Laura Arthur

Out of isolation: teaching the arts

As Portland Public Schools continue to teach long-distance during the pandemic, the district's arts teachers discover creative ways to adapt

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.”

Lisa Adams shows off some of her homemade musical instruments. As a way to overcome resource challenges, Adams has taught her students at Duniway Elementary School how to make their own instruments. Photo: Max Tapogna

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.”