“But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken …”
Don McLean, American Pie
At six years old, Celeste had never spoken. She’d never cooed to kittens or scrunched up her nose and let out a baby giggle. She’d never said “mama” “dada,” “hi” or even the toddler war cry of “no!”
Neither her parents, teachers nor friends had ever heard her voice.
A group of United Federation of Teachers members - special education classroom teachers and speech pathologists who work at P.S. 58 in Staten Island - decided to make a video for a citywide Film Festival and feature Celeste, showing how children can utilize other ways to communicate.
The theme of the New York City Department of Education citywide Speech Film Festival was Fairy Tales, so they crafted their video as “The Land of Speech Believe.”
The actors in the video are all students who dressed up as fairy tale characters. The usual A-list celebrity scene-stealers were there: Snow White, Ariel, Rapunzel and Anna from “Frozen.” Celeste, who has Down’s Syndrome, was a princess named Brielle.
The teachers and speech pathologists, who work in a part of the P.S. 58 school called P373R, wrote the dialogue and the script. The video shows Celeste following a map and traveling with her young friends in search of words. At each stop, she fails to find them. But her peers show her other ways to communicate: using signs, or using hand gestures.
Role-playing in the video helped the students work on their social skills and improve on how they interact with each other, explained Stephanie Castro, who works in the school’s special education program as a speech language pathologist, along with Erica D’Appolonia and Jennifer Hionas. Their students range from being minimally verbal to verbal. They have Down’s Syndrome, a form of autism, or intellectual disabilities. Celeste, whose face is full of charm and expression, is the only one who was completely non-verbal.
The students gathered in the school’s auditorium for many rehearsals. At the end of rehearsal one day, with the stage still awash in red, blue and yellow lights, Celeste walked over to the standing microphone. No one was using it. She put her hands on it. Then she started making noises.
“I called over Erica and Jennifer,” Castro said. “I thought I heard a whispering sound. Then it got louder and louder. She was babbling and making sounds.
“Then she started laughing. I realized she was hearing it through the speakers. She was hearing her own voice for the first time!”
Then this little girl, who loves music, started singing.
“We witnessed a miracle,” said Castro, admitting that, by now, they were all crying. “She was beaming.”
“I think with everything that was on stage, she thought she was performing,” said D’Appolonia.
The speech pathologists whipped out their phones and began recording Celeste.
“They called up to the classroom and said, ‘You have to get down here immediately,’” said Christine Hoffman, Celeste’s classroom teacher. She rushed to the auditorium.
“They showed me the footage and I was crying,” said Hoffman, who teaches special education, along with Sheena Sowlakis, another partner in the program. “She never heard her own voice!”
Castro called Celeste’s parents with the joyous news, and then sent them an email and the video. Since then, Castro has taken Celeste to the auditorium to speak with the microphone. She has made sounds at home and in school without the microphone, as well.
“She just said ‘Bye’ for the first time last week without the microphone,” said Castro.
“It’s not just the teachers and therapists who are excited,” said D’Appolonia. “Her peers are just as excited. They know her as the student who keeps to herself.”
For these girls and boys, there was much more excitement to come. The Land of Speech Believe won a best video award from the Department of Education.
“The beautiful and emotional moment that Celeste discovered her own voice is featured at the end of the video as a bonus segment,” said D’Appolonia.
The triumphant youngsters attended a formal Film Festival ceremony in Queens last month, and then their own Staten Island school hosted a special evening for them, complete with a red carpet, red velvet ropes and an award ceremony to acknowledge the first-place victory. Each actor was presented with a trophy for their work on the winning film, and then given a certificate after being chosen for an award such as “most inspiring” or “best sense of humor.” Standing ovations, cheers and tears filled the school.
As for the students, Hoffman said, “They were so proud of themselves. Pride was just beaming out of them.”
The celebration has shifted things in the school, the team of therapists and teachers agreed.
“The feedback we got from the general education teachers who don’t see what we do on a regular basis was overwhelming. I feel like the vibe changed a little bit,” said Hoffman. General ed students starting high-fiving the special ed students.
The project received news coverage and community accolades.
The thrill of winning the competition lives on, as does the progress Celeste is making with her voice. All of these students will attend summer school so they don’t lose any educational ground, Hoffman said. New goals will be set. Ironically, Castro said she had met with Celeste’s parents the day of the transformative rehearsal to set goals for their daughter. “They just wanted to hear some type of vocalization,” she said.
A blockbuster breakthrough such as this is just one of many reasons why Hoffman appreciates the therapists who work with the K-2 students in her blended classroom, including physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, etc.
“I welcome all therapists to push into the classroom,” Hoffman said. “Working as a team is best.”
Making the video aligned well with the school’s “Just Say Hi” initiative this year, Hoffman said. P373 is one of the pilot schools for the program, which was developed by the Cerebral Palsy Program to encourage people on how to start a conversation with people with a disability.