I don’t like to do painting,
but trying it made me like it.
Making pictures with my body
Loud blue like a big circle.
Red like a bouncy ball
thrown to the sky like a starburst.
Scratching the air and jumping,
Expressing ourselves.

Last week, we led a residency at Minnesota State Academy for the Blind (MSAB), a statewide public school in Fairbault that has provided pre-K-12 educational services to blind and visually impaired students since 1866.Nope, that’s not a typo; MSAB really has been around for nearly 150 years!

This summer residency was more intensive than the average Upstream Arts residency. Rather than meeting with students over the course of a 12-week semester, we had only a short 5 days with them. Furthermore, instead of working with students based on grade levels, we worked with three different groups that each included a broad range of ages – 5-12, 5-14, and 14-18. The beautiful poem above was written collaboratively by participants in that first group, ages 5-12.

On our first day at MSAB, we met a teenage participant named Adam*. He didn’t know most of the other participants and was very quiet as we started the session. Our Teaching Artists led the group through interactive introductions and a rhythm exercise. Adam stayed quiet, shaking his head to opt out of each activity. The Teaching Artists didn’t pressure him to participate, but they did offer the invitation each time.

Eventually the group transitioned into a scenario game, in which two people have a conversation using only the words “Yes,” “No,” and “I don’t know.” The limited language choices force participants to convey intentions, meaning, and feelings in other ways, e.g. through inflections in the voice, body language, or touch. One of our Teaching Artists turned to Adam and asked, “Would you like to take a turn?” Adam immediately responded, “No” – one of the three permitted responses. To the great delight of everyone in the room, his whole demeanor lit up as he suddenly realized he was in the game. The Teaching Artist played along, and the two of them proceeded to have a full “Yes, No, I don’t know” conversation. After the game had finished, the Teaching Artists asked participants what they had noticed and Adam spoke right up. “It’s the tone of your voice that makes the difference,” he said. (He also gave the game a new name – “Yes, No, Pizza!” – but that’s another story for another time.)

Adam’s teacher later told us that Adam hadn’t spoken a word to anyone all morning, until that breakthrough in the game. Over the course of the week, Adam became an active participant in the residency; by the end, he even volunteered to help our Teaching Artists lead an activity. We see it again and again in our programs; the safe space and interactive, multidisciplinary approach to learning allow students like Adam to flourish.

*The student’s name has been changed for privacy.

art i. facts are stories, poems, artwork, and other behind-the-scenes highlights from Upstream Arts programs, connecting you directly to the work that we do.