Delia Denson
Contributed by T. Scott Lilly, EASE Teaching-Artist
(This discussion is through the lens of District 75 and working with children with special needs. It is my hope that this discussion will also have resonance within General Education)

I’ve been thinking a lot, off and on, time to time, here and there, about how we learn and how we “teach”. I put the word “teach” in parentheses because this is what I’m hung up about. What does that word really mean?

I’ve been a teaching artist for 15 years, endeavoring to make a living doing something I love, making my work my play.   I’ve had the immeasurable gift of working for a wide-range of organizations, each with their own mission and core beliefs, in every grade, in over a hundred New York City public schools. I’ve seen it all from flying furniture to heartfelt hugs.

And I’ve come away with this: it’s all in the set up. Finding that “sweet spot” and keeping it simple.

As an actor and clown I should have known this instinctively. The best jokes require good set-ups. You set up dramatic moments. This concept is true in sports too. Like kicking a soccer ball, you plant the other foot first and that determines the success of your kick and where the ball is going to go.

How do we set up the classroom, the lesson and the student to best engage in an activity we have chosen? This strategic planning process is key to success.

“We need to create an environment of autonomy; the student is more engaged, more successful, if they have chosen to participate.”

What I have been observing over the years is that presenting a student with a question that has not been “set-up” beforehand has minimal success. They might know what you’re talking about, they might know the answer but what is definitely happening is that they’re being put on the spot and put in a situation not of their choosing.   We need to create an environment of autonomy; the student is more engaged, more successful, if they have chosen to participate.

G is a student who “stims”. She gets caught up in doing something over and over. G will respond to direct instruction usually in a distracted way, she’ll do what you are asking of her after multiple and various prompts, but she’ll continue to be fixated on something else.   The adults find “appropriate” items for her to stim with. But she needs something, she has a very hard time not having something in her hands.

When unveiling and modeling an activity I have gotten into the habit of using very few words if any.   My case in point is an visual arts-based activity known as “stuffed stockings.”   In this activity, we rip and ball up newspapers and stuff them into a nylon stocking. The goal is to have the students work together to accomplish this. There are also teachable moments, embedded in the activity, to be had: describing, counting, and problem solving for example.

I could sit down in front of the students at our kidney shaped table and proclaim, “today boys and girls we are going make Stuffed Stockings! What’s this? (newspaper) Watch! (scrunch it up into a ball) Now, your turn!

This is absolutely an acceptable way to teach. But how successful? Instead I chose to sit there and ball up pieces of newspaper without saying a word. Then I shot them into a bin like it was a basketball. I missed a few times, the balls of paper hit the students and they laughed. I wordlessly offered newspaper to the students and continued scrunching and tossing. G., who had been stimming on two yellow blocks, hitting them together, over and over and over, put then down and starting doing what I was doing.   For the classroom teacher this was huge.   Then I started counting the balls of paper as I tossed them into the box.   Other students followed suit. Para’s counted along with them.  G started counting too.

“Through reflection of what we’re doing we’re making connections, we’re discovering something for ourselves, we’re learning.”

In my mind I knew we had found the “sweet spot”: a place where learning happens organically, without coercion.   The sweet spot is that place between structure and freedom. It’s where you’re learning something without needing to be told that you are. In this place you now can reflect. Through reflection of what we’re doing we’re making connections, we’re discovering something for ourselves, we’re learning.  Reflection in this instance comes in the form of a casual discussion of what we’re doing and noticing things.

“Look at my hands! They’re getting all black, I wonder why” “How many paper balls can you fit in you stocking? I can fit ten.”

Instead of putting a student on the spot with a direct question, we’re having a conversion. The student can answer or not, no pressure, no expectation, but they’re (hopefully) processing your words and thinking about what you’re saying.   G counted to ten, she threw paper balls into a bin, she laughed and smiled and looked around the room. These thing were huge to the classroom teacher and reinforced my conviction that it’s all about the set-up and finding that sweet spot.

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