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4/7/2011 in Headline News Bookmark and Share

Elementary school mural project provided powerful inspiration for MES student

The walls of Sunny View Public School in Toronto are now adorned with four inspirational murals thanks to the work of Britt McKee, a master's student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.

Left: Sunny View School

McKee spent much of the last year working with Sunny View elementary students to create the imaginative murals. Sunny View serves the needs of Toronto elementary school students living with physical and developmental disabilities.

McKee says her experience at Sunny View presented her with an entirely new and rewarding challenge. She was hired by the school's parent council to work with students to create four murals representing the values articulated in the school's mission statement – mobility, communication, community and diversity.

"It was a profound learning experience," she says. "Because the students are living with a range of disabilities, they require a variety of adaptive techniques. Some students had issues with mobility, while others were deaf, but regardless each student needed to be an engaged member of the project."

McKee, who had never worked with students with special needs, spent her first month on the project learning from students and teachers about the different assistive technologies they used and how lessons were adapted to suit students' specific needs.

The mural project was part of the school's existing Expressive Arts Program. The project provided an opportunity for students to work on the skills and goals outlined in their individualized education plan, which included cutting art materials with assistive scissors or learning more about art expression.

Right: The communication mural complete with a portrait of a Sunny View student who loves to sing

The communication mural included speech bubbles containing quotes from the students. Students who were working on photography skills used adapted cameras to take pictures of the technologies that help them to communicate, says McKee. One student, who loves to sing, had his photo projected onto the mural so students who were working on tracing skills could draw his silhouette. A papier-mâché microphone and recycled earphones were collaged onto the surface of the mural, allowing the singer, who is visually impaired, to enjoy his portion of the creation.

The community mural incorporated images from non-verbal students' symbol books with traced photos of students participating in some of their favourite activities. The plaster casts of hands at the bottom are all three-dimensional and some of them are modelled on sign language, including the sign for "I love you".

Left: The community mural incorporated symbol book images and plaster casts of students' hands using sign language

For the mobility mural, McKee wanted to incorporate both form and content. Rather than just focusing on representing mobility, she involved students in the physical process of producing art. The blue sky was created using a mixture of shaving cream, glue and dye to create a textured element for sensory students, whereas the bottom section borrowed from the Jackson Pollock technique of action painting, requiring the students to use their whole bodies. The mural's stars, based on similar elements by Henri Matisse, allowed for more detailed activities for the students working on cutting skills.

Right: McKee incorporated form and content in the mobility mural and the bottom section required that students use their whole bodies in a technique called action painting

The diversity mural brought together 36 self-portraits and traced figures of students in the school. Many components of the panels were done independently; students with limited mobility worked on choice-making skills, directing McKee and the expressive arts teacher to the photos and colours of their choosing. One student, who stretches out his tongue to say yes, made sure that his self portrait included his outstretched tongue.

Overall, the project took three months and was completed in stages. At the unveiling earlier this term, what struck McKee was the students' sense of ownership. "They were totally engaged in the whole project," she said, "and their mural was a way of having a voice in the broader community. Some students stood next to the parts of the panels with which they were most intimately involved, others touched the 3D elements with pride."

Right: The diversity mural brought together 36 self-portraits and traced figures of students in the school

McKee's graduate adviser, Faculty of Environmental Studies Professor Sarah Flicker, attended the unveiling and was moved and impressed by what McKee had accomplished. "Britt really embodies what we try to teach at FES – a real engagement with theory, practice and community change. I think this project was really an exciting way for Britt to put all her reading and theorizing into practice and she learned so much."

McKee says it was her "personal challenge to come up with new ways to get students to participate in class." She says the experience also taught her about how important it is to really listen to the students in the class, to what is working and what needs to be revamped in order to reach every single one of her students.

The mural has been mounted in the front entrance to Sunny View Public School and will remain on display indefinitely.

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