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Creative teachers step up their game for virtual arts classes

2020 Arts in Education Week: Sept. 13-19

What happens with hands-on electives like music, theatre, and art when students are learning remotely, distanced from each other and their teachers? Those instructors simply expand their creative approaches and find ways to make it work! Check out these three examples.

Phil Kent, orchestra teacher at Lafayette High School

Kent acknowledges the difficulties of his orchestra students not rehearsing together, sharing nonverbal cues in ensemble. They also have limited chances to trade analogies and receive immediate feedback. However, he knows school is about more than the technical work. “It’s about how we make students feel in the classroom, but how do you do that virtually?” he said. “I’m structuring the classes so we can connect and bond. Knowing that orchestra will not look the same, I want to make sure we’re connecting one-on-one in our Zoom classes.”

As for content, Kent’s students use online music services with copious resources, and they come up with their own practice plans. Overall, he tailors his Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) to individuals’ needs, whether they request more music theory or improv lessons with local professionals. “It’s all student-driven, and we’re adapting,” he explained.

While schools adjust amid COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, this fall’s efforts might well lead to unexpected gains for arts students. “They’re having to learn different platforms and how to navigate their own schoolwork and figure some things out on their own,” Kent said. “The benefit will be more individualized goals, and they’ll have to be more self-reliant in the long run.”

Kala Chaffin, theatre director at Bryan Station High School

Chaffin has also adjusted her strategy at Bryan Station because technical theater is so hands-on. “(Normally), we’re building, painting, sewing, having production meetings. Right now, we’re focusing on the elements of design and how to justify choices. I’m finding creative ways to make that transition to a digital realm,” she said.  

For instance, during the Theater Jobs unit, she plans to schedule Zoom Q&A sessions with professionals in the field such as a costume designer, scenic painter, and stage manager. “That’ll be really cool to hear their stories as to why they love their profession and how they entered it,” she said.

Distance learning also has limitations for students on the acting side. “We’re doing a lot of theatre games during Zoom lessons. I can put them in breakout rooms so they can communicate in smaller groups, and the students say that helps keep them engaged,” said Chaffin, who has observed constructive comments and positive discussion boards.

Like her arts colleagues, Chaffin sees some good outcomes to doing school differently this semester. “I’ve made a lot of upperclassmen leaders within the class,” she noted. “I’ve turned to my seniors to help work in smaller groups and include the younger students and help me out.” 

Rebecca Banks, art teacher at Frederick Douglass High School

At Frederick Douglass, students taking Crafts 1 & 2 recently picked up bags of supplies to have on hand at home. “Part of the reason I’m so excited for them to get materials is that all their other classes are so computer-focused. Our class is the one time of day they can unplug and make something and get out from behind the screen,” Banks said.

In late spring when NTI was an unexpected challenge, Banks covered art history and art criticism more in-depth, saying, “We’ve laid the groundwork for what it means to be a crafts artist.” Now, with more prep time for fall’s online classes, she gathered balloons, pinecones, embroidery floss, origami paper, clay tools – a little bit of everything for her students. “Some kids do better from straight demonstrations, and there’s nothing like being right next to a kid while they’re trying to learn a process like crochet. Some projects I’ve had to push off until we return,” Banks said.

Nonetheless, she agreed the weeks of virtual school would likely strengthen her classes. “These kids are learning to be flexible, and it’s taught them to be self-motivated and to advocate for themselves more,” she said. “I’m proud that they’re having to think for themselves, and it’s great for their motivation heading into college.”


“It may be more important than ever for our students to have creative outlets to express the emotions we are all experiencing.”
– Lori Bowen, a district director who oversees band and orchestra teachers

(Posted Sept. 11, 2020)


Tammy L. Lane, district webmaster
(859) 381-4236