Who Is Minding The Arts Skills Gap? (Part 2- The Power of Connection)

From Dr. Bradley Foust, District Fine Arts Specialist, Bartlett City Schools, Bartlett, TN –

In Part 1 of this article series, I made a case for the existence of an arts skills gap. In the article, I included this self-created definition: a lessening of artistic facilities, instincts, and aesthetic sensitivity due to the extended absence of focused, communal activity. As our young artists return to school, and teachers begin to assess the toll of five months of school closure, remediation will need to occur. Artistic instincts start to diminish after only a few consecutive days of not engaging in creative activities.

In preparation for this article, I contacted several fine arts teachers from Bartlett City Schools, a municipal public school district in Memphis, Tennessee. I emailed the teachers the following writing prompt:

I am curious to know how you plan to approach instruction, knowing that many of your students have had little substantial arts activity for several months. How will you prioritize what must be taught first, and what resources will you use to prepare? How will this look in a virtual environment?

When I wrote the first installment in May, I did so primarily through the lens of learning loss and how an extended school closure would impact arts activity. The responses caused me to reconsider this loss because human engagement and connection through the arts have also been lost.

Now that our students have endured about five months of primarily being at home with little or no sustained socialization, we must attend to our students’ emotional and psychological needs at the outset of the new school year. The thoughts and reflections of the teachers who contributed to this article drive this point home in a powerful way.

“I Have To Meet My Students Where They Are”

Nick Wammack, a choir director at Appling Middle School, focused on the sense of community in his response and what it truly means to maintain and “grow” a successful program:

If our sole purpose during these uncertain times is to grow our program in terms of numbers, I believe we as educators/professionals are setting the precedent for failure. I’m sure we all have students who are intrinsically motivated in learning our professions craft. They will be successful with music no matter the atmosphere, but we know that percentage to be small.  This is where minding the gap comes in to play.

If our focus is set on rebuilding the special community and the sense of family, that is enclosed within our four classroom walls, our odds of success greatly increase. The majority of our students fall in to this gap. In the middle school age, solo work tends to intimidate them because they are so new to our craft.  This group of students need social interaction and a sense of accountability.  When they are around this environment, music tends to happen naturally. I would dare to say the majority of students come to school solely because of their fine arts teachers.

Mr. Wammack’s approach to addressing the loss of family and community among his students is first to prioritize the atmosphere of his physical classroom and online teaching space. If his school does happen to move to an all-virtual setting, he is prepared with team-building games, engaging apps such as Kahoot and Acapella, and collaboration on Musescore. His efforts to address immediate student needs are evident when he says, “I have to meet my students where they are when we meet again before I can ever dream of them meeting me where I want them.”

“How Am I Going To Develop Relationships…Through A Screen?”

Teaching visual arts online is a thought that is vexing art teachers around the country at the moment. Along with the issues of distance, many students may not have the proper supplies necessary to create art in multiple mediums. Amanda Tutor, a visual arts teacher at Bartlett Ninth Grade Academy and Bartlett High School, initially prioritizes connections and relationships over addressing a loss in skills:

What keeps me up at night is not the “gap” in art skills. What is keeping me up at night is determining how I am going to develop relationships in week one with 29 NEW students through a screen. Experience has taught me that no lesson I teach will be effective without a rapport with my class. They have to  believe IN me before they will learn FROM me.

Mrs. Tutor emphasizes relationships and connections in a typical school year, and even more so in the current educational environment. When schools suddenly closed in March 2020, she immediately shifted her work with her photography students to Instagram and created daily challenges for students to complete and post to the social media platform. She plans to begin the year by requiring students to complete pre-assessments and asking students for their thoughts on how to engage with them in a virtual setting most effectively:

The students are way ahead of us. They already have a booming social community online through Instagram, SnapChat, Discord, and other apps. I am planning to ask my students what they think about virtual arts learning, and you better believe I will be taking their suggestions!

“We Are Going To Keep Learning No Matter Where We Are”

Beth Smith, an orchestra director at Bon Lin Middle School, plans to meet students “where they are” at the beginning of the year:

It is of no help to bemoan how far they are behind where kids should be at this point in their musical development. That will lend itself to feeling daunted as a teacher and a zeal to help kids ‘catch up’ could even translate to anxiety in the classroom that students pick up. It can also lead to skating over or glossing through skills. Truth be told, we can never successfully teach kids based on what they should know; we are stuck with what they actually do know.

To lessen the risk of causing students to feel uneasy about learning losses, she has constructed a systematic plan for working with her students:

1) Figure out what students have learned and retained as early as possible so we can meet them where they are.

2) Carefully foster a sense of student responsibility for their own learning.

3) Make deep learning a priority as we purposefully move forward.

Mrs. Smith’s approach relies heavily on shared responsibility and student engagement in the learning process. As students return to a routine, learning will once again become “perpetual” and regular. Although we experienced an interruption of learning continuity in March, it does not excuse a reduction in the quality of learning:

We should treat school closure this year as a fact that affects the pace of student learning but not an excuse for poor quality of learning. We should foster the attitude that we are going to keep learning no matter where we are,  and that both teacher and students have the responsibility for that.

“Above All, I Want My Students To Know They Are Valued”

Christine Hughes, a general music teacher at Bartlett Elementary School, often incorporates content and learning strategies from other arts disciplines and subject areas. At the beginning of the year, she will introduce students to new content in inventive ways:

I hope my students have been listening to music according to their own preferences, but it’s my job to “broaden their horizons” and foster an understanding of different musical genres and time periods. I will have to be creative in the ways I engage students. It will be wise to use stories and historical figures that are relatable when introducing music that’s unfamiliar.

Her practical and thoughtful approach to teaching in-person and online reveals the care she places in her actions and intentions:

When determining how to pace instruction for my youngest learners, Pre-K, and Kindergarten children, I will basically have to turn my typical school year upside down. I imaging that with social distancing in place, I will need to alter seating formations. In a continued effort to help my young learners feel comfortable, I plan to use items that will define personal space, such as carpet squares or hula hoops. Above all, I want my students to know they are valued, and I want them to feel successful.

Christine’s thoughts remind us of the mental juggling act in the minds of fine arts teachers everywhere. While considering how to approach teaching students who have not been in the classroom for several months, she must keep students safe and secure as they return to school or learn online. Her balanced approach to pedagogy and student wellbeing is worthy of replicating in classrooms of all disciplines and subject areas.

“I Am Choosing To Focus On What Hasn’t Changed”

With the unprecedented amount of change that has occurred in K-12 education, it is also wise to remember the things that haven’t changed. Schools will open in August or September, and students and teachers will show up in person and online to take part in the magical work of teaching and learning. Amanda Galbraith, a visual arts teacher at Ellendale Elementary School, uses this reality as a jumping-off point for starting the school year:

When thinking about what instruction looks like moving forward, I am choosing to focus on what hasn’t changed as a starting point to address what has.

1. Students come to school with a background of learning. The knowledge students bring to school can be used as a foundation for learning. In this approach, educators need to learn about their students. Incorporating learning opportunities and short-term projects that incorporate a medium to high amount of choice will allow educators to assess what knowledge (skills, concept, confidence) students are bringing and identify areas that need continued development.

2. Students will need opportunities to practice collaborative and cooperative learning. The social lessons such as forming and maintaining relationships, cooperating, and negotiating are of equal importance to academic lessons. Incorporating elementary level theatre games and exercises and visual thinking strategy discussions into learning environments will provide much needed social learning practice.

3. Educators will continue to design meaningful learning experiences for students. Creating valuable learning in present experiences requires attentive care. Teachers will need time to prepare learning opportunities across a variety of platforms. Developing a consistent format that can be shared across in-person, online, and hybrid environments may be a good step in making this process more efficient so a greater time percentage can be devoted to populating it with high-quality content.

Amanda draws on her experience and research of leaders in arts and education to frame her thoughts on how to best begin the year. In her three-step plan, teachers should get to know their students and their backgrounds before assigning any substantial work. Considering the environment that many of our students have been in over the last five months, this step is vital for ensuring that they can experience success in the elementary art classroom. Only after these foundations are established does she recommend that teachers move to projects that require collaborative work.

Students At The Center

The word cloud above was generated from the responses of the teachers featured in this article. Students remain at the center of their plans for returning to the work of educating our children. Other words such as “focus,” “want,” “grow,” and “teach” appeared multiple times in the teacher narratives. The term “choir” is prominent due to Mr. Wammack’s response that directly relates to teaching in the middle school choir classroom.

Taking the advice of these teachers, I constructed a list of actions for fine arts teachers to consider and implement:

1. Plan for activities that help rebuild a sense of family and community.

2. Ask students for advice on how to best use technology to connect and inspire.

3. Figure out what students know make deep learning a priority.

4. Strike a balance between pedagogical concerns and SEL-based activities.

5. Allow students time to practice cooperative learning and plan for instruction in a variety of modes and platforms.

As stated by Christine Hughes, students must feel “valued” and cared for before long-term learning goals can be met. It may also be beneficial for teachers to focus on activities that require communication, sharing, and reflection on the feelings and emotions that often surround learning in the arts. We have all experienced a level of trauma and loss. If conducted with guidelines and protocols in place, activities that involve teachers as active participants can assist in rebuilding the community of learners that our students so desperately need. Our students will return to school with a backpack full of emotional items to unpack and work through. Thankfully, the arts provide a foundation for the constructive expression of feelings and experiences that meets academic and emotional needs.

Reposted with permission. Dr. Foust originally published this article on his blog, Artistic Teaching.