Emile Wamsteker, a West Orange, N.J.-based photographer, spent a day at PS4Q @ Skillman, a school for students with severe cognitive and behavioral disabilities in New York City’s special education district. Below, he describes the experience of watching students work on both social and academic skills through music and movement–and how this changed his own perceptions. For more on the arts program used at the school, read the full Education Week story.
I was excited when asked to shoot a story for Education Week on a professional-development program for special education teachers. I visited two classes at PS4Q in Long Island City, N.Y., that would demonstrate what some of the teachers have learned in the seminars and workshops put on by Everyday Arts for Special Education (EASE). In one 4th grade class, students did an activity called “kinesthetic matching,” in which they performed tasks with an emphasis on movement. And in a unique music class, 2nd graders learned the rudiments of music using a simple plastic tube called a “boomwhacker” to play along.
When I arrived at teacher Stephen Reese’s class for kinesthetic matching, I saw in 4th grader Andy Severino a reluctance to join his classmate Wynston Lavache, who’d selected him as a partner. Reese gently prodded and then pulled Andy up from his chair. Eventually Andy acquiesced, joining his partner to perform a sequence of movements in front of the class. They were asked to walk toward one another, stop a couple of feet apart, look each other in the eye, and do a high-five. Whatever reservations Andy might have had about doing this were no longer evident as he performed the sequence flawlessly. Immediately following, he bounded around the room like a baseball player rounding the bases after hitting a home run. Reese and paraprofessionals Dina Adames and Hernan Torres cheered the student on as he eventually settled on the lap of Adames, hugging her.
Reese structures each task in a way that considers the varying abilities of each student. For example, nonverbal students make use of an iPad to identify the corresponding image of a word seen on a flash card, whereas verbal students will say the word aloud. There are a number of tasks, all of which require following a set of instructions—including one where they walk, run, jump, or dance from one X marked on the floor to another.
While Reese uses movement as the context for kinesthetic matching, Elizabeth Rosenberry uses music. And while the contexts are different, the approach is the same, with a common goal of helping the students improve their ability to communicate, socialize, and learn. The key to this is building confidence and reinforcing the most basic form of human social connection—eye contact, a skill that many children with severe disabilities, especially those with autism, are known to lack. So every time Rosenberry begins her class, she takes the time to prime each student individually, locking arms with them, and engaging them through eye contact. As she makes her rounds, the other students see this demonstration repeated over and again. Eventually, they are asked to engage one another.
Like Andy, the child, in Reese’s class, not all the students are initially thrilled, but with sustained encouragement from Rosenberry and the paraprofessionals, all of them eventually overcome their fears and engage one another. And their reward? Boomwhackers! Needless to say, there wasn’t a bored kid among them, as they followed Rosenberry’s lead, mimicking her actions as she rhythmically beat the soft plastic instrument.
Before I went on this assignment, I came across a quote by Helen Keller. She said, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it.” The meaning of that statement really didn’t sink in, that is until the children, teachers, and paraprofessionals of PS4Q showed me its true meaning.
A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.