Art smart teachers help students learn and heal during social distancing

Students in Jeanine Newcomb’s art class at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Pinellas Park, Fla., work with materials found in their yard for their online art lessons.

When the threat of COVID-19 forced schools to close their campuses in March and pivot almost overnight to distance learning, many found the challenge of moving English, math and science online daunting enough.

But what about subjects generally perceived as “enrichment” – the ones that don’t always rely on textbooks or set-in-stone lesson plans, like art?

Schoolhouse Preparatory in Miami, which serves students with learning differences and those who are at risk of not completing high school, encouraged students to take their art projects home with them when they collected their books and other materials. For the past few weeks, they’ve been working on those projects with virtual assistance from art teacher Elizabeth Baez.

Principal Jillian Tamayo De Villiers decided this was the best plan because she was unsure if the school’s 70 students would have access to art supplies in isolation. Nearly half attend the school on Florida Tax Credit Scholarships for lower-income families or Gardiner Scholarships for students with unique abilities.

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Jeanine Newcomb, who teaches art at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Pinellas Park, took a different route: She challenged her students to search their back yards for materials they could use to create mandalas and other one-of-a-kind masterpieces.

“I thought a ‘found objects’ assignment would be perfect, given I am not sure as to the limits of student art supplies,” said Newcomb, who drew inspiration from Andy Goldsworthy, a British artist known for using materials found in nature such as sticks, stones and flower petals in his landscape art. “The virtual method was new for all of us, so I wanted to keep it as simple and direct as possible on this first go-round.”

Newcomb encourages her students to upload images of their works in progress as well as their finished pieces and to write and share a short reflection on their experience.

“Some of the submissions brought me to tears – they were thoughtful, visually fascinating, and the written commentaries showed insight and new respect for the term ‘art’, said Newcomb, a veteran art educator who teaches all of the school’s 262 students, 172 of whom receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Like Newcomb, art teachers throughout the state are exploring creative ways to touch their students’ lives beyond the defined walls of a brick-and-mortar classroom. Sarah Miller, who teaches art at Classical Preparatory, a charter school about 30 miles north of Tampa, has begun posting videos of herself making art and is encouraging her students to post their work as well.

“We can create the traditional way with paper, canvas, paint, pencils, or we can create on a digital platform,” Miller said. “We can virtually tour museums on the other side of the world without leaving our home.”

Rather than feeling restricted, Miller sees this time of social distancing as an opportunity.

“I want our virtual classroom to be an oasis where the students can talk freely with one another and myself and feel comfortable to post their work,” she said.

Students at Dixon School of Arts and Sciences in Pensacola create art as a way to de-stress during social distancing.

Miller isn’t alone in her belief that art can be a unifying force in uncertain times. Donna Curry, executive director of Dixon School of Arts and Sciences in Pensacola, launched a special therapy program to help students deal with the added stress that can come with isolation.

The school, whose mission is to provide creative experiences to students focusing on the arts and sciences, sent home kits with art supplies and links to online lesson plans. Curry regularly puts extra art supplies on the buses that distribute food to her families, most of whom take advantage of state scholarships.

She plans to begin holding twice-weekly online meetings for students to share their artwork and relate successes and challenges.

“Doing so releases some of the burden to make room for healing,” Curry said.

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for reimaginED. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.