Teaching the Arts During a Pandemic
The creativity is still there, but harnessing it has required ingenuity and a new set of "classroom" tools.
Visual arts teachers have also put in long hours as they’ve adapted traditional teaching methods to the pandemic, says Hiromi Isobe, chair of the visual arts department at Washington-Liberty High School.
Before the start of the school year, APS art teachers prepared take-home supply kits for students, with materials such as sketchbooks, pencils and paints. They’ve had to figure out how to make sure students can continue to access those materials when they run low.
The hands-on feedback that is central to art instruction has been tough to implement online, but not impossible.
“Art teachers are usually constantly walking table by table in the classroom after showing students what to do,” Isobe says. “Some of the students will need a second round of help that I can’t really provide anymore because I physically cannot walk around and help students individually.”
She’s tried a few alternatives. At first, she asked students to submit images of their projects in different stages as she tried to replicate the normal classroom experience online.
“But by the end of that period, I literally had thousands of images to grade and I was like, There is no way I can sustain this for an entire year,” Isobe says. “So, I got smarter. I figured out how to make the class work so students can show progress with a PowerPoint and then do reflections.”
Isobe says she now sees students engaging and succeeding in her class, but figuring out the mechanics has been tough.
“I have to stop work occasionally to put hot towels over my eyes,” she confesses. “Sometimes I can barely open them after looking at the screen all day. I am physically and mentally exhausted.”
Students are feeling burned out, too. Isabella Mahoney, a senior AP visual art student at Wakefield, says 2020 has been one of her most difficult years at APS.
Ironically, Mahoney’s chosen medium is digital—she creates realistic drawings on a computer using various drawing and painting tools—but she says she now finds herself participating less and procrastinating more, even in her favorite art class.
The screen time required for her other classes has eaten into the space she once reserved for her art.
“I am struggling with all of my classes now, which is a first, because usually I am a very diligent and reliable student,” Mahoney says. “It is really hard staring at a screen all day. Most of the work we get is online, so it’s just nine, ten hours of school or more until I sleep.”
She is appreciative that her art teacher doesn’t always jump right into the lesson plan for the day.
“[One day] we just talked about pet snails,” she says. “It was really just a light-hearted and fun atmosphere that gave us time to settle down. I feel like our teacher has this little bit of a break when it comes to having our art period. She gives us that space.”
For many homebound students, the arts offer a reprieve. Some describe their music, painting and drama classes as their “happy places,” where they get a chance to take a breather from the monotony of virtual school days.
Miranda Kibler, a senior visual arts student in the international baccalaureate program at Washington-Liberty, says logging onto her art class every day has been one of her favorite things about online school.
“Most of us have our cameras on, which is great, because we all love seeing each other,” Kibler says. “If we have a due date that day, each of us presents our project so everyone can look at each other’s work. I love how creative all the students are.”
Though the circumstances aren’t optimal, teachers and students say these online forums have motivated them to keep creating during the pandemic.
Caitlin Wittig, a drama teacher at Gunston Middle School, says she has been continually “wowed” by her students’ ingenuity. She describes one activity she did with her eighth-grade theater class in which she shared prints of three famous works of art—by Picasso, Monet and Edvard Munch (“The Scream”). Students were then divided into virtual breakout rooms and asked to come up with a 12-line script inspired by the paintings.
Wittig didn’t know what to expect from her typically reserved eighth graders, but when they rejoined the meeting, their scripts made her jaw drop. “They came up with these absolutely fabulous scripts that had depth and super interesting characters, and they took it really seriously,” she says. “I was completely blown away. They acted like playwrights. It was really cool.”
Proof, she says, that arts programs can indeed thrive in a virtual learning environment. And that students need the outlet—especially now.
“There will always be students who use art to express something that is serious. Especially when there is all this crisis around us, even a simple activity becomes really meaningful,” Wittig says.
This is certainly true for Kibler. The W-L senior says she’s making more art now than ever before—in part because doing so has helped her reckon with all of her feelings about the pandemic.
“Right now, I am painting around the theme of isolation,” Kibler says. “I have noticed lots of students are doing that, too. I tried to use that to my advantage. A lot of art comes from big events in history, and I try to channel that now into being productive. This has been very therapeutic.”
Arts classes also have helped APS students maintain a sense of community with their schoolmates, says APS arts education supervisor Pam Farrell.
“I heard someone say that science will get us out of Covid, but the arts will get us through it,” Farrell says. “In many ways, we will be rebuilding in our community with the arts. Students have really tried to find alternative ways to recreate the community aspect.”
Feldman, the Yorktown violinist, says she can still “feel the community beyond the screen” in her orchestra class when she logs on every day.
She says she and her fellow ensemble members have worked to maintain that “orchestra-ness” by practicing together virtually outside of class time, examining scores to see how their instruments’ parts fit together and using their orchestra group chat for banter.
“In regular orchestra we would have side conversations about all of these things,” she says, “but now we use the orchestra group chat, in addition to playing together virtually. You can feel the community is still there. That is why it feels like I’m not just playing to a screen.”