I walk into the Hilton 2nd floor lobby to pick up my NAEA registration materials and one thing is abundantly clear: I am not in Kansas anymore. The largest education conference I’ve ever been to topped out at 400 people and when Patricia Franklin, the President of the National Arts Education Association (NAEA) welcomes 7,000 art educators to the NAEA National Convention, my jaw drops. There are more than 350 sessions each day to prompt noisy, messy, and vital discussions of how we ensure that every child receives a well-rounded education enriched by meaningful participation in the arts. I feel like Dorothy in the wonderland of Oz.
I had the privilege of spending 4 days in this glorious cacophony last week, when I travelled to NYC to present “Arts as Inclusion: Holding Ourselves Accountable in Reaching Students with Disabilities” at the NAEA National Convention. In addition to my own presentation, I got to observe sessions, participate in conversations, and connect with arts teachers from around the country. I learned a lot, but want to share 3 things that have stuck with me as I return to the real world here in DC:
1.) Our work at the intersection of arts and special education is vital—perhaps more so now than ever before.
Spare me a quick moment for a #humblebrag: My session was packed. In a room with chairs for 50 people, between 80 and 100 tried to cram in. People sat on the floor in the aisle and by my projector, stood in the back and spilled out into the hallway. As uncomfortable as they must have been, these teachers were actively engaged the entire time, asking questions about IEPs and instructional practice, offering insights from their own classroom experiences, and staying after to continue the conversation.
I want to be so flattered by this—surely it’s because people *really* wanted to see me present, right?—but the truth is that every single session about students with disabilities was like this. Every single session I went to that covered strategies to support inclusion or adaptations for students with disabilities had a full classroom, ran out of handouts, and had attendees pushing through to make more space. Because art educators need this material.
Let me say that again: Art. Educators. Need. This. Material.
We know that, despite the fact that almost every arts teacher teaches students with disabilities, only 21.8% of arts educators had university coursework that prepared them for this work, and that (according to one survey) only 26% feel comfortable preparing engaging arts learning experiences for students with disabilities, compared to 93% when asked about instruction of non-disabled peers. What I saw at NAEA supported this: I met art educator after art educator seeking out resources to better support their students with disabilities. What was so incredible about this, though, was their perspective. I didn’t meet a single teacher who needed to be convinced that students with disabilities should be in the art room. Instead, every single teacher I met was asking questions that spoke to the incredibly high standards they set for their instructional practice: How can I set up an environment that encourages my students with disabilities to develop agency in their creative process? How can I advocate for my students with disabilities to ensure that the supports they are legally entitled to in academic settings follow them into the arts classroom? How can I develop new and better methods to support diverse communication methods that allow students with disabilities to express themselves fully? What adaptations can I create that allow students with disabilities to participate in the same arts activities as their peers, instead of modifying the activity or diluting content?
And the presentations met them there. Laura Hubbard and Kelley DeCleene shared simple but powerful adaptations that art teachers can make to increase access in the classroom. Maude Wiltshire offered visual supports that can integrate with students’ AACs to support communication and agency. Juliann Dorff and Linda Hoeptner-Poling presented the VSA Teacher Resource Guide and introduced the inclusive lessons published late last year. Samantha Varian spoke on choice-based instruction in the inclusive classroom. And the amazing folks of the Special Needs in Art Education interest group grappled with the responsibility to share our knowledge widely with art educators across the country to improve learning outcomes for students with disabilities.
In a changing educational landscape with rapidly diversifying classrooms, I saw a hunger for more tools to reach our highest-need young folks, and an incredible opportunity for those of us who work at this vibrant and fertile intersection.
2.) Continuing professional development and inservice trainings are important, but we must prioritize preservice instruction.
Inservice trainings like those offered to the working arts educators at the NAEA National Convention are critical to reaching students with disabilities learning in today’s classrooms. But as a field, we must recognize that this need is the symptom of a larger issue at play in art teacher development: arts educators are not receiving adequate training to reach students with disabilities before they enter the classroom. Innovative and incredible programs like the MA in Arts Education with an Emphasis on Special Populations at Moore College of Art and Design and the Masters of Music in Music Education with a Concentration on Autism offered by the Boston Conservatory at Berklee are efforts to address this problem, but these programs should be the standard. The norm, not the unique.
In addressing the critical questions facing art educators in higher education today, Rhoda Bernard highlighted this truth, and the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs she manages will undoubtedly be a leader in this work. Steve Seidel, Program Director of the Arts in Education Masters Program at Harvard, described the current educational landscape as particular and frightening moment in the history of public education in this country and argued that today’s young arts educators will have increased responsibilities to advocate for their students’ needs. For students with disabilities, this advocacy begins with arts teachers having a foundational understanding of strategies and practices that support meaningful engagement in and through the arts.
This starts in preservice.
3.) The arts matter.
Arts education matters.
Students with disabilities matter.
This work matters.
Perhaps one of the most impactful moments of NAEA National Convention came in the first general session, when President Patricia Franklin asked us all to rise and say together: The arts matter. Arts education matters. Hearing 7,000 voices in chorus affirm this simple truth was beautiful. We spend so much of our time fighting to convince others that our work in the arts is important, so the 4 days I spent alongside educators who share this belief was a powerful moment to draw inspiration and energy from.
I add to this mantra that students with disabilities, and their access to high-quality arts learning experiences, also matter. It is critical that the voices and life experiences of our students with disabilities not be left out of conversations about well-rounded and holistic education. The right to participate, and to participate fully, must be guaranteed for all of our students. It falls on us as educators to ensure this right is protected and advocated for in the art room and beyond.
It was a joy to travel on behalf of the Office of VSA and Accessibility and to share our resources and knowledge with a national audience. I’ve got a busy spring on the conference circuit, so I encourage you to follow along on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We’ll be using the hashtag #kcspecialed to share photos and anecdotes from American Alliance for Theatre & Education’s DC Theatre in Our Schools Regional Event, Council for Exceptional Children Convention & Expo, the Woodruff Arts Center Educator Conference, and the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention. Of course, it all culminates with VSA Intersections in Austin, and I look forward to seeing you there!