Hilesh Patel and Scott Sikkema

Authors’ note:  because there are two authors, we refer to ourselves in the third person

Transition, a term used in high school special education is usually defined in relation to post-high school life for students, and includes post-secondary education, jobs, or independent living.  This kind of framing often leads to very specific definitions of job skills to be acquired, and introduction to certain occupations, which are more readily obtainable.  What more can transition encompass?  This question is one that surfaces from the collaboration of four entities:  two special education high schools, Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education (CAPE), and Jim Duignan from the Stockyard Institute.  The collaboration, called Creative Works, is a Kennedy Center VSA program, provided under a contract with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Jacqueline B. Vaughn Occupational High School and Ray Graham Training Center High School both serve special education populations.  Vaughn, located in the Northwest side of Chicago, serves 202 students aged 17+ who have mild to moderate cognitive and physical disabilities. Graham Training Center has 131 students in the same age group whose disabilities are moderate to severe. 

Vaughn and Graham each function as a kind of ecosystem.  Teachers and students have complex, interlocking layers of dialogue and relationships.  These layers of dialogue and relationships go beyond a linear passing of knowledge from teacher to student, and go beyond the lack of communication sometimes found in high schools between departments and content areas.  At both high schools, there are questions and ideas from the teachers that form around an individual student’s learning across that student’s entire school day.  Students in turn understand and interact with their fellow students and teachers in different contexts, accessing multiple forms of support as they build greater self-determination, and capacity for transition.

CAPE as an organization develops and sustains authentic partnerships between classroom teachers and teaching artists of all disciplines, who together co-create, co-plan and co-lead an arts integrated curriculum with inquiry-based practice as a driving force.  What became immediately evident for CAPE in working with these two schools was that a new approach to make the arts integrated work specific to the schools’ student body and pedagogical philosophies was necessary. The two high schools demonstrated that the approach to arts integration used in general population schools did not fully encompass the students’ own, internalized ideas and goals of transition crucial to their development.

Program Manager Hilesh Patel began developing strategies for building a new kind of collaboration between CAPE teaching artists and Vaughn and Graham classroom teachers, which would in turn impact the nature of the art making at the schools.  He began by actually rethinking the planning process itself, and bringing the teachers and artists into a new way of thinking about planning.  Planning at CAPE usually involves fixed formats, especially early in a partnership, with a number of defined curricular parameters (what is your big idea, your inquiry question, what do you do first, etc.) Hilesh began by having them literally deconstruct their old filled-out planning forms (mentally, but also physically, cutting them apart with scissors, to get at what was and wasn’t there.) The questions the teachers, artists, and CAPE staff then asked included: how could a form encapsulate and symbolize their perception of the ecosystems at work in Vaughn and Graham; how could their planning form illuminate the entry and possible impact of the teacher and artist and art making into that ecosystem and the students who are specifically part of it; how could the planning form show the interaction of the practices of the teacher and the artist, and the interaction of the content and those practices.  The teachers and artists then reconceived their planning form as an aesthetic thing unto itself.  This process proved key in establishing deeper, more interwoven layers of creation and communication between student, teacher, artist, school, and provided the foundation for thinking about transition beyond just acquirement of job skills.

As the planning process engendered an active component of artist and art within the ecosystem of each school, Hilesh then strategized another encounter to further rethink arts integration partnership practice at these two schools.  Stockyard Institute founder and artist Jim Duignan began working with the teachers and artists in professional development meetings.  Jim’s encounter with the group, formed around a questioning and dialogue approach, furthered their criticality about what their work means, and could mean.  Specifically, Jim developed discussions around the public sharing of the students’ artwork.  Through these discussions, the teachers and artists began to think more about the pedagogical, aesthetic, and life implications for students if the work was shared outside of their schools/ecosystems.  They clearly articulated the transitional development that would come through the students experiencing their art and themselves as artists in a public setting.  As Hilesh Patel commented, the teachers and artists themselves came to a place where they believe as a group that,  “the students need to see, engage, and understand spaces where they themselves, their work, and their creativity can exist.  That is essential to transition.” 

The curricular projects this year have reflected the heightened awareness of students, teachers, and artists of the larger scope of transitional thinking, the role their school ecosystems play in that, and the importance of outside spaces and dialogues to their art making and their transition.  An example from each school may illustrate this.  At Graham, the teacher and artist have been working on an exterior mosaic with students.  Their concentration this year has been on opening up their classroom to become what Hilesh terms “an environment of decision making” as related to the fabrication of the mosaic.  They are laying out the basics of the materials and tools, and are letting the students interpret their own process of interacting with and using these materials.  What the teacher and artist are seeing is the students developing a conscious understanding of the continuum between labor and decision-making in creating art, and that the relationship between their choice and their doing the work is a relationship that ultimately has aesthetic impact for the outside, public statement they are making. 

A Vaughn teacher and artist team is working with students on flags that express their personal identity.  Though specific to each of them, the flags are worked on by students in small groups, dialoguing with each other, helping, and exchanging ideas.  While students needed to make multiple decisions that compliment transitional goals (on self-identity and what was personal to them that they would choose to represent, how to represent their interests and traits in symbolic form and color, how those symbols relate in the overall flag composition and why), a key insight for the teacher/artist team was in thinking about display and audience. The team initially decided to display the flags through an installation art approach. In talking with the students, they realized that, for the students themselves, the flags actually needed to be displayed with “flagness” in mind, i.e., to be perceived as flags, they needed to be hung like flags.  In this way, the students who made the flags can see how their choices work as such, and more effectively engage in dialogue and critique with other students about the qualities of their flags.  For the teacher and artist, focusing more on the relationship between display and the value and potential of a commonly understood object or symbol (a flag) helped them see how the upcoming display will build the students’ perception of how their flag could be an articulation of themselves in a public dialogue.

For CAPE’s Education Director, this program’s enacting of transition equally engages and impacts CAPE as an organization.  CAPE has been transitioning to a more deliberative and collaborative model of artistic practitioner research, in which teachers, artists, and students deconstruct and reconstruct contexts of teaching, learning and art, forming a kind of continuum in which making art is making research is making learning.  The Creative Works program, under Hilesh’s stewardship, itself transitioned from a more straightforward, teaching artist-in-a-school program, into a layered examination about what is the potential for art as a language and vehicle for student self-conception and actualization within school and outside school. In this way, Creative Works serves as a guide for further developments in CAPE’s practice.  Equally important as we move forward, the reflective and generative acts of discussion and debate and making choices around curating between Jim Duignan, the teachers, artists, and students, and CAPE staff, will play a crucial role in evolving a new public practice around special education and the arts.