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)
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