“Guitar Hero” game helps teach music to special needs students in Toronto

Jeff Magee interviewed by Centennial College Journalism students

by Jessica Lee

Jeff Magee, a teacher of intellectually challenged teenagers in Scarborough, Ontario, sees something in his students that no one else really sees.

“There’s a lot of people who think our school’s a baby-sitting service,” said Magee in an interview Wednesday at Centennial College. “A lot of teachers think that, so they don’t serve the needs or push the children in any sort of way. They feel like ‘I can give them colouring every day and what’s the use because they’re never really going to be doing anything in society’, which I think is a really sad portrayal.”

At Sir William Osler High School, part of the Toronto District School Board, Magee teaches music to students  from Grade 9 to age 21, including children who are autistic, developmentally delayed and in the bottom third percentile in intelligence. Many of the students have trouble focusing and functioning in a normal classroom environment.

“You really need to be a one-on-one monitor,” says Magee. “You can’t sit down. You have to walk around the class. You have to be really hands-on with the students.”

Magee’s teaching approach includes all sorts of instruments that use kinetic motions to make sounds such as drums or even the popular videogame, “Guitar Hero”. There won’t be end-of-year recitals for these students.

Which is why instead of an ordinary OSSD diploma, the teachers’ objectives at the school are to try to teach the children employable skills, under Ministry of Education guidelines.

“The reality is they probably won’t get hired but they like the idea of work, you know, they have to be on time, they have to listen to a boss, they have to be able to follow through on instructions. It’s a wonderful program for them, “ says Magee, referring to having his students set up audio visual gear for assemblies and other in-school music related tasks.

Skills like these, he believes, are key to helping his charges make some sort of life for themselves in the real world.

“Once they’re 21 and they graduate from our school, there’s nothing really for them. There’s really no next level. There’s adult care centers but they’re very expensive for the families that are often low income. You have to try to teach them a skill that they can be employed at and go to a 9-5 job even if its something as simple as cleaning floors at McDonalds.”

Magee never thought he would be teaching intellectually challenged children. But after graduating from the University of Toronto with a music degree, he received a call from the principal, and he decided to give it a try.

“[The children are] so appreciative. That’s why you love working at a school like that,” says Magee, 25. “I honestly think I couldn’t go back to a regular school. You just love the kids way too much.”