The art room at WoodsEdge Learning Center
looks much like the art room in any other Kalamazoo County school. Bright paintings cover the walls. Paper Mache projects line the shelves. Labeled cupboards neatly store paintbrushes, paper and paint. But what happens inside the WoodsEdge art room looks, and feels, like much more.
WoodsEdge Learning Center, a part of the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency, is a center-based, year-round special education school for students ages 3-26 who are moderately and severely cognitively impaired, and for those with autism spectrum disorder. Students’ unique educational needs vary greatly – some are medically fragile or in a wheelchair; others are sensitive to light and sound, while some are unable to communicate verbally.
A single special education class would pose a challenge for the hardiest veteran teacher. At WoodsEdge, art educator Heather Bigelow works with more than 200 students. She has worked in special education and therapeutic art for 14 years. She now provides art classes at WoodsEdge three days a week.
“Art gives these students a chance to practice a skill and experience materials and new sensations,” she said. “At the same time, it helps them with transitions and fine motor skills.”
Each of Bigelow’s students has unique educational needs, she said. Some of her students cannot communicate verbally. Others cannot hold onto a crayon without help. Bigelow adapts every project to meet each student’s needs. “I want them to have that feeling of accomplishment,” she said.
And seeing her students progress is what keeps her motivated. When she first started teaching art at WoodsEdge, one of her students could not tolerate the sensation of paint on his hands. Over time, he learned to paint wearing gloves, and this year, he is painting with bare hands. Students who could not even sit in the classroom previously are taking part fully, Bigelow said.
“Seeing a connection with a student is exciting. I love trying to find ways to adapt a project to each student – to modify projects so students can be proud of their progression,” she said.
Sometimes modifications are simple, like a handful of modeling clay wrapped around a crayon to help a student hold it. Others require a little more creativity, and in some cases, special adaptive art equipment. Whatever art class may look like for a particular student, Bigelow keeps the goal in mind.
“I want them to find their voice,” she said. “I feel like this is my niche, and I want them to find their niche, too.”
The art classes at WoodsEdge are funded by a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs
(MCACA). Through this grant, Bigelow also collaborates with Artists-in-Residence from the Kalamazoo RESA Education for the Arts
(EFA) program. She demonstrates techniques and strategies that are useful when teaching art to students with special needs.
The public is invited to see students’ work at an art show
on Wednesday, Sept. 3, from 3-6 p.m. at WoodsEdge. Student artwork and
collaborative class projects will be on display and open to public viewing.