A significant challenge teachers face is meeting the needs of all their many and varied students. As a 'regular ed' kid in middle school in the early 70's I knew there were 'special ed' kids down the hall in a classroom I glanced into but never entered as we marched in line to the gym. In gym class, during the dreaded square dancing unit, I came face to face with sweaty palmed boys but never the boy from the special ed room who knew the names of every shark that swam the ocean. I knew he knew this, because one day his class line passed my class line on the way to the gym. He was reciting. I was amazed. I had a vague, unconsidered idea that the kids in that room were there because they COULDN'T: couldn't behave, or do, or think, or become.
Flash forward thirty-five years. The words, "Every Child Can Learn," legacy of Bush era No Child Left Behind education policy, while not always creating welcome or helpful policy and legislation has had a positive influence in the way we think about educating kids. Even if we don't always know how to do it, even if we sometimes know, but don't have the man power or the technology to do it, even if it sometimes gets misinterpreted as Every Child Should Learn the same thing at the same pace.
This fall, at my school, we are working with an increasingly diverse group of students in larger numbers than ever before, with the smallest staff we've ever had. Teaching students who are hungry, tired, stressed out, distracted, or bored has always been part of the job, but in decades past there was general, societal acceptance that some of these students would move on at 12 or 16 or 18 to work on the farm or factory or family business. This way of doing business worked for many, if not most students, in the one room school house of the 19th century as well as the suburban schools of the twentieth century but for the 21st? Not so much.
I don't know the solution to the big problems in education today, but I do think a lot about what I need to do to reach all kids in my little corner of the world. In addition to students with a wide variety of learning challenges and needs, I have five deaf/hard of hearing students. Searching for a way to engage and involve these students, especially, I invited them to teach the rest of the class how to sign the alphabet in preparation for posing and drawing over-sized hands. This lesson evolved over several weeks to include creating henna hand designs and large wire sculptures around a theme of "Helping Hands."
This past week I stood back and watched industrious groups of students exploring possibilities with chicken wire, plaster, paint and papier mache' all the while talking and sometimes arguing, but also laughing as they worked together to solve problems of space and form, balance and stability, texture and color and ideas and concepts. 100% engagement. A rarity, unfortunately, when so many students are struggling with so much economic fall-out at home and social fall-out in their budding teenage lives.
Grand Rapid's third annual ArtPrize event was wallpaper to our lessons having contributed to the growing notion in our community that making art is cool and it's for everyone. On recent Mondays students came into class buzzing with what they'd seen and experienced visiting ArtPrize with their families.
As students lined up to show their planning sketches to me, I struggled with my own art school, high culture ideas. Don't just illustrate, I exhorted, see if you can find a way to use negative and positive space mindfully, to engage the viewer in a deeper way, with layers of meaning. Kids walked away puzzled. I want to encourage my students' ideas, but push just a bit for them to think more critically, engage more fully, dig deeper into their concepts.
|Check back soon to see finished sculptures.|
To be honest, I didn't expect much with the finished sculptures. I was happy that the kids had reached our basic learning targets for the unit. I try to be all about process not product when it comes to art making. Chicken wire scratches were minimal and no one shot themselves or anyone else with the staple gun. Success!
So, yesterday, as I took a breather from helping kids solve technical problems, and actually looked at their work I was blown away. These young teens, all, in spite of and because of their many and varied needs have created works to rival anything at ArtPrize, from the mind, with heart and by hand. Passing kids in the hall, on the way to the gym, who knew what they knew, or could do or create, or become once given a chance?