At Ridge Ruxton School, in Towson, art teacher Patricia Lane-Forster works with students who are severely disabled intellectually and physically.
But Foster believes that all of her students can, with the right assistance, make art independently and benefit from making it. It just takes a little adaptation, something Lane-Forster has experienced, as she was born missing the lower part of her left arm.
To recognize her work as an art educator for students with special needs, the National Art Education Association honored Lane-Forster in New York City March 3 by giving her its Peter J. Geisser Special Needs Art Educator of the Year Award, which it presented in conjunction with special education advocacy groups, The Council for Exceptional Children and VSA.
The National Art Education Association is a nonprofit that represents arts and art museum educators. The Geisser award recognizes one educator each year who has "brought distinction to the profession of special-needs art education through an exceptional and continuous record of achievement," according to the organization's website.
Lane-Forster was one of six people nationally who was nominated for the award, according to Kathy Duse, the association's convention and programs manager. Duse said she couldn't speak to why Lane-Forster was chosen, as entries are judged by other members of the association.
Ridge Ruxton, which is part of the Baltimore County Public Schools system, is a regional school that serves students with severe disabilities ages 5-21. In Lane-Forster's three years at the school she has taught students with a variety of abilities, she said.
Lane-Forster finds ways to adapt art projects so that students can complete the work independently, regardless of their ability, she said
She has, for example, developed methods through which nonverbal students can communicate color, texture and style preferences. For students with limited mobility, she incorporates robotics into the art class so that every student can make a mark on a paper or canvas at the touch of a button.
Lane-Forster is a model for "bringing out the greatest potential and abilities" of the schools' students, said Ed Bennett, Ridge Ruxton's principal. "She's dedicated to finding innovative ways that will allow children to express themselves through art."
A lot of that work involves finding ways to adapt art projects to suit her students' abilities. For example, while some students can use paint brushes, others at Ridge Ruxton are limited in their mobility, and are perhaps able only to press a button.
For such students, Lane-Forster has found a unique solution. She employs an automatic drum pedal which, when a paint brush or marker is added to its end, becomes a machine that students can use to make marks on paper or canvas at the touch of a button.
Lane-Forster uses a variety of other methods to help students create art, including special scissors and tools that can be used by amputees. Students are presented with a variety of options when making a work, from color choices to different styles of painting. Some students can make a choice by pointing or hitting a button, a process that gives nonverbal students a voice in their work.
Lane-Forster also employs technology, such as iPads, which are used throughout the school, to communicate. During a March 6 art class at the school, she asked a student what color of paint he wanted to use to stamp flowers on a scene.
"Red," the student responded by hitting a button on an iPad. By the end of class, the student's landscape painting was filled with red flowers.
Background in education
Lane-Forster grew up near Baldwin, in Northern Baltimore County, and was inspired to pursue a career in education by her late father, Dennis Lane, a long-time business teacher in Baltimore County Public Schools.
Because she was born without the lower portion of her left arm, she learned to drive and ride a bike just a little differently than others, she said.
Lane-Forster has taught art in county public schools for 15 years. Before coming to Ridge Ruxton she spent 7 years at Parkville High School, and before that was at Dundalk Middle School. At those schools she also interacted with students with special needs and over time became fond of working with those students, she said, adding that she also began working at a camp for students with autism in the summer.
Three years ago, when she learned that Ridge Ruxton's art teacher was about to retire, she wrote to Bennett and county school officials asking for the job.
"It's been a phenomenal experience to work with these guys," she said.
Lane-Forster also mentors college students, through which she helps other art instructors learn how to work with students with special needs.
Her students' work is currently on display in the mezzanine of the Towson branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, in downtown Towson.