Engaging Diverse Learners with Diverse Art Forms by Richard Jenkins

Teaching Artists are finding themselves in classrooms with an ever-growing diversity of students; students with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, students with various learning styles, and students with varying degrees of cognitive, behavioral, or physical disabilities. Engaging such a broad range of students in art-making can be daunting.

Occasionally, teaching artists are challenged to develop new skills and understanding in order to meet the needs of these students. Here are some questions that I considered when I was recently invited to work with a diverse group of children.

Who am I teaching? What are the students’ strengths, preferences, and challenges? And how will that affect my teaching?

I worked in an ESL classroom with many children coming from dual-language households. Seven of the students were non-English speaking. Also, there were three students with learning disabilities that limited their abilities to write. All of the students were eager to make visual art and many loved acting. So, during this residency, the ESL teacher would translate my instructions into Portuguese, dictation would be provided for the students who had trouble writing, and all of the students would be allowed to express their stories in oral, written, dramatic, or visual form.

What is it about the creative process of my art form that is beneficial to a child’s cognitive, social, and/or emotional development?

In my studio I am creating stories that are much like stage plays on paper with actors, dialog, and settings. Drawing characters with specific attributes and qualities, to the service of the story, is one of the fundamental elements of my craft.

In the classroom, I taught these students how to identify and draw different lines, shapes, and patterns. Then I taught them how to synthesize theses elements into unique characters. Next they named their characters and assigned attributes to them. Soon their drawings became imbued with personal meaning, and they wanted to share their work. This provided a powerful motivation for them to master their skills and knowledge.

What is my own “growing edge” here?

Having earlier made the theater connection to my art-form and learning about the student’s fondness for acting, I decided this was a perfect opportunity for me to learn another art form. With the help of a friend (a teaching artist with a theater background) I developed two improvisation activities to assist the students in the creation of their narratives. All of the students had the chance to bring their characters and stories to life in dramatic skits.

During this residency, all of these varied students became highly engaged in their projects and learning. The students were given multiple options for engaging with the curriculum content and multiple means for expressing their ideas and stories. Finally, like a challenging art-making experience, this residency, with its diverse group of students, opened new avenues for me to explore in my art form and in my teaching practice.

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