Kids Still Want to Know They Are Important: Arts Education Meets New Needs in the Pandemic

North Carolina Arts Council
Wednesday, September 16, 2020

We knew this school year was going to be different. In July, five months after schools closed early to stop the spread of COVID-19, Governor Cooper announced that K–12 schools would reopen in August with social distancing plans in place. Across the state, school districts battened down the hatches, rallied their troops, and prepared for a school year destined to be defined by the pandemic.

Last month, the school year began with more questions than answers. Could schools hold in-person classes safely? Could they guarantee that every student had the tools and skills they needed to attend school remotely? Could they ensure that remote learning wouldn’t augment the disparities that impact student achievement in a typical school year? How would the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic and virtual learning impact the social development and well-being of students? And how would the teachers — who already give so much of themselves to their work — fare?

To observe National Arts in Education Week, we asked a group of arts educators to reflect on the triumphs and challenges of teaching the arts this year. Their responses exemplify the dedication and ingenuity of North Carolina’s arts teachers and give us a deeper understanding of why arts instruction is critically important during this time of struggle.

Our second installment of this series features interviews with arts educators from Green Level High School in Cary. The final installment of this series will be live on Friday.


Rebecca Craig
Theater Teacher and Director at Green Level High School
Cary 

You’ve shared an image that captures what your work “looks like” right now. Tell us what’s going on in this picture. 

This photo shows me teaching theater in a brand-new way. Instead of bouncing around the classroom, I spend much of my time leading activities and conversations through the use of my laptop and dual monitor. However, one thing that hasn't changed is the way I start every class full of enthusiasm and a smile on my face!

Walk us through a day in the life of your job right now. 

I get up in the morning, get ready for my day, grab all my things, and drive to school just like I would if we were in a world without COVID. But that's where the familiarity stops. I park at the school, we do a health check at the front door where they take our temperature, we get a sticker every day that says, yep, I've been verified as not having any symptoms of COVID, and then I walk into my classroom. Typically, my classroom is filled with loud, enthusiastic students, but right now it is quiet and calm. . . the opposite of a typical theater class. I get my computer set up, I get my coffee, I start the meeting, and then wait for students to join. My whole day essentially takes place in this spot. 

What’s been most rewarding during this time? Is there a specific moment you’ve had with your students that illustrates this?

Teaching the arts is so communal. It's built on relationships, and in this format that's harder: not impossible, just harder. I have a class that is particularly energetic. They love sharing. They've coordinated silly costumes for class. They are the best cheerleaders of each other that I have seen. That has been the biggest reminder that the arts are still important and meaningful. The kids are ready to create. 

What’s been most challenging about teaching this year? What is helping you stay motivated and hopeful? 

I have never sat so much in my teaching career. I'm typically up and about handing out props, giving and watching monologues, and moving around the room with the kids. This year, instead of me moving my body physically from one group to another, it's me changing my tab to be in another breakout room. Reorienting the ways in which I can engage with students has been challenging. 

Kids feel disconnected on the internet. It's easy to turn off your camera, turn off your mic, and disappear. But kids still want to know that they are important. They want to know that their voices matter. In a setting like theater, that can happen.

What has the pandemic taught you about the value of arts education? Is there a specific moment you’ve had with your students that illustrates this? 

Kids feel disconnected on the internet. It's easy to turn off your camera, turn off your mic, and disappear. But kids still want to know that they are important. They want to know that their voices matter. In a setting like theater, that can happen. They are not stuck doing busy work. They're not filling out worksheets. They get to collaborate, and they get to create. This moment now more than ever has reminded me that students have voices and stories that need and deserve to be told. It's harder, but that doesn't make the work less important and weighty. Students have time to actually sit and think and reflect more than they have in the past, and I think that time lends itself to the creation of beautiful art.


Katherine Pope
Dance Educator at Green Level High School
Cary

You’ve shared an image that captures what your work “looks like” right now. Tell us what’s going on in this picture. 

Students are really needing lots of encouragement this year, so I am doing more demonstrations as a virtual dance teacher. By having their teacher actively dancing with them, they are more likely to be successful with movement. 

Walk us through a day in the life of your job right now. 

I start off my morning with the planning period; then I go straight into teaching. I teach 80 minutes consecutively three times a day.  I use multiple cameras so the students can see all angles of the movements. I get a lunch break and two 10-minute breaks in between each of the classes. Everything's virtual just like everything in our lives right now. 

What’s been most rewarding about teaching this year? 

We cannot require students to have their videos on, but I have been able to cultivate a community that feels safe enough where my students feel like they can have their video on without being judged. Thankfully, I have 100 percent participation: 100 percent of my students are using their videos. I'm seeing their faces, and I'm seeing them dance in real time.

Our students are no different from adults during this pandemic. Adults are trying to pass this time by finding new hobbies and ways of doing things creatively, and our students need that outlet, as well.

What’s been most challenging about teaching this year? What is helping you stay motivated and hopeful? 

Being on, fully ready to go for 80 minutes consecutively. Being bubbly and exciting and engaging with my students pretty much all day with two 10-minute breaks. Usually by 2:30 my throat is hurting and I'm ready to crash, take a nap, and do all the things that teachers don't get to do in the middle of the day. 

What has the pandemic taught you about the value of arts education? 

Our students are no different from adults during this pandemic. Adults are trying to pass this time by finding new hobbies and ways of doing things creatively, and our students need that outlet, as well. They're not always being asked to express themselves and how they're feeling about topics in their academic classes. They're going to classes and doing worksheets, and it's very repetitive. In dance, we get to take ideas, such as being in a pandemic for seven months and not being able to go anywhere, and create a dance reflecting those emotions. It gives our students a healthy way to express those emotions in a safe environment. The many facets of arts education allow our students that creative space, which is necessary not only for survival as human beings, but also for happiness and well-being. The kids are eager to create. The kids are eager to work. They're eager to share their ideas, and they have great ones. We need to listen by continuing to offer arts education in the school system.


Slater Mapp
Visual Arts Educator at Green Level High School
Cary

You’ve shared an image that captures what your work “looks like” right now. Tell us what’s going on in this picture. 

The first thing you may notice in this photo is that I am teaching at school, without kids. In the Wake County Public School System, we had this option, and I took advantage of being able to teach in the studio where I had easy access to materials. My wife also works at home and our two children are learning online, so this frees up some bandwidth for them. 

I am so fortunate to have access to some older devices at school, which I use to keep down the visual clutter of having so many windows open at once. Since this picture was taken, I have updated the setup by creating a standing desk out of some unused furniture. I think the rest of the year will probably involve a lot of tweaks like this. I am fortunate to belong to the North Carolina Arts Education Association and to belong to a strong Personal Learning Team, where we are constantly tweaking our pedagogy by sharing ideas and technologies. Working in strong teams and supporting one another is how we are going to make it through this year. 

Walk us through a day in the life of your job right now. 

I get up pretty early, like all the teachers do, because I live about 25 minutes away. We need to be here between 6:30 and 7 a.m. for our check-in, where they take our temperature and we answer a bunch of questions, and then we go in. Classes start right at 7:30 a.m. Right now, we have 80-minute classes. We do 40 minutes on with the kids and then 40 minutes where they go off and work on art assignments or research. We do three classes a day, and I have one planning period at the end of the day.

We’ve been doing “get to know you” exercises. The kids have been making art about identity and the world around them. There's a lot going on in the news. Sometimes the kids really want to make art about those things, and sometimes they just want to make art about fashion or sports.

What’s been most rewarding about teaching this year? 

We’re not doing clubs yet, but we are encouraged to have meetups where the kids come in and chat and get to know each other, so that they have a good reason to come back to school, a good reason to turn on that camera, a good reason to sign in to the computer and do the work, because they have relationships established with us and their classmates.  I'm actually sitting outside my classroom now, because I've gotten about six girls together who are all young artists interested in animation. 

Our kids can be a little different than even performing arts kids. I find that sometimes they're a little more introverted, but they really like genuine connections, so connecting them through like-minded interests like animation and design is something that works out well, and it’s just so cool to have that sound of kids talking in my room again.  

You see how much the arts mean to the kids by how hard they work when they don't have to. Last semester nothing was really graded, and they knew that, but they worked hard, and they made amazing artwork. It’s shown me that they really rely on making art: not just consuming art, but making art. 

What’s been most challenging about teaching this year? What is helping you stay motivated and hopeful? 

Everything but the teaching. The teaching is okay. 

What’s hard right now is letting go of the idea that this is going to be anything like any other year before. A lot of people work so hard to build a program, particularly in the arts, and they're so worried about the program dying the next year. We tend to be a little more nervous in the arts when things like this happen.

But the kids are doing great. Hearing their voices and seeing their artwork: that is what keeps everything hopeful. My colleagues in chorus, dance, theater, and band are all professionals, and they're all enthusiastic and love kids. Teachers want to be useful, and I think we are really useful at this time. That has been a big part of what gets me through, too. We all need one another right now. 

What has the pandemic taught you about the value of arts education? 

You see how much the arts mean to the kids by how hard they work when they don't have to. Last semester nothing was really graded, and they knew that, but they worked hard, and they made amazing artwork. It’s shown me that they really rely on making art: not just consuming art, but making art. 

Today we had a little parade where the kids came and celebrated the teachers, which was really nice. One of my former students, an athlete, came up and said, "Mr. Mapp, let me show you the art I've been making.” He showed me all these paintings he'd been doing of sneakers. When everything else was taken away — sports and interactions with friends — this athlete who has an interest in art was really relying on making and doing and creating and thinking to maintain some sort of normalcy. You could tell how much that had meant to him.