Reaching out in a time of distancing

I was in New Zealand near the end of January for the Lunar New Year break, when I got the news that my school in Hong Kong was moving to online learning immediately after the holiday, due to concerns about the rapidly spreading virus that we all now know too well. My first thought was, Yikes!

Having taught in India for three years, I had experience switching overnight to a virtual school environment, due to frequent regional strikes. But those situations usually required only a day or two of online work and then we were back in the classroom. This news from Hong Kong was more unsettling to my confidence as a teacher. How was I going to reproduce our normal learner-centered, TAB-based*, collaborative, playful, messy and delightful elementary art classes online for an indefinite period of time?   

The long flight back to Hong Kong gave me a chance to reflect more on the situation. I needed to summon a spirit of hopefulness.

I asked myself, what if I look for some opportunities? What were some of the aspects of visual art learning that lend themselves well to an online platform (maybe even better than a face-to-face class)? 

Reaching out through video – Differentiation

As the days turned into weeks, one of my first realizations was the opportunity of video editing. Embracing iMovie, I noticed that I could easily make concise mini-lesson videos complete with warm messages, focused demonstrations, modeling of thinking, titles/subtitles, and summary instructions in audio and text. Students could watch the videos as many times as needed for clarification. I was developing strategies for differentiation while bringing more aspects of a face-to-face lesson online. Each week the end goal for the grade-level videos was that they were cheerful to watch, developmentally appropriate, focused on specific types of learning and easy to understand. I wanted to invite students into their own creativity, nudge their thinking, and set them up as independent artists with open-ended opportunities they could playfully explore using whatever materials they had available. 

Curiously, I later discovered another benefit to videos. When we briefly returned to face-to-face learning in Hong Kong at the end of the Spring semester, I was a bit frustrated, but not surprised, to witness that class discussions were challenging for one particular group who had struggled with this in the past. My experiment: I tried using the concise, differentiated video strategy with this grade level. I was delighted to see that it immediately worked for them! Four months of online learning had apparently conditioned students to attentively watch short mini-lesson videos, even face-to-face.  

Reaching out through Seesaw and Google Classroom – Connection

Another benefit of online learning was the weekly interaction with students via Seesaw and Google Classroom. Let’s face it, it is challenging to connect with every single student every week in a face-to-face environment. The online learning platform created an environment where all students got equal time for feedback. I’ll admit, it was tough to keep up with viewing and responding to every Seesaw and Google Classroom post, but the personal connection was worth the time investment each week. 

Reaching out to others – Understanding Art Worlds

Another opportunity I noticed was the unique platform to bring the art world to the students’ devices. I began exploring more artists with them and in more depth. We used Google Forms for Visual Thinking Routines about the artists. I gave students options to follow paths that interested them the most, to learn about techniques and artists that resonated with their own interests, favorite materials and skills. We developed our own artist community through voluntarily sharing work on Padlet. Curiously, the students instinctively adopted a positive tone in their feedback with each other.   

Over the summer it became apparent that we’d likely start the new school year online. An idea I had grew into two projects that I’d like to share, to illustrate how we can use this online situation to help students in their growing understanding of art worlds (one of the eight Studio Habits of Mind). 

It occurred to me that I am in contact with quite a lot of creative types – from traditional artists to architects and chefs. Why not reach out to a variety of these people and record some three-minute Zoom interviews? Would they be willing? It turns out that they were not only willing, but they expressed delight in being asked! Thus was born our artist interview series – Global Expressions! Each week I travel virtually with the students to a different part of the globe to meet an artist, talk with them briefly about their work and get some advice. So far, I’ve interviewed creative types in India, Hungary, China, Thailand, Canada, USA, Bhutan, Sudan, Uganda, Cambodia, Malaysia and the list continues to grow. You can check out a sample video below where I’m talking with my pastry chef and chocolatier friend, Sergio, about his mind-blowing edible chocolate sculptures. 

The second idea that grew out of my reflections over the summer was the idea of having some sort of an artist-in-residence. What if we could take a peek each week into the studio of an artist and follow, over time, what they are up to? Gratefully, I didn’t have to go any further than the art assistant at my school. She was thrilled that I asked her if she could film herself in the process of making some projects – any projects – each week. I take that raw video footage and edit/speed it up to create a unique glimpse into the life of an artist. The videos are simple with minimal explanation. They are meant to invite curiosity and inspiration. Additionally, since she works at the school, it brings another person from our school community to the forefront of our online learning.  You can check out a sample video below of Ms. Ayumi’s Atelier.  

I hope that the reflections I’ve shared might offer encouragement to find some of the positive things that can come from our circumstances. As one of my favorite educators, Rita Pierson, once said, “…and we teach anyway.” Art teachers, especially, are uniquely suited for problem solving. I look forward to the day when we are all back in class, sharing materials with dirty fingers and talking noisily about our discoveries. When that happens, I hope that I’ll remember some of the lessons I’ve learned from this time. Wishing all of you health and the joy of visual art learning. -Ron

I anticipate that some readers might be interested in having access to the video series Global Expressions or Ms. Ayumi’s Atelier, to share with their students. As part of my invitation, I only asked permission to show the videos for my own classes and here on my blog. My goal was an intimate series where artists felt comfortable and where they didn’t expect me to share with the whole world. I imagine you understand that approach. I’m posting the video samples here in the spirit of exchanging ideas and I encourage anyone who likes the idea to reach out to your own creative circle. A series on local artists would be as powerful as a global series and your students seeing you modeling how to talk with artists about their work would be influential and delightful.

*Teaching for Artistic Behavior

Author: Ron

Ron teaches Visual Arts to students in the early years through grade five. In his practice, he uses innovative approaches to foster agency in the students through a choice-based model that encourages creative thinking routines and supports student voice. Additionally, he works closely with teachers to develop arts integration and creative thinking across the primary curriculum. Ron is passionate about supporting creative thinking in the educational environment for all subject areas. He follows current literature on the topic and attends innovative workshops and conferences. Ron has previously worked as a Visual Arts teacher, homeroom teacher and university lecturer.

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