In District 75, Using the Arts in Everyday Academics

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Yasmeen Khan

A professional development program for New York City special education teachers is reminding them of one basic principle: students like to have fun. And when students are having fun, chances are they will be more engaged with the lesson at hand.

With that in mind, the city's Education Department and the Manhattan New Music Project, a nonprofit arts organization, are using a $4.6 million federal grant to implement EASE, Everyday Arts for Special Education.

The United States Department of Education awarded the grant in 2010 as one of 49 Investing in Innovation Fund awards. EASE was one of three grants focused on the arts, and it was the only one geared toward special education students.

The program is training teachers in District 75, the city's special education district, to incorporate movement, music, visual arts and drama into regular academic work.

Jennifer Raine, director of special programs for the Manhattan New Music Project, said the multidisciplinary approach was important for all students, but especially for those who are not succeeding in traditional classrooms.

"Behaviors get in the way of education," she said. "I mean, it's pretty hard to do a math lesson when someone's throwing a chair."

EASE runs on the premise, she said, that an arts-based approach to instruction will keep students engaged and will provide a hands-on, step-by-step process to guide students through a lesson.

In Chad Hamilton's classroom at Public School K231 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where he teaches 12 students at a fourth- and fifth-grade level with a range of disabilities, a recent English lesson on declarative statements allowed students to role play.

First, students wrote statements starting with the phrase, "I can be," like "I can be a zombie" or "I can be a train" or "I can be a rock star."

Next, working in teams, students made props. They wadded up newspaper with particular enthusiasm, and then stuffed the newspaper into knee-high stockings. This way, they would have something to grab onto and manipulate for their performances.

Students ball up newspaper to make props.

Finally, students pushed the furniture aside and created a space in the middle of the classroom. Students took turns at center stage, acting out declarative statements.

"I think a lot of these different activities tap into the different learning modalities that our students don’t necessarily get to tap into when they’re engaging in a regular math lesson or a regular E.L.A. lesson," said Mr. Hamilton. "EASE helps kids get out of their seats."

Art teachers employed by the Manhattan project coach special education teachers on creating these arts-based lessons.

But even P.S. K231's art teacher, Bennett Fischer, has been receiving the training.

"EASE really showed me how to make the whole art thing much more process-oriented and to break it down into pieces, and to make every little thing a teachable moment and get all sorts of experiences out of the tiniest little activity,” he said.

Bennett Fischer helps his students make a sculpture as a group.

Those "experiences" may include asking a student what it feels like to brush paint on a page, or to promote a social interaction with each step -- even if that just means making eye contact with a fellow student when passing a bottle of glue.

"All of those things can seem really drawn out to us as adults, but I think they’re really important to the kids," Mr. Fischer said. "Just breaking everything down to an experiential process."

EASE, now in its second year, gives teachers three years of training and in-class professional development. The program is now in 120 classrooms, and begins training a new group of teachers each year of the five-year grant.