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Modern educational literature is rife with references to the importance of listening to students and facilitating the development of the individual “voice.”  But what if the your students are non-verbal or having an extremely limited vocabulary?  It is easy to assume that since they do not speak that they are not communicating, when, in fact, they are simply using a different modality.  The following article outlines some tips for better understanding what special needs students are saying.

  1. Find the hidden messages in “behaviors” or “breakdowns”

Those of us that work with special needs students are very familiar with behaviors or breakdowns.  Initially the crying, repetitive gestures and outbursts from these students may seem random, but they rarely are.  These students have no way of saying “I don’t like this song,” or “The volume is too high.” Ask yourself:

What activity preceded the outburst?

Has this happened before?

What did you or the classroom staff do that calmed the student?

When does this student seem most content?

Sometimes there are even messages in the sounds and words said while in the midst of a tantrum.  One of my students “J” threw a tantrum in one of my classes, and after close listening, I realized that he was yelling, “e-i-e-i-o.” He wanted to sing Old MacDonald but didn’t have the vocabulary to express it.  So we sang Old MacDonald and he was immediately calmed.

“Read” Your Audience

A  great many skills we develop as performers are transferable to teaching special needs students.  One such skill is being able to “read” your audience.  After a while we instinctively know when to slow down, speed up or drop a section completely.  The same goes for working with students.

If you find your students engaged in a song, repeat it.  This populations thrives on repetition, and those with language processing delays will have an opportunity to learn your material.  On the other hand, if the class is losing focus or individuals are starting to show behaviors, find a quick stopping place and move on.  It takes patience and flexibility to work with special needs kids, and sometimes no matter how wonderful your lesson plan is, you may have to make a quick change.

 Your Greatest Resource: the Classroom Teacher

The special day class teachers are an amazing group of individuals who know their students extremely well. Ask them for advice and listen to them when they make suggestions.

Art Adventures With San Ramon K-2 Special Education

A K-2 Special Education classroom at San Ramon Elementary in Novato was the site of some wild art adventures this Spring! In this series of tactile art workshops, the focus was on stimulating the senses and developing fine motor skills.

student work

student work: assembled, glued, embossed, painted, adorned

Projects included texture rubbings, painting without a brush (via dripping, dragging, pulling, and rolling paint around), aromatic vegetable prints, monoprints, and creating stamped salt dough clay tiles.

The last projects combined several different techniques. Our young artists assembled found objects and glued them to cardboard, which they then covered with foil, painted, and adorned.

student work

Our final project was a group painting on canvas on which each artist used the techniques they enjoyed. It was great to have these artists come out of their shells to have a messy, good time!

student work

How do you make an Art Dome?

Check out this time lapse video of Suzanne’s Amazing Art Dome, constructed with volunteers over the past week-and-a-half as part of our the new exhibit “Squeak! Squish! Sniff! Scrunch! Art in Action” opening June 22 at Youth in Arts Gallery.

Come by the Gallery through August 10 to explore the Art Dome and other multisensory art activities for visitors of all abilities, and to see the work of Suzanne’s Marindale Preschool students on exhibit!

Youth in Arts Gallery is free to the public Monday-Friday, 10-4 at 917 C Street, San Rafael.

We’ll also be open late July 13 and August 8 for ArtWorks Downtown’s 2nd Fridays Art Walks!

Free guided visits for preschool groups with a hands-on art activity available by reservation. Email us!

World Dance at Hamilton Elementary

Every Thursday for 8 weeks this Spring, you could find kindergarteners at Hamilton learning dances from India and West Africa. The students could tell you the names of the dances, where they come from, and what occasion they are danced for!

Some students really loved dancing Bhangra, a harvest dance from India, and would insist on practicing the dance every class. Other students preferred Kuku, a fishing dance from Guinea, West Africa.

The students also had a chance to create some of their own dance moves and taught Mentor Artist Joti Singh a move or two as well. In addition to dancing, these enthusiastic kindergartners learned a fun call-and-response song from Senegal, and each time we practiced it in class, the singing got louder and louder, as the students became more comfortable with the Wolof and French words.

I had a great time working with these students and feel proud knowing they’ve come away with some new skills and understanding of other cultures.

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Faces at San Jose Middle School

This Spring I had the honor of working with the Special Education class at San Jose Middle School. We had a great time working on a variety of projects all relating to the proportions and features of the face. We started by drawing faces using an “eyewidth” measure to place the features more accurately.

face prortions

student drawings exploring facial features and proportions

Next, we made fun face collages using random elements and colorful accents for more practice. This was one of those exciting 1-session projects that made everyone laugh.

collage faces

Student collages

For the next project we incorporated a celebration of the Chinese New Year by painting and assembling paper dragon masks from pre-cut parts. This took a lot of patience and practice of fine motor skills.

dragon masks

Paper dragon masks

Finally, we made stuffed self-portraits from recycled paper bags. Each young artist drew and cut out a face shape, and then they chose a skin tone color and painted their pieces. They later drew a self-portrait on their painted bag, and then stapled the sides together, leaving only enough room to stuff with batting or paper. It was a challenging project, but the experience and results were so worth it!

stuffed self-portraits

Finished student work

Paper Exploration Inspiring Young Writers

First Graders at San Ramon Elementary School  worked with Mentor Artist Julia James to experience the myriad ways we can use paper to help us create and express ourselves.

Children practiced cutting, folding,color, bending, overlapping, and glueing.

After learning the fundamentals of paper techniques, students created pop-ups from flat sheets of paper.

When making masks, students learned that one cut can make a flat piece of paper three- dimensional.

In creating landscapes by tearing bits of paper, students were able to explore multi-colored papers from Asia that are made from plants. Tearing paper to create a landscape is more challenging when papers are made of longer plant fibers.

Students noticed that “The paper is soft and has a nice feel to it.”

“The paper feels so different.”

“There are many different textures in the papers.”

“I love the sound the papers make.

“I like overlapping and seeing the colors change.”

Finally, students learned to imagine a dragon. By drawing in pencil, adding sharpie, and finally learning to overlap colored papers to create texture on our dragons, students created truly unique and spectacular dragons to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

Projects always culminated with reflecting and sharing, and classroom extensions often included the addition of writing to help students articulate their decisions and vision.

Hands-On Learning: Asian Brush Painting

Seventh Graders at Hall Middle School 
deepened their understanding of Chinese and Japanese culture through an introduction to the art of Asian brush painting.

Tools have remained the same over the centuries: Rice Paper (Shue), Sumi Ink, and soft-bristled bamboo brushes. Students learned the proper technique to hold the brush, how to use pressure and movements to create marks varying from light to dark, fine lines to broad. Students then experimented with brush strokes, practicing strong lines, soft lines, spontaneous marks, and dry brush techniques.

Bamboo is primarily a Chinese subject, a simple shape but complex to paint, with harmony and joyous freedom. Students observed actual bamboo branches, and then learned the techniques to paint the subject in detail: the segments, the strong center stalk, fine thin branches, and graceful foliage.

Students were able to explore the development of Chinese and Japanese landscape painting and its influences through history. They observed how the Eastern ideal of perspective is different from our Western view 
(Flatter and more vertical). Students studied the works of various masters, both Japanese and Chinese, and learned the value of recording your world by painting what you see, and seeing the beauty in our own back yard. Using black watercolors on Japanese mulberry paper, students then created landscapes of Mt. Tamalpais in the style of a Japanese Sumi- e painter. They began by practicing circles, paying careful attention to breathing and thought before the brush touches the paper.

Learning to use a brush in a new way, practicing a variety of lines, practicing control of the brush, the freedom to be found when the brush is moving quickly, practicing spontaneity and celebrating beauty: sometimes it was hard to remain standing and hold our bamboo brushes upright as the masters were taught.