How Are Teachers Handling Arts Education From A Distance?
K-12 arts educators and administrators talk about the challenges and opportunities posed by distance learning.
By Brittany Shrimpton
April 13, 2020
Jeremy Holien has been fielding a lot of calls from visual and media arts teachers during this time of triage distance learning. Holien is the Education Specialist in Visual and Media Arts with the Perpich Center for Arts Education – and he works with teachers statewide on professional and curriculum development, including distance learning, e-learning and outreach.
From discussions about the best apps and platforms to what resources already exist and how much content is realistic to cover, “I’m encouraging a lot of teachers to pare down the stuff they used to cover to more of like maybe a fourth to no more than a third of the content that they would expect to deliver or facilitate in their classrooms. Because everybody’s operating in a different world right now. The access matters, the technology matters, time – some students have parents who are going to be able to be home and help facilitate some of this back-end learning on the other side. Other students don’t have that access.”
Access, in all its forms, is a universal challenge that school districts and educators across the board are facing when administering distance learning courses. However, arts educators also face unique challenges. For one, visual arts teachers rely heavily on art materials. “The schools are all over the place in terms of what materials they were able to get to students in such a short turnaround,” Holien says.
Saint Paul Public Schools visual arts teacher Monique Payan knows that all too well. As the solo visual arts instructor for kindergarten through fifth-grade students at Adams Spanish Immersion School, Payan was not able to distribute art materials to the 600 kids she teaches prior to the schools closures, nor did she have enough markers and colored pencils to do so.
But limited supplies has also provided great fodder for opportunity. Instead of using art supplies from school, Payan is pushing students to expand their ideas of what they can use to make art. As a result, students are asked to gather items from around their homes to use as the materials for their projects.
No paint? No problem. Water can be added to spices and food coloring to create spreadable pigments. Junk mail can be recycled as a sub-strait or transformed into a sculpture. An old tee-shirt can be cut (approved by their parents, of course) into strips of cloth and used as yarn in Payan’s popular doll-making unit. Along the way, she hopes that students will start to embrace a far more creative spectrum of new materials to use in their work.
While materials are an initial barrier in visual arts classes, a lack of physical space can prove to be a significant limitation for students taking dance technique classes, explains Mary Harding, Dance Instructor at Perpich Arts High School. “I just moved all the furniture in my living room to give myself eight feet of space. And in my dance studio eight feet of space is nothing.”
Prior to the school closures, her students were also training in choreographic skills. One technique in creating movement for choreography is to source material from others. This would often be done with the other students in class; but instead, she has suggested to her students that they crowdsource movement material from their family members. This new style of developing choreography may even influence a future video-dance unit when her classes resume in-person.
Similar to dance, theater and music classes, community is key to Brian Stubbs’ choir ensembles at Brainerd High School in Brainerd, Minn. “I always talk to my kids [about how] doing music is a paramount piece of our class. However, being a member of a community is equally as big, or even bigger sometimes. And learning how we connect with others – and how what we do matters – is huge.”
While his students are initially learning individual parts and singing on their own, he hopes that there’s a way to weave all of their disparate recordings together to recreate some of that community feel. After all, most students, he notes, do not take choir to sing a solo, but rather as a way to sing with others.
Despite the challenges involved in continuing students’ arts education via distance-learning opportunities, it’s also critical to maintain some of their creative continuity as they try to grasp a new reality at such an uncertain time.
“I think the arts stand on a particularly strong foothold as a place where students can explore and express themselves. They can have conversations sometimes without text, sometimes without words, that communicate how they’re feeling in a way that’s more effective than writing about it at this particular juncture,” Holien notes. “So I think the arts are a great opportunity to actually kind of bring some of that social emotional learning back.”
Special Thanks: Betsy Anderson, Kevin Burns, Richard Currier, Cori Reynolds, Jan Spencer de Gutierrez
Additional Media: Brainerd Public Schools, Perpich Arts High School, Saint Paul Public Schools, MN Original, and Twin Cities PBS Archives
Production: Brittany Shrimpton