The seventh graders were making face jugs out of clay and my deaf and hearing impaired students were having some trouble understanding the process of hollowing out, scoring, and slipping to add on facial features. I, myself, hadn’t worked with kiln-fired clay since high school and was re-learning alongside them. A student held what would become an eyeball in his hand. I rolled a ball of clay in my hand with a clay tool demonstrated the process I wanted him to follow. He began to copy the process, cutting into the clay with a scalpel-like tool. “Yeah. It’s like surgery,” I said to him, the interpreter thinking about how to best translate the joke, and then signing. A smile came across the student’s face once he understood.
It was a unique challenge to student teach at an elementary school with Neighborhood, Gifted, and Deaf/Hearing Impaired departments. With classes of thirty students, which I only saw once a week for the short seven weeks of my apprenticeship, I had a lot of thinking to do on my feet in accommodating students’ needs. In working with deaf students I had to learn to control my pacing–allowing for the delay of interpretation. Within my classes of neighborhood students I found myself addressing a wide spectrum of learning and emotional needs, lucky to always have aides present with my students with special needs, many on the autism spectrum. In my gifted classes I found myself building in extra discussion time as I planned, accounting for students’ insatiable need to question and elaborate. Prior to my student teaching apprenticeship I had absorbed the curricula of educational psychology, methods for teaching art, and exceptionalities. What I came to learn in the field is that although an IEP highlights a student’s needs, the greatest step a specials teacher can take is in developing a strong relationship with all teachers and aides that work with a student in order to ensure the most comprehensive strategy.
During the high school portion of my student teaching apprenticeship I encountered classes where only one or two students had documented IEPs, when I suspected that more than a few should have them. With 160 students in my five classes, a handful of IEPs and 504 plans in each, and seeing students five days a week, I was allowed a much more formulated approach in working with individual students. A student in my 5th period Art 1 class required a number of modifications as mandated by her IEP. Beyond just reading her IEP, I took her aside to talk to her about what I could do to best help her learn. Part of her potential for success was in her awareness of her needs and her comfort in advocating for herself.
Classroom seating arrangements were made in considering how to create the best possible learning environment for all students. The student mentioned above required preferential seating during lectures and presentations to accommodate partial hearing loss in one ear, however I found that for independent practice she was best seated with her friends in the back corner of the room where she was least likely to be disturbed by other students. She was sometimes the victim of remarks from other students in the class, being called “slow” and other derogatory terms. Her IEP included peer tutoring as a modification, so I sat her with a friend that was excelling in the class with whom there was a comfortable, established relationship of support. The student knew to move to where she could hear when necessary and we used non-verbal cues of eye contact to establish understanding.
When learning watercolor techniques I provided her with a labeled template to use for her sampler and invited her to join small groups for which I would slowly review techniques and vocabulary introduced the previous day. When completing written work I would often talk through each question with her before she would write down answers. Over the course of my time working with her, I saw an increase in her self-efficacy. She became much more inclined to participate in class discussions and even volunteered to have her artwork up for a critique. When asked to write down the emotion of a painting she had completed she wrote “proud.”
As I prepare to begin my professional career as an educator I come with experiences working with diverse student populations across the city of Chicago. Sometimes the student with special learning needs comes to feel particularly vulnerable. It is the job of the teacher to create a safe space for learning and allow the student to be successful in the least restrictive environment. Students with special needs offer a unique perspective in the art making process, and of all subject areas, art is the ideal place to celebrate unique and individualized approaches. There should never be a singular path towards achieving the objective of an art lesson, which makes learning in the art room inclusive for students of all abilities.