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

Created at home by Kaemyn, an 8th grade art student at Jardine Middle School, Topeka USD 501

“We wanted to let them to talk about art, create art and have something to look forward to at this time. Barbie and me try so hard to build relationships with our kids.”

-Chastity Romero Latham, Jardine Middle School, speaking about the partnership with Barbie Atkins, Robinson Middle School

The bond between an art teacher and student is unique, something that has been hard to replicate virtually during the COVID-19 crisis. But two NEA-Topeka members have teamed up to keep those bonds intact as part of their continuous learning strategies. 

“It’s been a little bit overwhelming adjusting to the new way of teaching,” said Chastity Romero Latham, who has taught at Jardine Middle School in Topeka USD 501 for the past five years and who had transitioned from museum education and management into teaching. “I’m self-driven and I want to do the absolute best that I can and use the technology the best way that I can.”

“My No. 1 one goal has always been relationships,” said Barbie Atkins, now in her sixth year of teaching at Robinson Middle School. “Yes, I’m trying to teach standards and adhere to rigor just like I would in the classroom but my students are experiencing this global traumatic event and I’m doing things to try to engage them as much as possible.”

Color wheel created at home by Alexis, a 6th grade student at Robinson Middle School, Topeka USD 501

Atkins and Romero Latham – who have previously worked together on projects – quickly realized they could collaborate to try to virtually replicate the secure, creative spaces their students thrive in while in the classroom. They decided to invite their respective art club students to be part of a combined, virtual club meeting soon after continuous learning began in March.  

Atkins said the meetings include weekly drawing challenges and a chance for the students and teachers to “just hang out” together.

“We wanted to let them to talk about art, create art and have something to look forward to at this time,” Romero Latham said, adding that 40 students attended the first meeting online. “Barbie and me try so hard to build relationships with our kids.”

An art student signed off “I love you” after a virtual art club meeting on Zoom hosted by Barbie Atkins, Robinson Middle School, and
Chastity Romero Latham, Jardine Middle School. Both (shown above) are NEA-Topeka members in Topeka USD 501.

“The kids were showing us their sketch books on camera,” Atkins said. She said a student later emailed her to thank her for setting up the art club meeting because it gave the student the chance to get away from her siblings for a little while.

“Now more than ever, kids need an outlet like that,” Atkins said.

Both teachers, who have been friends for the years they’ve worked at their respective schools, acknowledge the transition to continuous online learning has been an adjustment for them professionally and psychologically.    

“I miss the little conversations that have nothing to do with art,” Romero Latham said. “I miss seeing them line up outside my classroom…It’s not being able to have that dialogue that has nothing to do with art. I just miss it so much.”

Atkins, like many other art educators, is missing the conversations – art-related or not – with her students.  

“I’m very emotional,” she admitted. “I get teary-eyed seeing them on Zoom. For many of them, Robinson was their safe place. We worked so hard to create that safe place in that art room.”

Chastity Romero Latham, Jardine Middle School

“Not only do some of my students not have (art) materials but they may not have the support at home that they get here,” Atkins continued. “They don’t have that crazy, eccentric art teacher yelling at them ‘I love you’ and ‘I believe in you’ every two seconds.”

Created at home by an 8th grade art student at Jardine Middle School, Topeka USD 501

Romero Latham said while not all of her students are regularly turning in their art assignments, they are staying connected which she considers just as important.

“I really try to tie lessons into what’s going on with us and hopefully that’s engaging them. They just want to have some kind of normalcy right now,” Romero Latham said. “I’m very impressed with the maturity of my students. Right now they want that consistency and that’s okay.”

While teachers across Kansas and the U.S. struggle to maintain contact with many of their students during the COVID-19 crisis, Atkins said she knows many of her art students are doing their best to remain invested in their education while they’re at home.

“I was terrified in the beginning,” she said, “but as soon as I started getting finished assignments, I was so overcome with pride. Even under these circumstances, my kids were trying to stay connected.”