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Helping teens cope under COVID-19 through the Arts - #TeachersVoices

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My name is Estella. I teach secondary English and Theatre Arts, ages 14 to 18, in South Los Angeles, California (U.S.) and have been in the field of education for nearly 14 years. Our site moved to Distance Learning, or Student Dismissal, on March 17, 2020. Students went home on Tuesday after spending Monday being briefed by teachers on what to expect. Unfortunately, teachers did not truly know what to expect. Only now, nearly two weeks later, we are beginning to comprehend the differences in nomenclature related to online learning.

‘Student Dismissal’ means learners are engaged through online platforms and management systems. While ‘School Closures’ imply learners are at home free of academic or school-related expectations. Some districts in the U.S. have opted for total School Closures citing equity concerns as the reason for this decision. While many more schools have chosen to continue “teaching” employing distance learning measures.

Like many teachers around the globe, we were given less than 24 hours to adjust, modify curriculum, and grow familiar with digital tools in an attempt to ensure students could carry on with “business as usual” by Wednesday morning. To anyone outside of our district, the optics might demonstrate we successfully transitioned nearly 6,000 students and more than 300 teachers to online learning in about 20 hours. While in many ways we were successful, the truth is, overall, this has been a massive failure.

Collectively, society and governments - local, state, and federal - have failed children and parents. To be clear, this failure is of no fault of educators. We are working tirelessly without regard to our own health or families’ needs in order to serve our students while providing some measure of stability. In the United States, we have yet to receive federal guidance on concerns related to online instruction. In the state of California, some materials and resources have begun to make their way down to local jurisdictions. However, as a profession, we remain largely in the dark on what is right and fair.

If I’m honest, this transition has been difficult for me emotionally and mentally. It seems I work more than 14 hours a day as I attempt to stay connected with my 140 students, ensure materials and resources are accessible, and expectations are clear for all learners. While I know this is not healthy nor sustainable, I continue to do so for several reasons. One, my students feel just as displaced as I do and share in my frustration. Two, I’ve made a commitment to students to always be there for them to the best of my ability. Three, the only way over this global pandemic is through it so long as we must go together. Finally, perspective is everything; while this is challenging for myself, my family, and students I have to remain grateful for everything I still have access to at this moment. More importantly, I must model this for students.

Perspective is Everything

As an arts educator, I am privileged to witness the positive impact fine art has on learners’ academics, social-emotional well-being, and character development. [For more information regarding the impact of the arts on young people, check out the Otis Report.] I have the opportunity to spend time with students outside of classes; we put on performances, travel to community events, go on field trips, and compete in festivals. These outings provide me with a clear window into my students’’ lives, thoughts, and feelings. Our relationships are built on unbreakable bonds. Every morning, I greet students at the door and check-in on their emotional state. Not being able to do this has brought me great pain and stress.

For many students school is a safe haven. I serve in the community I grew up in. Several families face equity concerns daily; adverse childhood experiences, trauma, food scarcity, lack of work or housing, and other concerns that interrupt a child’s learning.  For my students, all of these concerns are heightened - worsened - under this global pandemic. Our parents are being laid off from work. Food scarcity is on the rise due to panic shopping across communities. Housing grows more challenging to maintain as wages are lost. Students who face emotional, mental, and physical traumas regularly - those who would be receiving services through the school - are now left to manage on their own. What about students with identified learning challenges like dyslexia or Autism Spectrum Disorder? Their supports and routines are non-existent while we teach at a distance. Some students don’t have access to the internet. Even if they wanted to continue their schoolwork, they can’t.

However, perspective is everything. I recognize that for many educators and students around the globe, the situation in many ways is far dire. We are losing loved ones and the time to grieve seems to escape us as we remain separated by space. The suffering of friends and colleagues around the world is not lost on me, or my students, as we work to empathize with peers worldwide.

My mind has been fixated on these thoughts and more. I cry when I am overwhelmed by emotion without clear solutions. I love my students. I miss my students. I want the power to fix it all with a simple snap of my fingers. As I lesson plan, school work seems irrelevant when I consider all my students are going. How do we bridge already massive equity gaps, now exacerbated by COVID-19?

In moments of clarity, I remember that art has an incredible way of bridging equity gaps and providing social-emotional outlets for young people. Arts integration, when embedded within curriculum, has the power to support learners’ academic growth exponentially. So, how do I integrate the arts into distance learning?

10 Ways to Ensure the Arts Live On Amid COVID-19

Below are some suggestions, with help from my theatre students,  on how you might employ art as a learning tool while we practice “Social-Distancing”:

  1. Social Media Platforms - If you are allowed to, encourage teachers and students to create school-appropriate accounts on platforms like FlipGrid or Tik Tok. Students have incredibly innovative ways of using social media to communicate ideas with one another. It also enables learners to stay connected amid physical distance.

  2. Live Stream - Consider using platforms like Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram to set up a live lesson. To increase engagement, consider using props or backdrops. To ease the workload, reach out to a colleague and co-teach a live stream session.

  3. Films - Give students an interesting topic and allow them to create a short film, animation, or documentary. Students can then upload to a cloud service and share with peers. You might even consider using a social media platform to publish students’ work. This is a great time for young people to investigate family histories.

  4. Podcasts - Similar to the above suggestion, encourage students to create a podcast or audio recording on an issue they have investigated. National Public Radio has a great resource for this.

  5. Collaborate - Encourage students to continue collaborating with peers on projects by setting up their own video conferences. Here is a tutorial geared towards parents and students.

  6. Graphic Design - Use platforms like Canva to create beautiful graphics for various styles of projects and lessons. Canva allows for easy publishing and sharing. It’s a great tool for both teachers and students.

  7. Photo Scan Applications - Have students and parents download a free scan application on their mobile device in order to easily take photos of drawings of written  work.

  8. Drawing Applications - Have students and parents download a drawing application on mobile devices, such as Adobe or Autocad, to create digital works that can be easily shared or published.

  9. Make Music - Create new music using programs like Garage Band or any free mobile application. Have students share music with one another and offer kind words to each other.

  10. Literature - Keep in mind that the written is word is art. Encourage students to write poems, stories and more. Publish works using whatever tools you have access to, whether social media or a simple email.

  11. BONUS: LEGO or building blocks are great for so many project ideas. As a theatre teacher, I might ask students to create stage replicas or models. Encourage students to ease the load on garage and sanitation workers by recycling household items to create models and diagrams as well. If you are looking for more comprehensive lists related to theatre arts, explore this resource developed by Dr. Daphnie Sicre from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

We’ve Got This, So Long as We Have Each Other

What comes next is unclear. Educators recognize students are not doing well - whether on Dismissal or School Closures. Where I serve, high school seniors are going through an arduous grieving process. Last week, I asked my seniors how they were. The responses were more than I could handle. One student said, "I feel like everything I worked so hard for in the last four years, all of school, is for nothing. All the stress to maintain my grades and apply to college. What was the point?"

Finishing secondary school is no easy feat. Doubly so for youth who face insurmountable odds and traumatic childhood experiences. Our youth will soon transition into adulthood and are now deprived of what would have been life-long memories. Social-emotional well-being is as important, if not more, than academics. Since March 17th, I have asked myself what more can I do.

Educators around the world have come together to support one another through this like I have never witnessed before. It is beautiful and awe-inspiring but the number of resources can become overwhelming. We can work to manage the anxiety induced by the volume of materials being shared online. We can continue to encourage innovation and creativity and recognize students as thought-partners in this work. Similarly, teachers, parents, and other community members have to continue to lean on one another.

We will get through this, so long as we take care of one another.

In the meantime, check out this comic on How To Turn Your Home Into A School Without Losing Your Sanity (NPR)

Estella Owoimaha-Church

Estella Owoimaha-Church was one of the finalists of the Varkey Foundation's Global Teacher Prize.

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This piece is part of the Teacher Task Force’s #TeachersVoices campaign, created to bring forward the experiences of teachers working every day to ensure their students continue to benefit from a quality education despite the COVID-19 pandemic. To participate, go to our dedicated webpage.