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Arts and Special Education: Reflections on a Photo

Arts-EASE-blog (3).jpgThis week's issue of Education Week features a story I wrote about an arts education program in New York City that addresses students' academic, social, and communication skills. With support from a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, the program is being implemented and studied in 10 schools for students with severe cognitive and behavioral needs.

The teachers and students I visited for the piece, I can't help but admit, touched a soft spot for me. I taught students with special needs—everything from ADHD to dyslexia, autism, and emotional and intellectual disabilities—for about five years before becoming a reporter. I miss seeing students daily and witnessing their small and large gains.

The initial research on Everyday Arts in Special Education, or EASE, indicates the program is improving students' communication and socialization skills. And for me, the photo above, taken by the talented Emile Wamsteker, illustrates precisely what "effectiveness" here looks like.

In it, 2nd grade students Jesus and Jeremy (right to left) are interacting—connecting even—with their hands and eyes and in socially appropriate ways, as their teacher, Elizabeth Rosenberry, looks on from afar. 

One of the hallmarks of autism, which affects the majority of students at the public school pictured (P4Q @ Skillman), is difficulty interacting with others. As I've seen, in many self-contained classrooms made up solely of students who have severe special needs, students spend much of their time working on separate tasks, or the same task in parallel ways. Group work, in many of these classrooms, can seem unapproachable, even risky. How can we ask students whose behavior can be unpredictable and who are academically and behaviorally all on different levels to work on the same tasks or together?

And while differentiated instruction is something to strive far, doing so at the expense of developing social and communication skills—well, that's a major loss. 

Rosenberry, in her self-contained classroom, demonstrates personal interaction daily, starting class by singing a "Good Morning" song and greeting each student with extended eye contact. She then encourages students to greet each other.

"They sometimes don't know how to interact, so [the song] gives them a framework," she told me. One student "sometimes just wiggles in front of his friends. But he's doing it with each kid." She does this all in the whole-group setting.

In the photo above, the two students are both practicing social interaction and modeling it for their peers. The teacher has put herself (literally and figuratively) in the background and is letting the moment unfold. She uses the "wait and see what happens" approach—an EASE staple—to encourage Jesus and Jeremy to navigate the interaction on their own.

Yes, the interaction was likely initiated by the teacher, but it has produced what seems to be a genuine moment of connection between students.

In the general education classroom, the scene above might seem mundane. But here it represents the potential for great developmental strides—and evidence that group work can be worth the effort.

Photo by Emile Wamsteker

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