Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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Friday 06.29.12

When is enough…enough?

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.









Thursday 06.21.12


This past year I had the pleasure of teaching a class about working with students with special needs to art education students at U Mass Dartmouth.  In the spring I was asked to supervise a few of these students in their student teaching experience and it was like relearning the art of teaching all over again.  I marvel at all our young people are expected to juggle in teaching art today.  As if learning to teach was not enough, there are the lists of standards, curriculum guides, math and literacy goals, all of which have to be integrated into 45 minutes including set up and clean up before the next class begins. 

Somehow, when all the “right” things are learned and taught in teacher training, a new teacher often walks into a classroom and reverts to the models of teaching that they have experienced as students.  This is likely why it is so hard to change the way we teach.  Back in the 60’s I can remember hearing the old myth that “teaching less is more.”  The concept makes sense that if you learn a topic in greater depth you actually do know more than if you simply pack in a lot superficial facts.

In the program at the RI School for the Deaf, every year as part of the Senior Art History/Humanities class the students would make some major work of art that would be of use to the younger students and part of the K-12 curriculum.  This was part of the “visual noise” that was necessary for a school, particularly a school for the Deaf.  What children see is the incidental music and the peripheral conversations that hearing children experience.  Through the years students have made a 13ft tall Trojan Horse-reading area for the school library, an 8ft in diameter ceramic tile Aztec calendar, and painting reproductions for hallways, etc.

In 1985 the seniors came into the year knowing that they wanted to make a “real” mummy case for the school.  This story is captured in chapter 9 of Reaching and Teaching Students with Disabilities through Art, Gerber/Guay (NAEA). But the point of teaching less is really what I want to focus on.  The RISD Museum has the mummy and case of Nesmin, a late period Egyptian work.  The students literally spent the entire school year researching the wood techniques, making the case as closely as possible to the original, and documenting the differences.  Part of their work was to commission a glass major at RISD to make eyes for the mummy case, to learn how to gild the face of the case, and of course to copy all of the hieroglyphs from the original.  In their work they discovered three “scribal errors” that were made in the original mummy case, but which had not been documented in the information about Nesmin.  At the end of the year, the School for the Deaf Mummy was exhibited at the RISD Museum along with all the photos and written documentation.  This exhibit was so popular that we were asked a few years later when the museum did a big Egyptian faience exhibition to exhibit the mummy case again.  The students also gave a talk at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, about creating this reproduction.  To add a little reality to that Sunday afternoon talk, a local undertaker transported the mummy case in his hearse from Providence to Boston.  As amazing and genuine as this research was, it was done at the expense of the usual Art History curriculum.  “Teaching less is more,” I kept telling myself, but even with the approval of my principal, some how in June I felt as if I had not taught a thing that year. 

Mummy case/and “mummy” exhibited at the RISD Museum

Egyptian mural in Lower School hallway
Mummy case at the School for the Deaf
Mummy case near courtyard Mirror base to reflect bottom of case

The revelation came on our annual “cultural marathon” to New York City. This trip was a culmination of all of the art experiences of the year.  It included the Cloisters, St. John Divine Cathedral, MoMA, and a Broadway play.  This year, more than ever before, my students were ill prepared to see the Museum of Modern Art.  We knew everything there was to know about the techniques of Egyptian mummification and wood working, but nothing of Picasso!  As we walked into MoMA, I was the one who was not prepared, not my students.  Because of the intensive experience of making their mummy case and exhibiting it in a museum, this group of students saw contemporary art as an extension of their own experience.  “How did they stretch such a large canvas?” “How did they give this bronze such a nice patina?” “Why do you think they were simplifying these images?” All that they saw was questioned.  Not with simple “what for” questions, but serious questions of technique, philosophy of the style, and overall meaning. 

Picasso Three Musician reproduction in hallway RI School for the Deaf

Guernica in hallway of the RI School for the Deaf

I had not taught what I “should” have, but what was learned that year was learned more deeply than any class I had ever taught.  “Less is more” You really have to prove it to yourself to believe it, but it is true. Try it. Hint: it isn’t about teaching, it is about learning.

Next week I’d like to look at a question that was asked of me by an art teacher frustrated by the inclusion of students with special needs into her art classes. “When is enough enough?”  Ouch!  There was nothing pretty about the question; it has haunted me for several years.  The honesty of the question is certainly right out there and the issue needs to be addressed...I’ll try.

-Peter J. Geisser

Friday 06.15.12


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!”

1For the final exam at RISDeaf the seniors brought the kindergarten class on their first trip to an art museum.

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?


Friday 06. 8.12


One of the great joys of being a teacher and an art teacher in particular is that you have constant opportunities to learn from your students.  In the next few weeks I hope to share some of the things that I have been taught about teaching by my students at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf.  Many of these things are at the very heart of the educational issues that all teachers are struggling with today and it is my hope that these stories and insights will be as useful to you as they were to me.

One of the wonderful things about being an art teacher is that students often see you as the “doer” of the school.  Think of it, how many English teachers write novels, or science teachers publish their scientific findings?  But most art teachers do make art, or certainly if they are not completely overwhelmed with teaching demands, they can make art.  In the past twenty some odd years we have focused so much on measurement of student activity and of criteria to be evaluated, that we often have little time to talk about that mysterious factor that makes our discipline unique in the academic world.  NAEA has to its credit formed Issues groups in the past ten years, which bring focus to some of these unique qualities of art education. The Spirituality and Art, the Design and Education, The Early Childhood, and the Special Needs Groups all address unique attributes of art education that go beyond the measurement of what art is.

This week I’d like you to think about the power of what is REAL about art and how this idea of “real” is so important for us to consider in our world of “Virtual Reality”.  My career began at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and in forty years I have never brought young people into a museum or gallery without the word “REAL” coming out of someone’s mouth.  In our society, our students are saturated with so much visual media that it is easy to become desensitized to what they are looking at. 

Back in 1976 when I began an Art History class for our seniors at the School for the Deaf, I had an experience which has informed my teaching and thinking ever since.  Our twelve seniors were in the MFA in Boston, part of a series of field trips to see the great art, which we had studied.  We were in the impressionist/expressionist gallery, when three of my students came up to me and signed, “Denise is crying!”  I walked over to Denise not knowing what could possibly have evoked tears in this very intelligent young Deaf woman who was standing in front of Gauguin’s masterpiece “Where have we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?”  Asking her what was wrong, she said: “Peter, do you mean that for all the pictures you showed us, and all the pictures in books, somewhere there is a real one like this?”

It was like being blown away with an intellectual lightning bolt!  “Somewhere there is a real one?”  This is the inquiry of an extremely intelligent and articulate student, yet the simplicity of the question almost evokes a laugh.  Of course there is a real one.  But when you think about how we present things in our educational system, very little is “real”.  Now, it is possible to go online and see the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum, the Getty Museum, etc.…  Wonderful as these resources are, they are “Virtual”, not REAL.  Can a picture of the ceramic soldiers of ancient China be compared to feeling of a lump of clay in a child’s hand? This recalls Peter London’s great and under-read book, “Step Outside”, where he challenges teachers to use “real” experience, not just second and third hand materials. In early childhood classrooms, the materials and environment are carefully considered to provoke children to wonder, play, create and discover new possibilities. Art education should do the same for all students, not just the little ones.

I look forward to sharing more with you in the weeks to come.