How does one teach a visual, hands-on studio-based class as a remote learning activity during the time of a global pandemic? What challenges faced the art educators, abruptly removed from their classroom resources? How did the students make use of the visual arts to express their experiences while isolated at home?
The following art educators, Charlie Johnson, Mt. Desert High School; Margaret Maxwell, Bonny Eagle High School; and Melanie Crowe, Hampden Academy have shared these thoughtful, creative essays and examples of student work, describing their unique journey together during this historic time.
In a separate post MAJ editor Véronique Plesch, who teaches art history at Colby College, continues the discussion.
A special thank-you to Jason Anderson, Visual and Performing Arts Specialist, Maine Department of Education who helped to coordinate and connect educators for this feature.
Charlie Johnson – Digital Media, 3D Design, Photography
My initial concern as a high school art instructor with the closure of school buildings within our district was that I had no time to prepare my students for the transition. Fortunately, students in my classes used the Google Suite of applications on a regular basis, primarily for presenting their work on Google Drive to obtain formative feedback and ultimately to organize their summative portfolios. Their previous work with the structures and protocols of digital submission of work did provide them a basic foundation.
Working with a Digital Media class in a computer lab equipped with the Adobe CC Suite did not translate to student laptops or home computers. Adaptations to software available on student laptops had to be constructed, causing a shift in curriculum structure and constricting student choice for exploration purposes within a less robust software .
The class that caused me the most regret for my students was Black & White Photography, as the creation of individual darkrooms labs in student homes was impractical. Even with these changes, the photography class has been particularly resilient, with the requirement to switch to digital imaging and to shoot in grayscale causing several students to improve the content and quality of their work significantly.
While there remains a visual and performing arts requirement for graduation at our school, all of these classes are elective by students, and in some cases are chosen out of necessity rather than interest. Being present physically in these classes allows the instructor to personalize instruction and teaching as students become more familiar with both the content and the teacher. Because this had already taken place during the school year for semester long classes, there was a certain basic foundation to work from during the transition period.
The group of students that I am in contact with in the most meaningful ways during this pandemic is the National Art Honor Society art students. This is not an art class, but a group of the most interested and dedicated visual artists in our school, and from the very first “virtual” meeting we all shared not only time, but ideas and concepts for artworks, emotional states in reaction to the closure of classroom doors, and an artistic fellowship that was purely exuberant! During the second weekly meeting of this group, students decided to create “squares” of their feelings of gratitude that would eventually become a Gratitude Quilt expressing the variety of things to be thankful for during the difficult time of the pandemic. They have given permission to share their works and words.
Melanie Crowe – Visual Arts Educator, MALI Teacher Leader
The 2019-2020 school year has been a wealth of new experiences and challenges: changing schools and grade levels after seventeen years, learning to navigate a new curriculum, school and its dynamics, and to round off the year: a pandemic. As with many of my colleagues, the idea of shifting gears to a virtual platform was daunting at the beginning. How is this all going to work? How will the students adjust? What will work completion look like? How do we connect with students virtually? All of these questions filled my head the first few days back in March. As I began to get my bearings and a game plan as to how I would approach teaching and learning, evolution began. Stretching comfort zones, applying best practices, and providing multiple pathways to learning accessibility created the cornerstone of my teaching practice over the last couple of months.
Outside of the classroom, my digital photography students improvised and used their smartphones to take photographs, while my sculpture students were limited to materials on hand. We looked at how to manipulate the everyday common objects, responding to the comfort and commonality of our shared experiences. In reflecting their lives, students articulate the power of how this pandemic has changed their daily lives and has made them take a step back to assess how they see the world around them. My students are resilient, rising to the challenge every step of the way. Their work speaks to their own truth and how they are interpreting their experiences during the time of this pandemic.
Margaret A. Maxwell – The ABCs of a Pandemic
The doors closed on the classroom in March of this year, the last day of our trimester at Bonny Eagle High School. Grades were due, students walked out not knowing if and when they were returning. It was all a blur. Work was ready for display at our All District K-12 art show in May and the Advanced Placement students were planning their concentrations of work for their portfolios. This was the usual way the third trimester began. But this time it was different. We were not going back into the classroom and we had to find a way to teach the art curriculum and maintain the standards written in 1984, revised in 2018, with a major emphasis on proficiency based assessment (PBA). Same content, different means of assessing. So how do we maintain the integrity of the program, assess the students in a way that they will understand their process and a way to self assess?
This teacher’s answer: go back to the ABCs, where I started in teaching elementary school art with my accordion-pleated folder with the ABCs of art that I displayed in my classroom. Yes the ABCs of Art became my ABCs of a Pandemic. Students follow the assignments and invent their own projects and ideas, if they so desire.
We started with Dahlov Ipcar’s Maine Alphabet. (A) All Alone, the loon in the water. The students related immediately and so did I. We then proceeded to draw (B) biomorphic line and with that we drew the (C) Corona virus cell with a multitude of colors using Josef Alber’s color theory. The virus was being portrayed daily on the national news using complementary, primary and analogous color. This image frightened most of us and became embedded in our minds.
Each day began with a different assignment and the final production was to be a book that we would bind when we returned to class, thinking we would only be out for a month, maybe two. We thought that we would return by the end of the year in June to develop binding and concertina techniques. Google Meet was the new way of learning.
The prospect of returning became progressively nil and students were losing the desire to work independently. So I had to find a way to “up the ante” to obtain the credit. A pandemic. Did anyone know what that meant, with online learning in a content area with few materials, having to (D) draw something from life or that pertained to the time we were experiencing?
As you could see I was now inventing lessons that related to the situation and using our great alphabet to revise, reinvent and retain the students along the way. (E) just happened to fall during the week of Earth Day. I spent the class time on the floor demonstrating how to use found objects to make an Earth Day poster that I would hang in my window for them to see if they drove by my home, my new bulletin board. It is called a picture window for a reason. The computer was a great camera resource and the sofa was my tripod.
Effort became the next shortfall … and letters in the alphabet meant I had to, again, call in the troops: students, artists in Maine, and books that would relate to the situation. I sat one Saturday trying to record a QuickTime video of the reading of Tomie dePaola’s “I’m Still Scared.” about his days in World War II when he had to hide under his desk, listen with family to President Roosevelt on the radio to overcome his fears. I learned quickly how to rely on our fine arts creative juices combining with technology … my new frontier. I had never attempted a Google classroom, let alone a QuickTime video. Well, I was doing it. Jump to letter (M), design a Mask and Make one for yourself and a family member. (N) became Naive Art and how artists worked without training. They had to write a critique after viewing a document or create a Naive work of art, easy to do without a teacher.
Things progressed and we came to the letters (P) and (R). With a Bob Ross wig and beard, I tried to video a painting demonstration to entertain the students. What a disaster … but it brought a few laughs from the computer screen. The Renaissance was the topic in Art History. Great, we can review the Black Death and the masks of that period. Students were writing and making masks with one student creating a Death Mask from the period using papier maché and images and text from articles about the current pandemic. I am anxious to see and share it. Others wrote about the correlation between the rebirth of the arts during the Renaissance and how technology is playing a similar role today in keeping us creative and in touch with knowledge and new inspiration.
My process continued with Rachel Walls https://www.rachelwallsfineart.com/ letters (R) and (W) and a great segue to the finale of the trimester. We had visiting artists speak with the students in order to keep them connected, and it worked. Katharine Cartwright, my personal art teacher agreed to Zoom with my students. https://www.kacartwright.com/home, She discussed her STEAM approach, her current work illustrating her interpretation of the pandemic in pen and ink and her research in pandemics and extinction, along with her Laws of Nature series. The students were there and commented in a Zoom that I set up that morning with a former art teacher’s assistance. I also streamed a STEAM lesson. (S): how about that for Science,Technology, Engineering, Art and Math! Now beginning, with Rachel’s assistance, with Dahlov Ipcar, and ending with her Zoom of our visit with Victoria Browning Wyeth, took care of the letters (W) Walls, Winslow and Wyeth, and (Z). Great way to celebrate the Art History of Maine during its 200th Anniversary … ZOOOOMMMMM! And not to forget the letter (Y) as Diane Dahlke provided images of yellow with her beautiful painting of Daffodils and another commemorating the work of (W) Winslow Homer and his life in Maine.
What a finale! This trimester has been one of the most creative times in my career, but also sad. I so missed the students in my class. Yet the connections and correlations with technology and this vast world of art marked the ABC’s of a Pandemic in a most inventive manner, shared by many creative minds, including those of my students.