by Abhishek Panchal (Visual Arts Facilitator, The Gateway School of Mumbai)
I’ve been a visual arts educator for five years now but Gateway has been my first stint with special needs students. For me teaching art has always been about trying out of the box methods, focusing greatly on reflections and discussions while building skills. This underlines my belief that art isn’t just about painting within the lines but a medium through which we develop critical thinking skills that support various aspects of learning.
My journey at Gateway began with first spending hours on understanding the students – their strengths, areas of needs and most importantly their relationship with art. Visual arts at Gateway largely focuses on creating expressive art but the plan was to start integrating skill based art without taking away the essence of the program. This was a challenge that I took upon with delight. My aim ever since has been to marry the two (skills & critical thinking) seamlessly and this has been possible through talking- talking about art.
Research has indicated that using visuals while learning helps student remember and then retrieve information easily. After all, our brain is this complex image processor with a large part of it processing visual images as compared to a smaller area processing words. Using visual imagery in the process of learning is a very powerful tool. The lower school students at Gateway started their year learning about different types of dots and lines and how these are the foundations of any kind of art. Initially, every time we reviewed the lesson I redirected them to the visuals up on the board. Gradually we reached a point when the students did not need any redirection. They used the visuals at their discretion to support their learning. This was an aha! moment for me as I saw how much impact simple pictures/visuals had on my students.
This got me thinking and I decided to teach an entire skill-based unit through photographs. The idea was to develop inventiveness individually and as a group. The middle school students were introduced to the legendary photographer Marc Riboud and through his work they worked on their coloring and painting skills. Marc Riboud’s demise a couple of months back gave us context for learning more about this great artist’s life. Another reason I picked his work is because his pictures were all monochromatic and we used copies of them as a ready canvas that they built their art on.
We studied eight of Marc’s pictures over 6 weeks. Students used water colors to paint the A3 size photocopies of his work. During classes we invested a large amount of time discussing the pictures. We spent time observing the pictures, specifically the minute details of the setting, people, clothes, objects etc. Students took turns to share their observations with the group while answering any questions their peers had. My role was limited to that of a facilitator – merely helping the students to start their sharing with what they saw and then moving on to what they thought about it.
What amazed me was the kind of insight they had. They surprised me with perspectives that I had never imagined. This process helped them become more open to taking in others’ perspectives and knowing that there is so much more to a picture than what meets the eye. This process of critically analysing an artist’s work and discussing various aspects of each image has resulted in them reliving past experiences to inform their choices while creating art. The students not only learnt the skills but did so in context. Why does the person have a stone on him? Are they publicly killing the man? Who are the people watching? Why aren’t they helping? Is this in India?