September 23, 1997
by Elizabeth Grizzle
Art, education, and the student with a learning disability. What is the relationship? It is really quite simple. Art, visual and/or performing, is an essential component in the total educational plan for students with a learning disability. Over the years, as a teacher for students with specific learning disability (SLD) I have been fortunate to have taught many talented students in the areas of visual art, dance, drama, singing, and playing a musical instrument. My task has been to insure they have the opportunity to take courses in those related areas. In almost every class an SLD student takes, the emphasis is on remediation of basic skills and acquisition of new skills. In an art class, the emphasis is on creativity, and the student has the freedom of expression. An art class provides an opportunity for self concept, self worth, and self confidence to flourish in a way that may not always be possible in other classes. The student is, therefore, motivated and the finished product or production provides an opportunity for self evaluation as well as an intrinsic reward. The success comes partly because the student is utilizing his/her learning modality, which is not always addressed in the "regular class."
One only has to do literature research to find countless programs, grants, and special projects that utilize art as a vehicle to reach the at-risk, hard- to-teach, gifted, or learning disabled student. I shall never forget one particular second grade student. Not only did the student have a learning disability in math, but there were some emotional overlays interfering with social skills and communication. We began by drawing a picture and dictating one sentence about the picture, and progressed to writing a simple book. Not surprisingly, his verbal and written communication skills dramatically improved. It is well known that students are frequently able to express themselves through art and drama when they cannot verbally express themselves because of SLD or emotional difficulties.
Another high school student I taught demonstrated absolutely no talent in art. However, I asked the art teacher to work with me to see if we could reach this hard-to-teach student. His painting looked like primitive African artwork, and he seemed to be so pleased there was a name for his style of painting. The art teacher introduced him to pottery. As a tactile learner, we began to see changes in his attitude toward academic work and a willingness to comply with school rules. Everyone was pleased with the transformation, but most importantly, the student had for the first time experienced success at school. I worked with him for four years and was able to watch him grow and mature into a young man with self confidence. Recently I saw him for the first time since he graduated, and one of his first questions was "Hey, Ms. G, do you still have those pieces of pottery I made for you?" Tears formed in our eyes as I told him one piece was at home on my bookshelf and the other piece was on my desk at school.
I have also taught SLD students who were very talented in art and had already experienced art instruction. My challenge was to encourage them to attempt new areas of artistic expression: photography, drama, music or dance. Many students stand out in my memory. However, one female student in particular comes to mind. The photography instructor saw her work and thought she could be talented in photography. He was right. With her excellent eye for detail and ability to see the artistic everywhere, she was a natural photographer. It was not always easy. On several occasions I had to intervene between the two artists (teacher and student) who viewed the assignment differently. Interestingly, she made him a better teacher. He had to learn first hand how to work with the learning disabilities of a gifted student and also guide her development as a photographer. The student went on to art school in Atlanta, has had her work shown, and she is now employed at a digital imaging company in San Francisco where she is a production manager and an account executive with a salary rapidly approaching $100,000 a year. I believe her best work is yet to come. She once wrote me a note in which she stated, "You believed in me when no one else did." I still do, however, now I am not alone.
I do not mean to suggest that providing art opportunities is a magical cure- all for students with a learning disability. Nor do I suggest that positive results always come or that they come overnight. I do, however, believe that many times these special and often significant opportunities are denied because of the student's attitude, behavior, or lack of academic performance. An example is the student now working in San Francisco and doing so well. She came to LaFlore where I was teaching only after having been expelled from David High School. We as educators have nothing to lose and the student has everything to gain by making art an essential component in the education of learning disabled students.
Elizabeth Grizzle, M.Ed., is a teacher for students with learning disabilities at Adams Middle School.