“I want to continue with what I wanted to end the year with (curriculum-wise) but it’s hard to navigate a class through these waters. It’s foreign territory for us all.”

-Scott WeidEman, Reno Valley Middle School

Art Teachers Navigating Continuous Learning – Teachers overcoming the challenges of providing equity of resources and supports when students are learning from home.

By: Angela Deines
Kansas NEA Communications

The early planning stages of continuous learning left Renee Fritts, a second-year art teacher in Derby USD 260, with a “few sleepless nights,” particularly because she didn’t know where to begin engaging her young students and their families.

“I couldn’t even wrap my head around how I was going to present things,” she said of the online art lessons she would have to plan. “How am I going to do this? What angle are we going to go at this from?”  

The ability to adapt quickly is something inherent for Fritts. She had been dividing her time among three elementary schools and an estimated 1,000 students on a weekly basis before Kansas school buildings were shuttered for students for the rest of the 2019-20 school year due to the threat posed by the novel coronavirus. She entered teaching later in life after a career in advertising design for an Illinois newspaper company.

As a result of the Great Recession, Fritts said she was laid off, along with her husband who belonged to a plumbers’ union. After the couple moved to Kansas where her husband got a position at McConnell Air Force Base, Fritts said she earned a bachelor’s degree in art education with an emphasis on ceramics at Wichita State University.

The ability to “play well in the sandbox” with others has also been an asset for Fritts in planning continuous learning for her students. She said she’s using Padlet, a virtual project management platform while working with her fellow “specials” – music and physical education teachers – to come up with fun activities to keep their students connected, happy, and active at home.

“We were just trying to find something that would offer choice to them after their classroom teachers meet with them,” she said. “We just wanted to go in lightly and make it into a game.”

Fritts said every art, music and PE project the students complete on a Google form counts as a mile. She said with all the students in the nine Derby elementary schools participating, they’re seeing how many miles they can accumulate to circle the globe.

“We think we have about 2,500 miles now,” she said.    

Fritts said she believes the simple approach is best in planning projects across elementary grades and utilizing materials that can be found at home, like having her students create ‘art they can eat’ or like drawing a new cover for their favorite book.

“Kiddos aren’t going to have the same supplies at home that they would have in the art room,” she said. “We just want them to have fun without being overwhelmed.”

For her middle school students, Kim Schneweis, a member of the Kansas NEA Board of Directors and long-time art teacher at Hays Middle School, is also encouraging her students to draw as much as possible while they’re home as a creative outlet. 

“Drawing can be therapeutic,” she said, adding that drawing doesn’t take a lot of additional supplies that may be hard to come by for some students. She said she can’t assume her students have art supplies at home or that parents can easily buy supplies, especially if they may be losing their job.

Schneweis said she’s taking this opportunity to have her students think and research more about the historical aspects of art.

“I’m going to focus more on that and less on the production,” she said. “My first thought is to refocus my lessons on art history. I already include it in my lessons but it’s easy to neglect.”

Schneweis said in addition to studying more art history, she’s encouraging her students to think about the purpose, rather than just the techniques, of art.

The continuous learning process is proving to be simultaneously exciting, awkward, challenging and overwhelming for Scott Wiedeman, an art teacher at Reno Valley Middle School in Nickerson USD 309. He said he sees “tons of ideas” from his colleagues from across the state on how to navigate virtual art instruction.

“But you have your own personal tastes of what you want to do,” he said while acknowledging the myriad of online approaches available to art instructors. “I want to continue with what I wanted to end the year with (curriculum-wise) but it’s hard to navigate a class through these waters. It’s foreign territory for us all.”

Wiedeman said Google Classroom and the Scholastic art platform have been good tools so far to deliver continuous learning to his students but the process hasn’t been without its drawbacks given that he can’t have the one-on-one contact that is important in the art classroom.

“I want to continue this artistic journey with them,” he said, “but I’m not able to go to their desk.”

Part 2 ofPutting Art Education in the Digital Frame” will be published next week when we’ll have a story about how two middle school art teachers are collaborating to keep students who have limited resources and access engaged in art.

Renee Fritts, elementary art educator in Derby USD 260, had her younger students re-create the cover of their favorite book as part of their continuous learning at home. Another student made an “arrangement” (feature image above) which he described as “a city where no one is sick.”