Student Workspace: In which I discuss an outside-the-box strategy for engaging a special education student.
I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process. I’m deeply curious about the craft and techniques utilized by creative types; I’m also intrigued by the more practical elements such as organization, collaboration, and time and use of resources.
The artistic process refers to far more than writing a song or producing a painting. It is an apt metaphor for approaching and completing any task, from writing a poem, to building a barn, or repairing a lawn mower. Essentially, it encompasses a wide-ranging set of skills, each crucial for completing work of any kind. At its core, the process is a continuum of planning, problem solving, decision-making, collaboration, reflection, evaluation, and refinement, of potential immense benefit to everyone from individuals to organizations.
As an educator, I view the artistic process as a roadmap to success, a roadmap that is particularly valuable for special education, elementary and middle grades teachers. Extrapolating and analyzing discrete waypoints on the roadmap enables educators to identify areas of difficulty for students and remediate deficiencies.
Case in point: This is my first year hosting an inclusion section in my sixth grade, middle school language arts classroom. One of my students, I’ll call him Devon, shows signs of executive functioning issues. His grades show that he is failing. Looking deeper, he rarely, if ever, finishes his work; he loses most of his material, and his work space, quite literally, looks like the aftermath of a natural disaster. Although executive processing issues are not learning disabilities on their own, students with trouble in this area often have difficulty organizing, planning, prioritizing, starting tasks and staying focused on them to completion.
Daily attempts to get Devon on-task go as follows: Take out your pen. Take out your planner. Open your notebook. Find your homework. Where’s your pack of sticky notes? Pick up your folder off the floor. Please move your coat so I don’t trip on it, and so on. Sometimes he will comply, but mostly not. My co-teacher will usually follow up with the same prompts a few moments later, but she’ll use a more authoritative teacher voice. Take out your pen. Take out your planner. Open your notebook, she commands.
We’ve done this daily dance for many weeks now without success. Imagine pressing the button on a vending machine for a pack of gum, but receiving a candy bar. Does pressing the same button with more force solve the problem? Of course not. We’ve expected a different result from the same (albeit slightly intensified) strategy.
In thinking about Devon’s issues and viewing them through the lens of an artistic/work process, I realized that, due to his executive functioning issues, he has no process at all. He is unable to effectively organize his time or his work space; nor is he able to plan, problem solve, make decisions, reflect, or refine his work. This realization was startling, but it also gave me a glimmer of hope.
I wondered how difficult his life must be in the absence of these critical skills. For me, not being able to complete a task or a project would be downright devastating. I know I sound a bit pedantic here, but forming empathy with students is a critical first step in engaging them more effectively. I can relate to Devon, but I haven’t walked that proverbial mile in his shoes. Devon is only eleven, but at the point I’ve entered his life, he is already resigned to what seems like his fate--another year without academic success.
It is important to remember that each person’s artistic process is unique and deeply personal as it takes into account habits and behaviors, brain function, emotional responses, motivation, psychological functioning, dysfunction, disability, and etc. As such, there are no hard-and-fast-rules for getting things accomplished. But I do have a roadmap for potential success.
To begin helping Devon, I consult my co-teacher and my colleagues and do some cursory research on the internet. They suggest using checklists, a planner, rewards, and deadlines, all of which we’ve tried without success. From what I’ve witnessed in my language arts classroom Devon rarely, if ever, begins work. As late as it is in the school year, I don’t quite know of what he is capable. We have had good conversations about stories and texts, and I sense that he is insightful, even if he hasn’t produced any written work to prove it.
I sensed that we needed a new point of entry. My artistic process begins with a work space that is particularly set up for my needs. I’m a minimalist and I require a space that is clean and free of clutter before I can even begin to work. I like to have my tools within reach, whether that’s a guitar for writing a song at my digital workstation, or a pack of sticky notes for jotting random thoughts, depending on the task at hand. I can’t state enough how immensely important the proper workspace is for my particular process. My work begins and ends in that physical space, and I progress through the entire continuum of planning, problem solving, decision-making, collaboration, reflection, evaluation and refinement upon it.
What would work for Devon in regards to a workspace, I wondered? Could he possibly have needs similar to mine? I do know that cramming him into a tiny desk (he’s a big boy for his age) and doing the daily dance of prompting him to get started is a recipe for disaster. So is the unfortunate necessity of middle school that he carries his supplies in a backpack and uses his locker between class periods. After failing to find the supplies he needs to begin working, he usually makes a mess of his supplies, becomes defiant, or shuts down completely.
Coincidentally (as you’ll see in a moment), I’ve been considering going deskless in my classroom. I never sit at my teacher desk, as I favor my computer workspace which is in a different location. The desk takes up a huge amount of classroom real estate and beyond that it is mostly empty save for a few supplies. Basically, it sits there unused.
And then it hits me! What if I gave my desk to Devon as a permanent, stationary workspace AND stocked the workspace with all of the supplies he would need for language arts? He could leave everything on the desk and not have to transport anything, which has always been a huge problem for him. I could even model an effective setup and provide a framed picture of what the space should look like. The potential here is remarkable: Devon will have a large, well-organized space to work, he will not have to transport and supplies or material between classes or to and from his locker (at least in language arts), and he might get a thrill from sitting at the teacher’s desk (a positive reward). My instincts tell me that this will bypass many of Devon’s usual roadblocks to beginning work. He won’t have to dig through his disastrously packed bookbag to find his notebook or homework folder, nor will my co-teacher or I have to prompt him to do so. This will avoid the usual conflict and defuse any potential opposition.
I return to school tomorrow after a long, holiday weekend with a renewed sense of hope and purpose, thankful to have thought about the artistic process and come up with an outside-the-box strategy to help a student in need. Now that I’ve shared my (slightly obtuse and convoluted) trail of thoughts and my rationale for the strategy, I’ll focus my efforts on tracking and documenting Devon’s progress. And that will be my next article. There will be pictures too!
Jonathan Pickles has taught language arts at the middle and secondary levels for more than twenty years. He has worked in both public and private schools in California, Connecticut, and New York. He is published by N&N Publishing and UPCO. Jonathan currently resides in Dutchess County’s gorgeous Hudson Valley with his wife, daughters, cats, dogs, and one very lucky goldfish.