Art and teaching have a few things in common. Both use various techniques and methods, and both strive to expand our thinking and encourage us to look beyond our own horizons. When done well, both can have dramatic, even life-altering, results.
When practitioners are asked to use methods outside of their expertise, it is an opportunity for growth and ingenuity.
Local schools, like those across much of the country, shut their doors in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But teaching did not stop — it went digital. Students became versed in using Google Classroom and the video conferencing platform Zoom for class meetings, often alongside parents who were using the same technology to work from home. But for certain hands-on classes like art, teachers have had to look for even more creative ways to help students learn.
Ken Weyrick has taught art at East Valley Central Middle School for 26 years. To help quickly prepare the staff, the East Valley School District gave staff access to training by prominent educational technology consultant Jeff Utecht. The former teacher is now an author, podcaster, speaker/consultant and blogger who, according to his website, is “helping educators reimagine learning for now and the future of students.” A recent example from his blog, “The Thinking Stick,” was titled “Learning With and Without Walls.”
Weyrick says Utecht’s methods have proven useful. Since Weyrick couldn’t demonstrate drawing techniques to an entire classroom and then oversee students’ efforts, he took what he learned from Utecht and got better at improvising.
But Weyrick might have a head start on some teachers — he’s been using online technology for the past four years to teach kids how to create a portfolio of their artwork.
“It helped because I did not feel in a panic on how to make Google Classroom work, so I felt ahead of the game,” he said.
East Valley students were sent home this spring with a Chromebook tablet to learn remotely, but Weyrick points out that not all families have wi-fi or internet access. Some students rely on free hotspots. Others waited until parents returned home in the evening to upload their work to the virtual classroom. For students needing them, printed packets of instruction and assignments were available.
At EVC middle school, with an enrollment of around 800, different days of the week were assigned to each subject. Elective classes such as art were taught on Fridays.
“We held class meetings by video and then I had office hours for an hour every Friday,” Weyrick said. “That was the time to chat with kids to answer questions, but also use as a support time with kids, let them know the school staff is concerned and cares about their well-being.”
Students also emailed with Weyrick and could speak with him by telephone if they wished.
“My hat is off to all of these kids,” Weyrick said. “With all the chaos going on around them, especially when we began this type of schooling, how well they did is a tribute to them. Some kids are self-motivated about their work, some struggled more, but beyond that, I saw friendship and helping and caring when we had our class meetings.”
Weyrick also tipped his hat to EVC Principal Matthew Toth.
“Mr. Toth was a positive role model for us as educators and I feel it is a reflection on what we stand for here in the East Valley district — everybody counts. It is also a tribute to our teachers and administrators that we put kids first,” he said.
Weyrick found the professional development videos from Utecht helpful back in March when he was trying to envision how cyber-teaching art would work. To try to replicate how he would demonstrate drawing techniques in his classroom, Weyrick made use of what he had on hand at home to create and upload videos of him drawing, for example, a baseball mitt for the still life unit.
He didn’t have a mic holder, so he improvised.
“I attached my cellphone to an angle iron, clamped that to an old wooden stool, and put it up over my head to record the technique for kids to watch,” Weyrick said.
With those videos airdropped into Google Classroom, students were able to access the instruction at any time. But, as the veteran educator points out, technology does not always work perfectly when needed.
Parts of the region experienced an extended power failure following a spring storm, and occasionally Google Meet “glitched,” both of which made cyberlearning more of a challenge.
Weyrick taught six periods of art every day during the “normal” school year. The recent purchase of a kiln and supplies had Weyrick looking forward to adding glass work to his curriculum. That, of course, was put on hold when the school buildings shut down, as was the traditional EVC spring art project of combining papier mache and painting by making masks.
With the detour, Weyrick created assignments using techniques the students learned earlier in the year such as drawing with shadow, smearing, smudging, cross hatching, and contour. “Most students have a pencil and paper at home,” Weyrick said, which allows them to easily complete the assignment of one drawing a week. Students also were expected to watch short videos of “Mati and Dada,” a YouTube animated series about art history.
Historically, art has been an ever-changing subject. But much about it is also timeless.
The same things are true about teaching art, as Weyrick has discovered.