A couple of years ago, I gave a keynote at a state conference about working with students who have special needs. As is always the way with teaching or presenting a keynote in this case, there is more to learn than to teach. To facilitate questions, people could write specific questions down and then put them in a jar. The last question to come out of the jar was from an art teacher frustrated by the inclusion of students with special needs in her art classes. “When is enough…enough?” Ouch! There was nothing pretty about the question; and it has haunted me since hearing it. The honesty of the question is certainly right out there and the issue needs to be addressed…I’ll try.
Visual art educators have become one of the largest groups of teachers to experience students with special needs. There are times that this is a good thing and there are times that this is a disaster for all. When laws that protect students with disabilities came into being (see Reaching and Teaching Students with Special Needs through Art…Chapter Two or Understanding Students with Autism through Art…Chapter One) the term, which was coined and is still on the books today is “least restrictive environment”. The idea being that the student should have what it takes to be educated, but not things which would hinder development. If a child can function and learn in the local school, then that is the least restrictive environment. If the child needs a special school or program to learn, then that is what is least restrictive. How this has been defined in school districts across America, parallels the success of mainstreaming or inclusion. There are so many nuances to children and to disabilities, that to make a one-size-fits-all program can be the antithesis of the “least restrictive environment”. A classic misuse of inclusion is the common scenario where a group of 6 students who because of their disabilities are placed in a self-contained class, but at “art time” they are added to a group of their normally developing peers…all 24 of them. So now we have 30 students, 45 minutes, six who may have severe disabilities and because it is “coffee time” for the classroom teachers, the aids or paraprofessionals leave the art room on the presumption that now everyone is “normal”! This kind of scheduling can bring a teacher to the point of: “When is enough…enough?”
The success of programs for students with special needs come down to whether the students are put into a program, or are programs developed to meet the needs of the students. Money often drives the decisions of staffing and service to students with special needs, and this is where the educator needs to join the discussion on what is the “least restrictive environment”. It may be that several students with special needs can be successfully included in an art room of normally developing students. It may actually make the dynamics of the class better than ever. But if the reason for the inclusion is simply to make accountants, administrators or parents feel better about the placement at the expense of the students learning –beware. More than, beware, be active. Whatever you may think of your skills as a teacher, YOU are the teacher of all the students in your room. We are a creative profession; find some creative solutions to the schedule that will allow all students the best opportunity to learn. A colleague in a large public elementary school was able to negotiate an extra hour in her schedule to have a special class for students who had been inappropriately mainstreamed. This took the pressure off the class with 30 students, and also made the teachers, parents, and administrators aware that special attention needs to be paid to everyone, especially the students with unique needs.
Sometimes we art teachers are victims of our own success. In one of my last years of teaching Deaf children there was a class of children with severe physical, behavioral, and cognitive issues. The first day of class in September, a teacher aid brought the class to the art room and told me she couldn’t stay to help (though she knew I needed help) because she had to meet each week with the classroom teachers. The ratio for this group was 4 adults to 5 students…and this was appropriate given the students’ needs. As much as I loved working with these kids, there was no way that I could safely work in the art room with them without at least one paraprofessional. I asked “Nancy” (who was just following orders) if she could walk to the principal’s office with me on her way to her meeting. On the way we met one of the classroom teachers who was waiting to see if this arrangement for art class would work for her. We got to the principal’s office looking a little like a scene from the Wizard of Oz and he wanted to know what was wrong. I explained that I just wanted to be sure that it was okay for me to be alone with these five kids in the art room since I knew that four had IEPs which called for one-on-one at all times. I just wanted to know that parents were okay that there would be no one-on-one when they went to the art room. The classroom teacher, who was looking for an ideal free period, said that the only place in the school where the class acts “normal” is in the art room. Bottom line is to know the needs of ALL of your students and advocate for them in the system; even in a good system their needs may be subordinate to the convenience of others.
Twenty years ago, few art teachers ever saw children with special needs. I taught art to Deaf children for 33 years and it wasn’t until the late 1990s that NAEA started addressing the fact that such students were part of the mission of art education. Happily today, most art teachers in America have worked with students with special needs and realize the unique benefit that art can have to the learning of all children. I say this because I believe art teachers are some of the best teachers in our system. Who can make things REAL or adapt curriculum like people in the arts? Who has students ask if they love their subject? We have this amazing thing that can bring learning to life. But we must do our homework and know our kids special needs. Get the help you need and don’t ever think that you’ve done enough.
The question came out of Pandora’s jar: “when is enough …enough?” But inside the jar of art, just like in Pandora’s there is one thing left “hope!” The answer to when is enough …enough is likely never, or if you have hope it will be when the lion lays down with the lamb. Who knows? Art does deal with the impossible as well as the possible. This is a lot more work than completing the yearly curriculum, real art education is not a profession, it is a vocation, a calling. We have been called to teach all children, especially the ones to whom art brings life and learning.
Millions of tiny fragments
Of broken dreams are brought
Together in a place of learning.
And because men and women take the time
Silent children sing and hear the music
which sets souls dancing
Millions of tiny fragments are brought together,
and what was broken, with years of
patient learning, becomes whole again,
And a new world emerges
Filled with broken children made whole!
-Peter J. Geisser (1975)
Photos: In 1974-75, all of the students at the RI School for the Deaf created a mosaic mural for the lobby of their new school. A new school building was built in 2010. Details from the old mosaic were removed and new tiles were made by students K-12 in 2011. The new and old tiles were reinstalled in the lobby of the new school. Some children who are now teachers participated in what has become a history of the school. These photos show some of the installation of the new lobby mural.