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Learning through song Fall River music teacher Mary Zema tailors lessons for autistic learners

Herald News - 1/16/2018

FALL RIVER - As Mary Zema sang, "You're making music, yes, indeed?" she stopped in front of each student letting the little hands strum the acoustic guitar. A few minutes later, the group of mostly autistic youngsters got a lesson in counting to five as they practiced on small drums before singing, "Hickory, Dickory, Dock."

On this particular afternoon, Zema was teaching the students in Sue Welch's autism spectrum disorder first- and second-grade classroom at the Henry Lord Community School. Throughout the week, Zema makes her way through five schools in the district bringing the special needs music program she created to students at Henry Lord, the Stone K-8 School, and the Frank M. Silvia, William S. Greene and Letourneau elementary schools.

After working in the district as a music teacher for 29 years in the elementary schools and then the high school, Zema turned her focus to fostering a love of music in students with special needs three years ago. Teaching seven classes a day at the various schools, Zema helps students primarily on the autism spectrum develop verbal skills through the music lessons. "They respond particularly well to music," she added. "It's been very rewarding to see them progress from year to year."

Zema said she decided to develop the music program for autistic students through her interest in how the brain works in relation to speech and singing, which uses two different parts of the brain. "I read about it and decided to give it a try. ... It also engages them more in general because they like music, and verbalization through music," she said.

Working closely with the teachers, Zema tailors the musical lessons to the vowel or consonant the students are learning that week. On that day at Henry Lord, the vowel "o" with the words tock, dock and clock in the children's song.

For a little treat at the end of the lesson, Zema hands over the wireless microphone to the students, giving each of them a turn to sing or verbalize as they wish.

"To see Mary in action is magic; her music class puts smiles on every child's face as they sing, drum, play and dance with her," said Jacqueline Francisco, director of fine and performing arts for the Fall River School Department. "She organized a concert for the community-based learners at Durfee for parents and the community, where students sang and danced, wowing the audience."

One of the ways Henry Lord recognizes Autism Awareness month in April is event is by hosting a concert. This year, Zema and music teacher David Arruda will be working together to integrate their music classes for a combined performance of songs that include themes of friendship, diversity, etc. Students in grades pre-K through six will be singing and playing basic percussion instruments.

Email Linda Murphy at lmurphy@heraldnews.com.

 
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