IU13 Outlook January 2016 Issue

Holiday Play CastBeyond the Play – Tradition Gives Long-Lasting Gifts


What’s your holiday tradition? Decorating … Singing … Celebrating with friends and family? For IU13 teacher Joni Hilbert-Hess, her class tradition for the past 16 years has been “all of the above,” by performing an annual holiday play at Manheim Central Middle School where her class is located. While a performance like this may sound typical, however, this one is special in that all of her students have multiple disabilities.

As Hilbert-Hess explains, “The students that are in my class usually do not get the opportunity to be in a play or perform on a stage for band or chorus concerts. This is usually their opportunity to show off what they can do -- whether it be walking across the stage in their walker, activating a switch to say their lines or saying one word in the microphone….This is usually the only time the parents have seen their child in the spotlight on a stage in a performance. We love giving that to them!”

A huge team effort is a hallmark of the annual play. Hilbert-Hess writes each year’s play, adapting it to that year’s students. Manheim Central High School’s drama director helps with costumes, props, lighting and sound system. The middle school’s jazz band, orchestra, and chorus, as well as the IU13 Life Skills Support class, provide entertainment between scenes. Various middle school teachers also record each character’s lines for the “switches” used by the student actors who are nonverbal or need assistance to speak.

A particularly striking part of the team is the crew of 40+ middle school students who participated this year. Student volunteers help one-on-one with Hilbert-Hess’s students, as well as by manning stage microphones and serving as narrators.

Holiday Play CastWhile this year’s play has successfully been performed and is a fond memory, this tradition has a lasting impact for many:

Each family receives a recorded copy of the play each year, and family support frequently continues beyond their child’s involvement. Hilbert-Hess notes, “Every year I have several parents attend the play even though their son or daughter had passed away.  It is always very emotional to see them there, but I appreciate their support every year. I usually have past students and their families attend the play as well.”

A “lifelong lesson” for Hilbert-Hess to share with fellow teachers: “Always have high expectations for your students no matter how significant their disability is. When you give students the access and the tools, they always seem to surprise us with their abilities.”

From an 8th grade student volunteer: “I love to help Mrs. Hilbert-Hess’ students … It [the play] allows you to see them and help them in a different environment … I enjoy helping them say and act their parts on stage.” And she shares the lesson that “There is no need to be scared of students with disabilities -- I have gotten to know them over the years and can see how they communicate.”

From a classroom play in 1999 for about 20 viewers to this year’s school-wide effort for a nearly 300-member audience, this holiday tradition is certainly a gift that keeps giving!

Enjoy a quick view of this year’s play – A Christmas Carol:

Watch Video!

Explore IU13 Outlook January 2016 Issue