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The Rhode Island School for the Deaf.

Approaching the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, one immediately senses that there is something strikingly different about this school. It is beautiful, in no small measure due to the forty-foot murals which hang as a frieze on the front of the school inviting visitors in for even richer aesthetic rewards. Upon entering, one is greeted by a 10' x 40' (3.5 m x 12 m) mosaic tile mural; an idyllic landscape with children at play, made by the children with their art teacher, Peter Geisser. Around the borders are anchors, symbols of hope, and hands displaying the manual alphabet. We are clearly in a special place where art is one of the main means of communication--and celebration. Inscribed on one tile is a poem written by Mr. Geisser. In part it reads:

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


Which sets souls dancing ...

We are about to enter an extraordinary world, where special learners, with very special, dedicated teachers have created a rewarding, even joyous, learning environment. Peter Blackwell, the principal of the school states, "The atmosphere of this school with the constant addition of the products of art experiences ... gives testimony that I do not regard art as a luxury-a program to be encouraged when time and money are plentiful or merely for those interested in or needing an alternative to an academic course. Murals on the walls are not only art experience, but excursions into knowledge of Babylon and other civilizations; of mythology ... the knowledge which connects us with the world which is and which was, and the endless world of possibility."

More than thirty murals grace the hallways, classrooms and lounges of the school, and are placed there not only as handsome decorations but to serve as vital aids to learning. Peter Geisser explains that deaf children do not have the luxury of hearing about Michelangelo, for instance, but if the environment is rich in images, the learning approximates the incidental learning that constantly surrounds hearing children. These large murals are collaborations between student and teacher and employ the old master-apprentice philosophy of art teaching. Some students gesso the panels, others transfer the design from cartoons onto the panels, still others paint in large areas, leaving the finishing details to the "master" teacher.

Background and goals

The Rhode Island School for the Deaf was founded over a century ago to serve the hearing-impaired of Rhode Island. Under the leadership of Dr. Peter Blackwell, the school has developed a model curriculum K-12 which is used around the world. Art has always been a part of programs for deaf students, but the art program at the Rhode island School for the Deaf has developed into a curriculum which has received its own international recognition. In 1973, Peter Geisser was hired as art teacher and is still the only specified art teacher in the school.

Mr. Geisser points nut that many art programs exist for their own sake, but in a special education population such as this, no program exists for its own sake. Art, he believes, is a language used to help teach the learning of all other languages and subjects. The art program serves all other disciplines at the School for the Deaf, as well as having its own distinctive content and method. Language being closely related to the visual perception of deaf children, the developmental levels in art are closely tied to students' linguistic competencies. Children who have not acquired relative clause structure in their language, for example, do not draw perspective nor perceive it.

Curriculum and interdisciplinary programming

The curriculum at the school is conceptually based and the concepts of a given level are couched in a series of units. These units are then used as topics for all subject areas. Students receive "Art" once a week from levels K-8, and though it is, in fact, the "coffee break" for the classroom teacher, it is also a time that many teachers visit the artroom to discuss ways of incorporating visual aids or art materials into their own subject areas.

In the high school, the senior art program is an essential part of the whole curriculum. At the other levels, art is used in tandem with units taught by other teachers. For example, seventh and eighth graders studied Babylon as part of a year's study of civilizations. The art program created a Babylonian lion mural, focusing on covering a 10' x 30' (3.5 m x 9 m) wall with three life-sized lions--all in glazed ceramic tile. The math teacher helped students figure the amounts of clay and tiles needed, and the English and history teachers taught units on ancient Babylon. At the end of the year there was a great celebration. Visitors from the Museum of Art and the governor helped install the last tile.

The art classroom itself displays still another level of meaningful artwork. There is a mural along one side of the entire room based upon the theme of great moments, concepts and people of Western civilization. The artwork is a visual counterpart to the art history course which relates art history to philosophy, politics, literature, dance, music, theater, math and science. Universality is the main theme, teaching not only the who, what and when, but also the why.

Advocacy programs

How does one person transform the entire school, its outer appearances, its hallways and classrooms, its curriculum and its teachers, staff and administrators into a place where art is everywhere, valued, sought after and supported? In a variety of thoughtful ways.

Geisser says art teachers often think that they diminish their programs by being enablers of others. However, he recalls that the artists in the caves of Lascaux most probably enabled the hunters to achieve their common success. The artists gave the human spirit courage to go out and face danger and possible death. At a school where teachers face impossible challenges, he believes it is his duty as an artist to provide his fellow teachers with all the magic they need and that art provides. In return, the administration has given him the senior class five days a week for the past fifteen years. With the little time they have, the senior art program has been required for students from the first year it was taught. He is convinced that a school-wide belief that art is essential happens only when art educators show how art is essential and make it essential to the administration, the teachers and the students.

Another reason the single member of this art program is so successful is that he gets everyone in the school to teach art. Giving support to other teachers makes them less afraid of being creative in their teaching and less inhibited in employing their own art skills. Marilyn Cooney, the kindergarten teacher, said, "The art program ... integrates art into the curriculum in some very exciting ways! While learning about families in Japan, the children, with the help of Peter Geisser and some high school students, transformed the entrance of our classroom into a Japanese house, complete with rice paper sliding doors, a Japanese garden and Mt. Fuji ... Japan immediately became everyone's favorite country and motivation for learning was high."

Community involvement

The art program also has a distinctive outreach approach in which it assumes responsibility for taking students into the world with trips to the theater and museums in Providence, Boston and New York. The "Art Person" becomes a clearing house for many cultural excursions making it apparent throughout the school that art really can be a way of life and not just an object. The students don't only go into the world for their cultural enrichment, it often comes to them. The art program is seen as a bridge to many cultural parts of the community and presentations by theatre groups, musical ensembles, dance troupes, mimes and other artists are brought into the school and use the art program as the door.

The art program also finds its expression and rewards in community service. Geisser believes that the community has been good to the school and that the children should be shown that they have an obligation to serve the society that serves them. The art program has a reputation now for taking their art to the community and has received requests to make murals for community centers, hospitals, housing for the elderly, and from the local Museum of Natural History. Perhaps the most significant project was the decoration of the Child Development Center at Rhode Island Hospital in which the students at the School for the Deaf worked with special needs children and made a ceramic tiled mural installed in the corridors of the hospital. Over 600 people participated in this year-long project that involved the resources of many organizations in the community.

During a visit to a school for physically disabled children, a young woman who could only draw in clay with a stick held in her teeth worked with a deaf student of the same age. When finished, the disabled student said to her deaf helpmate, "I have been afraid to meet deaf people 'cause I can't imagine anything worse than being deaf!" The deaf student signed in disbelief, "But you can't walk, can't use your hands, can't dance ..." Her new friend responded, "But you cannot hear my words and know what I am thinking!"

The spiral curriculum

Still another way in which art infuses its presence throughout the school is by the art teacher being at the hub of school wide curriculum planning. The Rhode Island School for the Deaf employs a spiral curriculum plan, wherein the same general topic is visited several times over several years, each time going deeper and broader into its issues. The spiral curriculum makes teaching particularly exciting for the art teacher because he is one of the few teachers who sees all children, K-12. A unit on ancient Greece may be taught in lower school to reflect how people work together to make a society. Taught again in middle school, the unit may reflect on the development of political structures; taught again in high school, it may reflect on the universal ideal of perfection present in Greek mythology, drama and politics.

In the artroom, it is possible to not only relate the topics being taught but also the concepts of the year and the developmental level at which each child may be functioning. And of course the art program welcomes the help of other professionals. Interns, as many as five or six at a time, conic from local colleges to do their practicums or independent studies. Even alumni come back and help out in the artroom. These young artists bring added creativity and make possible more individual attention and a greater variety of offerings.

Problems and opportunities

One art teacher, a modest sized room, no special art equipment or supplies--except a fine sound system--meeting most classes once a week for the usual class time, replacing the classroom teacher so they can have their "break," a small school, many students with severe and multiple learning disabilities; these are the very same professional settings that many art teachers face. That one art teacher makes a difference because the art program intends to make a difference, not only in the artroom but through out the school, the day, the lives of all the children and their teachers.

As I was about to leave the artroom, concluding my visit, a little girl rushed in, dashed over to the art teacher, beaming while she showed off her new, colorful sweatshirt, the Beethoven tape was turned over, and another child ran up and gave him a note from the history teacher requesting help on her unit on the Renaissance.

Aesthetics count here, not only on the page, but everywhere ...

because men and women take the


Silent children sing and hear the


which sets souls dancing.

Dr. Peter London, a member of the School Arts advisory board, is Professor of Art and Education, Southeastern Massachusetts University, North Dartmouth, Massachusetts.
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Title Annotation:Focus: Field Trip
Author:Geisser, Peter
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 1990
Previous Article:Learning through art at the Guggenheim.
Next Article:Synthesis in watercolor.

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