Special Education Photo Essay

Students Making Connections Through Art

By Education Week Photo Staff — June 03, 2014 3 min read
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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.

Special education teacher Elizabeth Rosenberry, right, holds hands with student Zachary Zayas in an effort to make eye contact with him, at PS4Q in the borough of Queens, N.Y. Rosenberry starts the class by engaging each student individually, while demonstrating to the other students how to make eye contact. Much effort is devoted to getting students to become socially engage with each other. New York City’s district 75, in conjunction with the Urban Arts Partnership, received a five-year, $4.6 million i3 grant in 2010 to implement an arts-integration professional-development program, known as Everyday Arts for Special Education (EASE). Through the program, teachers are mentored by teaching artists and receive ongoing, in-class support. A researcher from Teachers’ College says there’s evidence EASE has helped improve students’ academic, socialization, and communication skills.

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.

Special education teacher Elizabeth Rosenberry, right, makes eye contact with Ian Tokay through a “boomwhacker”at PS4Q in the borough of Queens, N.Y.

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.

Student Andy Severino is hugged by a teaching assistant after completing a kinesthetic matching exercise at PS4Q in the borough of Queens, N.Y. New York City’s district 75, in conjunction with the Urban Arts Partnership, received a five-year, $4.6 million i3 grant in 2010 to implement an arts-integration professional development program, known as Everyday Arts for Special Education (EASE). Through the program, teachers are mentored by teaching artists and receive ongoing, in-class support. A researcher from Teachers’ College says there’s evidence EASE has helped improve students’ academic, socialization, and communication skills.

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.

Student Debangshu Chakravorty, right, reacts as he reaches an X marked on the floor as part of a kinesthetic matching exercise at PS4Q in the borough of Queens, N.Y. Pictured on left, peering into a photographer’s lens is Jeremy Betancort.

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.

Special education teacher Elizabeth Rosenberry, right, encourages student Jesus Torres-Tiamani, left, to make eye contact, at PS4Q in the borough of Queens, N.Y. Also pictured is student Ian Tokay, center.

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.

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A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.

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