The Art of Teaching Special Needs Students

At Gaithersburg High School, a simple approach brought unexpected results

 Husna Quader works on a painting with teacher Steve Walker and holds her winning artwork (below). Photo by Skip Brown

The painting—a rendition of a Japanese cherry blossom branch—was stunning, and the judge at Gaithersburg High School’s (GHS) art show in April thought so, too, awarding the piece top prize among 30 entries. The artist, 18-year-old Husna Quader, doesn’t speak and has limited motor skills. The judge had no idea she was disabled.

Husna’s art teacher, Steve Walker, had been teaching photography at GHS since 1999 (he is also married to Bethesda Magazine’s Design Director Maire McArdle). When the school’s longtime painting teacher retired last year, Walker, 63 and an artist, was asked to take on the class.

On his first day, Walker walked into Room 1077 to greet 31 students. About a dozen spoke only Spanish, and four, who didn’t speak at all, were accompanied by two paraeducators. Husna and classmates David Sanders, Brian Penda and Jasmine Richardson were participants in Montgomery County’s School/Community-Based Program (SCB), which serves students with moderate, severe or profound disabilities.

“I’m watching these kids and I see they can’t draw or paint,” Walker says. “I’m thinking, what am I going to do?” On his second day, Walker tore up the syllabus he created.

Walker saw that the special needs students could stamp, remembering that his 2-year-old grandson had felt markers with sponge tips called Do-A-Dots. “So I thought, OK, we got something,” Walker says. He also noticed that he could turn the paper for the students so they would not stamp in one place, guiding their color selection to improve the composition.

Throughout the semester, Walker introduced other techniques such as wrapping tissue around the top of an empty can and using it to pick up paint, and dropping marbles into paint and then rolling them on paper inside the lid of a box. Walker consulted books and YouTube videos for ideas. “I figured if they could daub, they could do potato prints,” he says. “Just cut them in half, dip in paint and stamp.” The students became artists.

One spring day this year, the SCB students were using miniature cars with thick treads on their wheels to roll paint on paper. David rocked back and forth while he rolled his car through the paint. Jasmine looked into the distance as her toy truck made yellow patterns on the paper.

“Mr. W observes what each child likes so he can see what they can do,” says Venita Joseph, one of the paraeducators assigned to the students. “He adapts to the children’s needs.”

To create her award-winning painting, Husna pointed a straw at a blob of India ink on paper and blew, causing the ink to radiate and make a black spidery branch. Then she used a dauber in three shades of pink paint to create the abstract flowers.

Photo by Steve Walker

Catherine Nemeth, a special education teacher and Husna’s case manager, says that Husna often does not want to even raise her hand in school. Says Nemeth: “It was phenomenal when she won the award because Mr. Walker found a way to pull it out of her—to use the painting tools.”

Walker says that teaching disabled students can be difficult because you don’t always know if you’re reaching them. Still, he says the work can be “extremely satisfying.” On the last day of class this spring, Walker was taking roll when Husna rose from her table and stood next to him, slipping her arm inside his and squeezing it lightly.

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