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Inclusive Classes Teach Art, Communication and Empathy

December 6th, 2022

A CLS student works on an art project.

Hattie, a fifth grade student at Fulton Elementary School (FES), has always enjoyed art class, and this year she’s finding joy in those classes for a new reason. Once a week, she and her classmates in Mrs. Dobbins’ fifth-grade class go to the Cedar Lane School, where they join CLS students for art.

“It’s really fun,” Hattie says. “We get to do all sorts of art projects and be in class with students who learn differently from the way we do. We get to learn about how they learn, and they teach us a lot.”

Currently offered for two third-grade and two fifth-grade classes at Fulton, the inclusive classes are in many ways like traditional art classes. The curriculum is the same, affording students opportunities to learn about different artists and techniques and explore different mediums.

What really sets the classes apart are the opportunities they provide for students to interact, says Anna Lipinski, who teaches the inclusive art classes.

“For some students, these art classes are the first time that they have really gotten to know someone who has special needs.”

Anna Lipinski works on art skills with FES and CLS students.
Anna Lipinski teaches an art lesson to Fulton and Cedar Lane students.

Lipinkski uses the first couple of classes of the year to prepare FES students for that experience.

“We talk about how we are all different, and how being different is ok. We also talk a lot about how to build friendships and what it means to be a good friend.”

As part of those conversations, Lipinski says, students learn about the importance of being patient with one another, as well as using various ways to communicate.

“We talk about how some of our [CLS] students are non-verbal, and how [they may] use devices and other strategies to communicate.”

When the FES and CLS students first meet, they often are quiet and a bit hesitant to interact. But that doesn’t last long, Lipinski says. “The kids quickly warm up and begin to interact very naturally with one another. The FES students jump in and start finding ways to connect with and help the CLS students.”

The experience is one that benefits CLS and FES students alike.

FES and CLS students work side-by-side in art class.
FES and CLS students work side-by-side in art class.

“The inclusive art classes provide CLS students, who generally are in class with only a handful of others, with a great opportunity to participate in a larger class setting,” Lipinski explains. “It helps them to learn and work on skills like raising their hand and advocating for themselves. The classes also help them to work on building their communication and social skills, as well as their confidence.”

FES students also improve their communication skills by taking part in inclusive classes.

“We learn about how important it is to be patient and give people the time to share their thoughts,” says Landan, who is in fifth grade. “We also learn about how sometimes you have to ask questions in different ways. Like instead of asking ‘which color should we use,’ you might give someone a choice between a couple of options to make it easier for them to respond.”

In addition, FES students learn about the adaptive materials and resources that are available to assist students with special needs.

“Before I took art at Cedar Lane, I didn’t know that there were art supplies designed for kids with disabilities. It’s been fun to see how those materials work and how students use them,” says fifth-grader Chloe.

CLS students engage in art lessons alongside their FES peers.

FES students also get a window into the field of special education, Lipinski says.

“When the FES students come to CLS, they not only interact with CLS students but also get to see the various professionals who work with those students. It helps them see the different jobs that exist in special education, and for some, it gets them thinking about the possibility of working in that field.”

Perhaps most importantly, Lipinski says that the inclusive art classes teach her students to be more open-minded toward, and accepting of people who are different from them.

“We are helping students realize that while some of us may look different, move in a different way, or express ourselves using a different set of tools, we don’t need to be afraid of those differences. We are all people.”

The CLS-FES inclusion program dates back to 2005, when Cedar Lane was moved to the Fulton campus. The program includes both art and music classes. (Note: this year’s inclusive music classes are just getting underway.) Since it began, it is estimated that more than 1,000 FES students have taken part in the program.

Anna Lipinski works on art skills with both FES and CLS  class=