Over 200 teachers, teaching artists, principals, educators, and advocates met at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on August 7-8 for the International Organization on Arts and Disability (VSA) Conference. VSA was founded in 1974, by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of President John F. Kennedy. Ambassador Smith showed her continued support of VSA and the conference by attending a special luncheon on the first day. As a baby-boomer, I must admit that I was excited to not only have an opportunity to meet a member of the Kennedy family that has served our country for decades, but also to experience the passion that Ambassador Smith has for the mission of VSA. At age 85, she is still advocating for the importance of the arts in special education.
The theme of this year’s conference was Intersections: Arts and Special Education. The desire of the conference planners was to provide a place where two or more things would intersect: participants intersecting with their colleagues –old and new; art teachers intersecting with special education teachers; practitioners intersecting with researchers; visual educators intersecting with performing arts educators; and many other intersections of the field.
The key-note speaker was David Flink from Eye to Eye, which is the only national mentoring movement that pairs kids who have learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (LD / ADHD) with college and high school mentors who have been similarly labeled. Using arts-based curriculum, mentors help their mentees understand unique ways of learning and thinking, while also building the self-esteem and skills the mentees need to become self-advocates. David stated that “Arts is a vehicle to articulate thoughts and ideas.” When children cannot find the right words, art is a valuable tool to express their thoughts and feelings.
Many people may think that special education is for those children that are physically, emotionally, or behaviorally challenged. But there were conference participants that suggested children living in extreme poverty, as well as homeless children, could specifically benefit from art education classes as a way to overcome the trauma they experience daily in their personal and home life.
The conference included interactive sessions where teaching artists shared tools they use to reach out to students. A dance artist showed how dance can be used to improve impulse control in hyperactive kids, which can be applied to other situations in the classroom environment. Samantha Peller, a licensed Creative Arts Specialist, introduced an innovative performing arts educational program used at a NYC school for students with autism. We experienced through a group game how Samantha works to assess each child’s level of life skills, such as trust, teamwork, social skills, language, communication skills, and listening skills. This knowledge helps her better understand the needs of each individual child.
No one snoozed at this conference. The participants laughed, shared their successes and challenges, and eagerly listened to what others were doing in their schools to improve arts education, education through art, and students’ academic achievement through arts education. What I learned at this conference is that the art and special education educators are not in this field for the money or view their work as just a job. They love what they do! They inspire their students and are inspired by the students they teach.
The conference planners achieved their goal of intersecting on all levels. I cannot wait until next year’s conference to see what these dedicated educators will share with us.
Jerry Kyle is a Program Officer in the Professional Development for Arts Educators Program in the Office of Innovation and Improvement.