Making Arts Learning Accessible for Students Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision: Part 3 – Approximate Perspective

Visual arts education has historically presented challenges for both individuals who are blind or have low vision and for art educators who are not always equipped with the knowledge of how to successfully adapt their courses for students with disabilities. Dr. Jeremy Johnson of the University of Nebraska at Omaha set out to challenge the stereotype that people who are blind cannot create art through a series of art workshops specifically designed for these individuals. In this four-part blog series, Johnson discusses the visual arts workshops he designed for students who are blind, sharing promising practices for art educators to incorporate into their own classrooms.

To read an interview with Dr. Jeremy Johnson, click here.
For part 1 of this series, click here.
For part 2 of this series, click here.

Part 4 will be published on May 24.


Workshop 3: Approximate Perspective

The third workshop was the most challenging and simultaneously the most rewarding. During this workshop experience, students explored tactile drawing and the many complex concepts associated with approximate perspective. The author replicated many techniques developed by artist and educator at the Colorado School for the Blind, Ann Cunningham. While all of the workshops required extensive preparation, this workshop far surpassed that required for other topics. To educate himself, the author invested several hours studying with Ann, creating tools, and practicing his instructional techniques and verbal descriptions. Depth and perspective can be difficult even for sighted individuals, so to explain these very abstract concepts to individuals who are blind or have low vision (including some who had never seen before) was daunting. The instructor focused his instruction specifically on drawing by exploring the concepts of convergence; diminution of size; and foreground, middle ground, and background. To people who are blind or have low vision, these perspective concepts can be difficult to process and employing them is often approximate in nature, hence the term approximate perspective.

Before the participants even picked up a drawing utensil, the instructor opened with three activities intended to provide a foundation for understanding several core concepts. The instructor had some working knowledge of the participants’ visual history, that is, the experiences that participants may or may not have had with relation to previous sight. Those who did have vision previously could recall instances of depth or horizon. Those who had never seen needed more examples in order to understand the material.

Several of the activities used to teach the concepts related to approximate perspective were best accomplished in a long hallway. The particular hallway used for the instruction was ideal in that free of clutter, long and straight with very little foot traffic. The first of the three activities introduced convergence. Prior to the start of class, the instructor used masking tape to create a starting point at one end of the hallway. Next, masking tape was placed on the floor to mark 5 feet, 10 feet and 25 feet from the starting point. During the activity the instructor asked for two volunteers to assist and provided each one with a yardstick and asked them to first stand on either side of the hallway at the five-foot line. One by one, participants were asked to come to the starting point. Volunteers were asked to loudly tap their yardsticks on the floor to create an audible sound. The participant was then instructed to extend his or her arms in front of his or her body and point with each of their index fingers at the source of the sound. At the 5-foot line, when the participant pointed to the sound, the angle of their extended arms created a 45-degree angle. The volunteers then moved down to the 10 foot marking and again tapped the ground; the participant again pointed, and this time their arms created a smaller angle. Finally, the volunteers moved to the 25-foot marking and again tapped. When the participants extended their arms this time, their arms pointed nearly straight ahead and their fingers nearly touched. During the discussion that followed the activity, the instructor asked if the hallway was actually coming to a point; the answer was no, because even those students with canes knew from experience that the hallway did not become “skinnier” in the distance. The instructor explained that as things move towards the horizon line, the imaginary line between the ground and the sky, objects fade, appear smaller and come to a point; this activity helped demonstrate this using sound and physical actions.

A student, seated, holds a long cane in the air with one hand while the male teacher holds the other end of the cane above his head; three other students are also present.

Dr. Jeremy Johnson leads an exercise on diminution of size during the workshop.

The second topic of instruction, diminution of size, required that the participant be seated. Using a cane, the participant held on to the very end and extended an arm locked at the elbow and raised it above his or her head. The instructor stood directly in front of the participant with the handle of the cane resting on his forehead. The instructor asked the participant to hold the cane steady as he began to take steps backward away from the participant. Students were asked to describe what happened. With each step backward that the instructor took, the participant’s arm began to lower. The discussion that ensued focused on whether the instructor was actually getting smaller. The participants all agreed that the instructor was not getting smaller and were interested in knowing why this happened. The instructor connected this activity to the first in which as things move farther away and closer to the horizon line, they appear to fade or get smaller. With the hallway activity, things seemed to come to a point. In this activity, the instructor seemed to get smaller.

The third activity, foreground, middle ground, and background, was intended to encourage participants to bring this new learning together. Prior to the workshop, the instructor created a picture frame out of standard cardboard measuring 10-1/2”x13”. An 8-1/2”x11” window representing the picture plane was cut out leaving a one inch border on all four sides. Volunteers each had the end of a spool of ribbon tied to their ankle and, using the same marks used for the convergence activity, one volunteer stood at the 5-foot mark, another at 10 feet and the last at 25 feet. The other end of the ribbon was passed through the picture plane and held in one hand by the instructor. The instructor’s other hand held the picture frame. Participants were asked to come up to the picture frame and reach through the picture plane and trace their hands along the ribbons and describe in detail what was happening to the ribbon. They were asked to distinguish which ribbon represented foreground, middle ground and background. Participants shared that the steep drop in one ribbon meant that this was the foreground because it was the closest. The middle ground was not quite as steep as the foreground and the background ribbon travelled almost parallel to the floor off into the distance. These activities and their discussions were essential for the success of the independent drawing that took place during the remainder of the workshop.

Prior to the workshop, the instructor gathered large totes filled with a variety of objects that included vases, wine bottles, old railroad lanterns, and several other random objects. Participants were able to explore these bins and select an object(s) to use as the inspiration for their drawings. Once the object was selected, each person received a Sensational Blackboard, paper, a ball point pen, and a picture frame. Participants set their picture frames up in front of their objects either horizontally or vertically; they then aligned their Sensational Blackboards to mirror the orientation of their picture frame. Using their new acquired knowledge of perspective, the participant was asked to reach their non-drawing hand through the picture plane and using their drawing hand begin to draw by applying pressure of the pen onto the paper.

A student sits at a wooden table with their hands holding a pen and touching a piece of paper, which rests on a pad (also known as a sensational blackboard).

A participant uses a Sensational Blackboard and ballpoint pen on standard printer paper to create a tactile image.

For example, a participant selected the railroad lantern. She oriented her picture frame and Sensational Blackboard, reached through the frame and explored the lantern. Her hand told her that the bottom of the lantern was far enough back that she could feel it, which meant that, on her paper she should be able to ‘see’ it as well. She continued this process as she worked her way toward the top of the lantern. She found that she could reach through the picture plane and feel the top of the lantern without being impeded by the border of the picture frame. This communicated to her drawing hand that the entire lantern should be visible. One participant elected to take a more complex route and use multiple objects. He went through the same process, only he needed to pay closer attention to how the overlapping of objects needed to be indicated in his picture.

As mentioned previously, this was a challenging experience. In future workshops, the instructor would devote additional time to demonstrations of complex topics and would also provide more instruction on how to effectively use the Sensational Blackboards. Additionally, by teaching one concept at a time, the instructor saw that there was a lot of idle time for participants as they waited for their turns. Additional volunteers to run simultaneous demonstrations would have been helpful. Despite these few challenges, there were many successes. Many participants commented that this was the first time they had had a true drawing experience and, though difficult, they really enjoyed it. Many students, even those with previous sight, shared that this was the first time that they truly understood diminution of size, convergence, and why things appear the way they do in pictures. Also, for the instructor, this workshop pushed his ability to describe concepts to a new level. It illustrated to him how important being descriptive is, not only to students who are blind or have low vision, but to all students. After teaching this workshop, the instructor has changed the way he instructs his pre-service teachers to ensure that they are able to replicate vivid descriptions of difficult visual concepts.


Making Arts Learning Accessible for Students Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision: Part 2 – Weaving

Visual arts education has historically presented challenges for both individuals who are blind or have low vision and for art educators who are not always equipped with the knowledge of how to successfully adapt their courses for students with disabilities. Dr. Jeremy Johnson of the University of Nebraska at Omaha set out to challenge the stereotype that people who are blind cannot create art through a series of art workshops specifically designed for these individuals. In this four-part blog series, Johnson discusses the visual arts workshops he designed for students who are blind, sharing promising practices for art educators to incorporate into their own classrooms.

To read an interview with Dr. Jeremy Johnson, click here.
For part 1 of this series, click here.
Part 3 will be published on May 17.


Workshop 2: Weaving

The second workshop, led by Mary Zicafoose, a world-renowned textile artist, served as an introduction to weaving. Mary has tapestries and rugs in corporate offices as well as in universities and United States Embassies around the world.. Mary was supported by several assistants in the workshop, including the author as secondary instructor, several community artists, and a high school student preparing to enter the university as an art major.

In this, more than any of the other workshops, it was vital that the room maintain accessibility as participants were frequently moving about the room to engage in work at the floor loom and selecting textiles to use in their own weavings. The space for the workshop serves as the author’s regular art education classroom, and as such, is set up in a manner that embraces barrier-free, inclusive and accessible elements. The room boasts large spaces around tables so that participants, even those with mobility devices, can easily navigate without impediments. During the weaving workshop a floor loom was situated on the far side of the classroom, opposite the door, near a wall rather than in the middle of the classroom to avoid altering the classroom environment. A 30”x72” table stocked with a variety of fibers was set up at the back of the room. As participants entered the room, the author familiarized each participant with the layout of the room and informed those who had been in the room for a previous workshop of slight changes to the room layout. He provided a rich verbal description of the classroom again during his introductory comments prior to introducing the guest instructor.

The workshop was unique in that, instead of participants beginning their day by sitting at their selected tables, individuals were asked to move their chairs into a circle in the middle of the classroom. Mary encouraged this practice for a twofold purpose: (a) all participations were within close proximity to one another and the discussion, and (b) Mary passed several fibers around the circle and this streamlined the process because everyone was close to each other.

Mary opened the discussion by providing a brief history of weaving and fibers from around the world. She encouraged students to explore numerous varieties of wool and yarns, each with a different texture, and discussed how the feel of these fibers creates different responses, physically and emotionally. To encourage scaffolding, the author, as assistant instructor, reminded students who had participated in the previous week’s workshop to consider how texture can be used to represent emotions, for example, a very soft fabric is often used for baby blankets whereas a coarser textile would result in a different response. Following a whole class discussion and exploration of textiles, each student was invited to consider how they would select a variety of textiles to create their own weaving.

A student in a green shirt uses a wooden loom.

A workshop participant works on a collaborative weaving using a floor loom.

After participants returned to their seats, each was provided with a cardboard loom, purchased from a large art retailer. Each loom measured 6-1/2”x13”. The looms had precut notches on the top and bottom spaced at 1/8” intervals. While the author had access to these precut looms, one could easily create looms from sturdy pieces of cardboard. Mary encouraged individuals to consider the colors they wished to use in their textile piece. Most of the participants had some memory of color, since they had had sight at an earlier time in their lives, For those who had never seen color, the author and other classroom assistants asked participants questions about what they wished to communicate in their pieces and provided some basic knowledge about warm and cool colors so that students could make choices about colors that met their intentions. Other students made selections of colors based on the feel of the textile. Students were given time to explore by touch all of the fabrics available to them for their use.

Once students had selected their fabrics, Mary proceeded with instructions on how to place the warp on their looms. She asked participants to familiarize themselves with the looms by feeling the size of the cardboard as well as the notches and how they were aligned with one another. She stressed that when they were putting their warp on the loom it was important to get the yarn as straight as possible, yet not too tight. This would enable the weaving to hold together but would prevent uneven warp tension. The process of warping the looms took a considerable amount of time because it was difficult to navigate the yarn. Some students did struggle with this process and the result was an uneven piece. After warping was completed, Mary explained how to use another fabric and a dowel to begin weaving in and out through the warps to accomplish creating the weft. Participants were advised to begin on the left side of their looms and start underneath the first warp, leaving a ‘tail’ of yarn approximately 6” long (this would be woven into the weaving at the very end). After going underneath the first warp, the yarn would go over the second warp and under the third. Once the participant reached the end of the row they would repeat the process going from right to left. If a participant ran out of yarn on his or her dowel, they simply wound more on and tied the two tails together. Participants who wanted to switch to a different fiber or color were instructed on how to tie two ends together and continue weaving. Participants finished their weavings as the workshop was ending and due to time constraints, the author sought permission from participants to remove their pieces from the looms.

Concurrent with the cardboard loom project, Mary had set up her floor loom in the classroom and had completed the warping. She invited participants to select a fiber and come to the floor loom. She then provided one-on-one instruction on how to wind the fiber around a shuttle and work the treadles to raise and lower the warp threads. Mary sat next to the participant as they worked, explaining the intricacies of the loom and what to do if the participant ran out of fiber, wished to change fiber or if the wrong treadle was pressed. By the end of the workshop, the participants had collectively completed a piece that measured 12”x 18” representing the individual contributions of nine different participants.

This workshop proved to have many challenges. The most prevalent issue was a lack of understanding and preparedness of volunteers. While many community artists came with a depth of art experience, they lacked an understanding of how to best work with an individual who is blind or has low vision. While some were respectful of participants, others took the art away from participants and “fixed” it when students encountered a problem, rather than providing instruction that would have enabled the individual to learn from his/her mistake and self-correct. The author made attempts to change this behavior by explaining to the volunteers that they should ask how they could best help the students rather than assuming they knew best. The author suggested using a hand-over-hand process or providing rich description to the participant in the event that the student did want the volunteer to correct the problem. The participants shared in interviews conducted by the author that this was frustrating and representative of a common practice when sighted individuals take ownership for the work of those who are blind or have low vision. The author took these critiques seriously and in future workshops provided more extensive training for volunteers.

The second challenge was working with the cardboard loom. Multiple participants communicated the difficulty they experienced locating and lifting up the warps because they rested flat against the cardboard. To address this issue, a vertical table loom would have been advantageous, as would marking the cardboard looms with a tactile indicator, to enable easier location of the warps.

Despite challenges, there were many valuable lessons learned as well. Encouraging participants to wrap large quantities of fiber around dowels for weaving was helpful because this decreased the number of times participants needed to tie on new pieces of fiber. Additionally, the floor loom was a successful and enjoyable experience for all of the participants who tried it. The one-on-one, detailed instruction they received helped them gain a deeper appreciation for the weaving process. Another point to celebrate from the weaving workshop was that, once individuals became comfortable with how to weft, many worked with confidence to create unique pieces without the assistance of volunteers and reported that the weaving workshop was empowering for them.

Making Arts Learning Accessible for Students Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision: Part 1 – Expressing Emotion

Visual arts education has historically presented challenges for both individuals who are blind or have low vision and for art educators who are not always equipped with the knowledge of how to successfully adapt their courses for students with disabilities. Dr. Jeremy Johnson of the University of Nebraska at Omaha set out to challenge the stereotype that people who are blind cannot create art through a series of art workshops specifically designed for these individuals. In this four-part blog series, Johnson discusses the visual arts workshops he designed for students who are blind, sharing promising practices for art educators to incorporate into their own classrooms.

To read an interview with Dr. Jeremy Johnson, click here.
Click here to read part two of this four part series.


Workshop 1: Expressing Emotion

The first workshop focused on how artists use different intentional practices to express a variety of emotions in art pieces. Specifically, participants were encouraged to consider how lines can be used to convey different emotions depending on how they were constructed. Prior to engaging in the creative stage of art making, the instructor and participants engaged in an exploration of shapes and lines. The instructor asked participants to define a line. A general response was that a line was a stroke that moves on forever. While this was partially correct, the instructor amended the definition to ensure that participants understood that lines do not always necessarily need to move on forever and are fundamental to the form of shapes as well. To illustrate this point, the instructor distributed a set of 2-dimensional shapes to each participant, a staple in many elementary classrooms called tangrams. Participants were able to explore these shapes, making note of straight and rounded lines, angles and curves. The discussion moved students to consider how rounded or flowing lines were often used to exhibit feelings of calm, contentment, and peace, whereas sharp lines and points could be associated with anger or agitation. Next, the instructor asked participants to expand their thinking by exploring 3-dimensional geometric forms. These shapes, like the tangrams, were purchased from a local education supply store and are often used in elementary classrooms to help students understand dimension and volume. Participants were asked to hold a 3-dimensional form in their non-dominant hand and use their index finger on their dominant hand to trace the outside of the form. This assisted participants to develop a deeper understanding of how planes were used to create objects of depth.

It is worth mentioning that most of the students in this session had some vision, though limited, and only a few students were congenitally blind. While most students had past experiences with identifying and constructing lines and geometric shapes, for some, this was new information. By opening our class discussion with an exploration of lines and shapes, we were able to move forward with a common language and appreciation for how shapes and lines can be used to communicate meaning in art creation.

A student sits at a wooden table with their hands holding a pen and touching a piece of paper, which rests on a pad (also known as a sensational blackboard).

A participant uses a Sensational Blackboard and ballpoint pen on standard printer paper to create a tactile image.

After developing some fundamental knowledge of shapes and lines, the instructor introduced a tool students were able to use to create their own 2-dimensional representations called a Sensational Blackboard. Developed by artist and educator Ann Cunningham from the Colorado School for the Blind, the Sensational Blackboard is a thin piece of rubber mounted on an acrylic board. The premise is that individuals lay a simple piece of copy paper on the board and using a ball point pen, apply firm pressure while “drawing” an image. In doing so, the combination of pressure on the paper and the healable surface of the board “cracks” the surface of the paper leaving a tactile line behind. Each participant used a Sensational Blackboard to practice drawing a variety of shapes and lines including straight lines, jagged edges and organic, free flowing forms. After engaging in the drawing process, students were asked to consider how drawing certain lines made them feel, thus linking emotions with their own creations. Participants were quick to respond that the sharp, pointed and jagged lines were more closely linked to feelings of anxiety, anger and stress, whereas flowing lines elicited feelings of freedom and relaxation.

Drawing on the Sensational Blackboards was used as a scaffolding exercise which laid a foundation for the next activity in which students were asked to move from drawing 2-dimensional figures to creating something 3-dimensional using floral foam blocks. The floral foam sculpture activity had few rules. The only requirement was that, as students worked to carve out an object, they were to consider an emotion and how they could emulate that in the sculpture. Students each received a 4” x 4” x 8” foam block which the instructor had purchased from a craft store. To help the participants understand the project, the instructor had completed a sample project ahead of time and encouraged workshop participants to explore the instructor’s piece by running their hands over his sculpture. While individuals handled his piece, they were asked to consider what emotion the instructor may have been trying to represent. Most participants were able to guess correctly that happiness was the inspiration.

To create their own sculptures, the participants received a plastic butter knife to use as their only tool for this exercise. Students were given the remainder of the session to work on their foam blocks. Once complete, the floral foam was painted with white primer to prevent the foam from further breaking down and to create a hardened shell protecting the integrity of the design. Once dry, participants were able to explore each other’s creations and experience the creative activity that had occurred in the class. Participants were provided the additional option of painting their pieces. While many left their pieces simply primed white, others did paint their objects a solid color.

A male student wearing a dark shirt and baseball cap holds a plastic knife in his right hand and a block of green foam in his left hand. He sits at a wooden table with bits of green foam on it.

A participant in the Expressing Emotions workshop works on carving floral foam with a plastic knife.

There were a few challenges with this project. First, the dust that was created by carving the floral foam spread everywhere, leaving a coat of dust on most surfaces of the room and making clean up a lengthy process. One possible method to address this issue is to consider submerging each block in water prior to carving to prevent the dust from spreading. The second challenge was that the instructor did not encourage individuals to pre-plan their goal for the block. Many students carved out too much of the block right away. This demonstrated a need for the instructor to discuss the importance of thinking ahead of time about intentions for the outcome and encouraging participants to carve off small pieces at a time rather than large chunks of foam. Small carving motions would enable the student to maintain better control over the piece and prevent the sculptures from crumbling. The third challenge was that many students, while working with a 3-dimensional block, still worked 2-dimensionally and did not carve from all sides. To address this, the instructor would advise providing detailed instructions on the advantages of working from all sides, and perhaps conduct a hands-on modeling exercise in which participants could feel the instructor demonstrating how the outcomes could be different when an artist works 2-dimensionally versus 3-dimensionally while carving.

Despite the challenges, there were some major successes. One student who had a background in art and had attended the Helen Keller School in New York City created a sculpture that was the ASL sign for ‘love’ to represent the support and love he received from his family. Other students went beyond merely carving into the surface and began to embrace the art of subtraction and carving entirely through the foam block. One participant worked diligently to create the essence of self-discovery by trying to create a human emerging from the block.

Making Arts Learning Accessible for Students Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision: An Interview with Dr. Jeremy Johnson

A photo of Dr. Jeremy Johnson, a man with wire rim glasses and a blue collared shirt, smiling

Dr. Jeremy Johnson

The visual arts have historically presented challenges to individuals who are blind or have low vision, with barriers to participation in both art appreciation and art creation. Dr. Jeremy Johnson, an assistant professor of art education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, identified the need to remove these barriers for students who are blind or have low vision. He developed a series of workshops entitled Sensory: Please Touch the Art, which encourage participants who are blind or have low vision to interact with and create art in multisensory ways.

Johnson has a personal interest in the intersection of visual arts and accessibility: his wife self-identifies as visually impaired, and his career is in the arts. “We often had a hard time reconciling that,” explains Johnson, continuing, “She found museums inaccessible, and I did not have the vocabulary to address the situation. That was where the conversation for this project started.”

When the university art gallery director expressed interest in having Johnson and his wife, also an academic and a scholar of disability studies, create an accessible art exhibition, they jumped at the opportunity. “As we began talking about it, we decided an exhibition that is accessible to audiences who are visually impaired should be created by artists who are visually impaired. That was the starting point for the workshop series,” says Johnson.

Funding for the workshops came from a variety of sources, as Johnson found partners at the state and local level. He received a project grant from the Nebraska Arts Council, but needed to identify additional funders to match the grant amount. The Omaha Association for the Blind gave money to assist with transportation for the artists participating in the workshops, funds Johnson calls vital since transportation can often be a barrier for the blind and low vision community. Johnson’s department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha also offered support, as did Outlook Nebraska and WhyArts?, organizations he identifies as “essential community partners.”

A student in a green shirt uses a wooden loom.

A workshop participant works on a collaborative weaving using a floor loom.

The first four workshops, held in July and August of 2016, served between 12-18 participants who are blind or have low vision ranging in age from 14-78. Some students had no prior art education experience while one studied art at the college level, so the workshops were scaffolded such that students with past art instruction could use more advanced techniques or engage in more complex creations. Each six-hour-long workshop included three hours of general instruction and technique practice on a particular art medium. In the second half of each session, students could practice their new skills by working on projects of their own choosing with further one-on-one instruction from the teacher(s).

The four workshops covered four different artistic topics: expressing emotion, weaving, approximate perspective, and clay. Johnson cites the approximate perspective workshop as particularly challenging, saying, “Here we were trying to teach concepts that are difficult for a sighted person to understand—foreground, middleground, background, convergence—without talking about it in terms of vision. We came up with activities, with the assistance of tactile artist and educator Ann Cunningham, that relied on different senses, like teaching convergence in a long hallway and tapping rulers to create sound while the students used their fingers to point in the direction of the sound. One participant who is congenitally blind was really shocked at the realization that objects got larger and smaller in size in conjunction with their distance from him.”

A student, seated, holds a long stick in the air with one hand while the male teacher holds the other end of the stick above his head; three other students are also present.

Dr. Jeremy Johnson leads an exercise on diminution of size during the Drawing workshop.

Johnson emphasizes the importance of remaining flexible while teaching the workshops. “Participants got really interested in the approximate perspective lesson, for instance, and asking a question I was not prepared for about value, about shadow and light hitting a sphere. It was an important question, so I paused my planned lesson to address it,” he explains. He also adjusts materials and tools based on student feedback, both during the workshops themselves and when preparing for future sessions.

Johnson will soon lead the third round of the Sensory: Please Touch the Art workshops. The workshops will again conclude with an accessible exhibition of student work. Johnson has found another community partner in the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which has asked to host the upcoming exhibition for six months. He is also working with a designer in Japan who combines Braille with traditional typeface to create placards for the exhibition, and he is incorporating virtual reality experiences into the exhibition so audiences can “feel” artworks that are not supposed to be touched.

While the participants in Johnson’s workshops are teens and adults, he believes the lessons and techniques for creating meaningful, accessible arts learning opportunities for students who are blind or have low vision transcend age and are well suited for the K-12 classroom as well. “These workshops improve my teaching practice, and I learn many things that I can share with the student teachers I instruct at the university,” says Johnson, adding, “Teachers and students both find greater success when they can create lessons that are accessible to a variety of individuals.”

Check out Dr. Jeremy Johnson’s four-part series on his workshop lessons:

Part 1 – Expressing Emotion
Part 2 – Weaving
Part 3 – Approximate Perspective (published May 17)
Part 4 – Clay (published May 24)

South Carolina Visual Arts Program Adapts Lessons to Serve Students with Disabilities

Two boys hold paintbrushesin their right hands while looking at the paintings on the table where they are sitting.

Students paint during a lesson led by Alana Adams of the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina.

In Beaufort County, South Carolina, over 100 students with disabilities are participating in a series of visual arts classes through an in-school residency program run by the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina. Alana Adams, Senior Director of Education at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, leads the classes, which feature lessons from the fifth edition of the Teacher Resource Guide from the VSA International Art Program for Children with Disabilities.

Adams goes into eight classrooms throughout Beaufort County to teach the biweekly art classes, serving 5th-12th graders with disabilities in mostly self-contained classrooms. One of the biggest challenges with the program, she says, is adapting the art lessons for a broad range of disabilities. Adams explains, “I see students with developmental disabilities ranging from very moderate to very severe; some students who are nonverbal and some with mild learning disabilities. We want the lessons to be fun, accessible, and valuable for everyone.”

One way Adams addresses this challenge is through careful planning and lesson selection. “I really like the ‘Motivated by Music’ lessons in the Teacher Resource Guide because it offers two options. The first Motivated by Music lesson is more abstract, about painting non-objectively. That lesson was great for my students with more significant disabilities.” For the classes who are higher functioning, Adams used the Motivated by Music II lesson, which asks students to create cover art for a music album or song.

Three students sit at a table, smiling, holding chalk pastels in their hands and using them to color on black paper.

Students work with chalk pastels on the World in Color lesson.

Another lesson that worked well for all of Adams’ students was The World in Color, the first lesson in the Teacher Resource Guide. In this lesson, students create a glue resist and chalk pastel image of a familiar area in their community. Adams had students bring in or take pictures of places nearby, transfer the images to black paper, add a white glue outline, and color the drawings with chalk pastels. “The method used in The World in Color, I call it glue line batik. The technique creates really lovely pieces, and every student was wowed by what they made,” says Adams.

In May, the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina will host a live exhibition to showcase many of the artworks created during the VSA program. The student artists will be invited to attend an opening reception with their families, along with other community members. Adams is also compiling the artwork each student creates over the course of the program into a portfolio for him or her to keep at the end of the school year. She adds, “We hope the portfolios will help the students see their progress and success over the course of the program.”

More information about the visual art program for students with disabilities at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina can be found on their website.

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.

Five Tips for Art Teachers Working with Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

By Bev Johns

Estimates show that 46 million children are impacted every year by trauma. The content and processes of art education can play a vital role in the education of children who have experienced trauma, are at-risk, are homeless, and/or are incarcerated. As educators, we must be very sensitive to the needs of children who have experienced trauma and better understand why they may behave in the way they do.

In order to establish positive rapport and to meet the needs of children who have experienced trauma, we must gather as much information as possible about what types of trauma they may have experienced. That may be possible because we have learned about their background or the child has told us. However in some cases we may not know what has happened to the child until an incident occurs and we investigate what may have caused him or her to behave in a particular way.

1. Learn as much as you can about the child’s background without being invasive with the child. We must be careful that we are not asking too many questions of the child. They may be guarded and afraid that someone will find out something that will get them into trouble. Art teachers can learn a great deal through observations, keeping their eyes and ears open, talking to previous educators, and reading past records. We must be vigilant and when students have unusual reactions to specific events or rooms or noises, we need to explore the reasons for those reactions.

When children build trust with the art teacher, then they may give verbal or non-verbal clues about their behavior. Teachers must be good detectives to determine what is happening with the student. You may learn that you or your colleagues remind the child of the person who abused them, or trigger another traumatic memory.

2. Avoid surprises with children who have experienced trauma. Remember that they are on heightened alert and are worried about what might be happening next so we should not come up from behind students. In some cases we may want to seat these children so that no one is behind them. While some teachers like to turn lights off when children become noisy, this isn’t advisable for some children that were locked in a dark room. A high level of noise might trigger a reaction from a child because he remembers the loud noise when his brother was shot on the street in front of his house.

3. When planning activities, think ahead about what impact the activity might have on the student. Even activities that an art educator might perceive as straightforward or simple can become loaded due to a child’s traumatic experience. Offer choices to students about what they can create to help avoid triggering bad memories. For instance, children who have been recently removed from their families or placed in foster care might struggle with assignments that involve drawing or painting their family; it is helpful to offer another option for the assignment.

4. When planning activities, be cautious about the materials you use. The child may have been hurt with a particular object so you would want to avoid an activity where the same object is used. The child may have limited clothing or may have been beaten if their clothes got dirty. In that case, the art teacher will want to provide students the option of wearing protective clothing when utilizing art materials that may get on clothes.

5. Make sure that your art room is a safe and happy place for the child. Create an environment in the art room where lots of positive feedback is given, the child is recognized for his or her strengths, and the child knows that the teacher will not allow them to be bullied in any way. The teacher must be supportive and engage in active listening with the student. Rather than devaluing what the child says, gather more information. When the child says, “I can’t do that,” the teacher can say, “How can I help you?” When the child says, “This is too hard,” the teacher can say, “Can you tell me why,” or “Let’s try this together.”

The art room is the place where there are no right or wrong answers, It is a place where children have multiple opportunities to be creative, express their feelings, and experience success.

Photo of a smiling woman with short, blonde hair wearing a red jacket, black shirt, and round gold earrings.


Bev Johns is a Professional Fellow at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. She has worked with children with significant emotional and behavioral disorders for over 35 years and is the author of 20 books in the area of special education.

Helping Arts Educators Understand and Prepare for a Spectrum of Traumatic Experiences

Research shows that traumatic experiences impact a child’s ability to learn and process information, and traumatic experiences can affect student behavior in and out of the classroom. Unfortunately, educators are often unaware of which students have experienced trauma; this is especially true for arts educators, who may have limited access to student IEPs or knowledge of social/emotional concerns that impact students’ lives. But according to Dr. Lisa Kay, Chair of the Art Education and Community Arts Practices Department at Tyler School of Art/Temple University, art teachers and teaching artists can prepare for and better serve students who have experienced trauma by learning more about the spectrum of trauma and its invisible effects.

Photo of a smiling woman with white hair, wearing a gray jacket and silver pendant necklace. Photo credit: Amy Ragsdale

Dr. Lisa Kay

“I say there is a ‘spectrum of trauma’ because when we think of trauma, we often think of a dark place, things like physical or sexual abuse, but trauma for a child can also be the loss of a parent. It can be divorce,” says Kay, who has over thirty years of experience as an art therapist and art educator. She adds that trauma can be compounded by things like poverty or disability, adding to the spectrum of experiences.

Kay says that one of the most important things an art educator can do in preparation for working with students who have experienced trauma is to recognize that we have all experienced trauma of some sort in our lives. She explains, “Understanding that we have all experienced trauma and witnessed resilience helps develop compassion and empathy for our students. It also makes the idea of working with students who have experienced trauma less daunting.”

For teaching artists who may be entering the classroom with little or no information about the students they are teaching, Kay offers a few practical suggestions. “Think about how you move around students. It is never a good idea to come from the back and hand materials over a student’s head because that can seem scary,” she says. Kay also encourages teaching artists to find support in the classroom teacher. “Ask questions,” she urges, “Is there anything you need to know about this class or a particular student?”

Arts educators should be prepared to make accommodations and modifications to their lessons when working with students who have experienced trauma. “We may want to ask questions differently or assess students differently,” explains Kay. She also points out that students who have experienced trauma may need more physical and emotional space than their peers, and emphasizes the importance of listening to them and allowing them that space.

Kay has a background in fine art and design, and when asked if she recommends any lessons that work well with students who have experienced trauma, she immediately mentions bead collages. “With bead collages, or story beads, students create a wearable piece, three dimensional object, or even a small installation using beads and found objects together to tell a story,” she describes. Kay adds that while the final piece is often very pleasing for a student to see, the tactile process of putting it together is equally satisfying. She explains, “The objects can help children connect to deeper meanings. Plus, the process is easily adapted for different ages and abilities, and the materials, things like costume jewelry and recycled materials, are easily accessible.”

Working with students who have experienced trauma can be challenging for an arts educator, but an arts classroom can also be where that child finds compassion, creative growth, and a stronger sense of self. “As arts teachers, we must be as supportive as we can of our students,” encourages Kay, “and try to remember that we are all part of a collective spectrum of trauma.”


Dr. Lisa Kay is Chair of the Art Education and Community Arts Practices Department at Tyler School of Art/Temple University. She is a contributor to Art for Children Experiencing Psychological Trauma (pub. April 2018) and is writing on a book entitled Therapeutic Approaches to Arts Education (anticipated pub. late 2018).

Five Tips for Working with Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disturbances

By Sophie Lucido Johnson

Emotional and Behavioral Disturbances can take myriad forms. Some students act out in the classroom, while others turn inward and demonstrate quietly self-destructive behavior. The tips below are guidelines for using visual arts as a tool to help students establish their own self-worth as they move forward in multiple school settings.

  1. Celebrate small successes. Just picking up a paintbrush and creating a simple line can be an accomplishment for some students. Be sure to mention and honor students’ willingness to engage in basic artistic tasks, and don’t push too hard toward form or function at first.
  2. Know that progress does not travel in a straight line. It’s normal to see bursts of success and then periods of emotional unrest. If a student has a meltdown, it doesn’t mean she isn’t growing. Expect hills and peaks, and normalize relapses.
  3. Use abstract art. Shapes and lines that don’t have to resemble something specific offer the kind of freedom that can be tremendously liberating for students with emotional disturbances.
  4. Allow variant workspaces. Sometimes students like to work under tables or in corners; many children work best outside or in particular rooms. Experiment with spaces to find the ones that make your students feel safest and most creative.
  5. Don’t punish. Many children with EBD are used to being punished for “doing things wrong,” which can be a trigger for meltdowns and behavioral disruptions. Let art be the one class where students can’t get things wrong. Use neutral language when students don’t follow directions.


Sophie Lucido Johnson is a writer, comedian, educator, and artist. Her article “Emotional Intelligence Through Art: Strategies for Children with Emotional Behavioral Disturbances” is published in 2013 VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Exemplary Programs and Approaches.

Digital Storytelling Program Empowers Students with Disabilities

A young woman operates a video camera outside while others look on.

Students operate video cameras as part of the OCCTAC program.

At the Orange County Children’s Therapeutic Arts Center (OCCTAC), a year-long program in technology, arts, and inclusive leadership training offered youth with disabilities an opportunity to use digital storytelling as a tool for self-empowerment. The program, held quarterly from October 2016-August 2017, taught high school juniors and seniors fundamentals of art, video production, and self-advocacy.

Pheobe Stanciell, After School Arts Coordinator at OCCTAC, says that many of the students came into the program with no prior experience in art, so the first sessions featured lessons on the elements of art and color. Then the students explored the basics of video production and technology. Next, the program leaders started a conversation with the students about what it means to have a disability, the differences between advocacy and self-advocacy, and how they address challenges they face.

Stick figures drawn on yellow sticky notes, arranged in two rows of four notes.

An example of a storyboard created by students at OCCTAC.

Armed with their new knowledge, the students broke into teams and created their own original short film projects. Stanciell says storyboarding was an important part of the students’ creative process. “Our teaching artist showed the students how to create a storyboard collaboratively by giving the students sticky notes and encouraging them to contribute to their team’s story by writing or drawing on their note. It was a great and flexible way for each team to work together since the notes could be easily rearranged as their story unfolded,” she explains.

The conversations that happened during the self-advocacy lessons inspired many of the students’ films. According to Stanciell, many of the film projects tackled topics like bullying of students with disabilities and how to stand up for your peers. She adds, “Some students walked away from the program saying, ‘I might want to do video editing or be a camera operator professionally,’ and that’s exciting. But everyone also leaves with increased self-confidence and leadership skills to help prepare them for the future.”