their preferred method of communication; instead, they communicate with their bodies, eyes, gestures, behaviors, and communication devices,” Pantone said. “For me, it’s fascinating to be constantly reminded how the communication of wants and needs can be so easily conveyed if one is open to receiving them.”

Chalkbeat talked with Pantone about his creative approaches to teaching theater to students with disabilities and his efforts to make arts education more accessible and inclusive.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.  

When you moved into teaching, did you know you wanted to work with students with disabilities?

I did not know I wanted to work with students with disabilities at first, but to be honest, the students that required me to dream up ways to best serve them, were becoming my ‘favorite’ students to work with. I was creatively challenged, and these young people were so willing to learn and grateful to be included in the ensemble. I came to learn many of these students did indeed have IEPs [Individualized Learning Programs].

When I was able to provide supports, such as clear step-by-step directions, modified choreography, adapted lines in the script, etc., wonderful things started to happen. Disruptive behaviors dissipated, casts became more supportive of one another and performed as true ensembles.

I cannot see myself working in any other community today.

Can you tell us a bit more about some of the different approaches you use with your high school students and your early elementary school students?

My high school students with multiple disabilities and my elementary students with autism are perhaps some of our students with the most severe and profound disabilities. With these students, I am left with wonderful opportunities to figure out how to tell and act out stories with students with limited or no mobility and those who are mostly nonverbal. 

With students with multiple disabilities, the work we do often involves choice-making. We do this through the use of assistive communication devices, motion detection technology, and peer-to-peer interaction (i.e. an ambulatory student assisting a wheelchair user in their performing efforts).  

Many of my elementary students with autism have the desire for social interaction but may lack the skills to engage appropriately or can be overwhelmed by it. So, social interaction and awareness are at the core of our curriculum. We work to understand one another by exploring non-verbal communication, body language, facial expression, all which are foundational theater skills. 

You also spend a lot of time teaching teachers. How do you try to inspire them to incorporate more inclusive practices?

I present on inclusive practices for not only special education theater teachers, but also for general education theater teachers who are finding more and more students with IEPs in their classrooms. 

I try to demystify any misconceptions they may have about working with students with disabilities by being frank about what disability is and the many ways it can look and feel. 

I am big on the expression, ‘accept all offers’ and theater teachers have heard me speak on this over and over again in the workshops I lead. Accepting all offers simply means to remove any preconceived ideas of what an outcome should look like and accept the response offered by students as right and just even if you, the teacher, can’t make sense of it at the moment. Their offerings are authentic and spontaneous and our job as the ‘professionals’ is to figure out how the offerings fit into the big picture; again, super creative work! 

Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.

Interestingly, I do not remember very much about my early school life, which I chalk up to be because I wasn’t having fun. I do, however, remember every show or performance I did dating back to kindergarten because for me, that was fun, meaningful, and magical! This is where I learned and how I learned best. 

NowI seek the fun element in every lesson I create in the hope students will have experiences where they are making meaning of themselves, how they fit in the world, and how to secure their places within it. 

As you prepare for the coming school year, what are you most looking forward to?

We are super excited about getting our students back on buses and subways to explore the arts in New York City after not being able to due to COVID.  

Partnering with outside arts organizations provides additional exposure that we may not be able to provide with our in-house offerings. For example, many of our students have never attended a live theatrical production, visited a museum, or gone to a dance or music concert. These partnerships make that happen and in many instances create opportunities for our students to engage most effectively by offering autism-friendly performances, which include sensory exploration and modified technical effects such as loud sound, bright lights, etc. 

What’s one thing you’ve read that has made you a better educator?

“Lost At School by Ross W. Greene is a book that I have read and reread and reread. In fact, I try to read it yearly. 

In it, Greene explores challenging student behaviors and simply defines these as ‘unsolved problems.’ The unsolved problems become the collaborative task to solve between staff and student. Greene provides multiple strategies to assist, but most importantly, he shows us how we can ‘flip the script’ on our reactions to challenging behaviors and to be more understanding of them because they are the result of ‘unsolved problems.’ 

This book has made me a much better educator and overall human.

You have a busy job, and this is a stressful time. How do you take care of yourself when you’re not at work?

I exercise! When I get home from work, I almost immediately do a 30-45 minute workout in my home gym (Peloton and Tonal enthusiast here!). These minutes to myself allow me to shake off the day, get some good endorphins going, and are the best gift I can give my family as I really try to be home when I get home from work.

Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at azimmer@chalkbeat.org.

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