My first introduction to Makaton was more of a happy accident rather than something I set out to discover. I am a dance artist and I deliver curriculum linked, or topic based dance projects that teach transferable skills. However, after completing my degree and a year of vocational training the pathway to this wasn’t a direct one.
Someone suggested that I get more experience of working in schools as a Teaching Assistant, so I signed up with some agencies and the rest, as they say, is history...
I first worked at Spa School more than 12 years ago and met a team of dedicated and highly skilled staff working with students who just loved going to school. It is one of the happiest schools I have ever spent time at and is the place I feel impacted my teaching more than most, in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
Spa School was where I first saw Makaton being used. I had never heard about Makaton before but I was fascinated by how it gave their students a way to communicate that worked for them and played to their non-verbal strengths.
After my first day at Spa School I went home and taught myself how to sign the alphabet so I could help support students to participate in the morning hello song. I found Makaton fun and hugely rewarding to use, which motivated me to want to learn and use it more. I set out to learn as much as I could by observing different teachers, looking online at the Makaton website, and watching Mr Tumble and, of course, Singing Hands.
While working as a Teaching Assistant I was lucky to be able to ‘learn from the back’: Along with discovering Makaton I was able to learn about a range of SEN(D) teaching approaches and see how these could be adapted to support individuals. At the same time I was able to build up my own dance teaching work and I started incorporating what I observed into my own teaching. After a few years I also became the dance teacher at Spa School. This role allowed me to continue developing my own teaching practice and, to start exploring strategies to allow students to access and progress in a dance class with the support of Makaton.
Slowly I was teaching at more schools and growing my work portfolio. I could see that sometimes signs were performed differently which could get confusing. As I had learnt Makaton mainly through a Chinese Whispers approach until this point, I was really keen to know how I should be signing. I completed the Foundation and Enhancement Workshops and loved not only learning more Makaton, but all the other aspects that make Makaton what it is.
After this training I was more confident and knowledgeable about what to do but I wanted to be able to do more which led me to Tutor training. I had heard students say their first words and seen them making independent choices or advocating for themselves using Makaton, and I wanted to help other people to have similar experiences. I also wanted to continue improving my own skills and keep developing ways of using Makaton in a dance session.
Having spent so much time working in different schools some of the ways that I use Makaton in a dance session are similar to how Makaton is used in the classroom. For example, Makaton supports the routine and structure of sessions, facilitates social opportunities and is used within coursework for qualifications such as ASDAN, Entry Pathway Qualifications, and Arts Awards.
In dance, Makaton also helps individuals to learn and understand action words, positional language, abstract concepts and choreographic skills. For example, we could be creating a travelling section of a dance involving children performing a series of still body shapes or positions and traveling between these shapes. Makaton signs and symbols, together with objects or props, can be used to create and develop children’s body shapes.
Children experiment placing the props (yellow or wooden men) in different shapes, drawing them and replicating them with their own bodies.
Photographs of other people performing different body shapes are used in the same way.
Over time, these support children to independently create their own body shapes and more ideas can be added.
My own organisation, Splatter Dance, is the first, and currently only, Makaton Friendly organisation in West Lancashire, though I hope I can help change this sooner rather than later. To deliver some of our sessions we work with a group of Support Artists who all attend one of my Makaton Taster sessions. I also introduce Makaton dance concepts every week, or few weeks, so that they can slowly develop a dance-specific Makaton vocabulary. I have been developing ways of teaching Makaton to other dance teachers to provide them with functional dance vocabulary and am applying for funding to continue researching this.
Maybe because I’ve danced for so many years I generally found Makaton fairly easy to learn and remember. For me Makaton could be described as ‘dancing with my hands’ and as I’ve always had a good movement memory, Makaton is another movement, or dance, to remember. Makaton is a little bit of magic in my teaching ‘bag of tricks’, not to be underestimated and which I couldn’t imagine being without.