After the coronavirus forced school closures, teachers everywhere transitioned from classroom learning to distance learning on short notice. Like people in many fields, arts educators have found the pandemic has shone a light on certain social dynamics—both positive and negative ones.
Art teachers from a public elementary school in Las Vegas, a private high school in the Lake Tahoe region, and two colleges talked about how they’re adapting.
For one private high school, a global pandemic means a global classroom
Pan Pantoja, Squaw Valley Academy, Olympic Valley, California
Reno artist Pan Pantoja teaches drama, art, and poetry at Squaw Valley Academy, a college prep boarding school in Olympic Valley, California. For Spring Break, his students, most of them international, scattered home to places like Beijing, the Netherlands, and Russia.
When Pantoja learned that they wouldn’t be returning to campus, he was skeptical. “How could you possibly teach art without being in the room?” he asked. It felt a bit like the scene in Apollo 13 where NASA engineers had to design a life-saving rocket part out of nothing but the limited materials that the astronauts could access in flight.
Pantoja quickly re-tooled his classes to meet remotely. Visual art students now show and discuss their artwork over Zoom. Poetry students work in Google Docs. “I can see them writing in real time,” he said.
For Pantoja’s art history practicum, students are required to paint in the style of whichever art movement they’re studying. “Now we’re on abstract impressionism,” he said. Some students have paints handy, and Pantoja has a running list of backup plans for those who don’t. He’s given lessons in making watercolors from crushed berries or dried spices, and soaking pennies in vinegar to yield turquoise or purple. “I helped one student take apart their markers to make paint,” he said. “I’m playing MacGyver with art.”
Group meetings are optional, as students live in different time zones, but attendance is better than he’d expected. One student lives in China. As of last week, he was quarantined in a medical facility and had been opting to stay awake until 4 a.m. to attend class. “He’s locked up in a small room in solitary,” Pantoja said.
“This is why the arts are important,” he added. “People literally have nothing to do, and they need us right now, so they don’t go crazy. Being this creative—that’s what the arts are for.”
Pantoja’s skepticism about teaching art online abated when he saw how quickly his students adapted to distance learning. “The kids are absolutely unfazed,” he said. “This is like normal to them. I found that their attention is actually greater this way. It’s like they don’t want to see a live human. But they’ll watch a screen. That’ll keep their attention.”
Ultimately, though, Pantoja would not advocate for teaching high school art online once the pandemic ends. “There’s something about being in a classroom,” he said. “You can change a person’s mood. If they’re having a hard time, you can just go stand by someone, and they’ll feel better.”
Will the pandemic speed up a years-long trend in art class cutbacks?
Gail Rappa, Great Basin College, Elko
While Pantoja’s high schoolers interface smoothly with technology, Gail Rappa—whose students at Elko’s Great Basin College range from teenage to retirement age—was already concerned about the amount of time we spend relying on devices for human connection. And the pandemic isn’t helping.
“The live studio class experience forces students to be present with what is happening right in front of them, to solve the problem at hand, and to rely on their own ability to make a project work with their head and hands,” she said.
“Colleges across the country are already downsizing their studio classes because they’re so expensive to run,” said Rappa, a jeweler and sculptor who lives in Tuscarora. Years ago, GBC had two full-time art instructors and a few adjuncts. Now, her beginning and advanced jewelry classes are the only live, credited art classes. (Classes like Drawing 101 and art appreciation are taught online, and the continuing ed department offers non-credit classes in ceramics and glass beadmaking.)
When Rappa learned that the campus would close, she resigned herself to the extra hours that making YouTube demos would require, and she scrambled to assemble kits with tools and materials to send home with students. Because the jewelry lab’s drills and torches would be unavailable, she changed some assignments, subbing in techniques that students could use at home. “There’s a lot I can do with cold connection, riveting, tabs, all of that,” she said.
Rappa sees the new normal from two different angles. On one hand, she’s heartened by communities of art educators who quickly pooled their resources to help art classes remain functional. Her favorite example is the Society of North American Goldsmiths, which has been a fruitful source of online teaching techniques and powerpoints. Today, the group began hosting continent-wide Zoom meetings for metals educators to share resources.
On the other hand, Rappa worries that college-level art classes may be deprioritized even further when administrators see that studio art teachers have been so adaptable.
If her in-person classes disappear, there’s a lot that Rappa—and her students—will miss. “It’s a hands-on class,” she explained. “We don’t do a ton of theory. We do work on design. The learning comes from the doing.” She said that demonstrations and peer-to-peer interactions are among the most valuable parts of her classes. “Riffing off what others are doing is a big part of the learning process,” she said. “It helps avoid mistakes.”
The social components of meeting are important to her, too. “Especially my advanced students who’ve been with me for a long time, they continue to take the class for the camaraderie, and there’s a social aspect, for sure, in the beginning class,” she said. “Critique or discussion is time for a robust conversation. If you’re on your keyboard, it doesn’t have the same energy.”
A K-5 teacher had to decide fast what to let go of
Christel Polkowski, Griffith Elementary, Las Vegas
Christel Polkowski teaches art to K-5th graders, and she knows they’re likely to be feeling vulnerable right now. “I think the greatest shift has been how I give feedback,” she said in an email interview. “Usually in my classroom I may offer suggestions for improvement. But in my Google Classroom I’ve been sticking to positive praise like, ‘I like the colors you used,’ or sometimes just, ‘I love it! It’s beautiful! … I want them to feel safe when they put themselves out there and share their art. I guess I’ve shifted to a more art-as-therapy view.” It’s possible she might stick with that view once classes are back in session.
One of the biggest challenges to switching to distance learning on short notice? “I’ve had to let go of a lot,” Polkowski said.
The attendance roster, for one. “I have a few kids that enjoy sharing their work with me, and more that have stayed quiet, and even more that haven’t joined my Google Classroom,” she said. “They may not have the ability to connect with me online, and I have to accept that. Right now I’m focused on being there for the kids that need my support and hopefully bring some joy and fun to their home lives through making art.”
She’s also had to let go of her plans for her students’ big exhibition. “I had planned a super cool black light show,” she said. “Most of it is still hanging on the walls of my empty classroom.”
And, she’s let go of a certain level of perfectionism. “The first week after closures, I would wake up early, maybe 4:30 or 5 a.m., to make videos before my 3-year-old woke up,” she said. “I’ve since stopped worrying about that. Sometimes my daughter starts commenting or asking questions while I’m making a video, but that’s real life. There are art teachers that already had polished YouTube videos before all of this, but I’m not one of them, and I’m not going to become an expert overnight. I have stains on my kitchen table. I say ‘um’ a lot, and sometimes my phone jiggles when I’m recording, but I just have to roll with it.”
As the mother of a preschool-age child, Polkowski is in the same boat as a lot of parents. On one hand, she cherishes the extra family time, and she’s enjoyed sharing her daughter’s artwork with her students. “I was touched by their responses,” she said. On the other hand, she added, “It can be hard to get anything done.”
Ready, willing, and able to go online—but the workload is no joke
Rossitza Todorova, Truckee Meadows Community College, Reno
Rossitza Todorova is a tenure-track instructor at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno. A long chain of events, going all the way back to childhood, prepared her for the technological and psychological challenges of a mid-semester gear switch.
“I grew up in Bulgaria,” Todorova said. She came to the US at age 10, old enough to be aware of the effects of a regime change. “Bulgaria went through a complete supply chain meltdown,” she recalled. “You couldn’t buy milk. You couldn’t buy cheese. I understand what panic looks like, what empty shelves look like, how a disease moves, how it’s going to spread.”
Early this semester, Todorova had bulk-ordered materials, so when TMCC’s closure was announced—and she only had a two-day window of opportunity to distribute supplies—she was able to meet that tight deadline. But it took some work. “That was pretty challenging,” she said. “I have to tell you we turned around on a dime. We’re resourceful. We’re resilient. We’re not the sort to give up.” She went to the hardware store to get wood bases, wire for mobiles, and containers so that she could portion out resin and silicone. She made packets for her five drawing, painting and sculpture classes. Out of 69 students, all but three ended up with take-home kits.
The week before TMCC announced closures, Todorova had been at home recovering from a back injury, so she’d already implemented a system of critiquing art projects by video. Also, she said, “I had spent two weeks in bed doing nothing but watching the news.” So, on March 9, a full week before Reno’s mayor and Nevada’s governor began to announce closures, she had predicted the scope of the shutdown and was able to alert her students that closures were likely.
Todorova’s classes now involve video-conference demos, YouTube demos, online critiques. She likes the sense of consistency she can offer by holding regularly scheduled class meetings. “They’re all sitting at home in isolation,” she said. “Most of them are really excited to get on the call and be able to talk to each other. They are themselves worried and scared about our current life reality, taking care of families, children, having medical emergencies. It’s stressful.”
“I can check in with students, make sure they’re not too alone, with the anxiety mounting,” she said. She also holds office hours every morning. “Colleagues are jumping on during office hours too,” she said. Making time for a bit of water cooler talk with fellow instructors has helped to maintain a thread of normalcy.
Todorova has enjoyed forging some new professional contacts during the pandemic. She joined a Facebook group called Online Art & Design Studio Instruction in the Age of “Social Distancing.” There, college art teachers trade notes on how to deal with teaching specific subjects remotely—including subjects that normally require specialized equipment such as ceramics and printmaking. “It’s been incredible,” she said. “We’re all sharing resources. We’re sharing ideas.
Much as she’s inspired by her new online colleagues and pleased with how well her students are doing, she now works 12-hour days and sometimes feels overwhelmed. Finishing her own artwork and meeting her own deadlines has become impossible.
“Is this ideal? No, but it works for the moment,” she said. “The other option would be an incomplete or a pass/fail. … At a community college, that matters.” Students without letter grades would be unable to transfer their classes to a four-year college.
For now, she said, keeping students on track is her first priority. And they’re holding up their end of the bargain. “I don’t think I would be willing to jump through so many hoops if i didn’t have young people who were so passionate and engaged,” she said.