Teaching Urban Children With Special Learning Needs:

What We’ve Learned in The Art Partners Preservice Fieldwork Program



By Lucy Andrus, MSEd, ATR

Professor, Art Education Department

Buffalo State College, Buffalo, NY





            The Art Partners program is a preservice fieldwork project involving collaboration between Buffalo State College (BSC) faculty and art education students in training, and the children and teachers of Buffalo city schools.  Art Partners specifically targets inner city classrooms serving children with special learning needs in intellectual, emotional and social areas of development. Some have special education classifications and most are considered ‘at-risk’ due to stressful living circumstances that may seriously compromise their school and social success.


            This paper will discuss the need for early field experience in urban schools for preservice teachers, the efficacy of an art education program for addressing the unique needs of urban school children, and some results of the program’s applied research efforts for improving the quality of education in urban schools.


Description of the Art Partners Program


            BSC students enrolled in an art education methods course on teaching children with special learning needs may elect to fulfill their fieldwork requirement through the Art Partners program.  Each semester throughout the academic year, teams of students (subsequently referred to as “student teachers”) plan and present weekly art experiences for children at different city schools. In addressing the need for a field-based approach to teacher education (Berliner, as interviewed by Scherer, 2001), the students are accompanied by their course instructor (author) who, as an active member of the teaching team, serves as program coordinator, model teacher, co-researcher, and mentor providing on-the-spot guidance.


             With input from the classroom teachers, a curriculum comprised of thematic units of study with sequential lessons that build upon each other is designed to promote established goals and objectives as well as teach art. Integrated activities in art history, art criticism, aesthetics and art making (otherwise referred to collectively as “art experience”) support learning in many areas of the children’s’ educational experience including language arts, social studies, cognitive development, socialization skills, and emotional intelligence.


            Following each session with the children, the student teachers and faculty coordinator meet together for purposes of assessing outcomes, identifying and solving problems and planning curriculum. This time also provides the student teachers with a chance to express their personal responses to working with the children, an opportunity not often available back on campus. At the end of the school year, the Art Partners program culminates in a special event, such as an exhibition of the children’s’ artwork with an opening reception to which the children, their family and friends, school personnel, members of Buffalo State College and members of the community at large are invited.


            The Art Partners program operates under the assumption that all children can learn, and that all children can find personal meaning in art experience.  We believe that it is our job as educators to make this process available and accessible to each child through our own culturally responsive and intelligently crafted pedagogical practice. An equally important premise upon which the program was founded is the idea of prevention.  Regular participation in meaningful art experiences fosters the development of positive self-concepts and socialization skills in children.  Consequently, children can approach their teenage years with greater confidence and purpose, allowing them to withstand negative pressures and make better personal decisions when confronted with tough choices. 


            The Art Partners program has served children in self-contained, inclusive and general education classrooms since 1994, and was initiated in response to identified educational and social needs in our urban community.  These provide the philosophical underpinnings and goals of the program, which are:


·        To promote greater collaboration among college and community, faculty and students, and teachers and children in urban settings.


·        To provide more in-depth, hands-on training in inner city schools for art education majors, encouraging them to seek employment in city schools upon graduation.


·        To provide culturally competent art experiences for students with special learning needs who live in economically depressed neighborhoods of Buffalo, and especially for those who otherwise receive no art education. 


·        To promote teaching scholarship and support research opportunities where faculty, students and teachers can investigate problems and develop new strategies together for improving education in our urban schools. 


·        To support the mission of Buffalo State College through an art education program that promotes equity and diversity and brings people together in partnership to meet the needs of our community’s children.


            The following discussion centers on higher education’s role in assuring that teacher-training programs produce the kinds of professionals needed to work in urban schools with diverse student populations. 



Addressing the Issues


Collaboration Between Higher Education and Urban Schools


            Colleges and universities cannot adequately answer the demands of schools for more culturally competent educators who are able to work in urban schools with students from diverse backgrounds without a deeper understanding of the population they purport to serve. Such an understanding must come from greater involvement between higher education and the urban community, both on a macro as well as micro level, and especially in our teacher training programs.


            Training a teaching force prepared to meet the needs of all learners, particularly those in urban settings, requires changes in teacher education and teacher support that move beyond the rhetoric we’re all familiar with (Gordon & Houston, 1995). Sapon-Shavin also proposes that we eliminate the boundaries between regular education and special education, “replacing such programs with inclusive teacher education models that value diversity” (2000/20001, p.38). These goals will not be achieved without more personal involvement by college faculty and students out the schools, and long before the culminating student teaching assignment occurs.


            Programs like Art Partners can bring college students and faculty into the everyday, real world of teachers and students in urban schools, helping to further the partnership that is necessary for improving education in meeting the intellectual, social and emotional needs of our children. This can occur on both personal and professional levels, from face to face interaction with the children, teachers and parents in the schools, to the establishment of urban classrooms as living laboratories where students, faculty and school teachers can collaborate in applied research efforts to identify, investigate and solve problems.


Training Culturally Competent Teachers to Work in Urban Schools


            Closely aligned with the above goal of collaboration, is the need to improve the quality of preservice training in order to produce teachers who are willing and able to work successfully with diverse students in urban schools. In the forefront of concerns about the teacher shortage in America is the particularly acute need for qualified teachers in urban settings.


            Analysis of the situation in our own community quickly revealed the existence of three interrelated situations: 1) The majority of new teacher graduates opt out of urban schools right from the start as they begin to search for employment; 2) The prevalence of ‘teacher flight’ (author’s term) reflecting national studies that tell us up to half of all new teachers in urban schools leave within their first few years of teaching. In Buffalo, as in other cities, this can be seen as analogous to urban flight, as the city continues to lose the economic, political and social resources of a population fleeing to the suburbs; and 3) Many of the teachers who do find employment in city schools have not been adequately equipped to deal with the needs of urban students during their preservice as well as inservice training.


            Compounding the situation is the fact that nationally, some forty percent of students in elementary and secondary schools today are students of color while our teaching force remains predominately white. (American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 1999). Other forms of diversity in our schools include growing numbers of students who: are children of immigrants, speak a language other than English at home, live in poverty, live in single parent households, and who identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual (Sapon-Shevin, 2001). At the same time, the move towards inclusion has brought thousands of children who are identified as disabled back into general education classrooms, representing another major shift in the school population.


            These demographics are reflected in Buffalo where the Art Partners program takes place.  Most of the student volunteers in the Art Partners program have come from middle class, suburban backgrounds with little or no significant personal experience with others different from themselves, particularly in the areas of racial and ability difference. With an increasingly diverse school population, and a teaching force that is predominately white and female nationwide, the need to recruit a more culturally diverse faculty in our schools is paramount.


            In the meantime, teachers entering and in service now, must learn better ways to educate children in urban settings where forty-three percent of the nation’s children of color and thirty-five percent of the nation’s poorest live and learn (Zakariya, 1998). If we hope to stem the tide of teacher flight and meet the growing demand for culturally competent teachers, then higher education must enact more rigorous and purposeful measures to improve preservice training. We can start by providing more and earlier hands-on teaching experiences, taking steps to ensure that these experiences include opportunities for teachers-in-training to succeed in urban schools (Simpson, 1995).


Where to Begin with Preservice Students


            In Art Partners, we begin by uncovering biases and myths that may exist under the top layer of students’ stated acceptance of others. To gain greater insight into students’ attitudes and ideas about urban school children with special learning needs, and better equip faculty with the ability to address what may surface, students complete pre- and post-program questionnaire surveys. Since art is another language for the students, they also create a piece of artwork that communicates their expectations and feelings about their fieldwork assignments before they begin in Art Partners.


            These written and visual expressions provide an important and revealing glimpse into the student’s thinking. Comments on the pre-program questionnaires reveal that despite their stated acceptance of others, students often feel overwhelmed and sometimes intimidated by what they know from the media or may have observed from a distance about urban schools and urban students’ behaviors and attitudes (see Fig. 1).  Many expressed initial apprehensiveness, nervousness and feelings of inadequacy about teaching urban children with special learning needs, and feelings of anxiety about working with students who are culturally different from themselves.


            I’m afraid because of the stereotypes of inner city Schools. Stereotypes like kids who have

            no respect for teachers or adults, acting out, street educated students who may be at risk

             of dropping out, gang problems, and poverty.


            For me, it was like entering a foreign country. The location and population of an urban

            school was completely alien to me. I felt I’d stick out-that my appearance, language and             experience offered no hope of assimilation.  I thought the students would sense my fear

            and apprehension and take offense to it.  Why should a twenty-five year old woman be

            afraid of a seven year old? Logically, it didn’t make sense but I was terrified nonetheless.


            Supporting the firm belief that nothing challenges biases and stereotypes faster and more effectively than personal experience, students’ post-program images and surveys reveal significant changes in their attitudes and behaviors. Virtually all of the students rated themselves as feeling more comfortable about working with urban children who have special needs or are culturally different, with many commenting that they had misconceptions prior to their participation in Art Partners. Their reflective comments and visual images bear this out (see Fig. 2).


            Fear of the unknown is worse than the unknown itself. Once the mystery of the urban school             dissipated, so did the fear.  All             these children I saw as “foreigners” had names and faces

            and smiles for me. I found myself anxious to return to see them every week.


            I discovered that children do not have an agenda to become “bad” people. All children want

            love and attention from a sincere, caring, competent adult.


            I think all teachers should have this type of experience.  I was able to see the commonalties

            we all have.


            I learned that a lot of them are just like me when I was a young child. We are all the same

            inside and we should be able to learn the same information. It is the method of teaching

            that may inspire students to learn in various ways.


            When asked about the overall value of the Art Partners program to their preparation as art teachers, the students were unanimous in their positive ratings and in their comments.


This was the greatest prep course I could have taken.  It involved working in a group, team teaching, lesson planning, an urban setting, children with special needs...everything!


            I feel so much more prepared for student teaching, and now I know I can be successful

            in an inner city school.


            The biggest impression that was made on me was that children were learning...from me!


            Children give back as much as you put in.  If expectations of achievement and behavior

            are set high early, and the teacher works equally hard to help the kids get there, success

             and learning are inevitable.


            In the post-program surveys comments section, many of the students describe their participation in the Art Partners program as life-changing, underscoring the need to provide personal experience in urban schools for our teachers in training as early as possible in their studies.


 Understanding Urban Schools and Students


            Throughout their fieldwork in the Art Partners program, the student teachers, alongside their faculty coordinator, increase their awareness of the social, economic and political factors relevant to urban schools while developing their understanding of urban students from diverse cultural backgrounds. Since our work includes children who have disability classifications, it helps to explore students’ initial notions of special education, helping them to reframe this view within the larger picture of diversity.


            In so doing, Mara Sapon-Shevin (2001) points out that discussions of multiculturalism and diversity have been mostly separate from those about inclusion of students with disabilities, and she notes that this division is also reflected in the way teachers are prepared. She feels that this split hampers the ability to think critically about the ways in which issues of diversity are connected, and how they can be addressed in an integrated manner. Sapon-Shevin suggests that if we “conceptualize disability as a social construct”, then we can link the disability agenda to a broader diversity mandate” (p.35). She believes that if we can look at all differences within this more inclusive framework, then we can better understand and implement more effective approaches to teaching our diverse student body.


            Sapon-Shevin explains that viewing disability as part of the larger diversity agenda rather than separate from it, will allow us to value multiple identities and communities, and help us to see diversity not as a problem in the classroom, but more as a “natural, inevitable and desirable state” (p.35). In the process, we enrich educational experience for teachers and students alike.


            At the same time, it is essential for the student teachers to examine the disproportionately high numbers of students of color in special education, mostly with classifications of learning disabled and emotionally disturbed. (Futrell, 1999). Critics say that these two categories are often “catchalls for difficult students”, a phenomenon not uncommon to urban schools (Zernike, 2001).  Carl Hayden, New York State Regents Chancellor, recently stated that for a long time, teachers have referred such students to special education not because they were disabled, but because they were difficult (as cited by Zernike, 2001). 

            It is suggested that far too often, such difficult behaviors are the result of attitudes and practices by teachers who do not understand their students’ culturally particular behaviors and learning styles (Alexander, 1989 ). Consequently, many educators are mis-teaching, mis-interpreting and mis-evaluating their students with cultural backgrounds different from their own.  In the process, they may fail to see their students’ competencies, and fail to recognize and use the culturally particular knowledge and skill that these students bring with them from home and community. It is no surprise, then, when young people find little connection with school and educational experience, and sadly, turn off to learning, often becoming the so-called “difficult kids” who end up with disability classifications.


            These might be the students Herb Kohl refers to when he talks about “not-learning” (1991).  He says that students’ refusal to learn is linked to their sense that teachers, schools and society compromise their dignity and self-worth. He states “not-learning tends to take place when someone has to deal with unavoidable challenges to his or her personal and family loyalties, integrity, and identity”.  He goes on to explain that if a student agrees to learn from a stranger who then doesn’t respect his/her integrity the student will experience a serious loss of self, making the only reasonable alternative to reject the stranger’s world and not-learn.  In Art Partners, we discuss that this is what might be occurring when teachers fail to understand and respect their students’ cultural backgrounds as may too often be the case in urban schools, especially when the cultural backgrounds of teachers and students differ. 


            Preservice fieldwork programs like Art Partners can provide important opportunities for our future teachers to know, understand and respect who urban students are, the culture that they live, what they bring to the classroom, and how these factors can affect their school experience. These are all issues that can be explored back on campus with other students, helping them to develop their social consciousness and become proactive advocates for educational equity. As emerging professionals, these teachers can then serve as role models for their own students, teaching them to value diversity and engaging them in the work of creating more inclusive institutions where all children can learn.


            The remainder of this paper will share the results of applied research work through the Art Partners program, and discuss what the BSC students and faculty and the classroom teachers learned about art, education and urban children. 



Some Things We Have Learned About Art and Urban Students


Art as Preventative Medicine


            Anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake has taught us to appreciate art making as a human biological necessity that helps people to survive better than they would without such experience in their lives (1988; 1992). We know that across time and cultures, humans’ use of art for emotional and psychological health and mastery predates recorded history. Today, the profession of art therapy bases assessment and treatment on these healing properties. Twentieth century pioneer in art education, Viktor Lowenfeld, was one of the first art teachers to write about the therapeutic aspects of art education (1957). In recent times, art educator Peter Smith has called for a “therapeutic strand” to art education as one answer to meeting the needs of an emerging student body “characterized by deprivation” (1993,  p. 55).  


            Given all of the above, it stands to reason that art experience may be also be viewed as preventative, an idea that has particular relevance to the urban children served by the Art Partners program (Andrus, 1996). Most of the children who have participated in the program have been considered at-risk for various reasons, making them more vulnerable to school dropout and more prone to risk-taking and engaging in potentially destructive activities. Since a majority of the students we have served to date have also been African American boys, it was essential for the Art Partners teaching team to understand something about the status of African American men in this country. Black males have been perhaps the most at-risk population the United States, experiencing higher rates of social and health problems, with the highest mortality of any population, including African American women (Stewart, 1995).


            Reading the work of Nathan McCall (1993; 1995) has been insightful and provided an additional impetus for developing the preventative aspect of the Art Partners program. McCall, now a successful author who was able to work his way out of a street life that included drugs, arrest for armed robbery, and finally prison, has attempted to explain the “carnage” among young African American males, and why so many of them still in their teens opt for life on the streets, where, as he describes, “the playing field is level and the rules don't change”. (1993, p. 48).


            In looking back at his own youthful experience and those of his friends, he describes how, despite whatever advantages may have been available, these and the hard work of his parents were not enough to shield him from the full brunt of racism encountered on a daily basis. In a chilling statement as he tried to explain the effects of this constant assault on one’s psyche and sense of self-worth, McCall provides a critical glimpse into the minds of many young African American men whose hearts have hardened and whose optimism is lost: “When your life in your own mind has no value, it becomes frighteningly easy to take another’s.” (1993, p. 49).


            It is impossible to hear this perception without reflecting on the ways in which people acquire a fundamental sense of self during childhood, and how such a self-concept influences the kinds of life choices one makes, and one’s view of what the future holds. This hits home even harder with the knowledge that at-risk students, of which a higher percentage live in urban settings, have low self-concepts and low self-esteem (Jenlick, 1995; Sartain, 1990). It is also impossible not to see the connection between what teachers and schools provide and how much one’s educational experience contributes to the formulation of children’s self-images, for better or worse.            


            The Art Partners program presents an art education curriculum that emphasizes the development of competence, mastery and a positive self-concept based on the assumption that these characteristics play a vital role in the prevention of a variety of potential problems to which urban children may be especially vulnerable.  Streeter talks about art offering an opportunity, free from constraints and impositions,  for being yourself , and exploring and revealing identity as a person (1992). McGraw (1995) describes creating art as “art re-creating the person with his/her strengths, issues and solutions, with control left in the hands of the person” (p.168).  Such an experience may be essential for children who rarely experience feelings of being in control, whether dealing with the challenges of a learning difference, or attempting to negotiate and manage in a world that is often disorganized and chaotic.     


            Grounded in the idea of art as preventative medicine, the Art Partners program attempts to offer this kind of empowering, self-enhancing experience through art to children while they are still young.  If we can engender a sense of competence and pride through achievement in our children, they may value themselves enough to grow up making better choices and better decisions when confronted with difficult situations. If children’s internalized self-images are strong and healthy, they may be less vulnerable to feeling helpless and hopeless, and may therefore be less at risk for engaging in self-destructive behaviors -unlike Nathan McCall and his friends, many of whom ended up incarcerated or dead before hitting their mid-twenties.



Developing Self-Identities as ‘Makers and Consumers of Art’


            We know that developmentally, all children are searching for identities that will help them feel competent and empowered, and we are reminded that if kids don’t see positive ways to achieve these developmental necessities, they will find other ways. As McCall warned, this might include life on the streets, which offers an immediate and very accessible alternative, particularly to those children who are already disenfranchised from the mainstream. In a study of youth violence, Davis (1995, p. 202)  discovered that some youth may commit violent acts “to compensate for something they feel is missing in their personal identity.”  Kohl (as cited in an interview by Scherer, 1998)  advises that what we must do is “offer to kids who are potential perpetrators of violence, a more attractive way of using their intelligence, energy, efforts, frustration and rage” (p. 11)


            Compounding the issue for many boys, and in particular those from low-income urban neighborhoods, is the notion that learning is uncool but being a ‘tough guy’ is. In a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, Coeyman (2001) interviewed students, teachers, principals and other human service professionals whose observations and real experiences all underscore the fact that for many boys, particularly those in disadvantaged neighborhoods, think that scholastic achievement is not compatible with masculinity. Even at very young ages, we have seen many children in Art Partners, including girls,  attempt to feel powerful and respected by trying on the role of tough guy, often emulating an older sibling or acquaintance.


             We want to offer them an alternative role as they learn to exercise their innate creativity and develop skills and insights that will serve them in all areas of life.  In pondering all of this, we have learned that we can offer children another, more positive identity from which they can experience a sense of power and capability: that of maker and consumer of art. We have learned that art is an empowering, equalizing force that can offer kids a healthy way to feel competent and in control as they learn to respond to artworks, make judgments about them and manipulate media and materials to give expression to their inner visions and ideas. This is aesthetic experience that cannot be judged as right or wrong, and one that helps children see themselves as worthy, valuable and competent based on artistic achievement. Children need experiences that can help them to see themselves for who they are, apart from the expectations and stereotypes that can easily influence their self-perceptions. (Aronson, 1995).


            In applying the theory of prevention described earlier, we have found it useful to make a deliberate and conscious attempt to help shape children’s optimism and positive sense of self. We start by projecting our own attitudes that every child is a person of worth, is capable of and expected to do something worthwhile and even difficult in the world, and that every child will be supported in doing so in Art Partners. (Some children who already view themselves as failures, are actually vexed at first to learn that we refuse to accept this definition of who they are!) We begin our school year by informing the children that they are going to be makers and consumers of art, and that they will think like artists and behave like artists, telling them that, together:


·        We will be thoughtful about what we do


·        We will share our ideas and be open to the ideas of others


·        We will take risks and experiment


·        We will embrace mistakes as a path to new learning


·        We will not quit when the going gets tough.


            These messages are repeated consistently throughout the year and in every relevant instance, helping the children to begin internalizing these characteristics.


Things We Have Learned About Teaching Urban Students


Differentiating Instruction to Meet Individual Learning Needs


            Taking a differentiated approach to curriculum and instruction makes learning more accessible to all students as we have witnessed in the Art Partners program (Tomlinson, 1999). Differentiation can take many forms in the classroom as content, process and product are designed to offer multiple levels of learning for students.  Some of the things the student teachers in Art Partners have been learning about meeting special learning needs through differentiation are discussed in the following.


            Knowing the children you teach: Students learn best when their school experiences reflect their personal interests and lived cultures (Simpson, 1995; Tomlinson 2000). As the student teachers complete formal needs assessments on their assigned students, they also learn to gather as much information as possible on the children’s out-of-school lives which they build upon throughout the semester as they continue to enrich their understanding of who they are teaching. This knowledge is not only essential to teachers‘ cultural competence but also to differentiating instruction.


            Integrate children’s funds of knowledge into curriculum: We have learned that teachers need to go beyond understanding who their students are by applying this knowledge in crafting the content, processes and products that will carry out curriculum. Children from different home, community and economic backgrounds learn different “funds of knowledge” (Velez-Ibanez & Greenberg, 1992) which Rosebery, McIntyre, and Gonzalez (2001) describe as the “various social and linguistic practices and the historically accumulated bodies of knowledge that are essential to student’s homes and communities”

(p. 2).


            In reviewing the research on the educational disparity between middle-class, suburban children and poor, working-class children, these authors revealed a pattern that shows schools who were failing these children were not treating children’s funds of knowledge in an equal manner. In Art Partners, we have learned to respect and use these funds of knowledge as a means to shape curriculum and connect students’ cultures to instruction, thereby maximizing opportunities for success by all.


            Incorporate a learning-through-he arts approach:  We have learned that in addition to the intrinsic value of art experience for urban students with special learning needs, art offers another language for perceiving and responding to the environment.  Working in conjunction with the regular classroom teachers, the student’s teachers learn how to develop interdisciplinary curricula that integrates general educational goals and objectives without sacrificing the aims of art education (Andrus, 1994).  We have discovered that goals can be reached concurrently, and this approach does not compromise the integrity of the art education, but in fact, enriches the children’s overall learning experience.


            Be open to diverse ways of knowing: In an article on applying ideas of Afrocentrism to solving problems confronting African-Americans today, Stewart (1995) provides us with one example that supports the value of investigating diverse cultural ways of knowing.  Stewart explains the Afrocentric belief, shared by other cultures as well, that emotions and feelings are seen as valid affective ways of knowing since they are the most direct experience of reality. Since art is inherently an affective experience, from an Afrocentric point of view then, art is an “important source of knowledge” and serves “to structure truth”. Stewart points out the benefits of including this “native point of view rather than the imposition of euro-interpretations ” in understanding African Americans (p.245).


            We know that art as a means of self-expression and communication often supplies a voice for those who may otherwise be silenced.  Awareness and respect for non-empirical sources of knowledge, like the arts, as legitimate ways of acquiring and therefore teaching knowledge, enable us to more effectively meet the needs of a culturally diverse student population. 


            Raise expectations for your students: We have learned, particularly with our students who have special education classifications, to avoid underestimating abilities. We have witnessed how low teacher expectation can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This, unfortunately, has often been the case with students of color (Haycock, 2001) as well as well as students who are differently abled in cognitive functioning. Too often, these students receive a curriculum that is watered-down rather than adapted to meet individual learning needs. In discussing the efficacy of differentiation in mixed-ability classes, Wehrman (2000) asserts that we ought to “raise the bar for everyone” (p.21), supporting the idea that students will often rise, or sadly, sink, to the level of teacher expectation.


            Our work with teens who are labeled “developmentally disabled”, for example, has shown us time and again that a combination of high expectations and adapted, differentiated instruction makes all the difference. In one case, our students were able to successfully engage in a unit requiring higher order thinking skills and, according to their teachers, even demonstrate carry over of their new knowledge about symbolism in commercial art to other situations in their living skills-based program. Typically, such a unit would have automatically been excluded for these students since it required a considerable degree of abstract thinking. Using a differentiated approach, however, and finding ways to relate every concept to the students’ concrete, real life experience made learning, and even retention of learning, possible. A parent of one of our students told us how she had seen at home an amazing and unexpected carry over of knowledge and new behavior in her son that she believed were a direct result of his involvement in Art Partners.  We learned that it’s how you present concepts that gives access to skills and knowledge for all students, which leads to the next discussion. 


            Incorporate more kinesthetic and multisensory experience: One of the crucial aspects for ensuring success for our differently abled students was to find multiple, concrete ways for them to experience conceptual content as much as possible. We found that students could more easily understand concepts when we combined verbal/linguistic modes with more hands-on experiences utilizing one or more sensory functions. For example, an abstract concept might be presented verbally, visually, tactilely and even dramatically, while students could use any or all of these modes for responding and demonstrating their understanding of the concept. This method of teaching and learning, which builds on students’ strengths and employs multiple intelligences, helps to motivate even the most resistant student.


            We learned how to use kinesthetic sense more deliberately to engage our younger children, many of whom struggled with attention problems. Our frustration with the children’s constant physical restlessness during lessons compelled us to look to our own teaching methods. Analysis and discussion of the problem during our staff meetings coupled with research into current literature (Ball 2000; Breslin, 2000; Jensen, 2000) led us to realize that rather than fighting the students’ ‘hyper’ behaviors, we ought to devise ways to channel and utilize this energy for learning.  We began to design ways to incorporate more kinesthetic experience through physical activity for our students, mostly boys in this case. Questions we explored included: How might boys and girls learn differently? What were ways that the children could use their own bodies and kinesthetic sense as conduits to cognition? 

            These questions challenged our thinking and enhanced our own creativity as we devised answers. For example, in a lesson about spatial relationships and how artists create 3-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface in still life compositions, in addition to viewing and discussing examples, we asked the children to come up as each was called by a still life object’s name, and arrange themselves according to the teacher’s spatial direction: “teapot, find the middle ground, bananas and apples find the foreground, candlesticks, change from middle ground to background”, etc. Almost immediately, we had every child’s attention, and our children who would normally rapping, tapping and otherwise fidgeting, were totally engaged when they were given a constructive way to use this energy to solve a learning problem.

In addition, using their own bodies to experience spatial relationships helped our students with perceptual problems acquire conceptual understanding more efficiently and with less frustration.


            Kinesthetic, multisensory ways of experiencing instruction make learning stimulating and more enjoyable for all children, but may be particularly useful for addressing the special learning needs of urban children.


What We Have Learned About Teachers in Urban Schools


Pay Attention to the Subjective Response of Preservice Teachers


            Student teachers in the Art Partners program have often felt overwhelmed by the anger, acting out behaviors and emotional neediness they have observed in many of the children they work with. They have likewise experienced strong emotional reactions to the various kinds of deprivation they have witnessed, and often report feeling “sad” and “concerned” about the children. Being able to address these subjective responses with their faculty coordinator immediately after a session has been critical in shaping the ways in which these fledgling teachers manage their feelings, attitudes and interventions. This is especially important in cases where teachers’ backgrounds differ significantly from students’, and is akin to the mentoring process that researchers say accounts for lower attrition rate in new teachers (Holloway, 2001;

National Association of State Boards of Education, 1998).   


            If preservice teachers’ subjective experience in teaching ignored, especially experience that includes the unique challenges of working in economically depressed urban schools, then we run the risk of perpetuating myths and stereotypes and may, in fact, be inadvertently contributing to ‘teacher flight’. In the Art Partners program, attention to student teachers’ subjective responses is an integral part of their fieldwork experience. It is also addressed in class back on campus through discussion, writing, and visual reflection, where whole groups of teachers in training can share their experiences and support each other. In so doing, preservice teachers have an advantage in that they already possess a sense of what to expect and a beginning set of skills to cope productively with the challenges of teaching once they get out there.


Recognize the Need for More ‘Therapeutic’ Teachers in Urban Schools


            Although course work in areas such as counseling an group dynamics would certainly strengthen the skills of today’s teachers, the kind of therapeutic outlook and approach called for here is not a clinical one, but one more in line with the dictionary definition of the term, which describes therapeutic as “having a beneficial effect on one’s mental state” (Woolf, 1976).


            Therapeutic teachers are ones who recognize and understand something about their students’ out-of-school lives.  The Art Partners student teachers realize that it is not enough for them to be competent in the content and pedagogy of their discipline. They soon learn that children bring their life experience into the classroom in all kinds of ways that affect learning, from children who live with violence on a daily basis to children who don’t get enough food or sleep, to children who feel alienated and disengaged from school. While many of these issues cross socio-economic boundaries in today’s social upheaval, there are some that are unique to urban settings, and we need teachers who can respond appropriately to students in sensitive and culturally competent ways.   


            One observation in particular underscored for us the importance of cultivating a ‘therapeutic eye’.  We began to witness an increasing incidence of loss in children’s lives for various reasons including loss through divorce, loss of friends, loss of home, or loss of a loved one through death, oftentimes violent.  In many cases, we noticed that the grief and mourning surrounding these losses was incomplete for the children, lingering within them to a greater degree than realized by of the adults in their lives. We came to understand that many of the children’s parents had all they could do to cope with life and had not always resolved losses for themselves.  In our program, it was the art that allowed some of these unresolved feelings to surface for the children, and that provided a window of insight for us.


            At first, it surprised us to see several of the kids in Art Partners regularly refer to the deaths of people they knew in their general artwork.  It was this immediate observation, coupled with an understanding of what life asks children to cope with today, from school shootings to domestic violence (situations that also feel overwhelming to teachers), that led us to explore the idea that there may be a therapeutic imperative for art education today, and that we may need more therapeutic kinds of teachers.   In one particular lesson alone, three of the children in the class represented departed relatives in the ornaments they made to hang on our tree honoring family.  One boy remembered his favorite uncle who had died of cancer over a year ago and whom he still mourned. Another represented his baby sister who died in infancy, complete with a picture and a written message to his “beautiful baby”, and still another remembered his grandpa who died unexpectedly. 


            In a different Art Partners setting, a lesson on Native North American culture proved to be a healing experience for all the children, but especially for one seven year old boy. Following several activities designed to increase understanding of Haudenosaunee culture (aka, Iroquois), the children created spirit sticks with images representing something they give thanks for in their lives.  This boy, an unusually quiet child with a tough exterior, surprised all of us with an image of a woman and child on his stick as he softly explained that this was a picture of himself and his mother holding hands, and that he was remembering her.  This child had been witness to his mother’s murder in a drive by shooting at the age of three. This was the first time he ever spoke of her in school.


            It may be that the culture of violence in America is affecting kids in ways we have not considered, and there may be a very real and particular need for children to experience healing and a sense of control over their lives as a result. It may be that teachers need to provide educational opportunities for expression of this aspect of children’s lives in helping kids deal with the many stressors that are unique to life today. As the Art Partners teaching team explored these issues, we began to devise learning experiences that offered such an opportunity in positive, creative ways. (Author’s note:  This article was written prior to September 11, 2001.)


            One especially effective lesson occurred when we taught the children about the Mexican holiday of Dia De Los Muertos, (Day of the Dead), and helped them work together to create an ofrenda, or place of honoring ancestors by leaving an offering. Very different from American cultural attitudes and practices surrounding death, Dia De Los Muertos is more of a celebratory recollection of the lives of departed loved ones. We began by reading a story with illustrations depicting two sisters of Mexican American heritage explaining how their family celebrates Dia De Los Muertos.  We knew the children would respond positively to this experience, but what we hadn’t expected was seeing most of the adults in the room also raising their hands when asked who would like to remember a loved one by making something to place on the ofrenda.


            This was a memorable healing as well as educational experience for all. One of the teacher aides shared that this was the first time in the year since her beloved aunt died that she could think of her without crying and with joyful remembrance instead. Once again, the children seemed eager and appreciative to remember departed loved ones, including one boy who made several pictures of deceased relatives, including an uncle who died violently.  The ofrenda was installed in the school’s lyceum, with an invitation to anyone in the school community to place there a token of remembrance of a departed loved one. More items appeared and two more children added images of relatives they had created on their own.


            We have also learned that part of being a therapeutic teacher means an awareness of and a willingness to respond to our children’s needs for feeling loved, included and understood.  When the student teachers are told that teaching is an act of love at the beginning of the semester, they do not fully appreciate the reality of this fact until they get out and work with their own students.


Give Greater Attention to Developing Emotional Intelligence


            Many of the children in Art Partners who are considered at risk exhibit characteristics of low self-esteem, running the gamut from “I can’t” and “I’m stupid” attitudes and behaviors, to a kind of disengagement that is almost frightening. We have also observed the children’s negative behaviors with each other, supporting studies that found such children behave toward others in ways that reflect their own negative self-images (Jenlink, 1995; Purkey, 1970).  While often seeking hugs from the teachers, they would react most negatively to being touched, usually accidentally, by a peer. The children’s low self esteem and undeveloped social skills were interfering with instruction and inhibiting the development of positive relationships with each other. We realized that in addition to an overall therapeutic and culturally competent approach to teaching, we also needed to design specific art units with lessons that would target components of emotional intelligence that people need to find satisfaction in life and be successful in the world (Goleman, 1995).


            Our children needed to develop the steppingstones to self-esteem  (self-awareness and self-expression) as well as impulse control, socialization skills, and empathy for people and other livings thing. The challenges of teaching children to care about others when they may feel less-than-cared for, themselves, may seem daunting, but doing so through art experience holds great promise. As art therapist Shaun McNiffe describes, when people make art together, “barriers and boundaries between them begin to break down” (1995, p.166), creating a greater sense of empathy and compassion: ingredients necessary to developing respect and appreciation for others.  In discussing how the arts can move children from self-absorption to concern for the world in which they live, Stout (1999) declares that along with developing “critical intelligence”, the other basic and intertwined purpose of education is to “nurture the human capacity to care” (p.23). 


            Exploring all of these issues led us to think about ways we could take more preventative steps toward decreasing violence and aggression in our schools, and in our own students in their interactions with others. We learned that creating a classroom climate of community, with each student as a contributing, cared for, and responsible member of that community, is the place to start. We also began to incorporate more group art activities where success depended on everyone’s participation and input.


What We Learned About Teacher Faith and Perseverance


            In their preservice work through the Art Partners program, our student teachers have learned many practical as well as theoretical aspects of teaching in urban schools. But perhaps one of the most important things they have learned about themselves has to do with something we came to call “teacher faith and perseverance”, which stemmed from students’ efforts to cope productively with the inevitable frustrations and emotional tugs encountered in teaching children whose life experience has been difficult.


            Related to being a therapeutic kind of teacher, the students needed to develop ways to manage their personal feelings about the children in order to assure appropriate and effective responses in the classroom (analogous to the management of countertransference required by professional therapists). In order to do so productively, honest introspection and open discussion with their faculty coordinator/course instructor was necessary, and a time and safe space was provided after each Art Partners session. 


            Two particularly troublesome issues that continued to arise from these discussions were the student teachers’ perceptions that the children weren’t connecting with them, and that the children weren’t receiving much benefit from their efforts.  When asked what real evidence they had to support these perceptions, the student teachers stated things like: He doesn’t like me; He seems to withdrawn; She hardly ever responds to me one-on-one when I try to help her; He never smiles; I’m not sure they’re getting much out of what we’re providing.   Although some of the student teachers did have one or two children in their smaller groups who could visibly and readily demonstrate their positive regard on a regular basis, almost all shared the latter sentiment.


            In tackling these issues, the student teachers first needed to become aware of how their own personal needs might be coloring the way they viewed and handled certain situations for better or worse. They were helped to see the difference between when they’re actions are unconsciously driven by the desire to have their own needs met, and when they are truly focused on meeting the needs of their students. All teachers want their students to like them, and novices especially look to this kind of feedback from their students as a gauge of their own worthiness as teachers. Like most beginners, these teachers needed to learn that they don’t need to act like their students’ friends in order to achieve their respect, and not to take what they perceive as the children’s’ negativity or apathy toward them so personally.  They were able to understand that they are focusing on their own needs in looking for external signs of affection from their students, and that this is not our purpose.


            Perhaps even more critical for teachers who work with at-risk urban children, many of whom have had to deal with more than their share of hurt and trauma at a young age, the student teachers needed to increase their understanding of the children’s inner psychology in trying to figure out why, despite their giving and loving interactions, the children did not show more external signs of their positive response to this nurturing.  As the student teachers attained a deeper understanding of their children’s lives, they were able to see that in order for the children to cope with serious daily stresses, they needed to build and maintain a set of unconscious defense mechanisms that would make psychological survival possible in a world where trusting others turned out to be risky emotional business.  The student teachers’ expectations were out of sync with the children’s. Learning to put their students’ needs first allowed the students teachers to gain a better understanding of this psychological aspect.  They suddenly realized that it is not a reasonable expectation for some kids to drop all their defenses so quickly and warm up to a stranger, and one who will only be with them temporarily at that. Did these important new insights remove the student teachers’ very human responses to highly defended children who did not readily exhibit overt signs of positive regard?  Of course not, but that’s when we learned that adopting and maintaining a posture of faith and perseverance would help along with establishing and maintaining a support system in teacher’s lives.


            We learned that part of what it means to be teacher, and especially a teacher of children with special learning needs, is having the kind of faith and level of perseverance that helps one: to align expectations with reality, to carry on despite the lack of ready answers to troubling situations, to keep things in perspective by seeing and appreciating the smaller steps that indicate progress, and to know that your very hard work is having an impact.


            Sometimes, my student teachers only learn this completely at the end of the year when it is time to say good-bye to the children. For example, this past year, they were shocked to see how many of the children came to them with hugs, and how some cried, and how the toughest boy in the whole group broke down crying on the last day, sad to see his Art Partners teachers leave. The student’s teachers have learned that sometimes, many times perhaps, it is enough to do their jobs with love and care, treating each child as if her/she were their own. The have learned that the act of love inherent in teaching is unconditional.




            Through discussion of the Art Partners program, this paper has attempted to shed light on the importance of providing preservice teachers with early fieldwork in schools serving urban students with special learning needs. In the effort to contribute to the improvement of urban education, some significant results of the program’s applied research work have also been shared. 


            We have seen how involvement in programs like Art Partners helps teachers in training to question preconceived ideas and fears about working in city schools, develop greater competence in teaching urban students, and increase understanding and appreciation for cultural difference. Consciousness is raised as future teachers begin to embrace the idea of seeking employment in urban schools and accept the responsibility for doing their part to ensure educational equity for all children. In fact, all the new insights they have acquired through preservice fieldwork, and before they go out to teach professionally, have provided the student teachers with their own dose of  ‘preventative medicine’!


            In their personal reflections, students who have gone through the Art Partners program have cited the importance of having “been given the chance to experience the need for faith in the process and how to hang in there when things seem especially difficult”.  They value the chance to have learned “how to do the work of establishing relationships with children who have been hurt, and who are reluctant to trust”, and to realize “they are just chidlern!”.


            The Art Partners program has also given preservice teachers an opportunity to engage in applied research alongside their college professor and in collaboration with veteran classroom teachers. “We have had the chance to experiment, and take risks in a supportive and safe environment”. This kind of early experience can lay the groundwork for emerging professionals to take a scholarly approach to their own teaching where relevant issues are identified and solutions proposed, enacted and assessed in order to improve the educational experience for their own students. 


            Finally, veteran teachers and those of us in teacher education must project hope to our student teachers, and they to their students, and believe, ourselves, that change is possible in our quest to improve the quality of education for all children. As Kohl says, “if you don't believe the world can be different from what it is now, you might as well quit” (Scherer interview, 2001). For those who say that idealistic visions of change in education are not applicable in everyday situations with everyday teachers, Kohl replies that “it’s no excuse to say it’s real hard to be a teacher in a real school. Then change the real schools”! He warns that to think that typical teachers “can’t do creative things is to denigrate the brilliance in almost everybody” (p. 13).

            We must be sure to impart such a message to our future teachers as they begin to take their place in the awesome responsibility of providing a quality education for all our children.














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