Schools adapt to teaching the arts

  • By Jim Sabataso, Rutland Herald
  • September 29, 2020

For Cathy Archer, theater arts teacher at Rutland High School, the show must go on.

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged teachers to adapt to new models of learning in order to educate from afar, and the arts are no exception.

Since March, Archer said she has been meeting with students virtually. She’s held improv classes on Zoom and even held a virtual talent show that aired on PEG-TV this summer.

“We keep finding ways to keep doing theater,” she said last week.

She is currently teaching an all-remote visual storytelling class for seventh graders at Rutland Middle School.

“We’re working on voice, and we’re doing a lot with creating stories through Google Slides and Google Docs, and getting to know each other,” she said.

Archer, who admitted she is not typically a tech savvy person, said she has become adept at incorporating new technology into her classroom.

“I think the biggest challenge is, you have to remind yourself that everything that you do takes twice as long as it does when you can just talk to people,” she said.

At RHS, which is on a hybrid model of alternating in-person and remote days, Archer is able to meet face-to-face with students. The high school has an all-remote option as well.

“I’m really fortunate, in a way, because both of my classes are stagecraft and design. So they are not that difficult to do,” she said, adding that remote students can easily participate.

Archer said there will “definitely” be a fall play. This year’s production will be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare.

The cast did its first read through last week with student actors in-person and on Zoom. The play is slated to open in November.

“We don’t know what kind of production it’s going to be,” Archer said, explaining that she hopes conditions allow for a limited audience, but it they don’t, the production could air on PEG-TV or be streamed online.

She is also considering a “radio show” in which students would perform remotely if the school is forced to close again.

Archer, who has taught theater arts for more than 30 years said this year has been unlike any other.

“I would say that this is the strangest thing,” she said. “I’m a very positive person, and I just keep going.”

But while teaching theater remotely is a challenge, it still translates easier than teaching music.

“There have been extreme challenges at the same time as really great positives,” said Phil Henry, who has taught music at West Rutland School for the past 17 years.

Speaking last week, Henry said the all-remote experience of the spring was “tough,” and he’s happy to be back in the classroom this fall.

West Rutland is open for in-person instruction four days a week; Wednesdays are remote. There is also a remote-only option.

Of his approximately 80 students, Henry said he has about one or two per class who are entirely remote. Those students are still able to participate in real time via a classroom webcam.

Students are also learning about music theory and various other topics online. Henry said it’s an effort to maintain equity with students who are entirely remote.

But just because Henry is back in the classroom, it’s not business as usual. School opening guidelines limited student travel within the building so specialist teachers had to go to them. That means Henry had to bring music class to his students by physically carrying instruments from room to room.

“If I’m playing guitars with a fourth-grade class, then it means bringing 15 guitars up the stairs or up the elevator,” he said.

Guidelines have changed and students are able to go to Henry’s room.

“Our biggest challenge is that we can’t be singing inside the building,” he said.

According to the CDC, singing can contribute to the transmission of COVID-19 “through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization.”

Wind instruments are also not allowed inside.

Henry has brought the chorus outside to rehearse, but said it is not optimal because students still have to wear masks and maintain social distancing, which makes it difficult to hear one another.

That doesn’t mean they miss out on learning though. Chorus students are currently working on a songwriting unit where they are composing songs and putting them to music.

“We’ve had to be really, really creative in the way that we approach those kids,” Henry said.

Bobby Booth teaches music at Spaulding High School in Barre.

SHS is currently on a hybrid model in which students attend for in-person learning while others are fully remote. He said he has about 60 students in his classes.

While class time is typically spent preparing for concerts and other community appearances, Booth said he is spending more time “focusing on the individual player” this fall.

The school band has been rehearsing outdoors following social distancing guidelines and using bell covers. Bell covers, when placed over the openings of brass and wind instruments act as a guard to reduce the transmission of aerosol droplets.

“The Fall season is marching band season and we are usually outside playing every morning until November anyway,” he said. “The only difference this year is, I have half the amount of students I normally do at one time due to the hybrid learning model.”

Also, Booth has designed a remote curriculum using weekly “practice plans” where students focus their individual skills as a musician.

“Students set goals for themselves, develop practice strategies, log practice time and reflect on how their plan went each week,” he said, explaining that students are also asked to submit audio recordings of themselves so Booth can provide feedback.

Booth said one of the biggest challenges has been keeping students motivated and engaged.

“I always considered a big part of my job to be coaching,” he said. “Encouragement and the motivation to practice happened largely during rehearsal time. Only seeing students once a week has made that task much more difficult.”

Jonathan Taylor, an art teacher at Mill River Union Middle and High School in Clarendon, has been teaching for more than 20 years, but said all teachers are effectively starting from scratch this year.

“When it comes to remote learning and the technology, all of us, no matter how experienced or inexperienced we are, we’re all sort of first-year teachers, in some ways,” he said last week.

Taylor has about 100 students learning remotely this fall. The entire Mill River School District is remote only until at least November.

“We’re reinventing our curriculum and reinventing our delivery and interaction, which is obviously stressful, but also kind of fun,” he said.

Taylor said he has been using the Google Drawings app, a simple drawing tool that lets students create art using a mouse or the trackpad on their Chromebook.

“I can have a screen where I’m seeing all their drawings as they’re drawing and commenting on it over Google Meet,” he said.

Taylor explained that, while the app is frustratingly basic, it can be fun to play with once students accept its limitations.

Students will be work on traditional art projects. Taylor’s drawing class is keeping a daily sketchbook and staging their own still life scenes to draw at home.

Taylor said the remote experience gives students an opportunity to work more independently.

Students submit work by taking photos of it and posting it to Google Meet where Taylor can provides notes and comments. He can even digitally mark up a submission to demonstrate a technique or underscore a principle.

“That’s where the new opportunities come in,” he said.

He’s also has been making instructional videos for his 2-D design class where he explains elements, principles, composition.

As schools shifted to online learning in the spring, the arts became less of a priority as schools scrambled to make sure student academic needs such as reading and math were being met.

But Taylor made the case that the arts are also essential.

“It is a tough line to walk, absolutely, because in the end we know there are academic standards that students have to meet to continue earning credits to graduate,” he said. “… But there are so many students for whom art makes such a big difference and kind of brings everything together for them and gives school meaning.”