Rockford Art Buddies display projects at exhibit

GV art education students work with special needs class

By Erin Grogan | 2/22/15 8:37pm

A group of 24 students in a special needs class at Rockford High School created an art show in partnership with four Grand Valley State University art education students. Their pieces are currently on display in the Padnos Student Gallery until Feb 26.

Katalin Zaszlavik, a GVSU art education professor, said this partnership helps her students put teaching theories into practice – often for the first time. In their classes, the students learn about young people with special needs and how to instruct children with learning disabilities.

The students also review pieces constructed from previous years before they begin working with the Rockford Art Buddies.

“I just throw them into the water,” Zaszlavik said. “They don’t have a chance to observe them or get familiar.”

Zaszlavik said the Rockford students range from 19 to 26 years old, but they operate at first or third grade levels. The program is intended to help increase their mental cognition capabilities, communication skills, hand-eye coordination, muscle coordination and sense of play. It also helps them become immersed in a new environment and meet new people.

“Each project is really a cause for each art buddy to bring their own interpretation, their own insight, their own connection,” Zaszlavik said. “We try to make it so that, every project, they can dream, they can relate and they can plan. They bring whatever they have in their own life experience or backpack.”

During the fall semester, the Rockford Art Buddies created their dream houses out of cardboard, paper and other materials. They then continued exploring their artistic capabilities in the winter by creating paintings that they thought would belong inside their dream house. As their final project, they created a memory game made from wooden blocks.

“The challenge of creating something is not that easy, even for every student, every person,” Zaszlavik said. “They get an assignment and have to come up with something, so I think the whole experience stimulates their brain and association skills.”

Ian Throop, the Rockford teacher in charge of the Art Buddies program, said his goal was to help the art buddies make the transition from high school into adult life. The collaboration with GVSU is a way for his students to get out of their typical environment – living at home or in group homes.

“The students have an opportunity to practice different art skills which they love,” Throop said. “The other neat experience for the students from our programs is that they get a little glimpse of what other students their age are doing.”

The partnership between GVSU and Rockford students has existed since 2008. Zaszlavik said she often sees some art buddy students multiple years in a row, but she has a new group of art majors working with them every year.

“There’s a flow in the class when they’re working together,” Zaszlavik said. “I just see their eyes and their heart and they just got so excited. They’re smiling and their brain’s engaging.”

This year, GVSU students Kelsey Clapp, Christina Stephenson, Katherine Dana and Hailey LaBar are working with the Rockford students. They were each assigned six Rockford students. One of the main challenges was adapting lesson plans for the students.

“It was cool to see them explore the materials we gave them,” Clapp, a GVSU senior, said. “When they came in here, some of my students lacked confidence. This helped them build self-esteem.”

The GVSU students had to help take their buddy’s concepts and transform them into their projects, Stephenson said.

“I think it is a fabulous opportunity to practice teaching,” Stephenson said. “We got to meet people with different abilities.”

The show is on display until the open house on Thursday, Feb. 26. The exhibit is open from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. It is free and open to the public.

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