Professional Development

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Visual-Spatial Possibilities in Afterschool Spaces

As a young person, I didn't feel smart in school. Each day I struggled with auditory-sequential instruction in the classroom—unable to articulate the internal frustrations that created.

Like so many students with similar struggles, I believed I was "stupid." During those formative years, this belief dismantled my self-image and damaged my self-esteem beyond measure. School was a place that I came to dread; a place where I suffered in silence for many years.

Fast forward to the future: I became a teacher.

Leading a classroom of diverse learners is actually how I came to understand myself as a visual-spatial learner who thought primarily in pictures and who learned holistically, instead of sequentially (or in parts.) It was an aha moment, for sure; a series of them actually. This knowledge informed the way I delivered instruction, as I sought ways to accommodate individual learning styles and ensure that no student in my classroom ever felt inadequate, as I once did. More importantly, this knowledge helped to restore the damaged self-image I had lived with for so long. Inspired, I set out to heal the young person I once was by serving students who were just like him—I saw them everywhere.

Creativity is key for a visual-spatial learner. Educators can find ways to accompany any auditory instruction with some visual aid that a student can see with their eyes, or manipulate with their hands. Additionally, when possible, instead of being tasked to write out their work, teachers can allow these students to represent their learning in visual and creative ways.

Although the traditional school environment is designed with the auditory-sequential learner in mind, afterschool experiences—often held in those same settings—can offer access to new and exciting realms of possibility for the visual-spatial learner. I discovered this firsthand when I began to develop and facilitate programming for the out-of-school time space, nearly two decades ago. This discovery allowed me to thrive and also to find ways to demonstrate how others could do the same.

One example of this stands out: With funding from the Atlantic City Education Foundation in 2015, I was able to create the curriculum for Res/ili/ent, which was presented to the youth of Atlantic City, New Jersey, as a summer initiative that combined arts and humanities with the social sciences. I designed this interactive learning experience as a springboard for ideas that would inspire high school youth to go out—equipped with a camera and notebook—and look for examples of resilience that existed in their own neighborhoods, from the battered buildings still standing after a devastating hurricane to the indomitable human spirit of immigrant citizens pushing against and rising above numerous obstacles to actualize their dreams.

On Saturday afternoons, the students would join me on discovery walks in their community, capturing images and writing entries about what they saw. The only directive I gave them was to "look at everything, then try to discover something beyond it."

Afterward, we would gather as the teens discussed the examples of resilience that they had seen beneath the surface of normal observation. Oftentimes, this act of noticing sparked an emotional response in the young observers—a sense of I recognize an aspect of myself in that structure, that artifact or in that stranger; I see how we are alike. Before the close of every meeting, I encouraged the students to dive deeper into the artistic connections that could be made between what they saw, what they felt and how it spoke to resilience.

Quite unexpectedly, this summer learning experience culminated in a student art installation at The Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University, where the work of these creative and thoughtful young people was showcased to the public. After hearing about the Res/ili/ent project, the museum's director generously donated an empty studio space and told me to create something there. Needless to say, my visual-spatial wheels began spinning in overdrive. Together, the students and I envisioned and co-designed a space where people could go to be inspired and see their own inner resilience through free-verse writings and visual artifacts curated by the students.

The Res/ili/ent project exemplified the transformative power and inherent possibility of encouraging youth to experience learning in nontraditional—visual and creative—ways. As an advocate for finding new ways to deliver learning content, I encourage everyone to embrace their individual learning style like a superpower. Once you fully understand your own, you will be able to use it for good and thrive.

As educators, we have a responsibility to mentor and mold the superpowers of the youth we serve. The future of the planet depends on it.

Devan Blackwell, M.A., an Executive Member of NAA, a graduate of The New School for Social Research, can usually be found in pursuit of possibilities—for learning and learning spaces. Whether a role has required him to act as a generalist or a specialist, he always serves as an enthusiast for the potential of young people to self-actualize and thrive, both in learning and in life. You can join Devan on his pursuit of possibilities via

Photo courtesy of Devan Blackwell pictured with most of the Res/ili/ent AC Art Squad.