Erin’s Unified Art class shows off their masterpieces

Thousands of students every year take part in art classes, learning techniques in all art forms from painting to clay, creating masterpieces to showcase to their family and friends. Students in the Unified Art course at Maple Grove Senior High School have a similar experience but with a twist – in addition to building skills in art, students with and without disabilities work together to use art as a vehicle to learn about community, collaboration, belonging and equity.

The visionary behind the Unified Art class is Erin Boe, an art educator and children’s book illustrator. Erin began teaching four years ago after completing her master’s in education at Augsburg University, where she tailored her degree to focus on disability and inclusion. Disability awareness and advocacy was not a new concept to Erin: Prior to her education career, Erin worked with young adults with autism and neurodivergence at Minnesota Independence College and Community. “I feel like I’ve found my calling with Unified Art. Just the joy that I feel every day in this profession, I really found where I need to be,” Erin says. “This is a career built for my personality, and it has absolutely become my passion project.”

Students working together on their pieces

Erin’s Unified Art course features four units: Who am I, Who are You, Who are We, and We are Unified. Through this model, students learn about their personal and team identities, while discovering each other’s strengths and passions. The final unit, We are Unified, prioritizes collaborative large-scale projects to share with the community, sending a wider message of inclusion to the school community beyond Unified Art. Throughout the course, Erin highlights artists who might inspire the class, aiming to spotlight local artists with a disability. For example, Minnesota-based artist Jimmy Reagan inspired Erin’s Unified Art class and the students were visited by his Artist Representative and curator, Peg Reagan, to learn about communicating with expression and color instead of words.

For Erin, Unified Art is revolutionary. Students have seen Unified Art change the culture at Maple Grove Senior High School, from prom to football games. “Unified Art isn’t a class, it’s a mindset and a social movement. I truly feel like I’m teaching in a revolutionary way. I tell my students that the skills you are learning in Unified Art can be carried out into the school and the world,” Erin says. “Unified is changing mindsets and attitudes throughout the entire school.” Erin has watched her students become empowered to become leaders of inclusion through art. Word about Unified Art has spread throughout Maple Grove Senior High School, including her other art courses. In fact, Unified Art is in such high demand after just one year that Erin is anticipating competition to get into the class next year. “Students are really vying to get into the class, and that has been incredible to witness,” Erin says.

Two students show their clay creations

This competition is coming from students’ desire to learn skills beyond the classroom, such as inclusion and empowering others to succeed. Erin teaches her students that success looks different for each student, reminding them that “it doesn’t matter how far ahead you are if someone is left behind.” She emphasizes that each student shows up differently and has their unique, individual needs; as a result, Erin finds herself writing individual lesson plans for every student, every day. However, she leans on the support and leadership of her students. “All of the sudden, I realized I had 15 teachers,” Erin says, “and they were helping and leading others. Everyone was smiling and having fun, and I thought, ‘Is this a dream?’”  

Erin doesn’t hide the fact that disabilities exist in the world. “In general education classes, we don’t talk about how our differences change the way we need to be taught,” Erin says. “In Unified, we are talking about disability awareness, and I think that enables and empowers students to understand and to include.”

Abhi with his favorite piece

Erin and her students opened their class to their school and community at the Maple Grove Senior High School Unified Art Gallery Show on February 22, 2024. The hallway was filled with paintings, clay sculptures, chalk pastel drawings, and students reminiscing with their Unified Art friends. Students proudly showed their masterpieces to friends and family, sharing their favorite pieces in a gallery setting.

Skylar, a student in the Unified Art class, says, “My favorite unit was the weaving unit because I got frustrated a lot, but I learned how to work through it.” Skylar’s classmate Abhi couldn’t pick a favorite unit, but particularly enjoys his chalk pastel creation. They all agreed on one lesson: Inclusion means bringing people together and accepting everyone’s unique selves.

“Art is so much stronger when we are ushering in voices that have been silenced,” Erin says. “I teach the class, but the kids are leading it most of the time. That’s what we want to be teaching our students – how to be leaders, how to assist, and empower others.”