Christopher McKeon, a special education teacher from Staten Island, untwists a nest of pink, blue, and orange Christmas lights that hang from his arm. He is hanging them up in his small classroom at MS 53K@88 in Brooklyn. Christopher is inspired to change the lighting of his room for his EASE period. “Our classroom is extremely bright, so we need some intermediary lighting. We need ambient light that won’t overpower the room — something that will enable everyone to feel calm,” says McKeon. He has chosen to do the “Greeting Ritual” and then “Painting with Water” as activities for today’s class.
I work with Christopher, as well as Sharon Battle and Daniela Corticchia, as their EASE coach during their first term of practicing the innovative EASE methodology. The EASE acronym stands for “Everyday Arts in Special Education” and offers these teachers a variety of ways to reach their students via arts activities that foster communication, socialization, creativity and FUN. Being an EASE coach to them feels more like being a guardian angel of good times and good learning, while being a fascinated pair of eyes and ears for the research project.
“All the activities are fun,” says Sharon Battle, “I like music, so I like Freeze Dance.” Daniela Corticchia says, “When I played the “Gypsy Kings” during “Floor Maps,” I saw my students’ bodies come alive. They transformed and responded with rhythm!”
With EASE, these teachers engage their students in a full-on, top-to-bottom creative experience that helps them to learn. Students help to “create the space” by pushing their own chairs into a circle — a task that can require great focus for some students, while addressing the physical challenges it may present to some others. Students choose from the bright red, green, blue, and purple rolls of masking tape to set up paths and shapes on the floor that allow them to hop, skip, and jump towards answers and goals. They are empowered by all the small moments of social interaction that is required of two people working together to tape the floor, pass out bowls of water, paint, koosh balls, or musical instruments.
Today, my job is “coaching” Mr. McKeon while we create a meaningful EASE class for his students. I don’t want to be a party pooper to his idea of using Christmas lights while doing what I’m thinking of as a primarily visual-arts activity– “Painting With Water.” My mind whirs with a few concerns: If we use Christmas lights, will the children be able to see? Will it be too dark? Will someone knock over a bowl of water?
Luckily, EASE offers a few principles with the methodology that puts my mind back on the track of combining joy with learning– one of them being: “Know what’s important and let the rest go.” I come to my senses: Wait a minute. Doing anything with Christmas lights on is going to be MORE fun. What’s most important here is keeping Mr. McKeon inspired while honoring his innovation and vision of creating a calm vibe while his students “paint with water.” So, who would I be to even think of pooping his awesomely lit party of learning?
Needless to say, McKeon’s Christmas lights are a hit with the kids, and the students share a fun time of calmly marking anything they want on to construction paper after exploring the cool water in a bowl with their fingers. They tickle their palms with the paint brush tips and offer each other choices of paper color with good manners– some with eye contact, some with signing, some with speech devices.
The next week comes around and Mr. McKeon cheerfully starts class with his signature version of the EASE activity called “The Greeting Ritual.” His way employs his thick New York accent, many high fives, and several sunny moments of genuine connection with each of his kids and para-professionals. Then McKeon uses his Smartboard to elect emotions and actions for his kids to do during “Floor Maps.” They hop, dance, and “walk on fire” down a path of colorful tape they created together while their teacher blasts Ghostbusters and Eye of the Tiger from the classroom’s computer. McKeon says, “One big take away is that the EASE method gets everyone involved in the learning process. It’s given me a whole new way of looking at how to do activities. Through EASE, the access points for learning are everywhere.” Yes, Mr. McKeon–where Christmas lights, inspired teachers, EASE, and good music are– fun and good learning abound.
– Melanie Maria Goodreaux