Student participant in the HeArt Walks project of the Miller Creek School District. Photo Credit: Portraits By Hilary – https://portraitsbyhilary.com/

Art Education at the Crossroads

Typically, the Miller Creek School District ends the school year with an art show. This year, everything shifted when Covid-19 sent students home to learn. Jamie Newman, an art teacher at Vallecito Elementary School in…

Typically, the Miller Creek School District ends the school year with an art show. This year, everything shifted when Covid-19 sent students home to learn. Jamie Newman, an art teacher at Vallecito Elementary School in the district, explained, “We wanted some form of celebration to close out the year.”

This year’s newly-imagined art project was modeled on an earlier one, created by the kindergarten teacher Regan Natelberg, dubbed the Alphabet Project. She had asked her students to choose a letter and place it in a home window visible from the street so they could hunt for them and practice their letters while taking walks in the neighborhood. Newman adapted the concept to encompass heart designs for their year-end exhibit to create a more profound sense of community that allowed for social distancing. The project, HeArt Walks, includes colorful, imaginative heart-themed images displayed from homes throughout the school district community.

“Each elementary school art teacher provided a lesson plan for students to use as inspiration. I did a video of the work of Romero Britto. I also shared the book, What If, by Samantha Berger. So far, I’ve collected about 130 photos of student artwork, some including families that are like front porch portraits.”

I like art. There is really no messing up. That’s one reason why I like it. With the heart walk, it’s not that hard, and it’s pretty fun. My mom did the cutout of the heart, we got watercolors, and used them to paint it. We put a bunch of lighter colors on it, and I mixed random colors in the middle and splattered some, because that’s the kind of art I like. Mr. Newman has been making videos for different art projects, and they’ve helped me a lot. And, they are not, like, boring videos. They are pretty fun to watch.

Ronan O’Doherty, 5th Grader

Education is adapting to change, going back to basics, at the same time that it is embracing new technology. COVID-19 thrust the world into a crisis with many facing challenges we never imagined; the world is shifting rapidly. Marin County’s arts educators are modeling creative thinking while stepping up.  In the process, they are providing exciting ways to enhance the students’ experiences using Zoom, engage the community at large, and all while acknowledging the different realities they face.

Kristen Jacobson, Executive Director with Youth in Arts (YIA), also knows all about pivoting. She and her team took their art classes online in March. In May, they received more than $50,000 in grant awards from the California Arts Council. A portion of the funding supports collaborative efforts with San Rafael schools. Jacobson, a mom with two children, is both home-schooling her own children and providing art opportunities through YIA.

“We are seeing, now more than ever, educators value having something that they can give to their students that lets them process their emotions and provides curricular content that goes beyond sitting in a Zoom meeting,” comments Jacobson.  “We are working with the schools to ensure we have a build to suit every partnership, classroom, teacher, school: Zoom, pre-recorded lessons, hybrids of both, interactive platforms like FlipGrid, or whatever format they are comfortable working.”

Student participant in the HeArt Walks project of the Miller Creek School District. Photo Credit: Portraits By Hilary

Art teacher, Jamie Newman, at Vallecito Elementary School, in the Miller Creek School District, explained, “It’s an interesting journey. I’ve learned a lot. So much change. And people – myself included – who don’t like change are resistant to change, but this situation has forced us to accept it.”

The change began in earnest on Monday, March 16, on a day set aside for professional development for Vallecito Elementary School’s teachers. That day, The White House asked almost every American to stay home from work or school for the next 15 days to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Vallecito Principal, Elizabeth Foehr, said, “None of us saw this coming, and I can’t say enough wonderful things about my teachers and the cooperation with the other schools. We are fortunate to be a small district, only three schools, so that we could pivot quickly to remote learning.”

What made a big difference that Monday is that the teachers at Vallecito were able to repurpose that professional development day. The staff could leave with a Google classroom setup, knowing how to do Zoom calls, and understand expectations for synchronous and asynchronous learning or holding office hours. They understood how to begin shifting the entire instructional practice to remote learning. Principal Foehr worked with her staff to prioritize access to ChromeBooks for students who needed them. Internet access and hot spots took another two weeks to address the equity gap.

Jamie Newman faced a similar challenge – access to art materials. He’d left his office that Monday with one box of supplies. After all, everyone thought they’d be back in two weeks.

“I had to think about what the students would have at home. Not all students can afford to access art supplies. I thought about universal art projects that anybody Pre-K to 5th grade could do,” Newman added. “I also prioritize making my videos short, 3-5 minutes each, so students can get the concept and then get into creating.”

Students also did art at home during the weeks of shelter-in-place through programs like YIA Cre8tes, which provided daily 8-minute lessons live-streamed directly to parents and kids via social media. In June, this regular program focused on projects that inspire conversations with children around race, identity, and racism. The following video was presented on Youth in Arts’ YouTube channel.

#YIACre8tes summer program delivered via social media and YouTube. This project demonstrated an art project that focuses on mixing colors into skin tone as a way to generate conversations about and appreciation for the way skin tones make us each unique.

Parents looking for additional programs throughout the summer can find them online. Headlands Center for the Arts, for example, has teamed up with A Little Culture to provide weekly art activities as part of their Headlands at Home project. Parents can work with kids on creative projects inspired by the art commissions that encompass this artists-in-residency program’s campus in the Marin Headlands.

Kate Fitzsimmons is a freelance writer and fund development professional. Her writing skills were honed as a Contributing Editor to The San Francisco Review of Books where she interviewed John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Bobbie Ann Mason, Alice Walker and others. She works with businesses, nonprofits and entrepreneurs to assist them in raising their visibility through their stories. When she isn’t writing, she is cooking for friends, collecting art or engaged in a good novel.