Friday, May 18, 2018

Qatar: Teaching art to kids with disabilities and seeing a new "soul-sense"

I am conscious of a soul-sense that lifts me above the narrow, cramping circumstances of my life. My physical limitations are forgotten--my world lies upward, the length and the breadth and the sweep of the heavens are mine!    --Helen Keller 

Jackson Pollack splash painting

I love this "soul-sense" of joy that I get to see when these kids create.
Painting with q-tips for a change of territory. I love her newly-found focus. 
Since I have a teenage son with autism who loves art, I decided to create an experiment: having a child with a disability (my son) teach others art who have a disability this school year. Every Wednesday morning we load up our bags of art supplies and head out to a school for disabilities here in Doha. Perhaps it has been one of the best experiments (or should I say "discoveries") of my life. For a full school year, I have seen children, teenagers, and young adults brim with joy as they create. Behavior, focus, confidence, and awareness of the world have increased. As my son, Elias has exclaimed, "Everyone is a lot calmer now from the beginning of the year, Mom."

Elias teaching about a Valentine's Day project
To watch children with disabilities develop and see their "soul-sense" has lifted and changed me. Some of them at the beginning would not touch a brush, pencil, or paint. They adamantly refused. But gently we modeled for them that twirling different colors of paint and mixing them together brought wonder. And better yet, to dab and press paint over paper is to excavate new joy. To watch children and teenagers who showed no expression before become responsive by a simple art project has shown me how much the human spirit needs to create. We all have more "soul-sense" to explore and discover.

Painting Jackson Pollack style....

At the end of March, we (with some other typical teenagers) put together an exhibit of the work that our students had been working on all year long. Everyone marveled at their intricate compositions. They were beautifully composed and bring a lasting joy to look at them. But more than anything I will tuck in my pocket the joy of watching our students' faces this year.  To see their change of expressions and emotions bring me back again and again to the art table. As the months have gone by this school year, I have seen not only faces change, but people permanently transform.

Celebrating our art

Getting ready for our exhibit

Getting ready for Valentine's Day

We the teachers have changed. Parents now walk in to peek at their child's work with joy. Even a bus driver to our students eagerly wants to see the work of his passengers.  As Dieter Uchdorf has said, "One of the deepest desires of the human soul is to create."

Proudly showing their work with pastels

Understanding how movement and art coalesce

                           Lessons of Teaching Art to Kids with Disabilities

1) Using many different kinds of techniques aides their curiosity. 
For example, painting with sponges, printmaking with leaves or fruit, q-tips, water balloons (that are partially filled), and trying the Jackson Pollack version of splashing paint inside a cardboard box. These are just a few I have used this year. The students relish the variety and diversity of the materials.

2) Bring movement to the art projects. Having the child sit on a lazy susan and spin around with a marker in their hands. If they are encircling a marker around them, making a circle, all of a sudden, the shape of a circle is more understood.

3) If you are teaching kids that speak a different language, learn some words from their language to encourage and praise them. When I speak some Arabic words, the students' eyes sparkle with more recognition.

4) Talk to the parents and encourage them to do art projects with them at home. So much progress and bonding can happen at home. 

5) I promise as you watch others wonder and awe, your own heart and soul will open too.

Watching the awe and wonder--one of my favorite observations.


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