I teach art almost entirely through voluntary after-school programs. Although there are many benefits to this, planning for a classroom with several grade levels and inconsistent student attendance can be very tricky. For the most part I have learned to to plan for these challenges. While teaching this year at a local Indianapolis high school, however, I faced a new and more difficult problem. In addition to these typical challenges, I found myself unexpectedly teaching a class that included many students with developmental disabilities. Unaware of this, I arrived for my first class with a complex lesson plan on metamorphosis. Upon entering the classroom I realized immediately that much of the higher level conceptual processing necessary to turn one object into another (in any medium) would be impossible.
I scrambled to adapt the lesson plan, encouraging the developmentally disabled students to experiment with creating something in clay, but achieving none of my lesson goals or outcomes. After bombing this very first class, I realized that my biggest challenges would be to promote 100% engagement with each lesson and to develop a classroom that valued the exchange of ideas, critique, and discussion between every student regardless of ability.
I believe teaching art has an uncanny tendency to create a community of learners more so than any other discipline. In many academic fields, independent work is integral to success. With art, however, students depend on the open exchange of ideas, creativity, critique, and discussion. My first few classes at this site seemed to dismantle this notion.
During our discussion of art history, higher achieving students would phrase comments in a way that excluded the students with disabilities. On the other hand, when the students with disabilities offered their own insights, they were often so abstract and intangible that the rest of us were left unable to decipher any meaning. It was abundantly clear that each of these students had some insight to share – something that could change our understanding and contribute to learning. We only lacked the ability to effectively communicate and exchange these ideas in a universal way. This ultimately isolated each one of us in the classroom. We were not a classroom – but a room of individuals.
My goal from that point forward was to create our missing classroom community. One particular teaching tool proved invaluable. Since much of our miscommunication occurred while talking about art and sharing our insights, I turned to Visual Thinking Strategies to develop a better channel of communication. Having studied VTS at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I knew that using this strategy often transformed students into better communicators and critical thinkers.
In VTS the teacher becomes more of a moderator or facilitator of discussion. Instead of bringing information to the students, the teacher encourages the students’ own discovery of this information through looking, critical thinking, and sharing of insights. There are three open ended questions that enable this discovery: 1. What do you see in this image? 2. What do you see that makes you say that? and 3. What more can we find? The most important question is #2 because it asks the students to look at the image, communicate the source of their comments, and reveal the critical thinking process necessary to draw visual conclusions and insights.
I began using VTS within a few weeks of the semester and it completely transformed my students into a community and classroom of learners. When one student exclaimed Clive Barker’s illustration resembled a ghost snake, I asked, “what do you see that makes you say this section looks like that?” He then pointed out the way the lines were wavy and the colors were eerie and that all of this made it look similar to snakes and ghosts. A comment, which before would have alienated him suddenly brought us all closer together. Every student was able to see the way the lines waved and the colors looked strange together. Although we might not agree that it resembled a ghost snake, whatever that may be, we were suddenly able to share in the understanding of the importance of the lines and colors that affected the student’s response.
From that point forward, VTS became the essential tool I used in bringing the classroom together. Now every student was able not only to be expressive and imaginative but also to point to something visual and concrete as the source of these ideas. In addition to opening a true exchange of valuable ideas, this process also asked the students to have a much deeper relationship with the artwork. They became both responders and thinkers – expressing the way the artwork impacted them while pointing directly at the concrete sources of these reactions. As a whole, my students were suddenly talking about art in a complex way, regardless of intellectual ability. They pointed to the contrast between shapes, the emotional impact of colors, the different line weights and movements, the texture of a surface. They pointed to all these visual tools and made complex interpretations. More importantly, each student effectively vocalized these ideas and their sources in such a way that united us. By their own abilities, my students had become a classroom.
Note on the artwork: The artwork presented in the post includes every student from one day of class. All of the images in this post except the two just above were created by students with disabilities. We were studying outsider art and the work of Henry Darger during this lesson. The medium is felt tip pen and guache on watercolor paper.