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Posted at 2:45 PM ET, 02/ 2/2010

Special ed arts teacher walks in students' shoes

By Valerie Strauss

Pamela Michaels has worked for 28 years with at-risk special education students in four schools. She developed two art programs in schools for students with learning disabilities and taught numerous subjects, including Spanish and music. After years working with learning disabled students, Michaels suffered her own disability--severe hearing loss--that helped her gain a new understanding of the challenges her students had faced throughout the years. Here is her story.

By Pamela Michaels
So much is written about the academic difficulties that students with learning differences have; not enough is shared about their creative strengths, nor the significant courage they exhibit by just showing up to school every day.

I did not plan to become a special education art teacher. I walked into it blindly one day.


To back up a bit, in the mid-1970’s I had finished a harrowing student teaching experience, particularly in a class of 39 students in a room built for 24. The girls’ motorcycle gang hung out in back and one of my students had punched out the front teeth of another.

At 24, a young mother, and an artist interested in the finer points of teaching drawing, I was overwhelmed, disillusioned, and turned to my backup career as a scientific secretary at the National Weather Service.

Soon after starting that job, Montgomery County called me up about an unusual job: working as an assistant in a new program designed to integrate the arts into the academics for at-risk kids, from pre-K to 4th grade. Thinking that at least I would be bigger than these kids, and had after all spent 4 years on a degree, I went for it.

It was a fabulous program and I gained powerful tools that I would use in later teaching situations.

A small suburban school advertised for an art teacher. I was ready to be a "real" teacher, and head up my own class. The principal was handsome, and he liked my portfolio and organization, so I was hired.

My first art lesson was a movie poster project for 6th graders. I thought it would be great: kids love movies, posters use strong images,you can sneak in a little writing with the lettering. My room was neat, the materials well organized, and I had a clear list of directions at the front of the room to go along with my presentation.

The lesson BOMBED: the students were completely distracted, materials were scattered but not really used, and despite my making the rounds to give personal attention, very little was accomplished. When the class mercifully left, I knew I needed help.

Miserable, I went to the principal and he offered to come to my room and see if he could figure out what went wrong. He came to the art room, walked around, looked at the desks, then the walls.

"Ah", he said, "That’s the problem", and pointed to my carefully-made set of 13 directions on the front wall. "These kids can’t handle more than about 3 directions."

"What do you mean THESE kids!?" I asked, uneasily.

"Oh", he replied airily, "most students with learning disabilities have poor sequencing skills and can’t follow too many steps."

I didn’t even know what learning disabilities WERE. I think the principal was afraid I wouldn’t take the job if I knew, because special ed was not exactly a popular major in teaching. Learning Disabilities are sometimes described as invisible, because the kids look just like other kids. They have the same IQ range, they have the same ups and downs, they worry about their clothes, their hair, etc.

My 6th graders looked like regular kids, hence my walking in blind. I stayed for 2 years, absorbing on-the-job tutorials in dyslexia (difficulty with interpreting written language), dysgraphia (difficulty with the physical aspects of writing), memory issues, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity and dyscalculia (difficulty with math calculations).

Despite the variety of learning challenges, I found that once my teaching strategies were modified, my students created and enjoyed a wide variety of very innovative artworks. Among the most memorable: Ali-gator, a 4-ft papier mache alligator; a 12-foot painted pencil outside the art room; and an animal architect design - a fox den that featured luxury fox accommodations, including a room for smoking the mice he had caught.

The next two schools, an M.A. in art education, numerous workshops in special education and life experience would add familiarity with emotional issues such as depression and bipolar diagnoses as well as Tourette’s Syndrome, OCD, Asberger’s and selective mutism.

Never a dull moment! - I had some of the most fascinating students; there were days I wanted tear my hair out, but I was never bored.

Then called ’alternative’, this school is where I would become the primary art teacher, and later department head, for 18 years. The administrator who first interviewed me relayed a familiar story: "Well, our students have trouble with organization, they have difficulty staying focused, math is sometimes a problem, but they are mostly here because of reading and writing issues."

Except for the reading and writing, I remember thinking, "They sound just like all over the studio, 10 or 15 projects going at once, who the hell needs math...etc. etc."

This school would confirm what I had begun to suspect in my prior school: Many of the students not only benefited from having the visual art, photography and drama programs, but actually had talent in these areas, and some would go on to further their studies in college in the arts or in other hands-on fields where hand-eye coordination is important, such as mechanics, hairstyling, managing a jewelry store, interior design, film-making and, currently, graphic arts.

My art students showed skills in specific areas: There were the ’drawers,’ kids who could draw almost anything or who enjoyed cartooning. There were the kids who did not have well-developed fine motor skills but had a knack for putting extraordinary color combinations together. There were others who preferred the three-dimensional modes of papier mache, kites and ceramics. There were some who showed architectural inclinations with building models, and more.

Also, there were those students whose "language" was visually symbolic; what they could tell you in a picture was definitely worth at least 500 words. Many times inadvertent revelations would occur. A student would be "telling" the viewer what was happening in his or her emotional world - sometimes important, even traumatic events that required intervention. I remember running to counselors a number of times to consult on images that showed signs of severe depression or other disturbances.

Team-teaching was one of our strategies (we would try anything AND the kitchen sink) and one semester an English teacher teamed up with me to teach a class that would integrate written language with images. One such project involved introducing poems by major poets and having the students illustrate them.

The students were instructed to pick a poem that had been read aloud (to avoid
reading difficulties) and create an image on paper that the poem evoked. One of the poems was "Fog," by Carl Sandburg:

The fog comes in
on little cat feet
It sits looking
over harbor and city
and then moves on.

As the English teacher and I looked over the different pictures, we saw one of a large frog. Puzzled, because we couldn’t remember a frog in any of the poems, we asked the student about his drawing. His answer was "Well, you said, ’The FROG comes in on little cat feet.’ "

Auditory discrimination issues. These are real......while all of us can misinterpret a word now and then, a person whose auditory processing doesn’t work very well misinterprets or thinks he/she has heard different words - or pieces of words - all the time. While sometimes the misunderstandings can be humorous, more often then not, they make for serious communication errors, humiliation and an unwillingness to continue conversation or to take social risks.

After roughly 15 years in this business, I thought I had a lot of it figured out.

Five years later, I went deaf in one ear and started to develop some serious communication issues of my own and, simultaneously, I began to see, hear and feel things through the eyes of my students.

Communication became, slowly, more strained. You need two ears to determine location of sound, and you also need two ears to filter out background noise so that you can hear people near you. Up to this point, my students were very patient with me, and cut me some slack when I couldn’t figure out who was talking to me or had to start asking someone to repeat themselves.

At my fourth and last special education school, my hearing deteriorated in the other ear, and it wasn’t fixable due to some very unusual nerve damage. After many years of being a teacher, I was a student again, learning more difficult, painful lessons. One of them was realizing how really courageous many of my students were and how much harder they worked then I had often given them credit for.

WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT MY STUDENTS-- Some Parallels Between Hearing Loss & Learning Differences

They say you have to walk in another’s shoes to truly understand. All the years I had been working with my learning disabled students, I had understood the issues intellectually and with empathy, I like to think. But the real thing is really different. Something about that Frog trying to walk on little cat feet...

1. The overriding emotion was frustration - here I was, trying my hardest, and I just couldn’t compensate enough to get the messages down correctly.

2. Missing pieces of words, conversations, critical information - I had understood from various reading specialists over the years that students with auditory processing issues would confuse some sounds, perhaps miss whole syllables. Those with retrieval (memory) issues would have difficulty finding the right word to put coherent sentences together. The nerve damage I developed in my ears produced a similar experience. Sometimes consonants were missing, sometimes whole words. At other times I would hear something else instead of what was really said. It’s not all about volume, and context can only take you so far.

It’s kind of like trying to learn a foreign language at the beginning, except that you have little hope of ever really learning the language.

3. Being put on the spot - one of the compensations is to simply ask someone to repeat what they said. Sometimes you ask three or four times. You draw more attention to yourself than you’d like. Finally, you get tired of asking. A young person really does not want to feel put on the spot or humiliated in front of his peers.

4. Tracking Difficulties - people tend to speak ’rapid-fire’ in our accelerated social climate. Anyone who has difficulty processing sounds can lose the thread of conversation very quickly. Participation in discussions eventually just makes you want to bail out.

5. It never goes away - as long as you are in school, it’s in your face. People are conversing, reading and writing everywhere--in class, at lunch, at recess. There are few breaks from the risks of humiliation, the sense of bewilderment and frustration.

6. You are constantly being asked to work at something you aren’t good at. I started ditching as many faculty meetings and other gatherings as I could. It was too maddening. I really truly understood why kids would want to skip a class or two or get into fights. The constant strain makes you angry and is depressing.

I think the reason so many students enjoy art is that it is NON-VERBAL.

7. Feeling inferior. A lot of people talk about poor self-esteem issues. While I had a lot of adult coping skills, and knew intellectually that I was smart, there was no getting away from the fact that I could not communicate as well as my colleagues, my peer group. I began to feel less competent, less attractive to be around. I could see why my students would feel badly with kids in regular schools who were so fluid in their verbal and writing skills.

8. You see people’s expressions when they are tired of accommodating you. It makes you feel bad.

9. It’s easier to isolate yourself. Sometimes it feels better to just stop trying. It feels good when you stop banging your head against the wall. Again, I would remember my colleagues discussing how students would want to withdraw and just fade into the woodwork. I understood it intellectually, but never before in this profound way.

10. And finally, it’s exhausting. At the end of a school day, so much energy has been used just to keep up with what is supposed to come naturally.

Of course, there is a lot more. These human dilemmas are complex.

I would like to ask readers to remember some of my points when you read about "at-risk" youth or "lazy" kids. Most are not lazy. They are caught up in a world that does not look for the strengths they do have.

Not long ago, we were still an agrarian society, and many of these young people, particularly the boys,probably would have been running a farm or practicing a skilled trade, such as blacksmithing or carpentry--and they would have been good at it. We are asking these young, growing human beings to put their bodies in desks for roughly 6 hours a day doing tasks that are mostly difficult. We need to do better at honoring their strengths.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 2, 2010; 2:45 PM ET
Categories:  Learning Disabilities  | Tags:  learning disabilities  
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