“I think we should enter this Karen!”
These were the words of our school Head Teacher Clive Lawrence as he handed me a letter during October about a mainstream Christmas choir competition that was to take place in Derby’s INTU centre in November.
We are a Primary Special School in Derby, with a pupil age range from 4 to 11 years who have a range of special educational needs and disabilities. I became a Makaton Regional Tutor two years ago and have been working at St Giles School for 15 years now.
In preparation for the competition, we created a small team of volunteers and called ourselves Team Choir. We met once or twice a week with the children who chose to join the choir for half hour practice sessions. Initially we watched Singing Hands' DVD It’s a Christmas Cracker with the children and they voted on their favourite song to sing and sign for the competition, which was Away in a Manger. We had great fun learning this and Team Choir picked it up quickly because we could see the signs on the video, which we used together with the Makaton Christmas Carols book.
For our second song we voted again, and this time the children chose a school Christmas assembly song, On Christmas Day, that they all love and are able to add their own verses to. It was easy to learn this song as it is quite a familiar song to our staff and children and we tend to sing it each year at Christmas.
By this time the date of the contest was fast approaching and we had now been sent the third song for the competition that the judges had selected for each school to sing. The title of this song was Angels in the Snow, which was quite a complicated song to learn for our children. This initially filled me with panic, but we had worked so hard and I was determined not to let the extremely motivated children and members of Team Choir down.
Our school music lead called the competition organisers to ask if we could adapt the song slightly by allowing us to sing part of the song twice rather than the whole song, and to slow it down to enable us to perform to our strengths and still enter. The organisers agreed and said they wanted us to take part, were fully supportive of making these changes, and were keen for the experience to be fun!
I translated the song into sign and symbol to help the children remember, sing and sign the song effectively, using the Makaton Christmas Carols books to find all the key signs. The rehearsals were going well and Team Choir began to grow, with more and more people giving up their lunch time to get involved and support the children. On Monday 21st November 2016, Madame Mayor, Linda Winter, came to visit our school and was very impressed by our choir’s performance.
The day arrived for us to perform for the judges: by this time the entire school was buzzing and had got involved!
We had The St Giles Choir T-Shirts made with our school logo on, the children had luxury Santa hats to wear, some of which had been donated by The Range, a local superstore, where the manger had been keen to offer support. The school governors, parents, ex-staff members, parents, careers, friends of the school, whole class groups from the school, and the senior managers, including the Head Teacher and Madame Mayor, had come along to support us. The INTU shopping centre Derby was buzzing with excitement as we waited for our turn to perform. I have never felt as nervous, excited and proud during my 15 years of service at St Giles School as I did on that day
When our turn came, the crowd were magnificent. They were cheering for us as a Primary Special School competing in a mainstream competition, and rooting for us to do well. The children were brilliant! They remembered all of the songs, which were supported with Makaton signs, and the comments from the judges were outstanding.
Many of our supporters were emotional from how beautifully the children had performed and that they had been given a chance to share their communication skills through singing to the wider public. One parent commented "It was lovely for parents to see their children taking part and so obviously enjoying their moment in the limelight".
We didn’t win the competition on this occasion but we definitely felt like winners on the day. The whole school and wider community became involved and we loved showing everyone our wonderful singing, supported by our Makaton skills.
I hope we can inspire other establishments with our story and we look forward to next year’s choir competition. Since the contest we have continued with our choir group and are very proud of our achievements.
Communication Practitioner, St Giles School, Derby