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Seeing Eye to Eye: Access for All

Oct. 19, 2020

This is an excerpt from Collage magazine. Read the full magazine here.

by Melinda Laz, Visual Art Educator McKinley-Thatcher Elementary, DPS How a Blind Student Taught Her Art Teacher New Ways of Seeing

Student artwork
Vianca’s dot-printed painting

Four years ago, when I started teaching at McKinley-Thatcher Elementary in DPS, I had all the typical nerves associated with meeting new students: Will I connect with them, and they with me? Will I be able to challenge and inspire them? In particular, I was especially nervous to work with a second-grade student named Vianca because she is blind. In May, this funny, self-confident, kindhearted young person finished elementary school and continued onto sixth grade.

Over the past four years, my initial fear of working with Vianca subsided as I got to know and work with her, and to see things from her point of view. She helped me grow as a teacher, including allowing me to feel more comfortable with my own discomfort that I didn’t know everything about teaching art. She also helped me realize that empowering my students to guide their own learning through discovery was one of the best things I could do as a teacher.

I had never worked with a student who had complete blindness before and had many apprehensions. I was worried about the type of language I used with Vianca – would I offend her if I used common turns of phrase such as, “Do you see?” or “Let’s look at…” or “Watch me….” I felt ill-equipped to adapt lessons and materials for her that wouldn’t lessen the content or process. For example, if her class was working on collage, I often gave her sticky-back foam shapes while the rest of the class was cutting out their own. Other questions arose throughout the year such as, how should I describe colors to her? How would she be able to understand the artwork I showed the class? How could she understand a demonstration?

In that first year of working with her, I admit that I didn’t support her as well as I could have. As a second grader, Vianca would often come to specials with a paraprofessional to support her. This gave me an easy excuse to allow the para to do much of the work with her and for her. It became clear over time that Vianca became too reliant on a helper and the para support became less and less frequent. I had to challenge myself to scaffold lessons differently for her. I remember one heartbreaking conversation we had when we were both frustrated by trying to adapt an art technique for her, and she said to me through tears, “Why do I have to be the only one who’s blind?”

By the next school year, I made a more concerted effort to engage Vianca’s Teacher for the Visually Impaired (TVI), Mrs. Russell, for help. Why do we as teachers think that not knowing how to do something is a sign of weakness? I’ve heard several colleagues admit to being embarrassed to ask for similar help and I, too, felt I needed to figure it all out on my own. Mrs. Russell assured me it was her Vianca’s dot-printed painting job to help support me! Being the sole art teacher in the school did not mean I had the skills to help every student all on my own. I needed to learn to ask for help – this was a critical realization and it gave me permission to educate myself in new ways.

Student artwork
Vianca sewing with hole punches

Russell’s role is to provide access so that students like Vianca can use materials in every facet of her education, from providing manipulatives and hands-on tools to collaborating with teachers on adaptations so that the student can be as independent as possible. According to Russell, “In general, it takes kids with blindness a longer time to learn academically. It takes years to learn braille: the code has 187 contractions/symbols versus 26 letters of the standard alphabet. It usually takes until the end of fourth grade for a student to learn all the braille symbols. Meanwhile, students are also learning tactile skills, and learning important directional concepts like up, down, left, right, and also vertical and horizontal planes.” These are skills that people without visual impairments often take for granted. I began to think differently about what it meant to “see” in the art room and ways I could make Vianca’s experience more meaningful.

Soon, I began to alter how I described projects or artwork so Vianca could have a better understanding of what the whole class was learning. I paid more attention to how I arranged the space at her table. I described specifically where I placed her paints (top, left or right, the order of the colors, and where a water container was located); I taped her paper to the table to create a tactile border so she could feel the edges; I cut out templates that she could trace or use as shapes; I punched holes in a line if we were using yarn; and I drew with glue and let it dry to create raised lines for her to follow with her hands. 

Mrs. Russell created braille color name labels that I could stick onto a watercolor palette, and she printed pictures out on a dot printer that could translate a drawing or photograph into raised dots so they could be felt. I assembled a three-drawer supply bin especially for Vianca filled with tactile materials and labeled with braille, so she could self-select supplies that she wanted. I was also given a “Sensational Blackboard” created by local sculptor and tactile artist Ann Cunningham. This unique drawing surface allowed Vianca to draw on a paper using a ballpoint pen, and it created a raised, textured line that she could feel. All these somewhat simple adaptations began to come more naturally to me as I worked more closely with her and began to listen to how she experienced things in the art room.

According to Mrs. Russell, the benefits of visual art class for visually impaired students are many.

Student artwork
Vianca’s fashion design example

“During art, she is participating alongside her peers and learning important tactile skills. She is experiencing specific teachings that would be incidental to any other student. Tactile and auditory learning are the two ways Vianca learns, and art class provides both opportunities.”

By her fourth-grade year, the art concepts and projects became more challenging and independently oriented, and I continued to explore new ways to engage Vianca in her own learning. I had a classroom volunteer, a retired art teacher named Maria, who developed a lovely bond with Vianca. Together they worked on projects, discussing Vianca’s ideas and exploring ways to adapt art materials. I began to ask Vianca directly what her ideas were for adapting a project, or what materials she wished to work with and how I could help her be successful. Sometimes, we would brainstorm together; other times, she had her own ideas for how to use materials in slightly different ways.

One project, for example, asked her class to modernize costumes for fairytale characters and create a design board with fabric samples and a written description. She chose Little Red Riding

Hood; I cut out paper-doll-style templates that she could place on her paper as a guide. She selected textured fabrics in which to dress them and, in her artist statement (written in both braille and print), she wrote about the character traits of Little Red Riding Hood in 2018: “She would take a lyft to grandmother’s house. The driver looked like a wolf. She was bringing cheeto’s, happy meals.”

Partner work was often a challenge, and I noticed her classmates would try to do her work for her or leave her out of the group completely. Occasionally, a student would be very resistant to being paired with her, and their tone of voice sometimes verged on condescending. Russell explains, “Vianca’s vocabulary is very mature and she can converse with adults easily – this is very common with kids who are blind, perhaps because adults are [oftentimes] more accepting than kids.” When other students take on a caretaker role and speak to her differently, Russell says, “It’s ok to call kids out on their tone with her so they notice what they are doing. But Vianca enjoys most any interaction with her peers, period.”

Earlier this year, (now a fifth grader) Vianca’s class worked on a sewing project to create soft sculptures about their favorite foods. The students made a paper template of their favorite food, cut out simple felt shapes, added embellishments by gluing or sewing, and then sewed and stuffed them. Given Vianca’s desire to become more independent and use more advanced materials, I created an adaptive method of sewing. Using her cut-out round felt pieces (representing a donut), I pinned the edges together all around the circle every ½ inch or so, then sandwiched the sharp pin edges inside folded tape for safety. The pinheads created a texture similar to braille around the sewing edge of her felt. I then offered her a verbal image of jumping into and out of a swimming pool to help her understand the sewing pattern. Slowly and methodically, Vianca was able to independently sew around her entire shape, add stuffing, and close up her pillow.

Student artwork
Laz’s adapted sewing example

Mrs. Russell and I then invited the Braille Buddies (a group of students with visual impairments from around DPS) to McKinley-Thatcher to have a similar adapted sewing experience. One lunchtime this past February, a few weeks before the pandemic closed our schools, a group of eight students in second to eighth grades and their TVI teachers came to McT for a pizza party and pizza pillow-sewing experience. While the kids ate pizza, Vianca shared her thoughts about the project with her peers and took on a leadership role. It was a joyful experience to watch this multi-aged group of students work with needles and thread, some for the very first time. One student told her TVI that she wanted to do more sewing now that she had learned how to do it.

Student artwork
Vianca sewing

According to Russell, “These kids love getting together. We’ve never done anything art related as a group, and they all learned a new skill. It also provided some work in our expanded core curriculum, particularly in the areas of recreational and independent living skills.” She explained further that most kids with sight, even if they’ve never sewed before, have a point of reference because they can see and understand a needle and thread. “Students who are visually impaired have to experience many incidental learning skills, such as what a needle or a pin feels like, to understand the sharpness of it, etc.”

The experience of working with a blind student has opened my eyes to the importance of having great communication with your students. I am not the all-powerful art teacher with all the answers, but rather I want my students to take ownership of their learning with me serving a supporting role. Just as we push ideas of growth mindset for our students, teachers must model and embrace that concept. Working with Vianca became a transformational process, one that I will continue to think about over time. It reignited my ability to persevere through challenge, and I was able to model that skill for my students.

Over these four years, I’ve seen Vianca blossom into a more independently motivated student. She has gained valuable life skills, and has become a self-advocate for her learning. For Vianca and for me, we were both thrown into a situation of not knowing what to do. I sought out help from experts in order to support her and I experimented using my instincts as artist and teacher. She, in turn, had to be open to work with and trust me, and to learn a new language in the art room. It is said that our weakness becomes our superpower and, for Vianca, her ability to listen closely and feel her way through every situation (both literally and figuratively) is certainly hers. I see only great things for her in the future, and it was my honor to help her in a small way on her journey.

Thanks to Erin Grossi, Visual Art Peer Observer, Barth Quenzer, Instructional Curriculum Specialist (Visual Arts), and Melinda Russell, Teacher of the Visually Impaired, for their support, feedback, and collaboration. Special thanks to Vianca and her family for allowing me to share her story.

For information about the Sensational Blackboard, and other resources for teaching art to visually impaired students, visit the website.