By: Maya Fawaz, Meghan Holland, Lucy Lopez, Evan L’Roy
Papers and pencils are replaced by keyboards and screens as Texas fine arts classes struggle to foster learning during a global pandemic.
“Everyone in the entire world is on the Internet right now,” said Laura Edens, an art teacher and director of fine arts classes at Harmony School of Excellence in Houston.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced teachers, students and families to modify their teaching and learning practices. Fine arts departments have faced challenges adjusting to online learning for the remainder of the academic year.
Many teachers have said they are concerned about what this transition will mean for the future of education and whether students are getting a good foundation in art, music, physical education and theater. The lack of interactivity has forced some parents to facilitate learning at home by using the resources they already have or those provided by schools.
“Some households don’t have Internet, some households don’t have laptops, some households have a phone but maybe not a data plan,” said Edens. “The world is trying to help education continue.”
As of April 21, there were over 20,000 COVID-19 cases reported across Texas’ counties, according to Texas Health and Human Services. Gov. Greg Abbott announced in a press briefing on April 17 that all schools will remain closed through the end of the summer.
Previously, Abbott said he hoped to open schools again by May 4.
In response to the closure, many schools in Texas transitioned to online learning by using Google Classroom and similar online platforms.
Adjusting to the new program was time consuming because educators only had a few weeks to set up their Google Classroom and get everyone on board, Edens said.
“Parents and kids are trying to figure out how to sign on and understand the program,” Edens said. “It’s a learning curve on all bases.”
According to several fine arts teachers, schools have implemented shorter lesson plans and are taking accessibility into account regarding their students’ access to the internet and education materials.
To combat this, Austin ISD has announced that it is providing students grades 3 to 7 with Chromebooks and deployed 110 school buses equipped with WiFi capabilities to neighborhoods and apartment complexes.
Edens said she knows students may not have certain materials, so she tries to work with what they have. She said she assigned a “found color wheel” to her elementary students, where students had to find objects around their house that could reflect the colors of the rainbow.
She graded them based on whether they did the assignment and if the colors were in the correct order. HSE’s administration told teachers to focus on “giving them an experience” rather than focusing on grades.
“There's a lot of teachers who have shared their lesson plans. We just beg, borrow and steal from one another and come up with ideas on how to teach kids,” said Jackie Selman, a fifth grade fine arts teacher at Greenways and Pinnacle Intermediate schools in Amarillo.
Selman teaches a theater class and said she is worried about how well her students can learn a subject from home that relies predominantly on group interaction.
She said her class does not take precedent over the core curriculum so as to not overwhelm the students with additional coursework. Selman said they stopped working on everything from improvisational and acting exercises to rehearsals and performing plays.
However, Selman said students can turn to the fine arts classes for enrichment and fun. To foster creativity, Selman said she recorded a dance video with her 8-year-old daughter and asked her students to critique her.
Selman said she previously used YouTube videos to demonstrate different voice and acting exercises in the classroom. Now that the course is online, she said her school does not want teachers to link YouTube videos in their lessons so students will not get distracted by other videos on the platform.
Because of this, she said she is adjusting her lesson plans to include videos she makes herself, so students may still interact with the lessons.
“I have short reader’s theater plays, so I'll read a play and I'll change the voices, you know, be all the voices in the play, and post that video,” Selman said.
Selman said she understands why she is not allowed to choose the teaching platform, as in picking between Google Classroom, Seesaw or another online program, but that it can still be frustrating to not have that freedom.
“I wish we mattered more,” Selman said.
Edens said she recognizes the importance of the school’s emphasis on the core curriculum. However, she said she is concerned that her classes may not be taken as seriously as the other classes.
“They’re putting us at the bottom of the totem pole, which is where we always are,” Edens said, “but now it’s even lower than the bottom of the totem pole.”
Studies indicate that fine arts classes are beneficial to the student’s overall learning experience.
“Not only do extracurricular activities instill great values, they have also been proven to boost school attendance, academic success, and aspirations for continuing education past high school,” according to the National Education Association.
Edens said she worries that students and administrators will think of her class as a “brain break” and will not take her class seriously when school returns to normal in the fall.
“They’re going to have this mentality of ‘oh, you’re not giving grades, I’m not doing it,’’’ she said.
Despite her fears that many students will ignore these online classes, some students said they are willing to learn through the new programs.
Sixth grader Hailey Garcia, who attends Hendrick Middle School in Plano, said she found the online experience frustrating, especially when it comes to submitting videos of orchestra practice. Hailey said practicing is not quite the same without teacher supervision.
When her mother, Mary Garcia, tried to step in and help, she said she was not sure how to best support her children.
“I don’t feel that I’m fully qualified,” Garcia said.
Garcia said she worries that if this becomes permanent she will not be able to help her daughter with schoolwork. As a working parent, she said she finds it difficult to balance working from home and helping both of her children with their education.
“What I could see happening,” said Garcia, “Is that my kids would lose quality of education, or I would have to teach myself and bring myself up to par to be their teacher.”
Gwen Wilhite, another Plano ISD parent, said she provides home-training in fine arts as much as she can.
“We’ve done so (many) chalk drawings, you would not believe,” Wilhite said.
(authors note: this story was written for J310F at the University of Texas at Austin)
By: Meghan Holland
Lindsey Spruell, a social work junior at West Texas A&M University, said having a pet helped her get out of a low point in her life.
“I felt like I needed something to be there for me,” she said. “I was just really lonely and sad, and then I adopted Bear, and he helped.”
Bear is a dog that she adopted from an animal shelter in Amarillo, Texas last year. Spruell said she had been thinking about adopting a dog for a while, and after she got out of class one day, she decided to just go and do it.
Spruell said she remembers how the Facetime call went when she told her parents that she had adopted Bear. She said they were not very happy at first.
“My dad was so dramatic. He was like, ‘You're never coming here ever again.’ And guess what? Now he loves this dog,” she said.
Spruell said Bear has become her best friend.
“No matter what happens with me and someone else,” she said, “I'll always have my dog around. And it's just really comforting.”
For many people, pets bring a sense of comfort and joy that only an animal can give. According to the 2019-2020 Animal Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey, 67% of households in the United States own a pet, which translates to about 84.9 million homes.
Spruell said she takes her dog everywhere with her. She said she lets him lean his head out of the window while she drives, and the two of them have a favorite song that they listen to. She said she even takes him hiking and camping.
“I took him to go camping in Colorado on the sand dunes,” Spruell said. “That's probably the best memory because he was off the leash, and he was just having fun.”
In addition to Bear, Spruell recently rescued a cat from a car repair shop. She named him Midnight, and she said the two animals are now best friends.
“I rescued the cat from a car place,” Spruell said, “Which sounds weird, but they were working on my car, and they were hitting the cat with the tools. And he was a kitten, like really, really small, so I just took him.”
Midnight, she said, is more of a troublemaker who has an attitude, but she said he also can be really sweet. Spruell said she does not understand her cat but loves him anyway.
Steven Greene, the director of Animal Services at the Lubbock Animal Shelter & Adoption Center, said he thinks many people choose to adopt or rescue animals because the animals are in more need of help than those that are born in a mill or are breeded out.
“Many of (the animals) come in from the streets, and they're unwanted or neglected,” Greene said. “You feel better helping that animal that may not have otherwise had a good option.”
Greene said he grew up around animals but then was away from them for most of his adult life. He said he wanted to do something different after leading various careers such as working for the city, and he saw an opening. He applied as the field operations officer for the shelter.
“Our adoption numbers have changed tremendously in the seven years I've been here,” he said. “When I started, we were more of a high kill, low adoption type of operation. And we have completely changed that around where we have had a 96% or higher save rate the last four or five straight months, and over 90% over the last 24 months.”
The shelter has had to change their operations in accordance with city and state mandates due to COVID-19.
Greene said Megan Schroll, the assistant director of Animal Services, is the “adoption expert” for the shelter.
“We have been doing appointments every day for an hour,” Schroll said. “People can come to the shelter, and they wait outside, and we go and find their perfect dog for them. We ask them a few questions, and make sure it'd be a good fit for their family (and) for their lifestyle.”
The shelter has also incorporated special events, such as what they call the “Doggy Drive-Thru.”
“People can just drive up and find a dog, and that's been super successful. We've had 25 adoptions in three hours, and that was our highest one that we had, and we're having another one this week,” Schroll said.
The shelter had about 180 pet adoptions in the month of April, which is lower than normal, but considering that no one can come in the building, Greene said it was amazing.
Schroll said that shelter animals take about a month to acclimate to home life with the new routine and training. Schroll said she encourages people to be more adamant about giving their new shelter pet time and giving them a better chance of life.
“People really need to see past getting a purebred dog or something close to that, because any dog makes a good dog through training and TLC,” she said. “It's just really important to keep your options open and make sure you know that they're well taken care of afterwards. A lot of the shelter dogs are not potty trained when they leave, but it really just is a matter of time.”
Brett Beitlich, the growth and outreach liaison at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, Idaho, said he recommends researching the animal before adopting it so the pet owner will know what to expect.
Beitlich said it took some time to train his two dogs, Hanna and Maddox, because he rescued them off the streets in Guam while he was in the military. Maddox was just a puppy when he rescued her.
“Guam had a bunch of stray animals, and the towns were overrun,” he said.
Beitlich said that because they came from the streets, the dogs often got into the trash can when they were hungry. It was habitual for them to search the trash for food. He said they have since adjusted to the training, and he also said that a pet owner needs to be able to devote the time and commitment to helping their animals.
“They rely on you,” Beitlich said.
When Beitlich came back to the United States, he brought his two dogs with him. He said Hanna and Maddox “have traveled more than some people get to travel in their entire lives.”
He said there is no way to measure what it means to be a pet owner. He can be having a bad day, but his dogs make it better.
Spruell shares that feeling. “What’s not good about having animals?” she said.
(authors note: this story was written for J310F at the University of Texas at Austin)
I am an aspiring photographer, writer, and adventurer. I love the outdoors and I love to tell a great story with pictures!