When grad students in RISD’s Teaching + Learning in Art + Design (TLAD) department attended a Google classroom workshop last fall, they had no idea how critical the teaching tool would become. Now that the global pandemic is forcing educators around the world to become experts in distance teaching, they’re using such tools to develop inspiring online curricula and make real connections with younger students.
“It’s so exciting to watch RISD students draw on these technologies to engage their own students in new ways,” says TLAD Department Head Paul Sproll. “They had very little time to pivot from in-person teaching to this new landscape of online teaching.”
Sproll is particularly grateful to this year’s “clinical educators,” the busy school teachers who agreed to mentor RISD student teachers despite the fact that they, too, have been reeling from having to suddenly figure out remote teaching techniques to continue their own classes.
“We’re in a weird territory where the student teaching model has been disrupted,” says grad student Julia Castner MAT 20. “So now the relationship is less hierarchical and we’re figuring things out together.”
One of four students currently completing the one-year Master of Arts in Teaching program, Castner is working from her apartment near campus, teaching juniors and seniors enrolled at Central High School in Providence. Her mentor, longtime art teacher Patricia Adams, is impressed by her commitment and creative approach.
“The ‘new normal’ is becoming more normal every day,” Adams says, “and we’re helping each other to adapt. Julia is also helping students to focus on school at a time when many things are spinning out of control for them.”
A key aspect of the work is facilitating creativity and learning that doesn’t depend on access to the art-making materials kids have when they're physically at school. Teaching broad concepts using household objects, their smartphones and whatever pencils and paper they’ve got on hand calls for extra creative lesson planning.
Castner took a page from the playbook of artist, author and animator Christoph Niemann, who sparks his storytelling approach by incorporating simple 3D objects into his drawings. She shared with students her own attempt at telling a simple story using a small seashell to stand in first for an ear and then for part of an old-fashioned Victrola and the horn of a tuba.
Her high school students responded by doing something similar using bits and pieces they found at home—things like a hair elastic, a comb and a tube of lip balm.
“Since everyone is spending so much time online, I’m trying to present assignments that are grounding and hands-on,” says Castner. “Several students have told me that the assignments are therapeutic, which is great to hear.”
Meanwhile, students at Providence’s Paul Cuffee High School—also on the West Side—are studying with grad student Francesca Rosati 19 PT/MAT 20, who is working from the home she grew up in—in Oregon. Like Castner, she is communicating constantly with her mentor/partner and encouraging students to make work that tells their own personal story.
“Part of my work as an educator is communicating conceptual ideas about art in simple, accessible ways,” says Rosati, “whether I’m teaching in person or online. If the students are communicating and making an effort, that’s all I can ask for. It’s not about making beautiful masterpieces.”
Both Rosati and Castner plan to pursue teaching positions after they graduate in May, and they both expect to put their virtual teaching experiences this spring to good use—even once the virus is contained and schools are able to reopen.
“I don’t know what the state of education will look like in the fall, but I’m putting together a distance-teaching portfolio based on this experience,” says Castner.
And Sproll—who has been a leading figure in art education for decades—is philosophically optimistic about the long-term impact the pandemic will have on his field.
“The geographical disruption has created an extraordinary opportunity to increase the size of our pedagogical toolbox,” he explains. “Teachers will use these new skills and hybrid forms of communication to transform the brick-and-mortar classrooms of the future.”