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How art unlocks learning

A learning strategy for an autistic student may be outside the box, but it's effective

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published April 4, 2007, 4:58 p.m.)

Lakeland School teachers have a tough job to do.

For each student with a developmental disability, teachers need to discover a "key" to open the student's "door" to learning and functioning.

Every student is different.

For Nick Bursh, that key is artwork.

Bursh, a 19-year-old secondary-level student with autism, is a prolific artist. He started drawing as a child and always had a knack for it, said his mom, Laura.

Lately he has making cartoon caricatures of his classmates, teachers and even members of the county board.

But during class, Bursh is assigned to use his artistic talents to draw what he has learned in class. His door is creaking open.

"He's so keen. You think he's not aware, but you know, he sees everything and picks up on everything. But he's not going to be very verbal," said Joanne Suchy, Nick's social studies and homeroom teacher. "He's very keen and very intelligent. How to unlock that, that's the million-dollar question."

At this point in his life, Laura is most concerned with her son learning the vocational skills that will get him through life after he graduates from Lakeland School when he is 21.

However, she understands that using artwork in most classes is handling both functions at onceÑvocational and academic.

"It's terrific how we've had to do that," Laura said. "It's just how the system works (at Lakeland).

"At (almost) 20, his social skills are what's going to carry him through the rest of his life. Academics are less important. But any school that is willing to think outside the box and not warehouse him or baby-sit him is terrific."

Because of his autism, Nick will always need a structured situation if he were to find employment after graduation.

"He can't function independently," Suchy said. "He needs supervision and needs structure. But he's got an amazing talent. A gift.

"A lot of people can write, but to be a good writer is a gift.

"A lot of people can sing, but to be a good singer, it takes a gift.

"Nick is a good artist. He has a gift."

Nick has been drawing for teachers since his mid teens, when he was at a school in Mayville, Wis., where he lived in a group home.

He returned to Lakeland this semester (he hadn't been there since age 9), and Suchy latched onto the idea, encouraging teachers in other classes to let Nick use his artwork for his homework.

"Joann (Suchy) really grasps it well," Laura said. "She's looking at it practically as far as a vocation.

"He can push a broom, but what if he can draw for someone? I'd love to see him be able to earn some kind of a living from what he does."

Nick is best at replicating photos or other artwork, but he always adds his own unique perspective to his work. Pictures of men or boys get rosy red cheeks and pictures of women or girls all get red lips. Rarely does Nick draw things that are completely original.

Laura and Nick's teachers hope that more original creativity will come through with his class-work drawings. The drawings show what's in his mind after he hears a classroom lesson.

One of Nick's most creative projects was a series of pictures he drew for another studentÕs story that he read, letting his own imagination flow onto the paper.

"I would love to see him make the leap to make something creative for himself, rather than just copying and reproduction," his mother said. "I think he is capable of lots of stuff. I'd like to see him make a living from his art."

Such a wish is what every one of Nick's teachers strive for. In time, and with many colored pencils, it will come and Nick's door will swing wide open.

"That's the nature of special ed," Suchy said. "You have to find a way to make it work. We have to find a key to unlock it."




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