An art class with a special touch
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com November 15, 2013 9:54PM
Tom Downs, a volunteer from Frankfort's Home Depot gives a high five to Emma Gorman after they finished making an airplane together at Pioneer Grove School.| Susan DeMar Lafferty~Sun-Times Media.
Updated: December 18, 2013 6:13AM
When students at Pioneer Grove Educational Center in Frankfort traveled to “infinity and beyond” earlier this fall, it was through an art class that is out of this world.
In rocket ships created out of cardboard tubes and tinfoil, these multi-needs students blasted off into space, out of their comfort zones and into a world far beyond the familiar walls of their school, which is in Lincoln-Way Area Special Education District 843.
“These children are hugely talented and deserve to find joy in creative expression. I feel we try to build self-esteem, self-efficacy and awareness of themselves in the world in which they live,” art teacher Pam Berezin said.
Her art class is dynamic and multisensory — she puts Jell-O in her paints so her students can smell it, as well as see it and touch it.
Although most of her students are confined to wheelchairs, she wants them to experience as much as possible and strives to engage them in a variety of creative ways, which pushes her to think outside the crayon box.
Here, milk bottles become telescopes, yarn is weaved into constellations, and paint is splattered across the universe in a salad spinner.
“They inspire me to seek out ways to bring opportunities to their world,” she said. “I learn every single day I work with them.”
Their artwork typically lines the walls of halls at Pioneer Grove, but what it takes to make it can be as challenging as it is creative. Berezin is able to modify an activity to meet the individual needs of nearly 50 students.
To make them all astronauts, she took their photos, and they attached them to ready-made space suits. Students designed their own flags to carry on their space mission.
From their wheelchairs, they traveled to giant galaxies they designed by swinging paint from a homemade pendulum over large sheets of dark paper. They were introduced to Greek mythology through the constellations they created with yarn and pins on Styrofoam.
Students picked their colors and patterns because giving them choices empowers them.
“It’s important that they feel their voice is heard,” Berezin said.
The space mission became part of their other classes as well.
Each class designed its own planet out of papier-mache and other recycled products, such as coffee grounds for the surface of Mercury. On a smaller scale, students made their own planets out of paper plates, dipping the tires of a toy truck into paint to re-create Jupiter’s surface. Each will compile his or her planets into a book.
The 3-year-old art program at Pioneer Grove started with nothing, Berezin said, and thrives today because of donations of materials and recyclables from families. Her room is cluttered with plastic milk bottles, egg cartons, paper plates, cardboard tubes, yarn, coffee, rice and flour.
“For our galaxy this fall, we needed 50 rockets and 150 rocket boosters, made from donated corrugated boxes, yarn, tin foil and toilet paper rolls. That is a lot of stuff,” she said. But it allowed the young astronauts to experience different media.
Art is only a part of what goes on in Berezin’s room. She also does interactive, multisensory storytelling. There are books they can check out with their own library cards.
“I feel blessed to be able to share my love for art, sign language and interactive storytelling with all of the students in this building,” she said. “It’s all about the experience.”
On the final leg of the space journey, volunteers from Frankfort’s Home Depot stepped in to assist students in making airplanes for their trip “home.”
“Many kids have never picked up a hammer before,” Berezin said. “They would not go to Home Depot for a kids workshop.”
So she brought Home Depot’s workshop to her classroom, where students glued, hammered, painted and topped their planes off with glitter.
“This is awesome. It’s so rewarding,” said Tom Downs, one of the three Home Depot volunteers. “You can see when they get what they are doing. They just light up.”
Before they even returned to Earth, Berezin was working on the next art adventure — taking students on a trip around the world.
Having learned about the constellations and Greek mythology, their first logical stop would be Greece. Berezin already has their passports ready.