Stephanie Cubbin talks about the challenges of teaching art during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the steps that teachers can take to adapt to the conditions of “the new normal”.
It is generally recognised that my generation have not been tested in terms of a national crisis that goes beyond the financial, but we have been witness to the effects of austerity on our young people and their families for some time.
Covid 19 is another matter altogether. The closure of schools, and shifting our work from classroom to largely online teaching is unprecedented and we have all had to adapt rapidly to the changes.
Unsurprisingly, we have encountered significant challenges. Firstly, it exposed the extent of the digital gap for our students, where some had little or no access to laptops or other digital devises at home. Some had no space to work; no art materials to use; lack of food on plates and a safe warm environment. Many schools were waiting to hear that the extra laptops promised by the government had reached the students that needed them. In the interim, they supported their most vulnerable students in different ways – from free school meals or loaning laptops from the school itself.
As teachers, we had to rapidly adapt to remote working, and meet the new set of demands being placed on us. In our department, we applied for grants to send out some packs of equipment to students that were in examination groups and were mindful with our planning – making sure we carefully considered the limitations experienced by some students.
Using our creativity as a tool to help us meet new challenges
I feel that now us teachers need to model the very best flexibility, creativity, positivity and reflection – all the qualities we wish for our young people. We need to show them how in times of crisis, we can provide a worthwhile remote curriculum, support them in all aspects of learning and help them find positive and compassionate ways forward.
These last few months have highlighted how important it is we forge a meaningful curriculum and how we can celebrate the schools as valuable members of our communities. The Black Lives Matter movement and climate crisis have seen our young people take a stand in recent months, and make more demands of our leaders (in schools and nationally) to consider their future more and shift perspectives. The restrictions placed on all of us during lockdown saw many of us engaging with the arts and culture in new ways, with many finding solace in mindful creative pursuits. The arts have shown themselves to be so important during this time, and we can now explore this potential as we return to the classroom.
So what changed in our department?
Our first practical change was to think about a remote curriculum offer and how we can work to reduce our carbon footprint.
We spent many years making homemade sketchbooks filled to the brim with beautiful, creative, and reflective work. I’m sure we contributed to deforestation with our books alone.
We wanted to ensure our young people present their artistic ideas in a way that connects with the practices of further education institutions and indeed, industry. Central Saint Martins use online portfolios and presentation tools to share their creative journeys, and as a department that thrives on having really high aspirations for our students, we wanted to align ourselves with this approach.
So we have abandoned the large sketchbooks in favour of slide shows (power point or google) that are converted into PDFs and hosted online. Paper, card, canvas etc is reserved for making art: drawing, painting, printing. Students are working like they would in the professional realm, by learning how to present photos of their work, being more discriminatory about their choices, thinking about the overall content and how this represents their creative journey.
Our students in KS3 and KS4 have all adopted this approach. We also wanted our Year 7 students to be inspired and make connections with 6F and therefore we feel they need to work in a similar format.
As teachers we have been able to guide and advise more. With the work being presented digitally and therefore not already stuck down or final, now their work is pretty much forever adaptable.
We already had a reasonable representation of artists from different cultures and genders in the curriculum, but we want to push this further. Likewise we already explored artists work that highlighted issues such as climate change, identity, the female body, gender, and sexuality but know we should dig deeper. Now I want to explore opening up the curriculum further, to the students that feel that socially based practice or community art is not for them. The pandemic has seen a rise in socially and ecologically oriented art. This does not, as some suggest, signal the end of material practice but poses questions about how we might better orient art teaching and art students towards the world students will inherit. I have started working with Goldsmiths and their socially based practice focused BA Curating course to begin that dialogue.
The balance of creating a remote curriculum was important. We didn’t want to make students feel overwhelmed but also wanted them to have adequate stimulation. I have heard many stories of both from parents that I know, that the provision from school to school varied considerably. The key message though, whether there were lots or no online lessons to participate in, was the meaningful or relevance of the interaction.
In our department, we started with setting KS3 the independent project that we set annually (an opportunity to choose from a wide range of artists and find their own, to work from their own resources and make work that they want to make within the theme). We adapted it for home and set one meaningful practical task for two weeks and discussed the quality that we were looking for. It was an opportunity to move away from the one-hour lesson framework, and we asked students to make decisions about how they preferred to work. The students submitted excellent work on google classroom and we fed back with some support. The final part of the project was to act on all the feedback and resubmit all tasks in an online portfolio.
After the half term break in May, we finished their independent units and moved to a one-hour live lesson every week. (one hour live each day from Art, Dance, Music, Drama and PE). We taught the whole year group in one live lesson on google meet. Students turned their cameras off for the session (for better internet) and at the end, turned cameras on to ‘show or not’ their work. By the end of the day, they submitted their art work, and this was all shared through a live showcase at the end of term. The creative lessons were the focus for KS3 from the school. GCSE and A’ Level had more online live tutorials in which worked for their stage in art.
Five things that we learned about teaching from home
1. I miss interacting with young people! They are funny, creative interesting humans with unique perspectives. I like hearing them talk about their ideas and work. I want to spend every minute I can guiding them in painting, drawing, printing, sculpting etc. Assessment is best served online.
2. Google classroom is actually really good for setting and taking in work, and easily supports the pedagogical approach of flipped learning. Students can prepare for practical lessons in school, uploading their own research and teachers can see it before the lesson.
3. We have simplified the curriculum, asking the question “what is the urgency to this?” How is this relevant to young people and can they access this at home if they need to? How can we be inventive about costly materials and think about how the materials they need can be used sparingly?
4. We still need to have high expectations for our students, show them exemplars of portfolios, art college approaches, 6F and GCSE work. They can do this from home.
5. If we are teaching from home, videos or sound explaining the powerpoints really help students understand the material. They like to hear the teacher’s voice and it helps us articulate why it is relevant to them.
6. Live online teaching is great for tutorials and Q&A sessions. Whole class explaining and then questions, moving into timed tutorials over their work.
7. We already had a blog (I like to see it as an online gallery of work) where we celebrate and share the work of our students. Because there are no students and only work, it is public. All our parents and local community can share in the celebration of work. This has been very useful during remote learning times, as students can see the work of their peers and the older students. It also acts like a classroom display, reminding us of the amazing things that can be produced amongst our school community.
Steps for September
We are really looking forward to returning to the classroom in September. Teaching art involves washing our hands and equipment with soap and water anyway and so we are best placed for keeping safe in our art rooms.
We are planning for all eventualities though. We will continue to set projects online, with research and presentation of work submitted on google. Lessons are saved for the making of art, sharing in the process and discussing as we create.
We have used a Covid grant to provide every KS3 student with an A4 folder, with an A4 sketchbook, a brush and a pencil. We are going to ask students to make sure that they have a selection of art materials at home, for those that do not, we will help. This time we are better prepared and can ask the questions whilst we are together.
We are going to talk about remote learning during our lessons and discuss how we might improve our provision if we found ourselves in the same boat again.
But mostly, we are going to enjoy being together and making art.
You can visit stmaryleboneart.com to read more about our teaching journey during lockdown.