A Room to Fill: The Gallery
By Eugenia Moskowitz
When Washingtonville special education teacher Roseanne Esposito found she had a spare room to fill two years ago at Taft Elementary School, she brainstormed ways to make the space child-centered, and wondered what about her fresh incoming group of students would emerge to fill the room. Being a consult teacher meant she was not working with students who pulled out for specific academic intervention, but rather assigned students in a typical classroom who had IEPs (Individual Educational Plans).
When she discovered most of her students tested with extremely high IQs and that their needs were not academic but rather social and emotional, she used her 26 years of experience to focus on ways to meet these goals. “All children have some level of social and/or emotional goals to reach,” Esposito said, “and their ability to communicate those feelings and thoughts effectively is key.” She thus used student-driven mechanisms such as the Inquiry Model, which takes as the starting place a student’s own questions about a subject. Finding answers included using a variety of skills and creative abilities as students created projects. Through this student-driven educational module based on student-generated questioning, The Gallery was born, starting as a period of the day where children jotted down ideas and questions in their “gallery journal” and shaping these ideas into projects, sometimes by collaboration, by mapping out the projects in whatever way they were best able to express them.
“Some students built storyboards of performances they wanted to create,” Esposito said. “Others drew out what they envisioned the room to look like by the end of the year, and some even began to build projects with materials they found in the room. My daughter worked in a gallery at the time, so that made me consider using a gallery-type of rubric, with the variety of parts as you might see in a modern art gallery or a museum exhibit, to help the kids convey their ideas using the mediums each child felt comfortable with, including essays, poetry, screenplays, or scripts; visuals such as drawings, paintings, or comics; scientific graphs; and songs or spoken-word arts. The Gallery started out as a physical place but evolved into a broader learning idea as the year went on and the thing just grew.”
But the passion to create didn’t come from nothing. Confidence-building played a key role as she got to know her students. “Once they were confident,” she said, “their ability to express what was inside their heads took off.” Esposito pointed to posters on her walls and showed videos of the Gallery’s inception two years ago. “Their emotional goals are intimately connected to their personal interiors, so when I say everything became personal, I mean that the projects they worked on were student-driven and focused on what really concerned them. For one child, it was body-image. Her presentation involved research on the iconic Barbie doll and how it ‘measured up,’ so to speak. Because it was authentically theirs and came from them, they blossomed.”
One girl’s project on Amelia Earhart echoed her own journey through the school year, encapsulated by the Earhart quote: “The decision is to act, the rest is tenacity.” For this student, seeing projects and decisions through to their completion was something she wanted to address in both her school-day and in her life, so she presented a biography of the female aviator who represented these qualities. Another child wanted to focus on the subtleties of bullying, and presented ideas on “how to make sure that friendship is true friendship.”
Esposito said the Gallery is partly a physical space but what mattered most to the children was that it became an environment where they were comfortable to be themselves. They took these skills with them as they went forward, and because it made such an impact on them, they asked to continue The Gallery as a club so that they could be involved as they moved up to the middle school.”
“We as a class built an environment where children are accepted for their differences,” she said. “And this enriches all children, in special or general ed. I didn’t teach tolerance, I taught acceptance. Once an adult accepts and celebrates a child who may not express themselves in a typical way, other kids accept and celebrate them.”
“Parents often told me: You changed my child’s life. But The Gallery changed me,” Esposito said. “I saw what could happen, not just for special ed kids but for general ed kids who were shy and never spoke up. The Gallery showed me what kids can accomplish when they open up, when their anxieties take a back seat and their intelligent minds take control. The leadership paths that open up when the kids open up and grow confident are so rich and rewarding for them, especially as they move into the middle school.”
In this way, The Gallery continues to do its thing, filling a space that would have otherwise gone unfulfilled.
(In this larger copy below, you can read some of the Gallery posts).
CAPTION: A project related to a history unit on early Colonists and Native Americans stands mounted to a wall in Roseanne Esposito’s special education classroom at Taft Elementary School. (Photo by Eugenia Moskowitz)