CULTIVATING CREATIVITY: Arts education during COVID-19

By Fiona Campbell/Quinte Arts Council

With students once again learning online during the latest provincial lockdown, we thought it timely to share this article written last fall, during the earlier days of back-to-school during the time of COVID-19. We hope that it fosters some patience, understanding and kindness during this tough time, as well as a greater appreciation for the importance of arts education during – and after – a global pandemic.

On March 12, 2020 the provincial government announced that Ontario schools would close for two weeks after March Break due to COVID-19. And then for months teachers, students and parents were caught in a limbo of uncertainty: when would kids go back? They expected to be home for a few weeks: the lockdown lasted 14.

When students returned to school in September (if they returned at all, as over 2,500 students registered for the new virtual school, the largest in the Hastings and Prince Edward County School Board) it was a very different world than what they were used to: high schoolers would attend four five-week octomesters, studying one subject for the entire day and stay within a single cohort of students, thereby limiting exposure.

Schools banned visitors, enforced strict physical distancing restrictions and required everyone to wear masks. All teachers weathered a massive adjustment, but some, due to the nature of their subject, felt the sting of COVID-19 in unprecedented ways.

The benefits of arts education are well established: beyond cultivating creativity, students exposed to art show increased confidence, improved communication, and enhanced cognition and critical thinking. As arts education is a core part of our mandate, we checked in with several teachers to see how they, and their students, are coping.

“Making art with kids has been so good. Imagine doing math all day long. I can’t even,” says Lise Lindenberg, head of the art department at Eastside Secondary School in Belleville. “Being an art teacher is like running a studio instead of a classroom. You teach students a skill in the morning and give them practice time in the afternoon. I was looking at their portfolios and I can’t believe how many projects we completed in that four-1/2 weeks. The difference is they don’t have time to master anything because they

don’t have long enough to do one thing. But they are being exposed to so many mediums.”

That’s not to say that the new octomester format hasn’t created new challenges, even for experienced teachers. Firstly, teachers have had to stretch already tight classroom budgets even farther because supplies can’t be shared between students. Secondly, social distancing has changed the way students and teachers interact.

“Usually I teach very holistically – a lot of small groups, sharing and looking at each other’s work, critiquing and back and forth,” says visual arts teacher Tisha Francis of Centre Hastings Secondary School (CHSS) in Madoc, Ont. “Now they can’t work in small groups, they’re not supposed to interact. That’s a huge thing for me to get over.” Even just taking a student’s pencil to demonstrate a skill is off limits.

And then there is the intensity of planning an entire day of one subject in a way that keeps students engaged, informed and not overwhelmed.

“You go home and you prep like crazy for the next day, need to have many many activities to keep them busy,” says Lindenberg. “None of us have taught the same group for more than 75 minutes at a time…. I feel like I’ve already taught a year and it’s only been five weeks.”

Francis says that she, like many teachers, is feeling the fatigue: “The kids are tired too. Because it’s so crunched into one,” says Francis. Then there’s the information overload. “That’s a big one. There is no easing up for the subject matter….[So we’re] going outside, taking stretching breaks, making sure we’re all staying healthy – emotionally, physically and mentally. A lot of it doesn’t have to do with curriculum. A lot of it is the other things.”

While visual arts teachers had to reinvent ways of teaching and connecting with their students, music teachers faced even tougher challenges: in late summer, the province mandated that instruments requiring “blowing” wouldn’t be allowed and vocal music would be taught without singing.

“In 23 years of teaching I have never experienced anything like this,” says vocal teacher Kim Dafoe at Centennial Secondary School in Belleville. “What I keep having to tell myself: There are so many circumstances that are out of our control, there’s nothing we

can do about it. I have these awesome kids in front of me and they deserve the best that they can get.”

Teachers are naturally innovative, and so this fall music teachers moved students outside, giving kids the opportunity to sing acapella with body percussion (in small groups two metres apart) and play wind instruments for short periods when the weather was good. But when I spoke with teachers in October, the question remained: what would happen in the winter when frigid temperatures would make it impossible for instruments, let alone students, to work outside?

“What is that going to look like? I don’t know. We’re obviously going to be as creative as we can but there is only so much we can do,” says Dafoe. “Teaching a music class without being able to sing is like teaching an English class with no books. To wrap my head around that… to be honest I haven’t yet. That’s my biggest stressor.”

David Reed of Eastside who had 25 guitar students has a different challenge: “They can’t just play a guitar for five hours a day because their hands would be shredded. Then they get to do it the next day… for 23 more days.”

He’s created a new model where he’s split four periods into eight: kids play two of those periods, and the rest of the day consists of music history, theory, active listening, music in the news and even a rhythm unit where guitar kids work through a snare drum studies using drumsticks and practice pads.

“Normally I would have a semester of 88 days with them for 75 minutes in a day, but today we just finished day five, which is like day 20. We’ve had five days of class and they’re already playing four songs of chords in them. It’s kind of mind blowing to think of it. Usually it’s two weeks before they’re playing songs of chords. “

In a traditional semester, they’d learn a new song every two days and by exam time students could play 25 songs. “There is no way I can expect them to play 25 songs in 24 days,” says Reed. “The hard thing for me to gauge, because I’ve done it one way for 22 years, is watching the progress and how much I can push them.”

A provincial ban on gathering also means that there are no opportunities for kids to perform. No dances, no community fundraisers, no Christmas concerts or assemblies. No performance field trips.

“Performance has always been the outlet, the goal,” says Reed. “Vocal class works on stuff that we sing, band class works on stuff that we play. How will that affect the motivation if we suddenly don’t have anything to work towards? We will still have goals, but that energy in front of playing in front of an audience…that ‘Grandma and grandpa are driving down from Ottawa for the Christmas concert, I’m so excited ’- that’s gone.”

Music teacher Jamie Sharpe, who runs the travelling Sound Academy (SA) rock ensemble at CHSS had plans to travel to Nashville in March 2020 for the annual band trip. Now he doesn’t foresee any travel before spring 2022. “A parent asked me what was going on with SA this year and I said, ‘It’s been put in an induced coma. ’It’ll come back but until a lot of healing has happened, we’re just putting it to sleep,” says Sharpe.

“Others have bigger problems, tougher times than worrying about vocal class,” says Sharpe. “But from my perspective, what I’m doing in my little world, these courses and getting kids excited about music is important. For a chunk of them, knowing this was an outlet for their enjoyment, and for their mental health – it was key. That’s probably my biggest source of sadness about the situation.”

One option that’s been bandied about is moving to virtual jam sessions and concerts. We saw a lot of that during lockdown, but there’s a huge learning curve for both teacher and students: “I’ve got to learn how to do that, get the tracks from the kids and put it all together into something presentable, while still teaching all my classes,” says Reed.

“And If they can’t do something that sounds decent it’s not going to push them on to the next unit or assignment,” adds Sharpe.

Then there is the question of access: “If we make this big project where we’re building a virtual band and virtual choir, what about the three kids that don’t have internet at home? Am I creating an environment that’s excluding those kids?,” says Reed. “They might have just enough data to read my notes for the history lesson but maybe not enough to stream a video.”

With COVID numbers rising across the country, there is a lot of uncertainty about whether schools will be shut down again. “I told the kids upfront: I don’t know what this is going to look like, you don’t know what this is going to look like. Every day is a new adventure,” says instrumental teacher Blair Yarrington at Centennial. “There is no precedent, no prior experience. With the government changing restrictions, we knew that we could be shut down at any time. I can’t plan more than a day or two ahead of time because I don’t know what is going to happen.”

Most teachers felt they were caught off guard in March. Since then, many have adopted a “go bag” mentality – that if school gets shut down on a Friday, they’ll be ready to launch online the following Monday.

“It’s all very troubling. The best thing for me is to understand there will be a bunch of fallout from this virus that I have no control over,” says Sharpe. “And it’s an effect that I’m going to feel for a while. But the importance of music for me and for kids is not going to go away.”

Regardless of the intense pace, “pivoting” and new ways of doing almost everything, all teachers agree that the benefits of an arts education to students makes all of the hard work worthwhile.

“My motto is art is therapy,” says Francis. “Especially in times of stress, being creative and having an outlet is super important. All of us need a way to navigate tough times and the arts are naturally therapeutic.”

Adds Lindenberg: “Art allows [students] to focus on something other than this other ‘big thing’. And it’s a nice thing to focus on… If you can teach them foundational skills that they can develop, it helps them to focus on those and not all the other stressors.”

This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Umbrella magazine, available now.