Podcast: Classroom Choreography and Improvisational Education

Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Early one morning, a new teacher walked through the doors of Harlan Elementary School’s special education classroom. At 4:00 that afternoon, that teacher drove to the school administration offices and quit.
The next day, Briona McKinney showed up to start her new position in that same classroom.
In her conversation with Unrestrained host Terry Vittone, McKinney paints a series of such striking pictures. You’ll see her first student, Scott, working to adjust to a mainstream classroom setting. Her autism teacher-consultant and fellow CPI Certified Instructor, Nancy, listening to her fears and celebrating her successes in that first month at Harlan Elementary. Other images emerge. A student swinging a lunch tray. A staff member hiding behind a shelf to try and decode a nonverbal de-escalation process.
As a former dancer, McKinney reflects, “My school day is an eight-hour performance. You know, arguably, dance is all about control. So every movement a dancer takes requires full control of the mind and the body. And if you’ve ever had the opportunity to see a professional dance company, it truly looks effortless to the audience, but if you’ve ever been behind the scenes, you know that’s not the case.

As much necessity as there may be for choreography in working with children impacted by ASD, improvisational skills are equally vital. McKinney depicts a particularly daunting de-escalation in which she elected to hit “reset” mid-intervention, trusting the steadying rubric of tools like the Decision-Making Matrix. When training is bolstered with confidence and skill, educators can find the freedom to maneuver creatively to address student challenges constructively.
Much like McKinney’s own career has bridged a creative perspective to an educational approach, each step of this conversation carries educators as individuals to their place in the larger story not just of classrooms but of cultures. What she’s learned and developed in her own professional experience as both a special educator and a Certified Instructor is translated to school staff in all kinds of settings—along with her co-facilitator, McKinney typically trains about 300 professionals annually.

If you feel like you’ve lost a step lately, you’ll find the rhythm of this dialog immensely restorative. It’s simultaneously two artists talking about how to be human and two professionals talking about how to help the humans they serve. There is a wonderful nuance to Briona McKinney’s approach to special education—a sense that with an understanding of the steps as they’re written, there comes an empowering freedom to invent a few on the fly. It’s an inspiring glimpse into an educator’s passion and professionalism that you’ll want to share with your colleagues. Don’t miss this episode!

Guest Biography

Briona McKinney believes that every human being has the right and responsibility to develop, learn, and grow, and it is her mission “to develop in others compassion and a sense of shared responsibility in advocating for and supporting individuals on the autism spectrum.” A special educator for over 13 years, Briona earned her master’s degree in special education from Oakland University in 2011. For the past 11 years, she has been a teacher of students impacted by ASD at Harlan Elementary in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Briona became a CPI Certified Instructor in 2016, and provides training to paraprofessionals, ancillary staff, general and special educators, and administrators. Earlier this year, Briona founded a Twitter chat called Specialized Instruction & Student Services, #SISSchat, in an effort to build a professional learning network for leaders working in special education.