The Rhode Island School for the Deaf

By London, Peter; Geisser, Peter | School Arts, February 1990 | Go to article overview

The Rhode Island School for the Deaf


London, Peter, Geisser, Peter, School Arts


Approaching the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, one immediately senses that there is something strikingly different about this school. It is beautiful, in no small measure due to the forty-foot murals which hang as a frieze on the front of the school inviting visitors in for even richer aesthetic rewards. Upon entering, one is greeted by a 10' x 40' (3.5 m x 12 m) mosaic tile mural; an idyllic landscape with children at play, made by the children with their art teacher, Peter Geisser. Around the borders are anchors, symbols of hope, and hands displaying the manual alphabet. We are clearly in a special place where art is one of the main means of communication--and celebration. Inscribed on one tile is a poem written by Mr. Geisser. In part it reads:

Millions of tiny fragments

of broken dreams are brought together

in a place of learning.

And because men and women take

the time

Silent children sing and hear the

music

Which sets souls dancing ...

We are about to enter an extraordinary world, where special learners, with very special, dedicated teachers have created a rewarding, even joyous, learning environment. Peter Blackwell, the principal of the school states, "The atmosphere of this school with the constant addition of the products of art experiences ... gives testimony that I do not regard art as a luxury-a program to be encouraged when time and money are plentiful or merely for those interested in or needing an alternative to an academic course. Murals on the walls are not only art experience, but excursions into knowledge of Babylon and other civilizations; of mythology ... the knowledge which connects us with the world which is and which was, and the endless world of possibility."

More than thirty murals grace the hallways, classrooms and lounges of the school, and are placed there not only as handsome decorations but to serve as vital aids to learning. Peter Geisser explains that deaf children do not have the luxury of hearing about Michelangelo, for instance, but if the environment is rich in images, the learning approximates the incidental learning that constantly surrounds hearing children. These large murals are collaborations between student and teacher and employ the old master-apprentice philosophy of art teaching. Some students gesso the panels, others transfer the design from cartoons onto the panels, still others paint in large areas, leaving the finishing details to the "master" teacher.

Background and goals

The Rhode Island School for the Deaf was founded over a century ago to serve the hearing-impaired of Rhode Island. Under the leadership of Dr. Peter Blackwell, the school has developed a model curriculum K-12 which is used around the world. Art has always been a part of programs for deaf students, but the art program at the Rhode island School for the Deaf has developed into a curriculum which has received its own international recognition. In 1973, Peter Geisser was hired as art teacher and is still the only specified art teacher in the school.

Mr. Geisser points nut that many art programs exist for their own sake, but in a special education population such as this, no program exists for its own sake. Art, he believes, is a language used to help teach the learning of all other languages and subjects. The art program serves all other disciplines at the School for the Deaf, as well as having its own distinctive content and method. Language being closely related to the visual perception of deaf children, the developmental levels in art are closely tied to students' linguistic competencies. Children who have not acquired relative clause structure in their language, for example, do not draw perspective nor perceive it.

Curriculum and interdisciplinary programming

The curriculum at the school is conceptually based and the concepts of a given level are couched in a series of units. …

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