By Christopher Collier, guest writer of the MAS
Self-expression through art is everything at Woodfield Academy, a private school in Macon, Georgia for students with learning differences. For the better part of a decade, the students of Woodfield haven’t had to search far and wide for outlets conducive to expression. In fact, the closest outlet is just half a mile down the road at the Museum of Arts and Sciences.
Each year, the museum hosts the Festival of Trees, an annual exhibition that features over 40 Christmas trees decorated by members of the community. Woodfield students in second through eighth grade began participating in 2018, first designing a tree around their wishes for the world. Some wished for world peace, and some wished they could save animals from environmental harm. Some simply wished that people would get along and respect each other. Whatever the wish, the museum ensured that it was voiced loud and clear.
But opportunities for self-expression at the museum have extended beyond the festival. For the past five years, Woodfield has held annual Mother’s Day celebrations in the Elam Alexander Children’s Gallery at the museum. Woodfield students in second through 12th grade celebrated their mothers in 2018, the Year of the Bird, by filling the exhibition with various drawings of birds from the community. Amy Alderman, an elementary school teacher at Woodfield, believes in the power of creativity and self-expression.
“So many children with special needs are really good artists,” Alderman said. “They don’t necessarily get the value and the appreciation they deserve in normal academics. When they draw, they do incredible things. Their drawing gives them a way of speaking that people understand. Maybe they don’t communicate very well verbally, but their drawing shows people what they really want to say and what they’re doing.”
Jennifer Bridges, a middle school teacher at Woodfield, is encouraged by her students’ involvement in the Festival of Trees.
“My students love participating in the Festival of Trees,” Bridges said. “When they are able to see their artwork hung in a public venue, that other people are able to see, it builds their self-esteem and creativity.”
These experiences and their impact are the result of a relationship that has gradually constructed itself over the last three decades. A life-long educator and veteran field trip planner, Alderman’s relationship with the MAS spans over 30 years. She taught at Mattie Wells Elementary School prior to joining Woodfield eight years ago. Many of her years at Mattie Wells were spent planning field trips for her students. In between semesters, she would work at the museum’s summer camps to tailor and shape her field trips towards the educational needs of her students.
“I would know exactly what we had, where it was located, [and] the best time of year for us to see it,” Alderman said. “It was a nice blend of work in two areas. I love the museum, but it also gave me passionate work to be doing something the kids love to do.”
Decades later, the museum remains Alderman’s go-to for customized field trips that fit the specific needs of her many students.
“If you go over with a specific idea and say, I really need us to work on—they [MAS] will work on it either within the classroom or Science on a Sphere® or in the Planetarium,” Alderman said. “Something usually can be done.”
The MAS has been able to successfully supplement Woodfield’s diverse curriculum, projecting planetarium shows about Greek mythology and enabling students to produce clay fossils in a classroom setting that’s ideal for hands-on instruction. Alderman said that the MAS’ educational tools have real-world applications.
“We were studying weather,” Alderman said. “They went over to Science on a Sphere®, and they tailored every bit of it around the weather and the storms. This time of year, the one thing about seeing weather, you usually get to see hurricanes growing and building somewhere near us. The kids hear us [adults] talking about the weather and they hear us talking about the hurricanes, but [with] this, you get to actually see it from above the Earth. You can see that little eye [of the hurricane] and everything.”
Carol Yelverton, transition and life skills teacher at Woodfield, said that the MAS is equipped with various tools to meet the needs of a variety of learners.
“MAS is a great way to accent your classroom studies with great visuals, tactile, kinesthetic, and auditory learning,” Yelverton said.
Yelverton said that she believes every child was created with the potential to bring something unique to the world.
“I want to guide them in developing that potential,” Yelverton said. “I have a passion to send out students who are equipped to conquer the world. I want the world to learn to respect, accept, and embrace the differences of these individuals and learn that our differences make life exciting.”
As the MAS and Woodfield’s relationship continues to grow with time, it’s clear that the two share more than just the same city. The two share more; they share an unwavering commitment to an education that embraces all types of learners, no matter their differences.