July 21, 2008

Meeting Special Needs Through Art

By Pamela McLoughlin, New Haven Register, Conn.

Jul. 21--MILFORD -- Early in her career teaching special education, Beverly Levett Gerber once had an unusual mix of students; some had behavior problems, others developmental disabilities and some were gifted.

It was quite the challenge, but she knew how to achieve harmony.

"There were few things we could do together, but we could do the art work together at their rate and level," Gerber said. "When you reach them at their level, they succeed."

Gerber, a professor emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University who still teaches a course each semester, is a nationally recognized star in the fields of both art education and special education, most noted for combining the two seemingly divergent fields. Gerber taught at her alma mater, Southern, for 33 years before retiring from full-time work in 2003.

"Because of the uniqueness of the two fields coming together, I call myself a matchmaker," Gerber, of Milford said with a twinkle in her eye.

Gerber's commitment to the notion that art is a vehicle for special needs students to learn other subjects, to express themselves emotionally and show their level, has led to such groundbreaking progress in the field that colleagues from the National Art Education Association established The Beverly Levett Gerber Lifetime Achievement award to go each year to an outstanding art educator who works with special needs children.

"We agreed she's the single person in the country who best exemplifies our profession," said Peter Geisser, president elect of the NAEA's Special Needs Issues Group in telling how the name was established in Gerber's honor."Beverly has put a face and a voice," to the movement that says art is valuable in teaching special education students.

"It was very moving," Gerber said of having an award named in her honor.

"Art teachers aren't given enough credit for what they do with special education and that's what's important about the award -- the focus on the subject."

Gerber, who was artistic as a child, was an art education major when her son, Larry, now an adult, was born with Down syndrome

Individuals with Down syndrome tend to have a lower than average cognitive ability, often ranging from mild to moderate learning disabilities.

Larry's condition piqued Gerber's interest in special education and so she switched majors, making art her minor.

"I fell in love with special education," she said.

Early on she worked at the former Southbury Training School and loved the challenge and found the kids interesting.

In those years of classroom teaching, "I had no preconceived notions about what they could do," she said. "Kids go through developmental levels with art and the art reflects their developmental level. ... Art works well with kids who have emotional and social problems. It can illustrate their home life."

Geisser said one of the "most beautiful" things about Gerber's message is that she lived it as a mom and that in part drove her fight for children with disabilities. Selling art education as a teaching vehicle to school systems isn't easy, Geisser said.

"Sometimes we need to go deeper in our education instead of higher," he said.

She co-edited the textbook "Reaching and Teaching Students with Special Needs through Art" -- a book of ideas by experts in the field -- and it's been such a hit the book is in its second printing. She's working on a similar book focused on kids with autism spectrum disorders.

Gerber's focus is on openended art, rather than projects where everyone makes the same item according to specific directions -- such as kids cutting out patterned reindeer antlers from contruction paper.

Sheandhusband,StuartGerber, also a professor emeritus at SCSU, met decades ago while both were working in a special education school -- she was a teacher and he a psychologist. The couple's daughter, Ellen Gerber, is a special education preschool teacher in Trumbull and, according to her mom, ultra talented. Ellen Gerber said sometimes she's astounded at how close her philosophies are to her mother's.

"I think she's amazing," Ellen Gerber said of her mom's accomplishments. "She's making so many great strides in linking what has to be linked."

Most recently, the Gerbers established a Beverly Levett Gerber fellowship that will help offset tuition for a graduate student who combines special education and art in their studies.

"She's done phenomenal work in the field," said Megan Rock, vice president for institutional advancement at Southern.

Beverly Gerber created the first special needs Web site to combine special education and art education resources.

Adrienne Hunter, NAEA Special Needs Issue Group Educator of the Year, said Beverly Gerber inspires all those around her.

"She works so selflessly and inspires all the rest of us to push ourselves," Hunter said.


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