As much as local educators have been forced to embrace distance learning to teach their students, some kinds of study are more difficult to teach than others.
Jeff Lipscomb, the orchestra teacher for Kanawha County Schools, said teaching students online presents very different challenges than teaching them history.
“It’s not like math or science where a teacher can go to more of a lecture format and students sitting at home can absorb it,” he said.
Student musicians need to use their hands, their ears and their eyes.
Teaching art technique isn’t much easier.
Chet Lowther, who teaches art to elementary school students at Elk Center, Marmet Elementary and Alum Creek Elementary, said, “We do hands-on stuff — painting and drawing. I’ve really had to take a different course to keep going.”
The struggle is to keep kids engaged — but aren’t art and music also supposed to be fun?
Karen Morris, an elementary music teacher at Mountaineer Montessori School, thought so. She was frustrated that part of the energy that went into teaching a class was lost somewhere in translation.
She said, “I usually include a lot of movement in my music lessons. I can’t do that so much in front of my computer.”
The technology has other limitations, too.
Like businesses and churches, which have used online meeting sites to talk with employees or to worship as a community, the online meeting sites can sort of put students and teachers together in a virtual classroom. They can make distance learning a little more personal, but they have their limitations.
For example, time moves differently online. Internet speeds vary from house to house.
Conducting an orchestra, Lipscomb explained, was an almost impossible under those circumstances.
“I can give a beat,” he said. “But the way that works is with the network, there are many tempos, as many as there are kids watching.”
Playing together would be less of symphony and more of a cacophony.
Still, local art and music teachers, like their core subject counterparts, have tried to adapt.
Over the past couple of months, Kanawha County school teachers have tasked their students to make their own musical instruments and play them, write song lyrics along to drumbeats, keep sketchbooks and document their daily lives under quarantine.
At Sissonville Middle School, Michelle Gearhart said her students learned about Dorothea Lange, a photographer hired by the federal government to document the Great Depression.
In an email, she said, “The students are viewing the type of pictures she took to document this event and then tying it to our current situation by documenting everyday life during the shutdown of schools and online learning.”
Gearhart said her students were told to reflect on how Lange would feel about photography in a “Snapchat filter world,” based around Lange’s quote, “You see, it’s evidence. It’s not pictorial illustration, it’s evidence. It’s a record of human experience. It’s linked with history.”
“We were after the truth, not just making effective pictures. To tell the truth is in some people’s nature and it can be a habit, but you can also get in the habit of not telling the truth.”
Sarah Galaska, who teaches art with Mountaineer Montessori, said she sent videos to her students toward the beginning of social distancing, when she and other teachers believed they might go back to the classroom before the end of the school year.
“These would be like little experiments or creative prompts I knew they could do at home,” she said. “Like different ways to experiment with watercolors or make bubble prints on paper.”
After it was announced that students wouldn’t be going back to the classroom before the start of the next school year, she sent out a survey to the families to see if they wanted supplies to help continue instruction.
Galaska kept making videos.
“These became more like guided drawing videos,” she said.
Galaska said that artist Emily Prentice, based in Elkins, had been scheduled to come teach a class on making zines, which had been canceled, but Galaska arranged for Prentice to teach a workshop in a Zoom meeting.
“We did the whole thing digitally,” she said. “The kids were able to submit things and they’re making a collaborative, digital zine. That’s probably the coolest thing we’ve done since this all started.”
Teaching collaboration was important to Gearhart, too.
She said, “It has been important for me that the projects be collaborative, so not only can they use items from their home, they can also use the people. I want them to understand that art isn’t always a solo effort.
“Collaboration is an important tool in the world of art.”
Lipscomb said there was some help out there for student musicians and their teachers. You just had to go looking for it.
“A bunch of well-known violinists have been offering free YouTube lessons,” he said. “I’ve sent kids to that.’
Lipscomb said when students were sent home for the remainder of the school year, he had strings students follow rock and jazz violinist Christian Howes.
“He’d play a lick and then give the students time to play it back by ear,” Lipscomb said. “I told students to record themselves playing along.”
Then, he had his students record themselves playing material and send it to him.
“Even if I’m not in the room, I can give some guidance,” he said. “I can tell if someone isn’t keeping their wrist up or something.”
Along with trying to find ways to teach the things they normally would, teachers have had to focus on different parts of their subjects that work better as more self-guided.
Lipscomb said he’d shifted his lessons toward composing music and songwriting.
Along the way, some of the educators have developed new skills.
Morris said she wasn’t particularly technologically adept to begin with. She said usually she’d get her sons to handle computer problems, but she’d created a YouTube page to share videos with her students.
“I know that doesn’t sound like a lot,” she said, laughing. “But it was a big deal for me.”
Lowther said he fell back on a website he created as part of a class he took for recertification.
“Most of the kids don’t have the supplies to do the work we would usually do in the classroom,” he said. “So, I’ve used the website to do videos and also to show students different things. I’ve sent them out on virtual scavenger hunts since they have their tablets.”
Participation from the students has yielded mixed results.
Routines have been disrupted. There are distractions in the home and some families may be struggling. Keeping students on task and interested has been difficult.
Morris said, “You count on the parents to help, to make sure their kids are watching the videos and doing what they’re supposed to.”
Galaska said something she did was continue with plans, even when those plans were essentially canceled.
“Before we left, we were working on things to be included in FestivALL’s Art-For-All,” she said.
Art-For-All is a juried student art exhibition. Student work is usually displayed in the lobby of the Clay Center during the city of Charleston’s annual arts and music festival.
After FestivALL went to an online-based virtual festival, Galaska encouraged her students to keep working on their art. It was still worth doing.
Lipscomb said, “I think we’re all trying to keep them engaged. It’s maybe more than just teaching the kids, but also keeping in touch with the students and their parents, seeing if they’re OK.”
Some of what the teachers have learned since COVID-19 could be used later, during snow days or other breaks from regular classes. A few of them have become more adept at problem-solving electronic devices and internet snags.
“I’m probably qualified now for a job in IT,” Lipscomb joked.
The teachers hoped to be back in their classrooms by the start of the upcoming school year. The time away from the classroom hasn’t felt like a vacation.
They hope the next school year will be something like normal, but even if the number of infections in West Virginia are in decline, there are concerns that COVID-19 could flare up again over the summer.
“August isn’t that far way,” Lowther said. “I don’t know what to expect, so I think I’ve got to be prepared.”