Students were eager to show off the progress they had made on their Mother’s Day cards. Each one was hand-fashioned from scratch in Beth Wiggs’ art class.
Wiggs is the new art teacher at the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf in Wilson. “Each individual is different,” said Wiggs, who began work Feb. 4 after working as Fike High School art teacher.
“Unfortunately, in public school, the classrooms are so large that a lot of time is spent on classroom management, behaviors, particularly staying off the phone, not playing video games on the Chromebooks, staying focused on the assignments,” Wiggs said. “I felt more like I was dealing with behaviors than I was actually teaching. Here, I get to teach and 90 percent of the time I am giving individual instruction. I absolutely love that.”
Wiggs has a associate degree in fine arts from Caldwell Community College and a bachelor’s in art education from Lenoir-Rhyne University. “It is a work in progress for me because I have never taught students who had disabilities before, so I am having to adjust my assignments and my expectations and how to evaluate,” Wiggs said.
Wiggs is learning sign language. For the time being, she has an interpreter in the classroom to help her communicate.
“It has been challenging, but I tend to do good when there is a challenge,” Wiggs said. “The interpreter has been invaluable. I will say something and then look at her and how she signs, so I am trying to teach and learn at the same time.”
“Every student here is an individual student here with their own talents and abilities,” Wiggs said. “Each individual is different. In my life skills class, they have more limitations, learning disabilities and developmental disabilities. So what they may create may not look like anything in particular to you and me, but to them, that is something they created, and you can see that sense of accomplishment and challenge. Some of them are just so extremely talented, and others are limited in their abilities, so that’s where the individual instruction comes in.”
When students may not be that able to learn regular academics, they can come to art class and explore, Wiggs said.
“They can have new experiences with hands-on medium, 3D and 2D, and that’s rewarding to a teacher to put something out there and do a simple demonstration and see what they do to it. They translate it in their own individual way,” Wiggs said.
Wiggs said art is “a scaffold for all of the core subjects.” Some art assignments require students to measure and produce grid drawings.
“Learning how to center something requires measuring, which is a form of math,” Wiggs said. “I want to do a project where they draw with words.” Wiggs has found that academics in the deaf culture are different than in public school.
“It is just a whole culture unto itself,” Wiggs said. “I had no idea that there were so many differences there, so tapping into their culture and making it art-relevant to them has been a challenge, but it has been a great challenge. It has been a very positive thing. I am excited about moving on next near. I will be better prepared and can keep going and learning myself how to communicate with and teach and get the students involved in that creative process.”
Arts, Wiggs said, allow students the opportunity to use a part of the brain that might not be accessed in other academic settings.
“It allows people the freedom to think outside the box,” Wiggs said. “We have so many boxes in our culture. Art is problem-solving. You give an assignment and that’s the problem and then you ask them to solve that problem. If I see a student going off in a different direction but they are creating, they have that freedom. I allow that. Art is not going from point A to B. Art is saying ‘Here’s your goal, and different kids get there in different ways.’”
Wiggs might give students an assignment where she asks them to draw something blue. “OK, it can be a blue flower, It can be blue sky. It can be a blue shirt. It can be anything,” Wiggs said. “That’s the problem and they are free to go at it.”
This year, Wiggs is teaching high school and middle school students, but next year she will have elementary students. “Teaching younger students is a whole different ballgame,” Wiggs said. “They don’t have any fear. It’s fun. They are like ‘Clay, yeah! Colors, yeah! Yellow and black make green? Whoa!’ It’s just fun. They have no fear.”
School for the Deaf director Michele Handley said it’s been about four years since the school had an art teacher. In the hiring process, Handley was impressed with Wiggs’ passion for teaching.
“When she would talk about the art curriculum for the high school, you could really see her knowledge of the theory and the mechanics of art,” Handley said. “The whole time I was listening to her, I was just thinking about how much impact I know she would be able to make.”
Handley said the her experiences with art as an elementary school student have influenced her whole life and she wants the same for ENCSD students. “Every little thing that we do makes their world bigger,” Handley said.