Working with special needs students and what they can teach us
These days we have the world at our fingertips. If we want to answer a question we Google it, if we want to buy something we look it up on eBay, and if we want to talk to someone across the world, we Skype. All the world is at our fingers and easily accessed from the comfort of our own couch. Is there a potential downside to this? Are we almost moving too quickly?
The whole world feels faster these days. It feels like we are losing touch with slowness and missing out on the small things. In fact, there have been all sorts of studies examining how members of the public engage with artworks (paintings and sculptures) and how long they stay looking and engaged. The average statistic (which is generous in my opinion) is approximately 17 seconds in front of an artwork. Even with two degrees in art I find myself doing the same thing. Rushing to the next thing; as if being pulled along on an imaginary art-conveyor belt.
A sculpture park demands a different sort of relationship. You have to walk on top of art, you walk into art, through art and this in parallel with working collaboratively with young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) makes you re-value the small things. It shows you new perspectives, teaches you to slow down, take joy in the small things.
Supported with a grant from the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (SAMH), Jupiter Artland and Woodlands Special School decided to celebrate their tenth birthday together in style. It was a great way to celebrate Year of Young People too. By inviting friends from Saltergate School and Oaklands’ School, we all decided that the best way to celebrate was to throw a bright and brilliant birthday party-parade through the Artland.
This was a collaborative and co-produced project; putting the interests of the students at its heart. This method was chosen to reflect the needs and abilities of all involved; our young people, teachers, artists, nurses and parents. It was vital that we all felt a sense of ownership of this project. Taking inspiration from that sense of belonging we all get when invited to a birthday party, we decided to throw a huge birthday party and brought together all our favourite things: fancy dress, bubbles and adventures in the woods with friends.
This project, which began with a grant application to SAMH in February, and was followed by three visits to Jupiter Artland for all schools in March and April; three visits of Jupiter Artland’s team to each school to tease out more ideas for costumes and props, a teachers’ CPD with the inspiring Vision Mechanics and culminating with our grand parade which took place in May.
The first stage of the project began by each school first visiting the Artland, experiencing the sculptures in the permanent collection and playing/experimenting with a creative workshop. The workshop chosen was to create Journey Sticks so that each student could create a visual map of their day at Jupiter. This was followed by more sessions back at school, creating props, costumes and puppets.
At every moment of this journey all learners made their own creative and critical decisions, choosing what they wanted to make, exploring how to make and finally putting it all together. Through this very act of making and being together, we improve on our motor skills – our hand/eye co-ordination, we communicate our ideas to one another, we re-value what the little things and what that really means and all of a sudden, we appreciate how difficult it can be to wrap a stick in wool. And maybe that teaches us that we all just need to slow down just a little bit.
Good mental health is just as important as physical health and what better way to exercise both than adventuring around an Artland. We take it for granted that people can keep up; keep up with conversations, walk at the same speed as us, communicate in the same way as us… but of course that’s an unfair presumption. Working with SEND groups has made me a better teacher; it has helped me to not only be a more considerate but has also prompted me to improve the physical access at Jupiter Artland and has helped me create a more responsive teaching methodology.
Art can behave as a springboard, a conversation starter. We use art education to talk around and through topics, it can easily become less about the art and more about making someone look closer, re-wiring the synapses on the brain to make it ‘see’ new things, enjoying the process rather than the product.
Projects such as our parade are vital for so many unseen reasons. The sociability aspect for our SEND learners, as it is vital that they create their own peer networks for now and later in life; the experience of engaging art activities and creative pursuits, the physical act of walking around the Artland – being in nature and away from our screens. What struck me the most from working with all these bright and brilliant young people over the last few months was the way they supported one another, encouraged another, helping add feathers to the owl’s wings or add more stripes to the tiger’s face. And what has resonated with me as the most important part project was the sense of community that is created when we all make art together. It is something we all need to continue to actively do.