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The use of selected theatre rehearsal technique activities with African-American adolescents labeled "behavior disordered." (Issues in the Education of African-American Youth in Special Education Settings)

* According to the U.S. Department of Education's (1990) 12th Annual Report to Congress, African-American male adolescents continue to be referred and placed proportionately more often in special education than any other ethnic or racial group of adolescents. Educational practitioners decide who is and who is not behavior disordered (BD) (Knoblock, 1983). They determine both the criteria for disordered behavior and the nature of educational intervention.

It is erroneous to assume that the BD categorical label makes a difference in how professionals select or design educational interventions. Because of teacher shortages, learners identified as BD are being taught increasingly by paraprofessionals, substitute teachers (many with little or no training in special education), and other uncertified personnel, rather than professionally trained and certified special education teachers (U.S. Department of Education, 1990). When African-American adolescents are labeled as behavior disordered or as seriously emotionally disturbed, they continue to experience significant school failure (U.S. Department of Education).


Teachers may react to and label disturbing or disordered "any" category of behaviors or acts (Ditton, 1979). Whether an African-American adolescent uses Black English or standard English is not the problem. BD class placement is an alternative educational treatment judged appropriate for students whose social conduct, including dialogue, does not comply with the constraints of the teacher's social context.

Teachers' cultural notions about how people should behave, as well as teachers' feelings about the conversational behavior of adolescents, have an effect on the educational treatment offered (Kauffman & Hallaban, 1981; Lyndall, 1977; Osser, 1983; Prucha, 1983; Rhodes & Paul, 1978). Thus, categorization of students as "behavior disordered" often depends on the "moods of those who perceive language differences as deficits" (Rothwell, 1982, p. 42) as well as students' responses to teachers' rules and regulations about communication (Cazden, 1983). Teachers' responses to the conversational language of African-American male adolescents have contributed to the overrepresentation of this student population in BD class placements (Anderson, 1989).


Skinner (1957) found that when a person controls his or her own behavior (verbal or otherwise), he or she controls the behavior of others. Goffman (1959) identified the structure and intent of theatre performance as a way of understanding how and why a person controls his or her language conduct in any social system. He offered a "dramaturgical" perspective in which conversational interactions depend not on power and influence, but on organization and control based on individual choice.

Goffman (1967) suggested that during the course of a conversation, people have a range of actions available to them; and the particular actions selected are a matter of free choice. Goffman's (1959, 1963, 1967) dramaturgical perspective does not ask students to act out feelings because "acting them out does not clarify them" (Greene, 1973, p. 285); rather, dramaturgy represents a symbiosis of feelings, thinking, and action, through the theatre rehearsal process.

In rehearsals, actors define the personal meanings underlying their observable behaviors. They facilitate meanings by paying attention to the meaning communicated (intent), the way the meaning was communicated (the performance), and how the communication efforts were received (consequences) (Cameron & Hoffman, 1969). I have found that some of the Theatre Rehearsal Technique (TRT) activities used to prepare actors for the stage can be used to help adolescents identified as behavior disordered be aware of their experiences with languages (Anderson, 1989). These improvisational activities show students ways to organize and control their conversational behavior. Such skills can empower African-American adolescents labeled behavior disordered to change the consequences of their social and academic experiences. Because diagnostic data are so heavily based on quantifiable and documented assessments, a change in a student's social conduct would prompt a reassessment of his or her communicative competence. The reassessment would facilitate the adolescent's exit from BD classes. Thus, a significant result of improving the communication skills of adolescents with behavior disorders (particularly those who have been misclassifiecl) would be re-placement of many students into regular classrooms.


What is the relationship between cognition and action in learning? How can the relationship be shown? Elsewhere, I have presented the use of selected TRT activities as a nontraditional language-learning approach (Anderson, 1985, 1989). In this approach, teachers and students explore the relationships between thinking, feeling, and acting.

Lemke (1988) stated, "Education does not do enough to empower people to place in their hands tools they can use for their own purposes and the skills to use them" (p. 89). The skill of choosing strategies for expressing relationships, within the context of conversational interactions, is characteristic of the theatre communication experience (O'Neil & Lambert, 1987). Trying out alternative ways to communicate and to make choices is the primary purpose of the theatre rehearsal process (Way, 1967). Selected TRT activities challenge and empower adolescents to experiment with their perceptions about social conduct, to "try out" various responses to particular interactions, to "figure out" what works for them and why, to influence others, and to achieve their desired social consequences in self-satisfying and effective ways.

The responses that arise during TRT activities and follow-up discussions are derived primarily from students' making their own relationships with the experience and articulating their own personal feelings about the communicative process (O'Neil & Lambert, 1987). A11 TRT activities described here illustrate how students can keep their attention on their intentions and can experience how action comes by way of intentions (Benedetti, 1981; Way, 1967). Bringing about intentional changes in customary ways of thinking, being, and behaving is the primary aim of dramaturgical teaching experiences (O'Neil & Lambert, 1987). In the following discussion, student comments accompany the discussion of each activity. I have paraphrased these comments to serve as examples of common perceptions students express about their individual involvement with the TRT activities.

Teachers should experience the activities, discuss their implications for the classroom, and create and try out modifications before offering these experiences to students. Each teacher must decide when and how to take advantage of naturally occurring actions in the classroom as opportunities for initiating TRT activities.


Within the theatre rehearsal process are five underlying dramaturgical elements of the theatre communication experience: (a) expressive behavior, (b) sustaining definitions, (c) visible presentations, (d) social establishments, and (e) impression management (Goffman, 1959). These dramaturgical elements parallel five factors that affect social communication experiences for adolescents: (a) emotion, (b) public standards, (c) observable behavior, (d) the secondary school setting, and, (e) self-control (Anderson, 1989). The following dramaturgical teaching experiences focus on these parallel relationships.

Expressive Behavior and Emotions

Both teachers and students respond affectively to the words used during conversations. Despert (1965) wrote that the affective factor (how one feels about the language used) critically influences a person's desire to speak or a listener's interpretation. Unfortunately, the role of emotion in education and social development receives too little attention at the secondary level (Osser, 1983).

The dramaturgical perspective shifts the focus of interactions from teacher interpretations to adolescent intentions. The expressive nature of this perspective suggests a unique relationship between personal feelings about language and selecting strategies for verbal conduct performances (Anderson, 1989).

TRTA Activity: "Just Words." When I overhear a student making comments such as "Girl, I know she bumped into me in the hail because she wanted to start a fight. She ain't foolin' nobody," I initiate a TRT activity, such as "Just Words." This activity provides adolescents with an opportunity to better understand that their actions and the actions of others are based on the personal feelings each person brings to the experience.

Instructions: Ask two volunteers to come to the front of the class. Give the volunteers 5 s to decide who will be "A" or "B ." Give one person a set of words or a simple sentence such as "The apple is red." Give the other person a different simple sentence such as "The banana is yellow." Secretly tell A that B is angry with A because all of B's friends told B that A wants to fight B. Secretly give B another situation. Tell B that A is a long-lost sibling whom B loves and hasn't seen in 5 years. (The teacher is free to create his or her own situations.) Give both A and B opportunities to say their lines to each other. Their responses to each other come only from what each knows about the situation. Tell students that you have deliberately given them words that have nothing to do with the interaction. Discussion follows.

Students often respond to this activity with comments such as:

I couldn't understand why he was acting that way. I thought he would know how 1 felt by the way I was acting. He didn't even pay that any attention.

Sometimes even when you try to explain things to people they don't listen to you. If they already feel a certain way about you, nothing you say is going to make any difference anyway.

Teachers can guide the discussion by relating particular instances of classroom interactions to the activity. The following questions are helpful: Can you tell what someone is thinking or feeling by the way he or she acts? How can you find out what the person really thinks and feels? How does it feel when people misinterpret what you mean and how you feel? Are there any benefits to finding out why people are acting the way they act? What are they? Are your assumptions about their behavior good enough? Why or why not?

Students begin to recognize that you really don't know the intentions of others unless you ask them directly. Although students know that people "lie," they benefit from discussions about honesty, trust, respect, and acceptance of the behavior of others.

The expressive behavior surveyed during this specific TRT activity provides adolescents with opportunities to experience relationships between external behaviors and internal feelings, by joining actions with feelings (Cameron & Hoffman, 1969).

TRT Activity: "Do It: I Won't." When a student tells me that he "had" to slap someone because that person called him a name or talked about his mother, my response is to initiate a TRT, such as "Do It: I Won't." This activity aids adolescents in understanding why they go into conversations (intent), what they do during conversations (participation), and what they want out of conversations (consequences). It also helps them begin to answer the question, How do I become familiar with the reality I participated in?

Instructions: Ask two people to volunteer and come to the front of the class. One of them is asked to say "Do it," the other is asked to respond, "I won't." That is the entire dialogue. The question usually comes from someone,' 'Do what?" Then simply say, "Whatever! Think of any situation when someone is trying to get you to do something that you don't want to do."

The activity begins and the participants usually start by using normal voice tones. As the dialogue progresses, so do the voice levels; at some point before the end, one or both of them are screaming at each other. Don't stop the dialogue; the participants will bring it to some kind of closure on their own. Then ask that the roles be reversed, and begin the activity again.

However, this time, one of the participants may begin by using a screaming or demanding tone, while the other person usually responds calmly and confidently.

When the dialogue is completed, others may ask to participate, but at some point talk together as a class about what has just happened and how their feelings relate to other social interactions.

The participants talk about how they felt when they couldn't get the other person to "do it." They also discuss what it felt like saying "I won't." The students often share personal experiences when they felt they had to do something because they were angry, or just wanted to get the other person "off their back." Many students report that they felt afraid or helpless and trapped. Someone might say:

You know, at first when he was yelling and talking mean to me, trying to make me do it, I got mad. But then after I watched him and listened to him, I realized that I didn't have to get mad. I didn't have to scream back at him or anything. I already knew what I was going to do and he couldn't make me change.

Somewhere toward the end of the discussion, the following questions are helpful:Can anybody make you do anything? Does it matter how they say it? Who actually decides whether you do it or not? How does that make you feel?

The last part of the discussion deals with the consequences, whether bad or good. A teacher can close the discussion by saying:

Whatever decision you make, remember that you made it and you are responsible for it; and you will have to deal with the consequences. You "own" your own feelings. You don't have to be angry if you decide that you don't want to be. If you take control of yourself you will be in much better control of what ultimately happens to you.

Clearly, the way adolescents learn to use language affects their behavior, which in turn influences their social consequences (Hymes, 1983).

Sustaining a Definition and Public Standards

Language use remains within the private context of individual, voluntary choice (Prncha, 1983). However, in schools, the role of language in self control is heavily subject to regulations and proscribed behaviors. These regulations are external to adolescent control and are "masked in the misnaming of social control as self-regulation" (Harris, 1983, p. 100).

In many regular secondary classrooms, adolescents are not exposed to a rational process of negotiation through conversation because talk and collaboration are forbidden (Eisner, 1992; Johnson & O'Neil, 1984; Raths, Wassermann, Jonas, & Rothstein, 1986; Strom, 1973). Students are provided with little opportunity to make conversational language choices that are not predetermined and structured by the teacher (Anderson, 1989).

Ironically, BD classrooms, which are designed to promote the development of self-control skills, are often more externally controlled than are regular secondary classrooms. As such, adolescents in those classrooms find that they no longer operate as the source of their own control (Bolton, 1984; Hymes, 1983).

When adolescents attempt to manage their communication interactions, it is often viewed by adults as usurping the adult role (Anderson, 1988; Luria, 1967). The capacity to communicate and to program one's own language performance is an important characteristic of mature, autonomous behavior (Luria, 1967). Yet despite adolescents' increasing age and presumably greater maturity, they are permitted to make fewer choices in the secondary school setting (Knitzer, Steinberg, & Fleisch, 1990; Strom, 1973). And again, the primary difference between the behavior of African-American male adolescents labeled BD and "other" adolescents can often be explained as a consequence of control and not of behavior (Anderson, 1989; Cazden, 1983).

The dramaturgical perspective allows students to intentionally make use of both private and public contexts of language by choosing the nature of their participation in language interactions. According to Goffman (1959), "Those who conduct face to face interactions on a theatre stage must meet key requirements of real situations; they must expressively sustain a definition of the situation" (p. 255).

In the theatre, sustaining a definition involves managing one's face, voice, and expression control, "to give the appearance of sticking to... the affective line... the expressive status quo" (Goffman, 1959, p. 217). Actors develop the ability to stick with a precise intention, whatever response or circumstance changes the nature of the situation. Adolescents, as social actors, also need to be able to manage their faces, voices, and expressions of control, to "portray themselves in the most successful and rewarding way" (Wood, 1976, p. 254). Portraying oneself requires self-reflection and an adherence to the execution of an organized plan of action.

TRT Activity: "Just Stand There." Whenever I hear those famous words "He's lookin' at me," I initiate a TRT activity, such as "Just Stand There." This activity shows adolescents how to keep their attention on their intentions. They can experience directly how modifying their own behavior increases their ability to influence the nature of the interaction.

Instructions: Ask a student volunteer to come to the front of the class. The class is to remain seated. Tell the students to just look at the person standing in front of them. They are not to smile, laugh, or talk with the student. The class is to just stare at the person standing. Tell the student standing to just stand there (no other directions are given). Time this interaction for 2 min, then call out "TIME." Ask the volunteer to continue standing, but this time tell the student to count the chairs in the room or the bricks in the wall (just count something silently, without moving from the spot). The people seated are to continue to just look at the person standing in front of them, for 2 more min. Discussion follows.

Common student responses are as follows: "I tried to do anything I could to get them to stop staring at me. I tried to make them laugh or get mad or something other than stare at me." "I couldn't tell what they were thinking or what they were looking at. I didn't like the way it felt." "I felt stupid and self-conscious... uncomfortable."

After giving the volunteer something to do, the nature of the comments change to "I felt a lot better. I didn't care what they were thinking then. I had something else to do." "I didn't feel stupid anymore. I felt like I was in control."

The following questions are helpful in the discussion: Who is in control--the person being "looked" at or the people doing the "looking"? When was the person in control? Why? When were the people in control? Why? What does this new information mean to you? Why?

Teachers should encourage students to see that in their interactions with others, they are there for a reason. Like actors in rehearsal, they must determine what that reason is. In this TRT activity, students learn that making the decision to modify the nature of the interaction affects the total interaction. The behavior of others changes immediately when the individual modifies his or her behavior. African-American adolescents could benefit from opportunities to practice paying attention to what actually happens during the course of interactions, how their input contributes to the consequences, and how to manage the impressions their behavior presents to others.

Visible Presentations and Observable Behaviors

In secondary schools, aspects of the adolescent's conversational behaviors are directly observable to others (Smith, Giles, & Hewstone, 1983). Investigators commonly view visible presentations of "proper" behavior as expressions of favorable, public school styles (Goffman, 1959). People who deviate in visible ways are often perceived to be more deviant and hence devalued (Anglin, Goldman, & Anglin, 1982).

The educational perspective is to work toward remediating the observable difference to "fit" the adult's perceptions of appropriate language use. The dramaturgical perspective shifts the focus from remediating the observable, different language use, to exploring the invisible process (the underlying motivations and intentions of the "actors") (Anderson, 1989). The process of the interaction becomes more important than the product.

Joan Lewis, theatre director at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia, has stated the importance of making the invisible process visible:

Improvisation is a feasible way, a visual way, of allowing you to have some leverage on why a child did a certain thing. Often it doesn't make sense to you the way a child is behaving but to the child the behavior has a good reason. So set up a situation that is normal for that child. Set it up and use it. Show him his behavior without identifying it as negative or bad behavior. Allow him to see what happens. Allow him to see a second way of doing the thing. They have to be retaught keen observational sense and visual literacy. It is a matter of retraining oneself to a higher level in order to better understand their own worth and unique personal and social-building capacities. (Anderson, 1989, p. 1 100)

Lewis' concept of "visual literacy" is critical to African-American adolescents labeled BD and their efforts to exit BD class placements.

TRT Activity: "Machine Building." When students ask me, "How can I get out of this class?" (that is, the BD class), I initiate a TRT activity, such as "Machine Building."

Instructions: Ask students to get into their own groups and form themselves into a "machine" with moving parts. Don't tell them what kinds of machines to construct. Once the machines are in working order, call out "FREEZE!" and, using a Polaroid camera, take a picture of the machine. Share the picture with the group and discuss how people felt being a part of their machine, as well as how it felt to see the instant feedback.

Margaret Ford Taylor, executive director of Karamu House, Inc. in Cleveland, Ohio, noted that this particular TRT activity was "very hard for students to do. The body contact often embarrasses them. They are often not ready to do that kind of touching activity" (Anderson, 1989, p. 129). Consequently, before initiating this activity, teachers must know their students well enough to anticipate the probable nature of their responses.

In the theatre rehearsal process, visible presentations are concerned with actions and emphasize interactions as dynamic rather than static. Students discuss the interrelationships among the elements of intent, performance, and consequences. By "seeing" familiar things in unfamiliar ways, students come away from their "work" with a new view (visual literacy) that enables them to recognize and reflect on the important features of their visual presentations.

Students often comment: "It wasn't hard deciding what kind of machine to make, but it was crazy trying to make it work." "We couldn't figure out what to make. Those two didn't even say anything. They just did whatever we said." "We had to keep changing our minds to make something we would all be proud of." "It felt real good when we finally got it right." "I know one thing ... we had to work together or it never would have happened."

After comments like these, I often say something like "I see you got the point. Good for you! You can get out of here, if we work together."

Social Establishments and Secondary Schools

Goffman (1959) defined a social establishment as "any place surrounded by fixed barriers to perception in which a particular kind of activity regularly takes place" (p. 239). Secondary schools are social establishments.

Because of differences in adult expectations, the arrangement of stimuli and consequences, and the behavior of other adolescents in the immediate environment, adolescents may be considered to exhibit disordered behavior in one social situation but not in another (Gallagher, 1988; Kauffman & Hallahan, 1981). In schools, situational constraints critically influence teacher perceptions about the nature of problematic adolescent communication interactions. The dramaturgical perspective, however, defines a social situation not as a material place but as "a coherent and well articulated pattern of social conduct" (Goffman, 1959, p. 75).

Through TRT activities, adolescents can begin to see themselves as cocreators of their situational communication interactions.

TRT Activity: "Circles." When students continually come up to me with complaints such as "Tell him to leave me alone. I don't feel like being bothered right now!" I initiate a TRT activity, such as "Circles." This activity allows each adolescent to confront and interact with the subjective nature of control as implied by individual language choices.

Instructions: Secure a large area. Divide the class in half. Give the first group pieces of chalk and different colored markers. Ask them to go and find their own space in the room. With the chalk, each student should mark off a space by drawing a circle on the floor, and sit in the middle of it. (Each student will have a circle.) Give each of the students in the second group a blank piece of paper and the following instructions:

"You are to try to get different colored marks on your papers from the people seated in the circles. You are to walk up to their spaces and ask to enter. If they let you in, ask them to put their mark on your paper. If you come to a space and the person does not let you in, you must leave and go elsewhere. You may go back and ask again if you think you can persuade them to change their minds. You may ask as many times as you like but may not enter their space without permission. If someone lets you into their space but decides not to mark your paper, you must decide whether to stay there and wait quietly until he or she marks your paper or until they ask you to leave. You will have 2 minutes to get as many different marks on your paper as you can. When I call 'TIME,' the activity will be over. Any questions? Begin now."

The teacher should watch students negotiate their way into circles. Pay attention to who draws big circles and who is confined to small areas; who draws space close to friends and who finds a remote area of the room. At the end of the activity, call the group together and share observations and feelings.

Some typical observations made by the second group are: "She made me so mad. Who does she think she is, not letting me in?" "I could hardly get into hers. It was so tiny." "Everybody got in his circle."' 'He didn't let anybody in.""Almost everybody let me in. I like this game. Can we play it again?" "I'm glad this dumb game is over."

Comments of the first group often are: "I didn't let anybody in because I didn't feel like it." "I like big spaces; it makes me feel comfortable." "I don't know why I let everybody in, I just did." "You got on my nerves the way you kept coming back after I told you I wasn't going to let you in, don't you understand English?" "I liked being able to say "'yes" or "no."

The follow-up discussion should focus on the consequence of paying attention to the nature of their own participation. Teachers should ask questions, such as: Who was in control, the perSon in the circle or the person trying to get in? How did it feel, being in control? How did it feel having to abide by the rules of someone else?

Common student responses include: "The people in the circle had all the power. They were definitely in control of what was going on."

Teachers should continue to probe: What kinds of strategies did you use to try to gain entrance into the circle? Did your strategies work? Why or why not?

Students often comment: "I begged, I lied, I threatened, and I even tried to bribe my way in-- but he still wouldn't let me in." "She let everybody in. I didn't have to do nothing to get into her circle."

Inquiry is a critical component of the learning process. The discussion should be expanded to include questions about the meaning of paying attention to "personal space" and violations of the personal space of others. The point of the "Circles" ctivity is for students to experience that they are responsible for whomever they allow into their space (life). Students can begin to pay attention to how they approach each interaction and how their personal choices influence both the process and the consequences of the interaction.

Impression Management and Self-Control

When actors perform, they make intentional presentations of themselves by not allowing an impression of their behavior to arise as an incidental consequence of not paying attention to the nature of their own participation. Golfman (1959) calls this engineering of a convincing impression of behavioral performance impression management. In schools, it is crucial that both teachers and adolescents themselves understand how adolescents deliberate, negotiate, implement decisions, assess consequences, and identify essential elements of their personal behavior performance.

In most schools, adolescents are required to comply with teacher-defined, predetermined meanings for behaving and for making sense of their behavioral performance. The dramaturgical perspective focuses on reinforcing the learner defined and "owned" behavior as a primary condition for making sense out of life experiences (Anderson, 1989). Adolescents labeled BD need to become the source of their own authentic process of making meaning. They also need to socially validate their cocreated social meanings and choose behavior that is self-satisfying and self-controlled.


Mclntyre and Pemell (1985) stated, "To explain the referral and presence of disproportionate numbers of black male students in terms of their behavior i s to engage in superficial reasoning" (p. 116). The appropriateness of BD class placements or the maintenance of BD class membership is largely the result of teacher interpretations of adolescent behavior, which often includes teacher responses to adolescent conversations. In large measure, the disorder evidenced is not a problem without teacher reaction (Anderson, 1989; Ditton, 1979).

Adolescent behavior and motives are directed more by their feelings than a lack of cognition or knowledge about the consequences of social rule breaking. Knowledge of the rule is not enough to stop adolescents from breaking the rule. The feelings and motives claimed by each person in the communication interaction must be understood as a fundamental condition of the learning process. Professional concern for the conditions underlying the actions of both teachers and students and for the social consequences of their joint behavioral choices can contribute to more effective educational responses to the learning needs of adolescents. Educators must begin to direct professional practice away from defining kinds of behavior in terms of isolated, observable, rulebreaking actions (e,g., talking out and hitting), and redirect professional attention toward gaining an understanding of the role of feelings and motives (e.g., self-expression and self-protection) of each person in communicative interactions. Long (1984) stated, "Education should turn out the pupil with something he knows well and something he can do well" (p. 435), The dramaturgical perspective, through selected TRT activities, provides opportunities for adolescents labeled BD to learn how to be aware of their own behavior and communication. TRT activities empower students to manage their own social conduct.

Future studies should identify specific questions and concerns of teachers and students about their communication needs. Routine data collection within classrooms would provide a primary means for establishing an initial database. Both regular and special education teachers would become the "first" researchers, and their data would be sought by all other investigators, Dialogue between theatre specialists and educators would help teachers identify and understand the highly complex nature of the theatre communication process. Cooperative efforts among educators, adolescents, and theatre specialists could foster learning opportunities that would yield less externally manipulated interventions and more self regulating and developmentally appropriate learning opportunities for adolescents.

Rothwell (1982) summarized the critical need for understanding the personal communication behaviors of both adolescents and educators: "What needs to be understood fundamentally is that our perception of the world as reflected and influenced by our language is not the way the world is, only the way we selectively perceive it" (p. viii). The educational significance of such an understanding is vital to a restructuring of our professional thinking about African-American learners and their educational needs.

The learning experiences that result from TRT activities are valuable because adolescents are encouraged to identify, use, and show the relationship between thinking and acting as they voluntarily "make up their own minds" during and after the experiences. The challenge is to allow them opportunities to do that.


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MARY G. ANDERSON (CEC MD Federation) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Speci.d Education at the University of Maryland, College Park.
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Author:Anderson, Mary G.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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