At first glance, the students in Jonathan Hale’s class at Sprucewood Elementary look like they are engaged in their art lessons just like any other fourth-or fifth-graders. They are gathered around their projects, weaving fabric on a loom, painting creations they’ve made and working with different materials but the true masterpiece they are building isn’t made out of acrylic and cotton. Their true achievement is working with each other.
Hale’s students are participating in a “peer partner” research program that pairs students from a general-education class at Sprucewood Elementary with special-education students from Jordan Valley, Canyons’ school for students with severe disabilities. The disabilities include communication impairments, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injuries.
Together, the students participate in the same art projects, each learning important lessons and growing in ways that are achievable only by peer interaction, Hale says. He presented his findings last summer at the 2018 Kennedy Center VSA Intersections: Arts and Special Education Conference and has since seen even more growth in his students.
“It is really cool to see how they find ways to help each other and that they are OK if their job is being a peer partner, and they are OK with adapting (the project) and turning it into something else that works for everyone,” Hale says. “It’s true collaboration. If you go into another art room, the focus might be different. I like that community feel, when kids are thinking about people other than themselves, so it’s more about a process and the learning that occurs than a final product, per se.”
Hale, who is a Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program visual arts specialist at both Sprucewood and Jordan Valley, joined with a research team from the University of Utah to study how the students learn differently from each other, versus learning only from adults.
Their research focuses on how peer partnerships can be used to help students succeed. An art setting provides more latitude and flexibility for accommodating a variety of cognitive levels, but after seeing the monumental growth in students while learning art techniques in a peer setting, Hale says peer partners could be beneficial in other class settings, as well. Since presenting their findings at the Kennedy Center conference, Hale says his team’s peer partnering model has been adapted in Art Access programs in Washington, D.C. and California.
“There is a connection between the students that is almost magical,” Sprucewood Elementary Principal Lori Reynolds said after observing Hale’s class. “It is an absolute joy to see how the arts can bring our students closer together, and is a perfect way to bridge the divide and benefit both groups.”
Hale and his research team, which includes Kelby McIntyre Martinez, Assistant Dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Utah, and professors Kristen Paul and John McDonnell, started the program at Sprucewood in 2016 with only three classes. This year, the students from Jordan Valley came to Sprucewood 12 times to work with their peers. Over the course of the year Sprucewood students opened their circles of acceptance and assumed leadership roles they might not have normally experienced.
The Jordan Valley students also progressed. Students who had difficulty sitting for more than a few minutes during adult instruction could sit independently with a peer partner for 45 minutes and engage in periodic self-initiated interactions, such as raising their hands and participating vocally even if they were non-verbal. That is a huge accomplishment, Hale says.
As Hale’s team continues to research students’ interactions, they have plans to expand the peer partner program to include dance and music this coming school year, to see how kids benefit.
“Some people might say students with severe disabilities don’t fit in a program like ours,” Hale said. “I like to acknowledge growth in lots of different ways. I truly believe this is a way of accessing different abilities, and a way to provide social opportunities for students and let them rise to the occasion.”