VSA Conference Reflection: Guest Blog by Shari Mastalski

Our artist in residency, dancer Shari Mastalski, recently attended a national conference on the Arts and Special Education. She wanted to share her thoughts with you. 

~ Maureen


Dance Around the World, the 2019-20 creative dance residency at the Barber National Institute is made possible by a VSA Arts Connect All contract with the Kennedy Center.  As part of the contract, one person must attend the VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference.  I was selected for this elegant, eye-opening, engaging privilege.

For two wonderfully intense days, I was immersed in an environment of artists, teachers, administrators, and world changers who were all focused on arts and special education.  There were eight break-out sessions, with six impossible-to-make choices in each.  Though I was delighted with each session, I’m still wondering what the other forty had to offer!  I attended sessions on dance, theater arts, music, visual arts, leadership, adapting to students with the highest needs, and student assessment.

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Shari at the Arts and Special Education Conference

Reflection can be difficult.  It is never enough to say, nice, great, fun, and I learned a lot of stuff.  When I teach, I ask myself and those involved some dig-deeper questions that include:  What did we do or learn?  What does it mean?  Why does it matter?  What lessons can we take away and use? 

A good place to begin, I learned what some of my questions are, because you can’t get answers until you know the questions.  How can we assess outcomes?  How can we apply what we teach to a diverse variety of special needs?  How can we apply the arts to the ongoing classroom experience (teaching the teachers)?  There may have been some answers, but more importantly, I can now better attune myself to the quest.  I am encouraged to know that my narrative, subjective, story-form of assessment is appropriate and often the best option.  More than one workshop leader emphasized the importance of personal presence.  Show up mindful, appreciative, and curious to open the space to wonderful possibilities regardless the set of needs, abilities, and challenges.

One session leader, Elaine Hall said, “I can’t cure autism, but I can help cure isolation and self-judgment.”  In her segment, Setting the Stage: Inclusion from Within, Elaine gave a 60-second method to create an inclusive environment.  For 30 seconds, look at everyone in the room with distrust and judgment.  Then for an additional 30 seconds, look at everyone in the room with curiosity, acceptance, and appreciation.  That was a sparkling moment.

With the conference focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, here’s an example of how I experienced that.  In Celebrating Dance and Deaf Perspective, Antoine Hunter (a man who is deaf) clearly created a space where all felt included and welcomed into the dance.  That sums up the conference, welcoming and inclusive.  Thank you for the opportunity!

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