Last spring, Right Brain teaching artist Rhiannon Leonard was scheduled to bring a printmaking residency to Evergreen Middle School, when Covid-19 swept in and schools closed down across the region. Rather than cancel, Rhiannon and the classroom teachers worked together to adapt the residency for a virtual experience.
Creativity and Compromise
With students at home and engagement levels dropping every week since moving to distance learning, Rhiannon and the classroom teachers agreed the arts learning content needed to be short and accessible.
We still have students who don’t have internet or are not engaging…With a total change to school routines, many of their parents losing jobs, and a shift in food security, home security, academic security, etc., I think many kids are just in survival mode.
Rhiannon created a short series of videos teaching art and design concepts in English and Spanish, and created printable versions of the lessons for those students that did not have reliable internet access.
“I think the art was a great engagement tool,” said 8th grade teacher Sean Fishback. “We implemented it pretty late in the year and engagement levels were maintained, whereas we had been seeing a pretty steady decline over the previous weeks.”
In a previous printmaking residency at Evergreen, the students used carving tools and printmaking materials to create symbols related to their curriculum. In these new circumstances, compromises had to be made.
“Technical carving skills had to be dropped, because not everyone has carving tools, blocks, and ink available at home,” said Rhiannon.
Instead of printmaking, the adapted student projects focused on designing and drawing their symbols using the more available tools of pencil and paper. In Rhiannon’s video lessons, they explored the elements of art, principles of design, thumbnail sketches and symbol design.
“I think the kids really missed the hands-on element of the stamp carving,” said Sean. “That was a really kinesthetic and unique art form they didn’t get to participate in. The pencil and paper sketches were a nice equalizer, but the carving was really fun in the classroom.”
Creating a safe environment for students to create and try and fail was definitely harder when we weren’t face to face, but it was great having this opportunity to help students create that space in their own homes—to think, create, and find joy in drawing.
Teaching artists and classroom teachers alike have also found themselves missing the live connection with students when teaching. Large group video chats and pre-recorded lessons leave less room for adaptability and conversation in the moment. On the other hand, pacing lessons is always challenging in a classroom full of individual learners, and with pre-recorded lessons each student has control over this aspect of their learning.
“Using these videos also gives students with social anxieties a safe space to try things without being watched,” Rhiannon observed. “This student control of video and environment can definitely be an advantage to address different needs.”
After students watched the videos and worked on their projects with their classroom teachers’ guidance, Rhiannon joined the students in a series of virtual post-project meetings.
“I was inspired by how adaptable students, with a growth mindset, can pivot from an in-school environment to an online experience,” Rhiannon reflected.
Finding Joy in a Time of Uncertainty
The distance learning adaptation of Rhiannon’s residency may have had to shift direction, especially with its technical aspects, but at the core it stayed true to its original lesson: helping students explore a visual art form and encouraging them to get more comfortable taking risks.
“Creating a safe environment for students to create and try and fail was definitely harder when we weren’t face to face, but it was great having this opportunity to help students create that space in their own homes—to think, create, and find joy in drawing,” said Rhiannon.
“We still have students who don’t have internet or are not engaging,” said Sean. “I think it’s important to have art during this time, but with a total change to school routines, many of their parents losing jobs, and a shift in food security, home security, academic security, etc., I think many kids are just in survival mode, which can make it really hard to think creatively. Rhiannon really showed that she was dedicated to the students and helping them access that creative outlet.”
To meet student needs for the residency, Rhiannon had to push through her own personal anxieties about being in front of the camera, and her efforts to conquer this fear were more than worthwhile. One classroom teacher, after watching a video Rhiannon created for the residency, responded: “I was literally blown away by your video and I feel calmer and more joyful, after just watching it! I’m excited to share it with my daughter and do a portrait drawing with her, too.”
Ultimately, the virtual residency faced most of the same obstacles as the move to distance learning overall, but it did improve student engagement, and brought the joy and bottomless potential of the arts into what was (and still is), for many kids, a very difficult period of transition.
Sean reflected, “We were really strapped for time and resources, but we did the best we could to meet kids where they were, and I really appreciate that Rhiannon was right there with us to make the art residency happen. I personally learned a lot and believe we will do better next year!”