Kathryn Ricketts and Natasha Ukrow.

A University of Regina professor is sharing ideas about how teachers can work with students with different physical abilities in the classroom.

“My students have been very nervous about teaching with difference in classrooms” said Kathryn Ricketts, an assistant professor in the faculty of education. She was referring to people with mixed abilities, a term she uses instead of “disabled” or “handicapped.”

In the most recent talk for the faculty of education’s Theory and Method Seminar Series, Ricketts gave examples of dance projects she’s done with the elderly and people in wheelchairs and what it’s taught her about teaching in the classroom.

A dancer by trade, she’s run dance companies in Toronto and in Copenhagen over the past 30 years. Knowing that she wanted to work with people from marginalized groups and pass that knowledge on, she pursued graduate studies in Vancouver before coming to Regina.

There’s a dance component in the arts education program at the U of R and that’s where Ricketts’ specialty lies. Her goal is equipping students who will soon be teachers themselves.

“I think the most important thing that we can do is create the holistic learner and the holistic teacher,” she said.

In the seminar, Ricketts talked about some of her projects, including a creating a dance with a group of elderly Chinese women and choreographing a duet between a professional dancer and a wheelchair user who is a figure skater. She spoke about the importance of presence, awareness and something she calls “deep listening” when working with people with mixed abilities.

With the duet, Ricketts asked the person in the wheelchair if he felt the chair was “an extension of his body” or a tool he used to get around. When he answered that it felt like a part of his body, she choreographed motions for the dancer that treated the chair as such so that it wasn’t just a platform for the dancer to use. The person in the wheelchair played an active part in the choreography too.

With this type of dance, “able-bodied and disability would disappear,” she said.

Natasha Urkow has taken some theatre classes with Ricketts, who is guest instructor in the university’s theatre department. Urkow is a third-year theatre major student and helped Ricketts demonstrate her choreography at the seminar. For the demonstration, Ricketts asked Urkow, who is in a wheelchair, which side of her was stronger before locking arms with her for several poses. Ricketts and Urkow also moved across the room together with Ricketts behind Urkow’s chair, communicating where she wanted her to go by gently squeezing Urkow’s shoulders. They took turns leading each other.

Since the majority of students in her theatre classes aren’t in wheelchairs like her, Urkow regularly notices how they aren’t sure how to interact with her or even talk about her. Ricketts’ methods help bridge the gap.

“Among all the labels that the world and the community has, that’s the biggest thing I think we need to push away from, and projects like Kathryn’s are making space for that to happen, ” she said.

In Ricketts’ education classes, she teaches her students about the importance of movement. The routine of sitting in desks and listening to the teacher at the front doesn’t interest her.

Kathryn Ricketts, University of Regina.

“Teaching in this class would be disembodied,” she said gesturing to the desks and chairs in the classroom where the seminar took place. “I’m interested in getting rid of all the furniture, getting rid of the hierarchies, creating spaces of exchange that are more vital, with people moving around more so that there’s blood flow.”

If we don’t get moving, “it’s like chopping off a part of our understanding,” she said.

Ricketts teaches students how to use movement in many disciplines, like arts, science and math. For instance she teaches concepts in grade 11 math with a math instructor from University of British Columbia. For graphing, she’ll use big elastics across the room and create an x and y axis that students will move around. She also gets them to tape pens to their elbows to create the graphs.

At the end of the session, “(the students) are all hot and sweaty, (the instructor) will take them to the blackboard and do a straight up lecture on absolute value and they’ll be engaged and they’ll get it and be a grade level higher because they’ve already done it in their body in some way.”

The seminar series happens on the next three Wednesdays in March at 12 p.m. in the education building.