Within the classroom today, teachers are increasingly being asked to find ways to effectively teach a diverse range of students, including students with developmental disabilities, autism and behavioural challenges. This thesis focuses primarily on two groups of students; adolescents who are designated as being behaviourally at-risk and teens who are labelled cognitively challenged. At first glance, it may seem that these two groups of students have little in common. However, both groups present a challenge to educators as we struggle to find meaningful ways to include and educate them in our school system. This thesis will focus on discovering the unique role that the arts can play in encouraging voice and whole inclusion. Both engagement with the imaginative arts and development of aesthetic literacy are needed because there is interplay between the two. Developing aesthetic literacy provides a means to learn the language and vocabulary of art, whereas participation in the imaginative arts offers opportunities for meaning making, and expression of that meaning. A great number of good ideas can come from opening up spaces for students with diverse needs and abilities to explore their imaginative capacities because as educators we often put limitations on students who are capable of a lot more. Providing spaces for students to be immersed in this process is key, because immersion provides a more in depth exploration and offers a much-needed social component. The opportunity to experience this immersion is needed both in school and in the community because it can offer spaces for social interaction. In this thesis, I argue that participation in the arts cannot only facilitate a stronger sense of self and community, but can also help to develop empathy for people who are perceived as being different from the norm. I put forth the notion that participation in the arts can encourage our students to form a stronger aesthetic and ethical sense of the world and themselves. Even though this thesis focuses on ways to empower and include students with diverse needs and abilities, the theory and curriculum put forth in this thesis can potentially benefit all students.
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