Research has shown that the practice of “mainstreaming” special education students (placing them in general education classrooms with an inclusive curriculum) can be beneficial to their academic and social development. This is particularly true in arts education. I’m developing an art curriculum that benefits both special education students and their general education peers while building a mutual understanding and trust among classmates.
Art Breaks Down Barriers
While teaching art at Mound Westonka High School, my classes have had a wide variety of students. In one particular section, I had several high-needs special education students which has inspired much of my Master’s research. I noticed that the general education students in my class were very respectful of my special education students, but did not fully engage with them as classmates. While they would take care to not get in their way and call me over if someone needed help, they wouldn’t engage or offer help themselves. I realized that they didn’t fully understand or know how to interact with their peers with disabilities. To bridge this divide, I began developing an art curriculum designed to foster understanding, interaction and cooperation among general education and special education students.
Art Builds Connection
As a creative and flexible subject taught in school, art is ideal for mainstreaming special education students. Everyone can create art, and everyone’s approach to art is a valid expression of who they are. Art classes challenge students to stretch their creativity and think innovatively. Because of this, every student in an art class needs to become comfortable with exposing their art to their peers and teachers. This vulnerability creates a more level playing field between special and general education students. There are no right answers in art, which means that no one is at a disadvantage.
There’s also a physical closeness in an art class that encourages connection. Students share the studio space, which means working closely with one another and sharing materials and equipment. There’s no way for students to separate themselves from the rest of the class.
Art Builds Confidence and Understanding
The art curriculum I’m developing helps build confidence in our special education students and understanding in their general education peers. I believe often students don’t fully understand the challenges special education students face, so I’ve been designing projects to help foster a dialogue. An example of this curriculum is having the class draw a representation of what they think ADHD feels like. After they finish, we’ll have a conversation about ADHD as a class and the experiences of those who have the diagnosis, giving them more perspective. Then, I’ll have them do another drawing. My goal is that I will see the art done after the discussion take on greater depth, as they gain an understanding that students with ADHD don’t intend to be disruptive, but have significant reasons for not being able to concentrate or stay on task. My goal is that as students work through the different abilities of those in their classes they will develop cognitive understanding of their peers.
We also use a critique process at the end of each project, where each student stands in front of the class to talk about their artwork and the thought process behind it, getting constructive feedback and observations from their classmates. At first, this can make students nervous, but as the semester goes on it’s a way for students to build their confidence and a sense of community within the classroom.
My special education students make a lot of progress through the critique process. The first time they stand in front of their classmates, they might not be sure of what to say and look over at me for a lot of guidance. By the end of the semester, they walk up with confidence and talk about their artwork, analyzing what went well and what they would do differently next time. I also see visible growth in how they conduct themselves in class, and the control they have over the process of creating art.
That magic moment, when you see them get comfortable with the process and discussing their art, is powerful and a testament to the power of art as a tool in mainstreaming special education students.
Tips for Teaching Art and Special Education
Below are a few guidelines that I’ve found to be helpful in using art in mainstreaming special education students:
Get to know your students. Art is a very personal pursuit, and each student will express themselves in different ways. The more you know your students, the better you’ll be able to tailor your art curriculum to suit their needs.
Learn to forgive yourself. I’m a new teacher, and it’s hard to learn how to deal with the bad days. When you have a bad day teaching, you feel like you’ve failed everyone around you – yourself, your students, your coworkers and your students’ parents. It is an intense job, but you have to learn to forgive yourself, move on and keep trying new things.
Ask for help. I’ve found my greatest resource is the wisdom of my fellow faculty members. Their knowledge and experience have helped me in so many ways, and there’s a real energy that’s created when teachers collaborate.
Look for inspiration. I love reading about art and how it intersects with education, politics and culture. I’m always finding inspiration in the work of others. For example, the work I’m doing in creating a special education art curriculum is influenced by an article by the phenomenal arts educator Olivia Gude titled “Aesthetics Making Meaning.”
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