Contributed by EASE Teaching Artist, Melanie House
On a cold rainy morning in mid-December, I leave my warm home in the Bronx to travel to the edge of Queens, near Long-Island, for work. Light is just beginning to fill the sky, as I make my way with a large bag of items to my first class. When I enter Mr. Robinson’s classroom, I am greeted with smiles, brightening faces and even a few cheers. I feel like a celebrity and am reminded why I love being a Teaching Artist so much. Children love to see me, and Teaching Artists in general, because we bring the fun!
Mr. Robinson teaches an energetic 8:1:1 ED class with students ranging in ages from five to seven. Some of these students use various avoidance strategies to keep from engaging in academic tasks. Some are very sensitive, easily wounded by looks or perceived wrong-doing from peers and adults, which can lead to explosive tantrums. With such an array of personalities and energies, Mr. Robinson has his hands full keeping the students purposefully engaged. In order to help students reach their academic goals, he often needs to separate students and engage them in quiet independent work to keep the peace. But what about the value of learning from peers? What about the socialization skills we need to get along in the world? How can we help students to gain effective communication and socialization skills, while learning academic content, and having fun?
I have been learning answers to questions like these, by working as an EASE (Everyday Arts for Special Education) Teaching Artist and Coach. The EASE program is funded by a federal research grant that explores the intersection of Art Education and Special Education. A core principle of this program is that a GAME = RULES + PLAY. The “rules” include the steps for an activity, appropriate kinds of behaviors, and any academic content that a teacher wants to teach. The “play” includes the things that make learning fun: being a valued part of group, working together to make something, expressing ones-self, chanting, singing, acting, painting, dancing, storytelling, and joy. If the rules for a game are clearly articulated and followed, students know what to expect and their sense of fairness and justice is satisfied. This is particularly important in ED classrooms, as disruptive behavior often stems from not understanding expectations or feeling that rules are not justly applied. When students can track rules and steps, they gain a sense of control over themselves and their environments. When students are having fun, they are motivated to participate and to behave in ways that will keep the game going.
Today Mr. Robinson’s class will be playing a game that helps students to develop communication, socialization and other academic and personal skills called “Pass the Object.” This game requires students to make eye contact, use appropriate manners, take turns, observe and respect personal boundaries, follow directions, self-regulate, persist and collaborate with their peers. In an earlier lesson, students mastered the basic steps of the game using a concrete object:
- Bring chairs to sit in a circle.
- Pass the object from person to person around the circle.
- Make eye contact with your neighbor as you pass the object.
- The entire group focuses on each person as they pass the object.
- Add good manners to the mix, by adding dialogue:
“Mr. Robinson, it’s your turn.”
“Thank you, Ms. Mel”
- Now, play pretend: “Let’s pretend this object is very hot while we pass it!”
When we first began to play the game, the students had difficulty waiting for their turn. The person with the object would sometimes taunt the others and take a long time with his/her turn. This caused frustration and outbursts. One shy student wouldn’t even come and sit in the circle. We invited her to join us, but didn’t force her participation. Then, we clarified the rules of our game and added a chant. Now all students are purposely engaged, even while waiting to receive the object. The chant regulates the length of time that a student holds the object before passing it along. Once everyone is playing “fairly,” the students begin to smile and laugh. To sustain engagement we add challenges to the game, like creating a group goal: “Let’s see if we can pass this object around the circle in less then 20 seconds.”
Today, the students will continue adding more abstract concepts to the game, begin layering in academic content and will move to a less restrictive set up–standing in a circle:
- First students partner to put masking tape X-es on the floor in a circle, and one X in the middle of the circle
- The Leader stands on the middle X with an object, while everyone else stands on the circle X’s
- The Leader chooses someone in the circle, gets his/her attention, and passes the object to that person
- The two players trade places, and the second player is now the Leader
- Next, we remove the object and pass a clap around the circle
- Then we pass words: the alphabet, days of the week, months of the year or counting by twos, fives, tens, etc.
- And eventually, we pass a sound and movement
Today, our shy student sits in the circle. She sometimes whispered her turn, but she is fully engaged. This is cause for celebration! She requests that we end the lesson with a game of “Freeze Dance,” which is another EASE activity. The entire group is excited about this prospect–more motivation to participate and follow the rules. When another young man becomes angry and decides to quit, I give him a moment to reconsider his choice. I smile and wait. He smiles back and joins the game. How do we know the session has been successful? All students participated, followed the rules, engaged with the academic content embedded in the game, and no one wanted the session to end!