“YOU TALK, WE LEARN” vs. “CAN WE MAKE SOMETHING!” HOW TO TEACH?
Everyone has a point in their career when they are faced with a challenge unlike anything they have ever experienced. Many in art education have had such a crisis in the last decade or so when faced with students with special needs in their art rooms, and not having a clue as to how to serve these students. Such moments can become real points of learning, not for the students as much as the teacher.
I started teaching children who were deaf back in 1970, about five years after a US epidemic of Rubella (German measles). The population of children who were deaf and often with other disabilities quadrupled in 1964-65, seriously challenging the system. But this challenge also brought much understanding in the field of Deaf education and linguistics.
I had started an Art History Program at the RI School for the Deaf for our seniors, which amounted to one hour a day working with 10 or 12 students. In 1984, I suddenly had 32 students for this class that called for three sections a day just for the seniors in our K-12 school. I was looking forward to teaching the material to a group of very bright, partially mainstreamed college-bound students, a group of students who were of “average” skills and to a group of students who had many challenges.
So what is this story about? The first day of class, I issued Janson’s History of Art for Young People to each group. The Middle group, like classes before them were excited about this great book with a world of pictures. The college bound group came in and moaned at the sight of the book and told me they had not had “real art” in years because they were out mainstreamed and had not made art since middle school! The real surprise was the last class of the day. I had a pile of clay in the center table, ready for a hands-on approach. (Traditional teaching with Deaf students calls for a horseshoe arrangement so everyone in the class can see each other.) I will never forget this class. These students whom I had taught since they were in preschool, walked in, sat down and looked at the clay. This was going to be my most hands-on Art History class ever. “What for?” one of the students asked as she looked at the clay. “No, we are seniors now, you talk, show pictures, we learn art history, not make clay!” So I taught this class in three very different ways, but not at all as I had originally planned.
All three sections of students would go together on the many Museum trips that were built into the class. For simple management, 32 Deaf students are like having 99 hearing students. But the great learning tool was “who knew what!” The very “bright” group who were so happy to throw pots on a wheel again, make Egyptian faience, and design Roman mosaics, were dumbfounded that their low-functioning classmates could tell them the difference of Geometric, Black figure and Red figure Greek vases! The class with the most challenges thrived on the ordering of periods of art history and could explain the distinctions between early, middle and late of any period of work that we studied! In short, each student learned exactly what he or she expected to learn. I learned never to limit the expectation of any student. One of the most powerful lessons learned that year was by the college-bound group of students. They had always been categorized in the school as the “smart kids” but their experience of going on trips with their “no-so-smart” classmates pointed out to them and me that intellectual advancement is not a matter of intelligence as much as it is an activity of using your intelligence.
The final exam for the Art History course was for the seniors to bring the kindergarten children on their first trip to an art museum. This activity of assessment concluded with students giving a narrative of their experience. Once again, all of these seniors were amazed at what five-year-old Deaf children could see in a museum. “I’m a senior and will graduate, but these little kids saw things that I never saw in the museum before!” “I’m a senior, but now I realize I don’t know everything!”
Many years later one of the students from the lower functioning group came back to school. He was a dishwasher at a small diner. He wanted to tell me that he had taken his fiancé to NY and they visited the Metropolitan Museum. He was surprised that she, a hearing person who had been to a hearing school, had never been in a museum! So he gave her a four-hour tour of the Met! “She didn’t know that Egyptians want to live forever. Didn’t know Rembrandt and dark and light, or even Van Gogh and expressionism!” From the same class, one of the students who became a certified public accountant returned to the School for the Deaf years later and asked: “Peter, do you still love art?” Again, I was shocked at this simple question from one of our very brightest graduates. “Of course I still love art.” “Well, I love to go to museums, but I’ll never love art like you do.”
In all of our expectations, all of our standards and rubrics and criteria, I think it is still valid to ask ourselves: What do we really teach? What do our students really learn?
The RI Commissioner of Education who was very proud of our program at the School for the Deaf, asked me, back in the mid 1990s, when the move for standards became the direction of education, what I saw to be the goal of a good art program. I told him about my dishwasher who could give a four-hour tour of the Metropolitan Museum. Yes, I have had students who have gone to art school and have careers in the visual arts, but the museum-going dishwasher is still my highest achievement in art education.
I had my expectations back in 1984 but my students had much higher ones. Can we throw away our needs and expectations for theirs? “You talk, show pictures, We Learn” or “Can’t we make something?” An old Chinese saying: “the heart of so great a mystery can not be reached by one path only.”
Next time we’ll look at the old myth of teaching less, can it really be a way to learn more, or is it really just a myth?