By Troy Shinn
The 2019-2020 academic year will go down for many parents, teachers and students as the most bizarre of their lifetimes.
Oregonians awoke in mid-March to the news that schools would be closing for Spring Break a week early, one of the first responses by the state to the spreading coronavirus pandemic. Oregon Governor Kate Brown made the call, along with several other state governors, as a way of “flattening the curve” of new virus cases in the country -- preventing an overburdening of healthcare and emergency services systems.
By the time schools would normally be preparing to re-open, the closures had been extended for the rest of the regular school year. At a time when educators would normally be dusting off their spring curricula, they instead scrambled to come up with entirely new procedures and coursework that could be tailored to at-home or “distance learning.”
All over the state, school districts have rolled out computers and tablets for students. All teacher-student interaction has moved into virtual classrooms and many courses are being considered pass-fail for the final semester, a way of accommodating the unforeseen challenges that come from having to redesign the public education system.
In the Salem-Keizer School District, tens of thousands of Chromebook laptops were sent home to students, according to the district's website. Classes are being engaged through an online Google Classroom portal. Teachers are designing instruction and coursework to match this environment.
While this model poses challenges for students and educators of all backgrounds, it’s presented some unique problems for arts courses, specifically.
While some subjects are easier to convert than others, arts classes are having to completely change their approach. There is a learning curve even for teachers.
“I’m so hands-on that I never really embraced the technological side of the job, really,” said Autumn Breitweiser, a ceramics teacher at McKay High School. “So, now, I’m spending hours upon hours just learning how to set up a Google Classroom or upload a video to YouTube. I kinda beat myself up about it -- because a lot of these are things that a teacher should already know how to do… but I was always very hands-on, more one-on-one in my instruction.”
That means that art projects have to be simple enough that students can pull off an assignment with household materials and limited instruction. While projects may be accompanied by videos and step-by-step tutorials, instructors are having to be very mindful of what the engagement from students will look like.
“We are doing a little bit of art history and elements of art, [including] looking at some articles or exhibits online,” said Kersti Bury, a visual arts teacher at Waldo Middle School, of her school’s online arts curriculum. “But I think most teachers are finding some way for kids to be creative, and that’s the bulk of the time we want them spending on our coursework.”
Schools don’t only have to worry about whether instruction will be engaging for students, but also have to consider the unique situations of each child. When attending arts classes in a physical classroom, materials are typically on-hand for every student. When learning moves to the home, however, the economic equalizer of brick-and-mortar public schooling goes away.
“I work for a low-income, high-diversity school,” said Breitweiser. “With some of these students, I’m just trying to see, ‘Do they have Wi-Fi and can they get connected with their Chromebook?’”
A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for all students, teachers say. Classes around the country are using dough instead of clay to make sculptures, but, “Many of our families need that dough for eating, not for playing,” Breitweiser said.
As such, teachers are having to be extra considerate of these unique circumstances, and assignments are being tailored to the widest possible range of students.
“For the sake of equity, we can’t really assume that these kids even have an extra piece of scratch paper to write and take notes on,” said Bury, the middle school teacher. “A lot of teachers are offering a wide variety when it comes to art projects.”
Visualization boards made out of household objects, origami cranes and cardboard sculptures are all examples that teachers gave for distance learning projects in the arts.
Even private schools and personal instructors have had to adapt quickly to the changing realities in schools. Erik Carlson, a music teacher at West Hills Montessori School in Portland, said that the school closed down daily operations pretty soon after the first closures and cancellations were handed down from the state.
On a normal day, Carlson teaches music during part of regular instruction. But he also teaches private lessons to students directly, typically using the school’s space to schedule and meet with parents and their children. Now that physical schooling is out of the picture, it’s been challenging to find ways to adhere to this mostly hands-on teaching style.
He moved music instruction into video lessons with students and, while he says the remote sessions are challenging at times, Carlson notices a positive reaction from students and parents alike.
“There’s obvious issues in not being able to physically show them the techniques -- and in the delay that there can be (over the FaceTime video messaging app) in communicating,” Carlson said. “But I think generally the kids like them and parents have even talked to me about upping the frequency of lessons.”
At Montessori schools, instruction is not structured like in traditional classrooms and it’s less tailored to a certain schedule. In a more free-range manner of instruction, students are encouraged to pursue subjects that interest them most and spend time doing activities related to that topic. Because of this, most Montessori approaches are often aimed at younger, Pre-K students, But West Hills is unique in offering classes to a range of elementary school-aged children.
That means that school closures affected West Hills’ daily operations in many of the same ways that public schools were affected. Teachers and administrators had to quickly coordinate with parents and students to keep fulfilling their educational mission.
Montessori teachers in all subjects are having to think of what “manipulative materials” -- items that can be used in conjunction with a lesson to boost comprehension -- are available or can be distributed to accompany remote instruction.
“A lot of my teacher friends are finding ways to do tutorials and send those off with kids,” Carlson said. “They’ve asked me to record a few songs to include in those video materials.”
Challenges aside, arts teachers say what they are mostly focused on is the need for creative education now more than ever.
“It seems to me that (students) need something to be a little more expressive in this time,” Carlson said. “Some of them are really struggling with not seeing their friends, they are probably picking up on a lot of the stress of their parents. It’s important to have something where they can be creative and be a little joyful in their day.”
Carlson said he’s received personal feedback from parents who describe how nice it’s been for their children to have music lessons still. With so many families hunkered down at home, the routine of coursework can provide a needed distraction for child and parent alike.
But, more than that, teachers are seeing arts education as a form of therapy for students in a time where the regular school year has been completely altered and their lives have been directly affected by it.
“Really, it’s about giving students something to do and be creative for a little while,” Breitweiser said. “It’s good for their own mental health, to get through this crazy, crazy time.”
Share this article with your fellow Oregonians using the social media badges below, and follow Curbside Press on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more local arts news content every week. To support our brand of local journalism, consider buying a subscription.