Teaching different for learning differences

Photo courtesy of Avni Shridhar, Student Publications

For the last year, I have been teaching lessons through an organization which connects art instructors to children with chronic illnesses.

These hour-long lessons are the best part of my week, but I did not always think that teaching was so simple, especially when I first started off.

My first student was just a year younger than me, but his life is very different from mine.

He is homeschooled on the other side of the country, in California, and he primarily speaks Spanish with his family.

He also lives with cerebral palsy and hearing loss.

One of the only things we have in common is that we really love doing art.

I love drawing and painting just about any subject — landscapes, figure drawings, still lifes — but my favorite is human faces. That is why, for my first lesson with him, I planned for us to do self-portraits.

That first day, I logged on to our video call and dove right into instruction.

Using the same art supplies that I had shipped him earlier that week, I began demonstrating how to draw a face while narrating directions like “Using a pencil that matches your skin-color, draw an upside-down egg shape for your head.”

However, whether it was due to our language-barrier, his loss of hearing, or unclear instructions, it became obvious to me that my style of teaching was not working.

Even worse, I could feel his creativity being stifled and his motivation dwindling.

Frustrated with myself, I decided to abandon the lesson and use the time to chat with him instead, which he was happy to do.

For thirty minutes, we got to know each other.

He introduced me to his dog, Cookie, who sleeps in his room, and I introduced him to my stuffed bear Polu, who gives me company in my dorm. He told me his favorite animal was a panda bear.

He even showed me his private sketchbook. It was filled with wonderful drawings of superheroes, which he had made from following YouTube tutorials. By the end of our lesson, I had finished my simple self-portrait, so I showed it to him and discussed some of the techniques I had used to make it.

Later that evening, I got a text from him — a photograph of his completed self-portrait! Suddenly it clicked.

When he had seen my finished drawing or Youtube tutorials on superheroes, he could see the product before he started. When I had tried to teach him earlier, it must have seemed like putting random shapes and colors on the paper. If my background was so different from my student’s, how could I expect him to magically understand the art piece I had in mind?

Moving forward, I decided to reevaluate our curriculum with a focus on his learning style and interests. Now, whenever I teach him a lesson, I make the piece of art multiple times at various stages of completion.

I have one version of the drawing prepared to show him at the beginning of the class, a few to show him as we move through the lesson, and then I create another version as we work through the drawing together.

Also, he and I choose a subject together before the lesson, so he actually likes what he is drawing; most recently, we drew a picture of Captain America and another of a panda bear in a bamboo forest.

Finally, I have learned that it more important to use our time to form social connections, rather than focusing how good the final drawing is.

To be a good mentor to him, I have learned to be open and flexible and to see things from his perspective. I might be the art coach, but my students have taught me more lessons than they will ever know about what it means to be an educator, a mentor and a friend.