A Reno nonprofit brings art lessons to special ed students through the pandemic

A demo piece of art Lorna Denton made for her students

When social distancing orders led to school closures, teachers found themselves suddenly redesigning their classes to meet online. For special education teachers, there was a whole additional level of logistical challenge. Because of stipulations in a watertight privacy law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, special ed teachers cannot connect with their students online in groups. No all-class Zoom chats. No Google meet. No interaction among peers. In order to teach remotely, special ed teachers have to give each child an individual lesson. In March, their workloads went through the roof.

Arts for All Nevada, a Reno-based nonprofit that brings art education to children and adults with disabilities, stepped in to try to help.

Lorna Denton is a Reno artist who has worked with the group as a visiting art teacher for 15 years. In both mainstream and special ed classrooms, she teaches art fundamentals—line, shape, and color—and age-appropriate morsels of art history. (One example: Matisse’s impressionist brushstrokes are good to examine before a lesson on texture.)

For students with special needs, Denton breaks down each lesson into tightly defined steps and gives each student extra one-on-one time. “I want them to succeed,” she said. “And I want them to be proud of what they’re doing.”

It’s not just the feeling of success that motivates Denton to keep prioritising art education. Experts cite a list of benefits that art can bring to children with disabilities, among them self-esteem, improved motor skills, and better project management. And for some, a pencil, crayon or marker can provide a means for communication that’s otherwise unavailable.

Art for All Executive Director Jackie Clay told a story about a child who is non-verbal. In art class, he drew a piece of fruit. “It was the first time he made a picture,” Clay said. “His eyes lit up. He’d never been able to communicate with schoolmates before.”

A demo piece of artwork Lorna Denton made for her students

With schools closed, Denton thought about how she could best teach art to special ed students remotely—without that one-on-one time.

“Suddenly we have a pandemic, and we’re an organization that puts teachers in classrooms, and we can’t get there,” said Clay. She sought out foundation funding that could be distributed without the usual months-long wait time. “The John Ben Snow Memorial Trust created a special grant category for COVID-19 response,” Clay said. “We asked for $1,500. We got it quickly.”

With this funding, Denton began making art instruction videos for Washoe County School District’s Special Education department.

“What I tried to do was the basic four materials—water based markers, paper, glue, wax crayons—so it would be something that everybody would have,” Denton said.

In one video, she introduces the work of Romero Britto, a contemporary Brazilian Pop artist, then reads a storybook, The Rainbow Fish. She talks about how patterns and colors work as she shows kids how to make a Pop-inspired fish collage using fluorescent price stickers and blue painter’s tape.

While the video lessons are thorough and inviting, Denton would rather be in the classroom. She misses doing her demonstrations in person, leading students through a thought process, letting them figure things out instead of handing them the answers. “I miss the interaction,” she said. “It’s a lot more difficult not being able to see them. … It’s very hard to give the individual feedback, get them to talk to us about what they’ve done.”

Despite the limitations of teaching with videos, Denton said she’s working on more of them. “I’d rather we embrace this than not doing anything,” she said. She figures they’ll be a good holdover until she can get back into classrooms. And she hopes they’ll be helpful to parents looking for art activities.

“I want the kids to have access to art,” Denton said. “It gives them a real sense of ownership that they produced this. Whatever little bits of help I can give.”

To learn more about Arts for All Nevada, visit the group’s website.


Kris Vagner is an arts and culture writer who’s earned awards for critical writing, entertainment writing, feature writing, and—somehow—sports writing. She’s also the editor of Double Scoop, Nevada’s visual arts news site. More at www.krisvagner.com. Support her work in The Ally.