Creating the 2017-2018 VSA Teacher Resource Guide: An Interview with Author Shannon Hayes

Picture of two children looking through a container of beads; text reads: "Yo Soy...Je Suis...I am...Motivated to CreateThe recently published fifth edition of VSA’s Teacher Resource Guide provides visual art lessons that challenge students to use their artistic voices to explore how the arts contribute to our understanding of the world, to our relationships with others, and to the betterment of our communities. This publication is a companion for the VSA International Art Program for Children with Disabilities, Yo Soy…Je Suis…I Am…Motivated to Create.

In this interview, author Shannon Hayes offers some insight into the inspiration behind the 2017-2018 Teacher Resource Guide and what she hopes arts educators and students take away from the publication.

VSA and Accessibility: How did you come up with the lessons in the Teacher Resource Guide, and how were you inspired by the principles of Understanding, Harmony, and Change?

Shannon Hayes: When I was first came on board to the project, Jenna Gabriel [Manager, Special Education in the Office of VSA and Accessibility] had mentioned the idea that the lessons might be influenced by the work of composer Leonard Bernstein, so I began researching him. I read some resources available on his eponymous website, writings from his daughter about him, and excerpts from a speech he gave following the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy. His daughter wrote about how she associated her father with the Hebrew phrase “Torah Lishmah,” which she translated as “a raging thirst for knowledge” and talked about how he was a lifelong learner who studied in multiple disciplines and brought what he learned back to music. I think that this idea translated into the interdisciplinary or multiple modality aspect of the project—music, and indeed other artistic modalities, as an inspiration or resource for creating visual art.

In his speech following JFK’s death, Bernstein spoke about the importance of learning and reason as the antidote to ignorance and hatred. When I read that excerpt, I thought about the multiple meanings of the word harmony, meaning a combination of simultaneous notes in music, but also agreement and peace. Out of that research, three central themes emerged—Understanding, Harmony, and Change. Each of the lessons takes one example from the arts and asks students to create their own interpretation of how they contribute to our understanding of the world, to our relationships with others, and to the betterment of our communities.


VSA and Accessibility: What are one or two of your favorite lessons from the guide?

Shannon Hayes: Two of my favorites are Motivated by Music and Portrait of a Leader. Motivated by Music is a lesson that I’ve done numerous times with students in first and second grade and it allows students to create visual representations of how they hear and feel music without any restrictions or specifications of how the end product “should” look. The option for students to work alone or in groups opens up the discussion on the multiple meanings of harmony and allows students to think about their role in a group and reflect on how they work together.

I wrote the lesson Portrait of a Leader prior to artist Kehinde Wiley being commissioned to create President Obama’s official portrait and I was so excited to see the final result of that commission recently! The lesson in this guide challenges students to consider who has been historically identified as a “leader” and how they have been portrayed in traditional Western portraiture through symbols and ornamentation. Using the example artwork of Kehinde Wiley, as well as discussion and reflection, students are asked to determine their own values and definitions of power and leadership and create a portrait of a leader of their choosing in the highly ornamented style of portraiture from which Wiley took his inspiration.


VSA and Accessibility: You provide useful suggestions throughout the guide on supporting students with disabilities. Are there any particular strategies you would encourage educators to consider as they prepare to use the lessons with their students?

Shannon Hayes: I think many educators know their students best, so the suggested strategies are there to give a couple of ideas about tailoring lessons to the students, space, and materials you might have. It’s my hope that all of the lessons can be broken into smaller chunks, extended over longer periods of time, or adapted to match the interest areas and enthusiasm of students.


VSA and Accessibility: What do you hope educators take away from this edition of the VSA Teacher Resource Guide?

Shannon Hayes: In creating these lessons, my intention was to provide educators with a handful of ideas to facilitate students’ exploration of how the arts represent, create, and challenge our perception of the world around us. There is such inherent joy in the process of exploration and creation through the arts, and I hope that these ideas provide opportunities for students to actively participate in the arts as a vehicle for creating understanding, harmony, and change.


Talking Without Words: a Creative Movement Lesson Plan Designed for Inclusive Classrooms

By Portia Abernathy

Lesson Title: Talking Without Words: Using Our Bodies and Movement to Show Our Feelings
Designed for: Youth (8-12 years old), Inclusive
Length: 1 hour


Learning Standards

Responding: Respond to movement to match the emotional content, mood, or rhythm of music.

Creating: Use guided improvisation to explore, invent movement, and apply movement concepts.

Performing: Demonstrate movements in straight and curved pathways. Use movement to demonstrate various emotions (happy, sad, scared, surprised, angry).

Connecting: Move in different groups (pairs and duets). Make movement choices based on preferences.



Images of people demonstrating different emotions
Rubber floor markers
Music and speaker OR live musician


Preview concepts: using movement and our bodies to show emotions and feelings

  • Students begin seated in assigned chairs set up in a circle.
  • For attendance/check in, ask students (when their name is called) to freeze their face and body (while remaining seated) in a way that can show the group how they are feeling today.

Warm Up
Review concepts: personal and general space, level, shape, and size (large and small)

  • Lead students (with musical accompaniment) through the 8-step Brain Dance movement series. (The Brain Dance was developed and created by Anne Green Gilbert)
  • Incorporate movements that promote body isolations and highlight the previous weeks’ learning concepts; this can also include seasonal imagery (falling leaves or snow, flowers growing, wind, apple picking).

Concept Introduction
New concept: using movement and our bodies to show emotions and feelings

  • One by one, show students five different images of people demonstrating different emotions.
  • Ask students to silently observe the faces, bodies, movement, posture, etc. of the people in the images.
  • Ask students:
    • What do you see that made you choose that?
    • What is their body doing/what is their face doing/etc.
  • After each emotion, have students freeze their own body to demonstrate the feeling.


Review concepts: Traveling on straight pathways, practicing locomotor movements

  • Have students travel across the floor in straight and curved pathways, from one floor marker to the other.
  • For each round of movement have students (alone or in pairs):
    • March
    • Tip toe
    • Chasse
    • Skip
    • Jump (over another floor marker along the pathway)
  • At the end of each movement round, have students turn and talk to a partner and share which emotion the movement made them feel.
  • Demonstrate (or have students demonstrate) two different responses/emotions to the same movement.
  • Ask students
    • What was different?
    • What did you see or notice?
    • What makes you say that?
  • Ask for 2-3 students to demonstrate their emotion with a locomotor movement, like a gallop or hop, and see if students can guess the emotion.
    • Note that students can share and we can understand how people are feeling without using any words.



  • Return to seated circle.
  • Play a clip of music and allow students to listen and think about how it makes them feel.
  • In pairs or trios, have students go into the middle of the circle and free dance (structured improvisation), matching their emotion and movement to the music.
    • Remind students to use various body parts, levels, shapes, and qualities of movement.
  • Other students should demonstrate audience behavior expectations while observing.



  • Close class with group reverence:
    • Bow to thank teacher
    • Bow to thank musician
    • Bow to thank peers
    • Bow to thank self


A picture of Portia Abernathy, a smiling woman with long blonde hair and a blue jacket

Portia Abernathy, M.A., M.Ed., is Assistant Director of Education and Community Initiatives at Boston Ballet, where she oversees accessible and inclusive dance education and professional development programs.

“How Can I Help?” – A visual art lesson plan from the VSA’s Teacher Resource Guide

A robot made of clay with a red top, square body, and striped legs.

A clay sculpture inspired by the “How Can I Help?” lesson.

In this lesson, students investigate possible solutions for concerns and/or needs in their community. They will design and create a machine to serve their community by addressing this need. The machine sculptures will be made out of clay or from found objects.

NOTE: This is an abridged version of the “How Can I Help?” lesson plan. To view the complete version, including in-depth adaptations and modifications for students with disabilities, example artworks, and a vocabulary list, see pages 9-15 of VSA’s Teacher Resource Guide.

EXPECTED LENGTH: 2 – 3 class periods

For clay sculpture:
Clay tools – simple tools such as plastic knives and forks
Clay mats
Acrylic paint

For found object sculpture:
Recycled materials (cardboard tubing, plastic bottles, cardboard)
Glue/Glue gun

Art Making: Students will create a machine that can solve one of the world’s problems using found objects or clay and exemplifying the artistic principle of unity.

Critical Inquiry: Students will investigate how the title character of Wall-E was designed and created to solve a problem in the fictional society created in the movie.

Art History Inquiry: Students will reflect on the art- making of Michael Rakowitz and Tim Rollins + K.O.S. and how the artists talked and listened to the individuals they worked with (in other words – did research) in order to create their art.

Aesthetic Inquiry: Students will uncover how art can be an agent for social change through their examination of the stories behind the creations of Tim Rollins + K.O.S. and Michael Rakowitz.

Show a clip of Wall-E that establishes the reason for Wall-E’s existence. Point out the vast and lonely landscape. Ask: Where are the people? Why would Wall-E be alone? Who created Wall-E and why?

Begin to generate ideas of problems we need to solve. What are some of the challenges that you or others must face each day? How could these challenges be made easier? Consider investigating topics being covered in other academic areas (e.g. if science class is addressing climate change). Make a brainstorming list on the board. Be prepared to pepper the list with suggestions to expand ideas. Record (or have a student record) this list for future reference.

Share the work of Michael Rakowitz and Tim Rollins + K.O.S. Highlight the research aspect of their work. Both artists asked questions and honored the voices of community members in their artistic process. In advocacy communities, this approach is embodied by the slogan: “Nothing about us without us,” which implies that people doing services that affect others (for example, policymakers) should do that service with the people it affects, not for them. Have students share times when things have been done “for them” but “without them.” Has someone ever helped you with your chair when you didn’t need it? Or answered a question for you without asking your opinion?

Revisit the brainstormed list created at the beginning. Who do we need to talk to and what do we need to ask in order to find out what is really needed?

A sculpture made of plastic cups, pom poms, and styrofoam balls.

A found object sculpture inspired by the “How Can I Help?” lesson.

Students should begin by identifying the problem they wish to address and thinking about a machine that could solve it. They should focus on how the machine would work, and what this will tell them about its design. For example, if the machine is designed to plant wild flowers on highway medians to support the Monarch butterflies during their migration, it might need something to rough up the soil to prepare for the seeds, something to sprinkle the seeds onto the dirt and something to water the seeds to help them start to germinate.

Choose the studio—clay construction or found object. Base your decision on either your access to the materials (clay construction will require access to a kiln), or the issue being addressed. For example, if investigating the concern for the excess trash that has created the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the use of recycled materials for the artwork would be most relevant.

Clay Construction

  1. Construct slabs of clay. Using a rolling pin, roll out clay with even pressure until it is 3/8” thick. Consider making the slabs in advance so the clay begins to dry out, which will make it easier to construct the machine.
  2. Create a base. Cut out shapes from a slab in the shape students want their machines to be: a square, rectangle or circle. If a square or rectangle is selected, then sides can be cut out using the base as a guide for the width of the pieces (2 for each dimension). If a circle is the base, a slab can simply be cut into a rectangle the length of the circumference of the circle.
  3. Prepare clay slabs to be connected. Have the students score the slabs by scratching the surfaces of both edges using a plastic fork or knife.
  4. Spread slip over the scored edges.
  5. Press the pieces together and smooth out the seams for a firm bond. Sides can be supported while drying with wads of newspaper.
  6. Once the frame of the machine is built, additional elements can be added using the slip and score process.
  7. Allow the work to dry, then fire in a kiln.
  8. The fired piece can be painted with acrylic paint to add details.

Found Object Construction

  1. Select materials from found objects, such as cardboard, toilet paper or paper towel tubes, or water bottles.
  2. Cut, tear or bend the selected material to match the students’ plans.
  3. Using glue or a glue gun, assemble the objects.
  4. Add embellishments, using glue for details (eyes, feathers, pompoms, etc.)

Have students write artist’s statements about their work. What does the machine do? How does it work? How does it address the identified need?

Watercolor Fountain Painting: A Visual Art Lesson Plan for Students with Disabilities

Created by Darren Thompson

Creative Arts Specialist Darren Thompson teaches art in a fully inclusive setting, which includes many students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). His goal is to provide a rich environment that supports creative exploration for all students. Many of the art experiences he designs that are especially effective for children with ASD involve motorized devices that he creates or adapts from common objects. Here, Thompson offers a visual art lesson plan utilizing a battery-operated tabletop fountain.

Preschool, ages 3 – 6 years


  • Battery-operated tabletop fountain
  • Semi-moist watercolor set (such as Crayola or Prang)
  • Heavy white paper


  • Become acquainted with watercolor as a medium for self-expression.
  • Demonstrate that the marks a person makes can represent a thought or a feeling.
  • Provide an opportunity for social interaction.


  • Fill fountains with water and turn them on.
  • Demonstrate the sequence of first dipping the brush in the water, then in the paint, and then touching it to the paper.
  • Tell the children they can paint whatever they choose.
  • Express interest in and remark upon what you see in a child’s piece and ask him or her to share thoughts or feelings. For example: “I see you’re using red and you’ve made some straight lines and some circles. Tell me about it!”
  • Ask if you can share their painting and words with their friends.
  • If the answer is no, respect the child’s choice. If the answer is yes, then make an impromptu announcement to the group. For example: “Hey everyone, Fatima has painted a picture of her mom and her ” Show the painting to the class. As you hand it back, speak loud enough for the class to hear you say, “Thank you, Fatima!”
  • Make your way around the room, interacting with each child in this manner.

A tabletop water fountain immediately engages children. They are eager to explore it and are delighted that they are allowed to do so. The sound and feel of water has a regulating effect for everyone, but is especially effective for individuals with sensory processing delays, including those sometimes associated with ASD. Children should be allowed to paint with their fingers if they choose.

I recommend using relatively small-sized paper, as it requires finer movements of the hands, which helps to calm and focus the children. I use 5” x 8” blank index cards.

Children always welcome positive acknowledgment from a caring adult. When they are asked to tell you about their work it sends the message that what they are doing, thinking, and feeling is important. It also gives them practice in reflecting on their actions and recognizing that actions have causes. When you share their work with the class, you are helping each child feel connected to their peer group. You are also demonstrating that every child has something to offer.


This lesson plan aligns with the following Early Learning Content Standards in the state of Ohio:

  • Use imagination and creativity to interact with objects and materials.
  • Express individuality, life experiences, and what he/she knows and is able to do through a variety of media,
  • Express interest in and show appreciation for the creative work of others.
  • Demonstrate understanding that symbols carry meaning and use symbols to represent thinking.
  • With modeling and support, explore the properties of objects and materials (e.g., solids and liquids).
  • Use language to communicate in a variety of ways with others, to share observations, ideas and experiences; problem-solve, reason, predict, and seek new information.


A headshot photo of Darren Thompson, man with light hair and a beard, wearing glasses.Darren Thompson is a Creative Arts Specialist employed by Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities in Columbus, Ohio. He teaches art at The Early Childhood Education and Family Center in a fully inclusive setting. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art, a Master’s Degree in Education, and is a licensed Early Childhood Educator and Intervention Specialist. He is a frequent guest speaker at The Ohio State University College of Social Work and College of Arts and Sciences. Thompson presented at the 2016 VSA Ohio Arts and Autism Conference and is on the planning committee for the 2017 convening.

Painting with Fingers on an Object: A Visual Art Lesson Plan for Students with Disabilities

Created by Kong Ho

According to teaching artist Kong Ho, “No matter how good an individual teaching artist or art educator is in his or her own personal art, it does not mean that he or she is good at teaching art; students with disabilities need modified lessons that nurture their own means of using their modes of expression.” Here, he offers a visual art lesson plan created for students with disabilities on painting with fingers on an object.

Unit Title: Painting with Fingers on an Object
Grade Level: 3–5 (ages 8–11)

1. Learning Outcomes

Established Goals:
Sense the found object and paint the object with fingers and water-soluble paints.

Students will sense the given object and different color paints with fingers.
Students will explore how to apply paint with fingers on different surfaces of an object.
Students will understand the form of an object, texture of paint, and painting surface.

Essential Questions:
Do students know that tactile feeling is an essential sensation?
Do they know fingers are useful tools for applying paint?
Do they understand form and texture through touching?

Students will learn how to sense an object or paints by touching it with fingers.
Students will understand that their fingers are useful painting tools.
Students will know the form of an object and paint texture through touching.


2. Assessment Evidence

Performance Tasks:
Complete one 3D painting on an object by using fingers as painting tools.

Other Evidence:
One 3D painting will reveal the understanding of following art elements: color, texture, form, and space.

Key Criteria:
Learn about color, texture, space, structure, paints, and tactile experiences.


3. Learning Plan

Summary of Learning Activities:
Students will be given an object, which can be a food can, cereal box, tree stick, or stone collected by the teaching artist. Then they will close their eyes to touch the given object and paints. They will select their most favorite color to paint the entire object with fingers. After they complete their task, then they can see how they have transformed the appearance of an object. Then they will share their unique tactile experience with the class and the instructor will explain the importance of the tactile experience in developing creative thinking and approaches in art making.


This lesson was designed to align with the following Pennsylvania Department of Education Academic Standards for the Arts and Humanities:

9.1.3 A. Know and use the elements and principles of each art form to create works in the arts and humanities.
9.1.3 H. Handle materials, equipment, and tools safely at work and performance spaces – Identify materials used.
9.1.3 J. Know and use traditional and contemporary technologies for producing, performing, and exhibiting works in the arts or the works of others.



Kong Ho headshot

Kong Ho

Kong Ho is an Associate Professor of Art and program director of Art and Creative Technology at the University of Brunei Darussalam in Brunei. Ho is a teaching artist with a disability and he has published several journal articles, conference proceedings, monographs, and a forthcoming book, Larger Than Life: Mural Dreamscapes, about working and teaching community murals. For more information of Ho’s murals, paintings and digital art, please visit