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Adapting art education for exceptional children.

A current theory in art education calls for the teaching of studio art in concert with the disciplines of art history, criticism and aesthetics. Each of these areas can have an enriching effect upon a child's learning experience and artistic development. However, for the child with physical, mental or emotional special needs, the introduction of academic material into the studio experience carries with it serious implications. In recent years, studio art has been widely called upon to be the first (and sometimes only) opportunity for the special needs child to be mainstreamed into regular classes. Art is widely regarded as a more "forgiving" subject in which successes can be achieved despite a child's other deficits.

With some modifications in lesson structure, or adaptations of media or techniques, exceptional children have been able to reap the rewards of being in a mainstreamed environment. These rewards include access to more normative peers, greater educational challenges, lessening of social stigmas and increased opportunities to become adjusted to life beyond a sheltered special education atmosphere. However, with the increase in academic expectations in the art curriculum, exceptional children may again find themselves straggling, defeated or, quite possibly, removed altogether from the mainstream setting. It may be pertinent then to explore some possible solutions to these problems, and suggest some approaches for the use of art historical/contemporary visual aides and art criticism with students who require special consideration.

A balance

While art historical or contemporary visual aides play an important part in the learning process, it is important that there be a balance maintained between self-expression and academic rigor. In those programs in which academic rigor dominates expressive self-exploration, the work is often stereo-typical, pretentious or slavishly mimetic. Visual aides should aspire to motivate and inform the child artist, regardless of whether the student has special needs. Handled with sensitivity, the introduction of contemporary or historical visual aides should not necessarily intrude upon the expressivity of the child artist. Used as a motivational resource, they can assist in generating ideas or can facilitate a needed shift in content or style away from commercial stereotypes. For this reason, art reproductions should be complementary to the child's aesthetic sensibility, so that the capacity to stimulate and expand creative responses leads to a greater investment in artistic effort.


Such resources can inspire students if connections are made with particular artists whose work reminds them of their own. For example, by using Chagall's dream-like images to further the aims of motivation, rather than to study and imitate, children filter their own iconography through the master's. Students may also begin to research other modernists working in the so-called primitivist or naive manner such as DuBuffet and Klee. Research should not pretend to assume an academic style of learning (i.e., memorization, stylistic analysis, etc.). However, by creating a working relationship and identification with these artists, students may absorb the modernist sensibility. Such experiences allow a child's own style to expand while remaining true to its own nature.

A group of middle schoolers were shown slides of Stonehenge, earthen drawings from the ancient Peruvian Nazca People and the Ohioan Indian Snake Mounds along with the con temporary work of Robert Morris, Nancy Graves and Isamu Noguchi. Although there were five students of mixed handicapping conditions mainstreamed in the class of eighth graders, the materials possessed sufficient universality so that even the most conceptual works held some appeal to the lower functioning students. After viewing these slides, the students created some miniature earth works by carving a variety of negative forms in large blocks of soft clay. Once the molds were carved out, hydrocal was used to form the positive cast. Hydrocal plaster was chosen for its extended working time and its capacity to form exceedingly hard and durable casts with utmost thinness. Finished pieces were installed in the school's courtyard (which eventually became a sculpture garden).

Student works, some almost five feet in length were installed partly submerged in the ground. Although one boy had severe learning disabilities, he was able to articulate fairly complex ideas about the process and origins of his work during critiques. He pointed out the similarities of his work to the Indian Mounds to mythical sea monsters and to the techniques used in Robert Morris' Firestorm paintings. He explained how he used different household implements to create form and texture in the clay mold, all with great animation and pride. Essentially, his work (and explanations) were as informed and aesthetically on par as those of the "smart" kids of the class.

The use of visual aides enabled the students to make use of whatever technical, stylistic or iconographic resources could enhance their own work. Rather than constituting an academic-type solution, these visual aides were but a point of departure from which the child could improvise and free associate. Students might just as well have chosen some other form of external motivation, such as a studio prop in the form of a deer skull, an old clock, the cast of a hand, or an old family snapshot.

What is crucial, however, is that the motivational aides are developmentally appropriate, as well as sufficiently open-ended so as to allow the student's own style and other idiosyncrasies to filter through. The goal is to enrich the image and to expand its scope without sacrificing individual expressivity. Visual aides can often be introduced during periods of cooperative learning whereby students break down into smaller groups and review the visual aides through an informal discussion and tutorials. Often the learning disabled or other handicapped children are paired with those who serve as positive role models and are good verbal articulators, so that they unknowingly act as tutors.

When the art products are completed, this cooperative process can be extended to formal critiques in which social and interpersonal dynamics are explored. The art reproductions contribute positively to both ends of the art process because they provide a much needed vocabulary to wield the language of art--one which is crucial to the artist's ability to communicate, even on a most basic level, the significance of his or her work. By providing this vocabulary, students with special needs are supported during the critique process. Particularly among pre-adolescent students, this sense of parity is an essential element in their development and maintenance of self-esteem and empowerment.

David R. Henley is chair and associate professor, Department of Art Education and Art Therapy, The School of The Art Institute of Chicago.
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Author:Henley, David R.
Publication:School Arts
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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