Montclair Storyteller, Verona Performers Team Up For Special Needs Classes

A story can do much more than entertain, according to Montclair’s Gerald Fierst. Stories can educate and inspire as well.

Along with the Pushcart Players performance group in Verona, Fierst put the idea to the test by launching a storytelling program for children with autism and special needs. The 28-week initiative started in October at Today’s Learning Center in Clifton and was funded primarily by a $20,000 grant from the Pine Tree Foundation.

“Art isn’t luxury. This isn’t just about entertainment,” Fierst said. “This is about quality of life through quality of thinking. This is how to expand our horizons.”

Fierst visits the Clifton center once a week and explores topics such as folk tales, family history, and poetry. The Pushcart Players, a nonprofit group of performers in Verona, use their talents for productions scheduled through the year and by lending their puppeteer to help, according to Producing Artistic Director Paul Whelihan.

“I can tell you the teachers are thrilled with it, the students are very engaged and very enthused about it, as is the administration,” Whelihan said. “It looks like we’re on to something good here.”

Terrence P. Burnett brings his expertise with puppets to add another dimension to the program. Whelihan said puppets help give the children another way to communicate.

The coordinators are using this year as a pilot version of the storytelling class, as Whelihan said they’re mostly writing the curriculum as they go along. They could serve as a model program for others to emulate going forward, he noted.

Whelihan credited much of the success to Fierst. A Montclair resident since 1971, he has performed in the United States, Europe and Asia. He has worked with the arts in education and served as a co-director of the MidAtlantic Storytellers‘ Gathering, as a member of the board of The New York Storytelling Center, and as artistic director of the Jewish Storytelling Center in New York City.

“The arts are a really powerful tool to teach all sorts of populations,” Fierst said. “[English as a second language], special needs, and even general population, because the arts teach abstract thinking. The arts teach imagination.”

Whelihan said Fierst has a good demeanor with the kids and builds trust instantly.

“He’s like a friendly uncle or grandparent to a lot of the kids,” Whelihan said. “They’re very disarmed by him right away, and he knows how to communicate across the spectrum.”

The Pushcart Players will be back on center stage for a performance to thank the community and Pine Tree Foundation for the support. On Saturday, Dec. 10, at 7 p.m., the Pushcart Players perform at Today’s Learning Center, 199 Scoles Ave. in Clifton.

To attend the free autism-friendly performance of “Stone Soup,” a show based on popular folktales, RSVP to 973-478-4866.

Link To Article  – http://www.northjersey.com/story/news/education/2016/12/05/montclair-storyteller-verona-performers-team-up-special-needs-class/95004368/