One by one, students pop into the classroom, each in a respective Zoom window. Trisha Todd, a drama teacher at Portland’s Grant High School, waits a few minutes until everyone in her Beginning Theatre class has arrived. Todd is teaching from her office at Grant, which is full of theater tchotchkes: a turquoise folding screen, a poster for Sarah Ruhl’s play Orlando, and what looks like poor Yorick’s skull. Todd’s students, however, are scattered around the city. There is no bell to sound the start of things.
So class begins, inconspicuously, with a warmup. First some stretching. Then Todd asks the students to go around and share the musical artists they’ve been listening to recently. More than one student mentions Billie Eilish; another says he’s been blasting a lot of classic rock.
“I’m doing whatever I can to keep them engaged,” Todd says. “We’re just hoping to keep them with us until they get back.”
THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series
Last March, schools faced an unprecedented challenge when classrooms were shuttered due to the coronavirus. Arts educators, especially those with subjects in the performing arts, were forced to grapple with ways to reach students from a distance.
“It was really hard,” says Lisa Adams, a music teacher at Duniway Elementary School. “I wasn’t able to meet with the students live. Participation was not required. There wasn’t a unified way that every school was handling it.”
Six months later, Portland Public Schools has worked to refine and innovate arts education in a style that is tailored to the moment. “Spring was very doomy gloomy,” says Laura Arthur, a music teacher on special assignment for the district. “I feel like the fall is the second, third stage of grief. We’ve reached acceptance and solutions.”
That process hasn’t been an easy one.
For arts educators, virtual learning has required a significant change in curriculum. Molly Renauer, a visual arts teacher at Mt. Tabor Middle School, says, “I knew very quickly that I would have to improvise.” So Renauer created online tutorials on how to make art supplies at home, like glue and paint, from materials that could be found in a kitchen or recycling bin. She delivered content to her student by using her classroom’s Instagram and YouTube accounts, posting videos and images on topics like community art.
Similarly, Adams has taught her students at Duniway to craft their own instruments from household objects, like a “guitar” made from a berry container and rubber bands. One student, Adams says, filled a paper towel tube with beans and fixed tape to the edges. “That’s something that’s so creative, kids actually making their own instruments.”
Of course, the technology comes with its complications. On the day I spoke with Renauer, she described how a student’s Chromebook unexpectedly had stopped working. When she learned the computer wasn’t working, Renauer hopped in her car and drove to school, picked up a new computer, dropped it off at the student’s home, and drove back to her house in time for her next class.
“Between classes, I had forty-five minutes,” Renauer says. “But she was in class this afternoon.”
Other adjustments have been less stressful. Chris Meade, who teaches drama and music at Lent K-8, says, “I did a whole assignment on taking silly selfies just to get students used to using a camera.”
At the beginning of the school year, Meade surveyed his students to get a sense of their preferences for learning music virtually. “The majority of my kids were really uncomfortable singing by themselves into a computer,” Meade says. “There was no safety net for them.”
Instead, Meade shifted his focus to emphasizing music appreciation and literacy. This fall, for example, students are learning about the various musics of Latin America. District-wide, arts classes are now structured around themes like emotional resilience and racial equity. That change, Meade says, has been welcome.
“In a chorus class you have the deadline of the performance, so you have to teach to the performance,” he says. “It’s nice to have this method where I can explore all these other aspects of music that kind of get glossed over during the regular school year.”
For theater, Todd says her goal is less forcing her old curriculum into a new format than tailoring her subject to online learning. “We can look at history, we can look at Shakespeare, we can look at the Greeks,” Todd says. “We could just read plays for a semester.”
Instead of directing a fall play, Todd is organizing a 24-hour devised theater piece. The festival will showcase a play written, directed, and acted entirely by students. “It’s supposed to happen really quickly,” says Todd. “You go with your instinct. You don’t have set limitations. You create them.”
Rachel Slater, a dance teacher at Jefferson High School, has also retailored her curriculum to focus more on creativity than on technique, an approach better-suited for in-person instruction. “There’s been a big emphasis on dance for film,” says Slater. “How do you make dance site-specific? I’ve had kids somersaulting back and forth across their beds. Really interesting, creative things.”
If one benefit for students has been the opportunity to create their own dances, instruments, art supplies and more, educators have benefited from the newfound collaboration brought on by virtual learning.
Kristen Brayson, the district’s program administrator for Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA), says that in the spring the district wanted to avoid teachers having to craft individual lesson plans for online learning: “It seemed like a waste of resources.”
Instead, VAPA brought together arts educators from around the district to collaborate on online learning plans that could be adapted to each teacher’s needs. “We coined the Teacher Planning Network,” says Brayson. Groups of teachers meet weekly to share ideas and design lesson plans for colleagues.
“We saw such great collaboration,” says Brayson. “The district adopted our model across content areas, so now there are teaching planning networks in math, in health, and PE.”
Arts educators were emphatic about how this change has been beneficial. Arts teachers are often the only educators of their specialty appointed at a school. “We have been able to solve one of the most endemic problems for our educators, historically, which is isolation,” says Carolyn Hazel Drake, a visual arts teacher on special assignment.
The period of forced isolation has allowed arts educators to connect in ways they previously didn’t. Prior to March, says Brayson, “We were all bound by our brick and mortar buildings.” Teachers would travel across town to gather at infrequent professional development meetings. Now, arts educators can meet online weekly. “That is one of things out this pandemic that is a silver lining.”
Renauer agrees: “It’s important for us to brainstorm with people that are teaching the same content. That’s been definitely missing for a lot of years, that we didn’t have that space.” Slater calls the newfound exchange between arts teachers “genius.”
Most importantly, Drake sees this innovation as an element of online education that will be retained after students return to classrooms. “It seems like a little thing, teachers getting on a call like this,” says Drake. “But that’s going to have long-term implications, especially in establishing equitable outcomes for students and shared understanding.”
None of the educators I spoke with seemed too surprised by their colleagues’ ability to adapt.
“I think we are uniquely suited to adapting our practices for any situation,” says Meade. “That is something that is built into our subjects, and it’s something that we build into our kids, to help them be adaptable in a changing world, no matter the circumstance.”
That said, teachers and students are looking forward to the day they can return, safely, to the classroom. “I’ll be really excited when we’re back in person,” says Adams. “I think it will be an explosion of energy.”
As Beau Shearer, a 12th grader in Todd’s drama class, puts it: “At school you are able talk to your peers and teachers freely without having to go from muted mic to unmute.”
Even if the tradeoff is a noisy classroom, it’ll be nice to hear more than one voice at a time.