“How are we going to do this?” That’s the question we asked ourselves in March 2020, when faced with the challenge of teaching fully remote classes. In our early childhood curriculum classes, pre-service teachers engage in collaborative hands-on learning experiences with dance, music, theater, and the visual arts. Our classroom is stocked with materials to inspire creativity and exploration. How to translate that to a remote learning environment? In this article we will share what we learned from our students as they engaged in virtual learning experiences that we designed to capture the joy and energy of the arts, inspire them to find their own creativity and playfulness, and foster a sense of community.
Creativity and The Arts
Creativity is using our imagination to make, transform, design, build; to transcend the known to bring new ideas into being; to make something new that connects with the maker’s lived experience. Engaging students with the creative arts—visual arts, storytelling, music, dance, theater—provides opportunities to notice deeply, to see possibilities, to make connections, and to explore unique solutions to problems. Engagement with the creative arts supports students as independent and innovative thinkers.
Art has the power to awaken the senses, calling us to slow down, notice, and reflect. Reflection plays an essential role in developing awareness of creativity in all its forms. For this reason, we designed activities that asked students to step away for a moment from their everyday lives, to pause, observe, slowly tend to the task of creating and consider their experience of the process.
Teachers working with diverse children and families need to explore and experience different perspectives, to understand that each person brings a unique vantage point. Experiencing art awakens our students to these possibilities and perspectives, to the understanding that meaning is constructed through each child’s lived experience. By integrating the creative arts into our early childhood teacher preparation program, we allow our students to embark on a journey of self-discovery and meaning-making.
Accessing Resilience Through the Arts
Over the past three semesters, our students have faced significant challenges as the pandemic continues to impact their lives. Some students have lost jobs and income, while others face the stress of being essential workers; students have had to balance work and school with children learning from home; students have experienced inadequate access to the technologies required to continue their education; students have endured loss and grief and the concomitant stressors of ongoing racism, hate crimes, and insecure immigration status.
As John Dewey noted, experiencing works of art is an act of making, in which the student is not just a passive beholder, but an active participant. Engaging with works of art through virtual learning provided our students with opportunities to connect with others, to find joy and space in which to feel free from burdens, time to reflect, and opportunities to express their fears, grief and hope. In their seminar projects they created their own works of art and shared these with their classmates, reflecting upon the experience of making art and bonding with one another through virtual “gallery walks” and class discussions.
Integrating Art into Remote Learning
The first step in redesigning our course for remote learning was to create a suggested list of essential and inexpensive art supplies that our students might have at home or could easily acquire: construction paper, watercolor paints, oil pastels, markers or pencils, and glue. The next step was to find online resources that would spark their imagination—a virtual museum exhibit, a live-streamed dance or music performance, a storytelling video—and design learning activities that could easily be completed at home with materials they had available to them, including found materials, such as buttons and cardboard boxes. We encouraged students to make art with the people in their lives, which allowed them to practice their teaching strategies with their own children and families. We used BMCC Open Lab, Flipgrid, and Blackboard to allow students to share their creative work: poetry and music-making, dance and storytelling, painting, drawing, and collage.
The Museum Project
For this project, our students embarked on a virtual field trip to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts to explore the online exhibit, Art in Place: Social Distancing in the Studio, in which twenty-one children’s picture book illustrators share their recent work, photographs of their studios, and their reflections on the impact of the pandemic lockdowns on their creative process. The artwork encompassed a wide range of styles and subject matter. We encouraged students to take time to explore the exhibit and then choose an artist whose work spoke to them as the inspiration for their own artwork. We asked them to notice the techniques and materials the artist used, and the layers of meaning in the artwork; to think about connections the artist is making to the world around them, and how they use their artwork to process events. Students then created their own artwork, inspired by the artist they chose and using materials available in their home. Their art could represent any topic and it could be realistic or abstract. After creating their art, students took a photograph and posted it on BMCC Open Lab, with a short reflection describing the artist whose work inspired them, the medium they chose to use, and what their art represented and why it was important to them. As with each project they created and posted, students were also asked to take a virtual “gallery walk” of their colleagues’ work and respond to a few of the artworks.
Students chose various media to create their art: pencils, oil pastels, watercolors, and collage. They chose different styles from realistic to abstract, from representative to explorations of color, shape, and texture. Many of the students’ artworks expressed their feelings of sadness, loss, isolation, or longing to move outside the confines of pandemic lockdown into a wider world of oceans and mountains and sweeping vistas. Other students focused on hope and a vision of a brighter future.
In this example, the student chose as inspiration a paired digital illustration entitled “Outside, Inside,” by LeUyen Pham. The two prints show the same urban street corner before and after the pandemic lockdown. In her reflection, the student talks about the authenticity of Pham’s work and explains that she was drawn to this pair of illustrations “because (Pham) depicted the pandemic’s reality of empty streets.”
In her stark black-and-white pen drawing of Chinatown’s Pell Street, the student depicts “the harsh reality of how the pandemic had affected the Chinatown community” and how a “busy street filled with speakeasies, restaurants, hair salons, and tourists taking pictures” now felt “quiet and different from how it used to be before the pandemic. There was hardly anyone on the streets, and many small businesses (had) closed because they couldn’t afford to pay the rent. I was not used to seeing the community that was once lively become so quiet and empty.” She also spoke about the impact on the Asian community of xenophobia from the pandemic.
Another student was inspired by Vashti Harrison’s “Escape,” a soft pastel drawing of a child stretched out in a meadow of green grass and flowers, reading a book. In her reflection, the student notes that she wanted to explore the concept of escape at a time when “the pandemic has made many feel trapped inside their own homes. She included in her colored pencil drawing a bird in a cage, but also another bird outside the cage, because “there are also others who are out there risking their lives at work, helping to keep our society running.”
What have we learned from this year of remote teaching and what promising practices will we take with us when we return to in-person curriculum classes?
Since we did not have access to the expansive array of creative arts materials in our classroom, we needed to be flexible and adaptive in re-designing our seminar art projects, and to trust that our students would find a way to complete their assignments using the materials they had at hand. Their projects were creative and thoughtful, and their reflections often expressed a sense of satisfaction and ownership over their learning.
The structure of the asynchronous seminar art projects allowed students to explore the museum exhibits and works of art at length, without externally imposed restrictions of time and space that would have shaped their in-person learning experience. They had more time to process their learning experiences and reflect upon their engagement with art as beholders and makers. Their reflections were rich and expressed deep noticing and meaning-making, connecting what they observed to their prior knowledge and experiences. While they did not have the chance to engage in collaborative work on their projects, they had more time explore their colleagues’ work and compare their different perspectives of a particular work of art.
As seen in the examples from the Museum Project, the students used the seminar art projects and their reflections to explore and process what was happening in the world around them, and to examine their feelings about these events. They found in their shared artwork—poetry, storytelling, visual arts, dance, and music projects—and reflections new ways to understand the world and the complex layers of impact of the pandemic and the social, cultural, and political events of the past year.
Integrating art into the remote learning curriculum offered opportunities for students to engage through multiple modalities and to construct meaning based upon their lived experience.. As we look to a future in which technology and remote learning will continue to play a role in early childhood education, students need to develop the skills and understanding to prepare them, so that they can plan and implement developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive curriculum that nurtures creativity in young children in any learning environment. The unique and creative ways in which our students adapted to experiential learning in a remote environment provides a strong example of flexible and creative pedagogy that can be adapted across disciplines to any instructors hoping to enhance online engagement with virtual materials.