In an art class, a middle schooler drew a picture of her bedroom with colored pencils. A birds-eye view captures a bed, a clock and a laptop, surrounded by the bedroom walls which seem to creep closer to the bed as one looks on. One wall is scribbled in red, black letters spell out words like “depression,” “help,” “I am trying” and “I am not fine.” The student also drew the reason for the franticness, claustrophobia and malaise she felt: A spiky green virus in the corner and the words “coronavirus I hate you.”
For some students, art classes during the pandemic were a welcome escape; for others, they were a critical release—an opportunity for self-expression at a time of extreme stress and isolation. At the forefront are art teachers themselves, who juggle these competing perspectives as they help guide students through a particularly challenging time.
When schools went remote two years ago, the National Art Education Association (NAEA) was quick to offer guidance on how best to reach students who have experienced trauma. They offered strategies for remote learning, as well as mental and emotional wellbeing.
Now more than ever, art educators must employ the tenants of social emotional learning, the NAEA says. In a recent report, the association recommended trauma-informed teaching strategies to promote mental health through self-expression—for their students’ sake and their own.
“Dealing with the complex issues of students living in crisis, including the shared trauma of the global pandemic, often leaves teachers wondering how to adapt or intervene,” the report says. “Art teachers are not clinical therapists, but they are in a position to help children cope with adversity by utilizing the therapeutic properties of art education.”
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently told the Senate Finance Committee that “the obstacles this generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate and the impact that’s having on their mental health is devastating.”
The assertion is supported by countless polls and recent studies. Test scores in reading and math reflect a pandemic-era decline, but progress in some academic disciplines can’t be so rigidly quantified. For some classes, the pandemic’s impact is more complicated. In the visual arts, it led to a wider range of outcomes and could even end up improving teaching practices in the future, according to teachers we spoke with.
Bringing Families Together
For some, the remote lessons were a boon, like the student who often felt like she had so many questions, she shouldn’t even bother asking them but has now developed a habit of submitting questions via email—a format she prefers to asking questions in class—or the many students whose families were too busy to be classroom volunteers, but now had a chance to create art and participate in lessons together.
“I’ve had a couple parents come in and sit through classes, but nothing like the access that parents had during the pandemic when the class is there for them to access it at any time on their computer,” Kelly Finlaw, an art teacher at a New York Public School in Washington Heights, says. “I had parents write me and say, ‘I watched your video, that was amazing. So much fun. This looks like a great project.’ Parents didn’t really have that insight into what was happening in the classroom until this happened.”
Of course, there were challenging moments brought about by remote learning, but there were also promising moments that could not have occurred in a traditional classroom. One such moment Finlaw experienced occurred at the end of a sixth grade lesson early in the pandemic. She asked her students if they’d like to share their work. A student who had his camera off during the lesson volunteered to share. When he turned his camera on, Finlaw was shocked. “It was a perfectly drawn example of what we did that day, like excellent,” she says. “And then he took the artwork down and it was his Dad, and he was like, ‘I did this, I sat in on your class today.’” Then the student shared his version, and the student’s younger brother shared his, too. “I didn’t know that I was teaching a whole family at that time.” The experience was so impactful, Finlaw decided to share it on social media.
“While I wish I could “ctrl (sic) Z” 2020, there have been a few moments that only happened because of it. Finlaw said in a tweet about the experience. “Filled with hope right now.”
“When they turn the screen on, and it’s a whole family sitting on the couch, having done the project together, it makes you realize you don’t know the impact you’re having,” Finlaw says. “You don’t always know who’s on the other side of that device. It feels like you’re treading water, and you’re putting all this effort and all this hard work into this and it’s not even going to reach anybody. But then they turn the screen on and there’s three of them together, participating and enjoying the class.” Other art teachers echoed her excitement at the opportunity remote learning created for the whole family to participate.
“Some of my art classes, students brought their dogs, they brought their fish, I got tours of their house, so that they could show me all their Halloween decorations, or there would be a whole table of family members doing the art project with their second grader,” says Alyssa Navapanich, a practicing art teacher in California’s Lemon Grove School District and the elementary school division director for the California Art Education Association, the state’s arm of NAEA. “I loved it when they put the computer at one end and had the whole family at the table. It was just so cool.”
“Last year, we lost,” Navapanich says. “But really, what did we gain? We gained time with family, we gained time to do art. They might have lost some cutting skills, or maybe how to color in the line. But I would say we gained so much in those moments.”
Because so many families in Navapanich’s district are working class, few parents could attend in-person events, even those scheduled in the evenings, she says. But with asynchronous lessons and virtual events, the amount of parental participation skyrocketed, she says. And unlike a math test or English project, sharing work from art classes is low stress. “It’s a safe entry into school,” she says. “It gives them something to talk about that’s kind of a safe place, because nobody can do it wrong. You can’t do art wrong.”
In addition to strengthening parental involvement in arts education, the pandemic also created the space and opportunity for art teachers to interrogate their teaching practices and think critically about how they can better serve their students in the future.
“It made me feel hopeful that something good was going to come out of the lessons we were forced to learn in the pandemic,” Finlaw says. “It really felt pretty dismal in the beginning, but there were things that I thought ‘I’m doing that differently when kids come back.’”
The changes she intends to keep include encouraging open communication with students via email, and pre-recording video lessons. “It filled me with hope because it was a terrible situation, but it reminded me that there were things I had learned that will make me a better teacher,” Finlaw says. “It’s great to think there might be some things that are not horrible that we learned from this experience.”