Quick workshop postmortem

I just taught a cartooning workshop at a school for kids with learning difficulties in Assen. Since I’m going to do the same at another school like that as part of the same project in a week, and three of my studio-mates also do the workshop thing or have been approached to do so, I’m going to put down a few notes on my experiences today.

The project is part of an anti-racism, anti-discrimination education program to use various forms of cultural expression to spread the idea of equality. I have always had my doubts about the effectiveness of such programs, but if they allow me to teach my trade and get paid (rather well) for it, I have no problem putting those doubts aside and doing what I can.

Today’s class was my first within the project, and just happened to be one of two schools for kids with learning difficulties that booked me. They weren’t kidding about the learning difficulties part: most of the students, who are fourteen or fifteen, function at the level of a child of nine or ten. The class’s teacher, who was present throughout the workshop and helped me through several difficult moments, told me in advance to lower expectations, and then lower them more.

The tricky aspect of this is that I’m trying to teach two things at a time, one of which is too abstract for this particular group, and the other of which they come to with neither ability nor confidence. The other tricky thing is that the organisation sponsoring the work wants to exhibit the output of the various groups of students in one for or another. I had to get some results. This proved very difficult, but, to the surprise of the teacher, I did at least get a finished comic strip out of each of them. One problem is that few of the finished comics are on-topic, and I’m going to have to have a word with the organisers about expectations.

Here’s what I learned from teaching this group:

— I talk too fast and am too animated when teaching. This distracts students at all levels somewhat (I’m aware of this), but it distracts groups like this one too much. I must teach and force myself to stay in one place.

— I should engage students by asking them questions, rather than just talking. Again, doing this will improve the effectiveness of the class at all levels, but it will help kids with learning difficulties more than it will help the bright students at Atheneum level. One problem is that it’s harder to get answers out of this group than it is with others, so I have to teach myself to get pushy, repeat my questions and probe students individually. It would help if I could memorise their names more quickly.

— I had already taught myself in my other classes to pay attention to the quieter kids; they may be happily drawing away and not need any extra help, or they may be completely stuck and too shy to ask. This goes double if the quiet kid is autistic and the only way to tell if she’s paying attention at all is to get her to repeat the last thing I said back to me.

— More than in any other group, topic drift is unallowable. By all means, let them talk a bit while working, but cut them off if the chatter strays from the work for too long. I’m not a bossy sort of teacher, but with these kids, I had to be.

— What I sometimes do as a last resort for kids who can’t get started is to come up with detailed storyline suggestions and ask (but really tell) them to draw that. With these students, I did that for over half of the class, and arguably should have done it for another two or three of them. When I told my mother I’d be teaching kids with learning difficulties, she told me that they might turn out to be gifted with creativity to compensate. Not in the real world, Mom. There were one or two kids with normal drawing ability for their age, but they were the exception.

— It is all right to cut the class short if the kids’ attention span demands it. Teacher told me so:)

The above may sound harsh; some of it may turn out to be wrong when I teach the second group of kids with learning disabilities. I did enjoy teaching these and would come back to the school in question if asked; it’s just that the work is very difficult and exhausting, and if the regular teachers come away from it wondering what will become of these kids like I did, it must be very discouraging. In any case, let’s see if I do better next time.