Making Accommodations for the Needs of All Students (Ep. 039)

Special needs students are an absolute joy to teach, but it can undoubtedly be a struggle at times. Andrew brings on AOE writer and friend of the podcast, Abby Schukei, to talk about the best ways–and best reasons–to make accommodations for all of your students. They discuss why teachers are so poorly prepared to differentiate our instruction (3:45), specific strategies to find success with students with special needs (9:30), and the difference between inclusivity in your standard curriculum and a curriculum specifically written for an adaptive art class (15:00). Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education and I’m your host, Andrew McCormick. I had a year last year with plenty of high notes. Now, there were some rough spots too, but there were just so many things to be proud of. I had a really good curriculum, great coworkers, awesome students. I had this one student in particular that really let me feel like a rock star. I had a special needs student that was such a joy to teach. This girl was amazing by what she would get into and be inspired by. She really let me feel like, finally, after 11 years, that I’d hit a home run with accommodations in the classroom.

I’m happy to bring on a good friend and AOE writer Abby Schukei to talk about some strategies and successes in making accommodations for the needs of our diverse learners.

Abby: Hi. I’m Abby Abby Schukei. I am a middle school art teacher in Omaha, Nebraska. I feel that making accommodations for your students is really important, because it can really transform the art making experience.

Andrew: While Abby and I have our differences, most notably about tie dyeing, Abby and I agree that making accommodations for the needs of all of our students can be really tricky. Abby seems to really get it. She’s got a great article on The Art of Ed about five great process oriented projects that are really good to do with adaptive art classes. She got it quick, too. I’ve been teaching a lot longer than she has, but it took me a really long time to learn some of that stuff. The reason is, I think that because as art teachers, we can’t say, “Here’s the playbook. Here’s what you do for this type of kid.” You change the playbook when you get this type of kid. There really are no types. Just when you think you’ve learned a few tricks in making some good accommodations, a new student or class comes in with all sorts of new strengths and weaknesses. As teachers, we really have to stay flexible and open.

Many of us leave our undergrad programs feeling a little under-prepared to tackle the full gamut of needs that our students might have. That’s why The Art of Education’s course, Reaching All Artists Through Differentiation is so great. In this three credit class, you’ll learn how to modify your curriculum for students with all sorts of needs, from special education modifications to ELP or ELL students. You’ll walk away with a number of strategies and ideas to enhance and modify your lesson plans and craft assessments that are really targeted to your students needs and abilities. Reaching All Artists Through Differentiation is a three credit course and new sessions start up at the beginning of this next month. Do yourself a favor and head on over to theartofed.com and check out this and all the other great courses under the courses tab.

Let’s see if Abby and I can get over this deep disdain for each other’s stance on tie dyed shirts to see if we can talk some nuts and bolts accommodations. Hey Abby. Thanks for coming on to talk today.

Abby: Hey. I’m glad to be here.

Andrew: I’ve recently gotten to the point in the last couple years of my teaching where I really felt like I was getting somewhere with my accommodations for students with diverse needs. This year I’m actually teaching a full adaptive art class that’s pretty unique. We’ve got kind of a unique twist on it. I’m still what I would consider to be a work in progress. Do you think that most art teachers out there, it takes us a while to get good at accommodations?

Abby: Yes. Totally. That is something that I certainly, when I had to do my first adaptive art class that I was like, “Holy smokes. What am I doing?” Yes. I certainly think that it takes some time to kind of get into the groove with that.

Andrew: Why is it that you think it takes us a while? Is it just because it’s really tough, or we’re poorly prepared? What is it?

Abby: Probably both. I think definitely we are poorly prepared when it comes to it. I know in my experience in my art education program, there was one sped class that I had to take. It was like, you had to take it. It was with all of the general ed teachers. Nothing art related at all. I don’t really even remember anything about it. It was just like I didn’t have any experience, no training at all. I was just thrown into this situation. I was like, “I have no idea what I am doing.” I think another thing that goes along with that is, the hard part about it is that it’s not a one size fits all approach to the accommodation thing. Each and every one of your students is different. You might come up with the best idea for one of your students, but it’s not going to work for another one. You kind of have to go back to the drawing board every single time you get a new student, a new situation. It is really challenging. I think it just comes from not knowing what to expect, because of your students, and because most of us probably don’t have the training to do it.

Andrew: I remember taking those classes in college. It was kind of more just descriptive of different types of students. Right. You almost never had to even plan a lesson plan. What would it look like? Even then, it’s such an abstract concept to think about: Two years from now, when I really have real students. All that training is out the window. Really, I think the best training is just experience. You had said that you had kind of gotten better at it. Did you feel like you had a light bulb moment where things started to click for you? Was there a moment? Was there maybe a peer educator or a student where it all came together?

Abby: Let me take you back to my first week of being a teacher. It’s my fourth day ever of teaching. At this time, I was teaching at elementary school. I was seeing 1,000 students. I had three different buildings. In this particular building, I was teaching art on a cart. I’m told there wasn’t a classroom teacher name on the list. I was like, “What is this?” I couldn’t figure out what this class was that I was supposed to be doing. They are like, “This is going to be an adapted art class.” I’m like, “Oh. Okay.” I had no idea what to do, not a clue. Day four, I’m going to this class. I get in there. I probably spent more time trying to plan for this class than I did for any of my other 50 sections of classes that I was teaching at that same time. First week, I came in guns blazing with this stupid shape lesson, because I had no idea. I just remember, I don’t know what I expected the kids to do. I walked in there. It was like a life skills class. I don’t know if I wanted the kids to trace these shapes or what.

The class for 50 minutes long. About 20 minutes into it, we were done. I was just sitting there and I was looking at the paras. I was like, “I don’t know what to do.” I’ve never had an experience with that. I guess that was my light bulb moment of: Oh my gosh. This is not going to be easy. Eventually, I did get into the groove of it a little bit. By the end of the first quarter, I was totally figuring it out. By the first year, I was like, “All right. I’m good to go for next year.” It took me that long, but I just had to go … I walked in the first day not having a clue what was going to happen. That was probably the best thing that could have happened to me, because I was like, “Okay. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve got to be ready to just go with it.”

Andrew: Yeah. That’s interesting. I think being thrown in just right away, it kind of forced you to learn it very quickly. My experience is a little different, I think. I’d have a couple students every year with some special needs who would have associates with them. Sometimes my relationship and my working with the associates was really great. We’d come up with ideas together. Sometimes it wasn’t great. I’d either have an associate who would really not help at all, or, even worse than that, on the other side of it, is an associate who does everything for the kid. You’ve got to find that happy medium where you’re helping but, as the adult, you’re not doing it just for them.

I felt like it took me longer, because I only had a couple shots every year to get a little bit better and a little bit better. Then, finally, like year 11, I was like, “Oh!” I had this one student, and it was really great. That girl is just an artist and she was amazing. I was able to do a lot of my similar choice based approaches with her, but just approach it different. It was just a really wonderful experience. I could go on and on about her, but I wanted to ask you some specific, overview things like: Do you have some specific go-to successful strategies that have really helped you out in working with students with special needs?

Abby: Yeah. Going back to that idea of not having any of that training in my pre-service times. My sister is actually a special education teacher. I remember after that first day experience, I was like, “Holy smokes. I don’t know what to do.” I’ve actually been able to use some of her behavior strategies. I feel like that’s one of the biggest things that you have a tendency to deal with in those types of situations. Some of my favorite strategies to use is really incentive based. I know for the students that I’ve worked with, they are very, very … They are focused on what they want to do. It comes down to figuring out what that student likes, what is their student interests, and then building an incentive off of that.

I have a couple of examples that really show how I’ve been able to use that. I used to have this kid, a student, when I was in elementary school. He was very defiant and would hardly ever work. If you put the paint by him, he would throw it. It was really, really a battle each and every time. We came up with this system. He really was interested in money. We had this little Velcro system. We’d set a timer. Each time he was able to work on his art project for five minutes, we’d move a coin over. After he got four coins down, he got to have his prize, or his incentive. That was usually 10 minutes of iPad time. He would always carry around a phone book with him. He would just spend that 10 minutes looking at his phone book. After that time, we’d go back to it and start it over again. That instructional strategy as having the visual reminder and the timer or the sound, he knew that in this amount of time, if I work on my art project, I’ll be able to get my reward. That’s been a really good strategy.

I also have had another similar one. I had a student who had Downs Syndrome. He was very behaviorally defiant. There were three things that he really liked. He liked cars. He liked rap music. He liked me, but he hated art. It was like pulling teeth. We kind of did something similar with him. We took those interests. I happened to have this car book in my room. This was in an eighth grade setting. I had him every single day for an entire year. He would come in, and while kids were doing their bell work, he would come in and he would go find that car book. He would sit down. That was his bell work that he would do. As I was giving some of the instructions to the other class, he would wait and do that. Once I had gotten done with the other students in the inclusive setting, we’d get going with his project. The reward for him at the end of the day was, if he was able to do everything, the required work that I had put out for him that day, he would be able to listen to his favorite rapper. We’d get a YouTube video up. He’d put his headphones in. Boy, he would listen to some Rick Ross and that is what did it for him.

Andrew: It’s so funny that you bring that up because what you said a bit ago about how every student’s different. I’ll be the Rick Ross doesn’t work for everybody. That’s not like a blanket strategy that will just work for every student.

Abby: No way. This was a special situation. I don’t know that there’s any other student I would probably do that for. Man, it worked every day. I think I remember the first day, where he’s walking out of the room, and hes’ like, “No Rick Ross?” I was like, “Well, you didn’t do your stuff.” After that, I think we got Rick Ross just about every day.

Andrew: That’s awesome. Those both sound like kind of inclusive environments. I want you to think about a class that’s a little different from that. Not just a classroom with one or two special needs students and then the rest of your class, but a class that’s just full on, everyone in there has some sort of spectrum of diverse needs. How does that look and feel different for you and your history and your background?

Abby: I actually started out. My first experience that I had was in just an adapted art room. I actually would have 20 severe and profound students. Most of these students were life skills based. Most of them, my first experiences with them were in a non verbal setting. Generally, there would maybe be, of the 20 students in the room, there would probably be at least five that were wheelchair bound and had some very, very limited mobility in some of that regard.

There’s definitely a huge difference between that inclusive setting and the full out working with those life skills or in that adaptive art setting. I think part of the reason is because it is a lot more work. In an inclusive setting, you can just adapt what you’re doing. Accommodate in that way by making a few tweaks here and there. You don’t necessarily have to start from scratch every single time. With the students in this adaptive art, full adaptive art setting, I probably spend most … The amount of prep that goes into it is insane. I probably spend so much more time preparing for that for what we’re probably going to get through in 30 minutes. Even though it might take me two hours to plan for. It’s just a lot more time.

I don’t know. Some of the things that I like that are different about that is just knowing each student in there has a severe, different need, or a different something else that they can or cannot do. One of the things that I think that … I guess one of my pieces of advice that I would say to people is, in a setting like that, is to stay away from scissors. It is going to be the nightmare. It is awful.

Andrew: I’ve got to share a little bit about a class that I teach right now, which is called Peer Art, which is an adaptive art class. I can in no way, shape or form, take any credit for this idea, but I really, really like it. Just earlier this fall I was at the Art Educators of Iowa Conference. I talked about the student that I had last year at my former job. Then, we kind of transitioned into this year and some work that I’m doing. Like I said, the name of the class is called Peer Art. The way that it works is: I have anywhere between 10 and 12 severe and profound students in that class. They are partnered up with a peer, a student, full functioning, fully-abled student who is giving up a study hall or maybe they signed up for that class on their own. A lot of them had a study hall. They come down, instead, for this. They work one on one with that severe and profound friend that they’ve been partnered up with, which I think is really awesome.

I roll out an idea, a curriculum, a project, really more to the peers. They go and work with their friend kind of one on one. We try to find happy mediums of what sort of sensory projects are the severe and profound students enticed by. Maybe we put some smells of an aroma in the paint. We’ve done a lot of just touching sponges that have some paint on it. Things that are wet, or crumpling up papers, so just the sound, the feel, the texture of the stuff. It’s really been a lot of fun. It’s been really good.

One of the things I can echo is that it really is a lot of work. It takes us about 25 minutes to get a project done. Then, it’s just like, boom, we’re done. I’m trying to find this balancing act where it’s not really artwork that the student who is helping out would take home and say, “This is my own artwork. I’m creating it.” It’s more like: What can they do together with the skills that they have? In a lot of ways, I’m doing kind of like a second and third grade type of level curriculum. Then, I know that everyone can do it and get into it. It’s very, very process oriented. It’s been really great. I just really dig it.

Abby: Yeah. That’s super cool. I think one of those things, just the peer relationship between it, that’s super cool. It really brings into that notion that art is an experience. It’s not necessarily about the product, but more about that tactile and those sensory things.

Andrew: When we get done early, then they just kind of chat about things. It’s good for the students to get out of their special ed classroom, because they do spend a lot of their time in there. They’re talking, and it’s just really great. Yeah. I know what you mean that it is a lot of work, but, man, it’s really taught me a lot about some things. We’ll get to that at the end. That’s the last question I want to ask you, how this whole thing comes full circle. I also wanted to ask you, because I know those fully adaptive classes can be really challenging for people. Do you have any go-to projects or materials, or adaptive materials that you’ve found that people out there could get or use that could make their experience a little bit better?

Abby: Yeah. First off, going for materials. Unfortunately, the messier the material, the better, I think, that students are able to use it. Especially if there’s a wide range of accomodations that are needed. Probably, almost every single project we do involves paint, whether that be some good old fashioned tempera paint that smells up the room. I actually really like to use liquid water color with them. I would probably say, generally, most of the time we are going to use paint, because I don’t like messing with paint trays and all of that. Some painted paper really goes a long way. Just putting it right on the paper and then using some texture tools to create lots of awesome textures in that.

I actually use a lot of stencils. Just oak tag stencils or card stock. Students can really manipulate those things a lot. I think one of the reasons that I really like to use paint is because everything else, like oil pastels and things are hard for students to hold a lot of the time.

Andrew: Yeah. For sure.

Abby: They’re not big enough, unless there was a giant oil … Somebody needs to invent that, a long oil pastel. Everything else is just so hard for them to hold, as far as their motor skills go. I actually use not only large paint brushes, but sometimes we’ll use cleaning supplies. One of my favorite brush that students like to use is a toilet cleaner wand, because it’s easy for them to manipulate and move.

Andrew: Anything that you can slide through it, big giant sponges. Big, old, monster trucks with the wheels, where they can slide that along and it makes the texture. All that stuff is really, really fun. It is easy for them to hold. One of the things that I had in my room was a series of large paint brushes that then had been shoved into a tennis ball and then hot glued into place. The students, if they could hold a tennis ball, which is pretty big. They can manipulate the end of the brush. There are all sorts of DIY hacks out there if you’re creative, to think about: Could I take a pool noodle? Could I attach something to a pool noodle? Could I turn a pool noodle into a textured rolling pin? That’s a little bit bigger and easier than some other things.

My advice to people would be: Be creative with what you have out there that you could use that is easier to grab, easier to manipulate.

Abby: Totally. I actually used oven mitts and hot glue the paint brush into those. I used to have a student that would throw the brushes all the time, so that really helped us out. Those DIY things can really be helpful.

Andrew: I want to ask you one final question. This is something I realized last year when I really felt like I had a home run experience with a student who had diverse needs. I felt like I got to a point where, because of what she was teaching me and the accomodations I was making, it was actually benefiting all of the students in my class. I thought about, if she needs this accommodation or needs it explained a different way, or modified. Maybe I could make that modification for all of the students. They actually benefited from it too. Have you ever had that moment? Have you seen that happen where everyone is benefiting from you making good accommodations?

Abby: Yeah. Absolutely. I think one of the reasons why I can relate to that feeling that you’ve explained is because when you’re learning to make accomodations for students, whether they are a student that has special needs, or just a student in your general classroom, making those accomodations forces you to identify the strength and needs of all of your students, no matter who they are. That means that you have to get to know your students. Doing that is only going to benefit the art making experience for them.

Andrew: Yeah. Abby, thanks so much for coming on. I really enjoyed this talk. When I knew I wanted to do do a show about this, I knew you were the greatest person to talk to. I really appreciate it.

Abby: Oh, wow. Thanks.

Andrew: All right. We’ll talk to you later.

Abby: All right. Thanks.

Andrew: All right. Thanks to Abby for coming on. Man, I am a little bit jealous of her sink or swim initiation that she went through. I wonder if I’d had that experience like she had, that I might have shaved off a few years of struggling to make good accomodations for diverse learners. It’s not that I was horrible. Sometimes I’ve had some great successes. Sometimes it was a little tricky to build that great relationship with the associate educators. Maybe I kind of hit or miss on really making good accommodations.

Going back to that student that really showed me how to run better accomodations. She really got me falling in love with the idea of differentiation. So many times I was first hand how making good accomodations for her, whether it was new materials, new ideas, or tweaking a project a little bit here or there, it really benefited all of my students. Maybe you stumble across a technique that’s more appropriate for your diverse students. That’s going to translate directly into all your classes. I think even more important than that instance is that all students benefit when their teacher is thinking deeply and creatively about student learning.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by the Art of Education, with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Usually, this is the time when I do a little plug for the show. Tell you guys to write a review or subscribe to the mailing list. I’m not going to do that today. Instead, I want to say to all you fellow teachers out there: Thank you. You have an awesome job, but it is a tough one. I know, at times, it can be a little thankless. I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today, doing what I love and fulfilling my passions, were it not for all the wonderful teachers out there who have graced my life.

I recently lost a high school teacher that made a really big impact on my life. Miss Thomas was a tough as nails teacher who really didn’t take any crap from anyone. I’d like to say she didn’t suffer no fools. She was also warm as hell, and could really make you feel like a million bucks. I can hear her words come out of my mouth when I lay into a kid for some foolish behavior with sarcasm, honesty, compassion, and love. Keep up the good work, everyone. What you do matters.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.