As I mentioned in my previous blog post, Ananth started his theater arts journey with Ramana Sunritya Aalaya in 2020. Since that time, he has explored many values through his theatre arts experiences. Value exploration is deeply embedded in Theater Arts for Holistic Development (TAHD) experiences. TAHD was developed by Dr. Ambika Kameshwar, Founder and Director of RASA.
The Need for Value Exploration for Neurodivergent Learners
Values give a sensemaking framework and along with movement and other TAHD tools and techniques can help neurodivergent learners manage stress and lead a fulfilling life. Storytelling has been used as a vehicle for teaching values for a long time. Neurodivergent learners experience language processing, auditory processing, working memory, executive memory, and other challenges that pose significant barriers to storytelling and value exploration. However, given these challenges, an explicit teaching of values and daily practice may be even more important for neurodivergent learners as compared to neurotypical learners who acquire values through interactions with many people in daily experiences throughout their lives.
In this post, I will describe our journey of discovery. Over the last 2.5 years, we have seen different ways in which values are explored through TAHD experiences. Ananth started learning Bharatanatyam from Sri Ujwal Jagadeesh, Theater Arts for Holistic Development (TAHD) Facilitator, Senior Faculty and Artiste, Ramana Maharshi Center for Learning in October 2022.
As Ananth started learning Bharatanatyam with a TAHD facilitator, value exploration became more systematic and consistent because of the way in which value exploration and storytelling were integrated with the structure of Bharatanatyam lessons. Today, we have started exploring values as a more intentional daily practice.
Exploring Values through Storytelling: The TAHD Way
Watch the video by Sri Ujwal Jagadeesh for an overview of his approach to teaching values through Bharatanatyam, the TAHD way.
Two key points in the video:
1. The Power of Repetition – Ongoing repetition of core values in dance classes reinforces the ideas for students. As mentioned in the video, values embedded in stories are like times tables that can be accessed and used at the right time.
2. Value Exploration – A Co-Production Approach
One key point mentioned by Sri Ujwal Jagadeesh in the video is value exploration as a process of co-production. Co-production is a useful lens especially for older learners. Parents have extensive experience exploring varied approaches and have identified many approaches, tools and techniques that work for their child.
As mentioned in the video, an important way in which parents can contribute is by sharing what values the learner is imbibing and exploring. This feedback can help the teacher refine the lesson plans and personalize it for the learner.
Read more about co-production here:
Quotes from the above article:
• Co-production requires a relocation of power into the hands of families and young people
• Collaborative co-production requires that users are experts in their own circumstances (which families often are) and capable of making decisions. Professionals need to move away from being fixers to being facilitators.
TAHD professionals are referred to as facilitators and this culture of co-production is easy to realize with TAHD.
Evolving a Daily Value Exploration Practice
As Ananth started Bharatanatyam lessons with Sri Ujwal Jagadeesh in October 2022, value exploration had also shifted though we did not realize it at that time. The first indication of this shift was when Ananth decided to narrate The White Peacock story on his birthday. Ramana Maharshi’s love and acceptance of all living beings was a theme that Ananth and I thought about daily as he practiced for his presentation.
Then, we realized that Ananth was drawn to Ramana Maharshi’s teachings on silence. As he practiced the nattadavu (a basic movement pattern that is repeated frequently during lessons) and learned The Golden Mongoose story, we discovered that silence was something Ananth wanted to explore.
As he heard about Ramana Maharshi’s journey to Arunachala and how he desired nothing, Ananth started exploring this value. He started questioning whether we can be completely without desires and how much desire one can have. He also started making connections to other stories. For example, he remarked how Bharat did not have desire and did not want Rama’s kingdom.
The Power of Repetition for Learning Values
Ananth’s first story narration at a SpecialSaathi webinar on his 25th birthday. When Ms. Shilpi Mayank-Awasthi invited him to present, we were thinking of a traditional presentation. Suddenly, he asked whether he could narrate The White Peacock story. I was surprised. So were his teachers. To this day, I am not sure why he wanted to narrate a story and why he chose The White Peacock one. Could it be that the simple story of love and acceptance resonated with him? As Ananth has become older, he is very aware that he is different and cannot make his way through the world as others do. I will never know what motivated him to choose story narration or why he chose that particular story.
However, I think the process of learning used in TAHD classes played a role in sparking this interest. As Ananth repeatedly heard several stories in his dance class, he was processing these stories and would share some thought based on these stories. Imitation is powerful. Young children pick up values as they narrate their favorite stories repeatedly. Dance created an opportunity to imitate The White Peacock and other stories many times while practicing hand gestures. This repetition created multiple opportunities to think about the story and values over time.
It struck me that the imitate, repeat, memorize, and improvise is a process for learning values too. Repetition builds a vocabulary of values as well an understanding through story and movement. Repetition sets the stage for recalling the value as needed.
Integrating Value Exploration and Daily Experiences
We are also finding ways to integrate daily experience and values presented in class. For example, we went to a theatre show in London. A few days before the show, I had injured my leg. So when Ananth went to drink some water, he thought of bringing water to me. In his latest story on Cow Lakshmi, one part of the story was about how Ramana thatha fed idlis to Cow Lakshmi and how he cared for all his devotees paying attention to even small details. I reminded Ananth of the theatre incident and told him that was an example of how he was caring when he brought me the water. This type of reflection is useful because spotlighting small successes makes the individual more aware and more likely to repeat the behavior in the future.
Bharatanatyam and Value Exploration
The following features of the Bharatanatyam class shifted value exploration:
1) Specific stories and values are attached to the adavus (basic movement patterns that are typically practiced at the beginning of each class) and hastas (hand gestures that are also practiced in every class). Since the adavus and hastas are repeated, story and value presentation is also repeated. Repetition is important for drawing attention to and thinking about the values of characters multiple times.
2) Since Ramana Maharshi stories have been carefully selected and sequenced for presentation in the dance class, there is a values curriculum in the dance class.
3) Before the dance class, Ananth was exploring different values in different experiences such as storytelling and drama but aligning the story presentation to the Bharatanatyam lesson structure made the value exploration systematic and consistent.
Ananth has also learned Bharatanatyam in a traditional format for over ten years. In contrast to his earlier experiences, storytelling and value exploration has been a focus in Ananth’s recent TAHD informed Bharatanatyam experience.
A TAHD informed approach to Bharatanatyam may be better for neurodivergent learners because a flexible mix of technical elements of dance, storytelling, value exploration etc. can be crafted based on individual needs. Even for Ananth, this flexibility has been invaluable. For several months, he was more focused on storytelling and developing his monthly storytelling practice and Youtube channel. Now, he has turned his attention more to dance practice.
Value Exploration with Neurodivergent Learners
Consider language processing, auditory processing, working memory, executive memory, and other challenges while practicing storytelling and value exploration. We have used visual and tactile tools for storytelling for years because of these challenges. Since starting storytelling through theatre arts and especially as an integrated practice with Bharatanatyam, Ananth’s ability to process stories through auditory input without any visual support has increased tremendously. Looking back, Ramana Maharshi stories have been an excellent choice for value exploration. Earlier stories such as The White Peacock and Robbers in Ramana thatha’s ashram had few characters and simple storylines. Thus, Ananth was able to pay more attention to value exploration. As stories have become more complex, he also become more familiar with the life and teachings of Ramana Maharshi. Thus, he is able to process more complex stories with auditory input. He is also initiating value exploration in other stories.
Value exploration is important for all learners. I wonder whether it is more important for neurodivergent learners to experience explicit value exploration through storytelling since they experience communication challenges that make it difficult for them to explore values and practice using these values in life experiences through daily experiences. Based on our experiences over the last 2.5 years, I am glad we have had the opportunity to explore values in a systematic and consistent way through Theater Arts for Holistic Development (TAHD).
A Memorable Moment
Ananth attended the Saturday satsang by Ramana Maharshi Center for Learning (RMCL). I suggested that he attend Ujwal’s part as he is accustomed to his storytelling style. The next day, I asked Ananth about the story narrated by Ujwal. He was able to explain about a girl throwing stones to get fruits from a tree, bees getting disturbed and stinging her, and the girl telling Ramana thatha about the bees. Attending to auditory information, comprehending the story, and narrating it with ease are outcomes from Ananth’s Theater Arts for Holistic Development (TAHD) experience. While we have explored storytelling for years, we used visual aids to organize and recall information. Further, it is easier to process information and recall during a dance class when there is a lot of movement. Processing oral narration and recalling while sitting down is exciting to see. Exploration of another value, compassion has now started for us.
Author Dr.Dasaratha Rama
Dr. Dasaratha Rama currently doing a certificate in Theater Arts for Holistic Development (TAHD) from RASA (Ramana Sunritya Aalaya). Ananth Raghunandan is a student ambassador for RASA and TAHD.