As schools begin to open, all teachers are contending with new challenges of teaching in the middle of a pandemic. Teaching in the arts, a traditionally hands-on process, represent unique challenges. I had the opportunity to speak with two teachers of the arts in our area and listen to their perspective.


Elizabeth Steinbeck teaches grade school students, kindergarten through sixth grade, in Fort Smith Public Schools at Trusty and Morrison Elementary Schools. She teaches 14 classes per week with hundreds of students. Ms. Steinbeck holds a degree in Studio Arts from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and an advanced Apple teaching certification.


Tim Peerbolte has been teaching theater arts at Greenwood High School for 13 years. A Fort Smith native, he holds degrees in both theater design and production and secondary education from Oklahoma City University.


What challenges do you see in teaching art during the pandemic?


Elizabeth: There are so many. The hardest thing about teaching art remotely is having the physical experience of making the art itself. It's important to have children get their hands dirty, working with the materials and building confidence. When the school was on lockdown we went completely online. We used the Google Classroom learning management systems as well as a system called Schoology. This presented a different type of challenge. There are so many different types of technologies around you are expected to use, it's hard to keep everybody on the same page. I would provide links to virtual tours and available art making content for my 650 students to view. But when the time came to upload an image from one of the assignments, we found the technical competencies required posed the biggest challenge of all. Part of my job is to assess and grade student progress. That becomes more difficult remotely in a virtual space. and with the number of students I teach, it is virtually impossible to do as effectively as in-person assessments.


Tim: Every teacher of every subject is facing the same kinds of challenges. There was no way to prepare for the pandemic. We had to adjust and alter our current plans on the fly. In my classes, working with actors, so much relies on nonverbal cues and facial expression, so wearing masks affect that. Those things are difficult to teach remotely. We face production issues. We had to ask the question how does one put on a show when the actors are not together, the stagecraft aspects of a production, such as sets and lighting, are absent as well as not having feedback from a live audience.


What new or unique approaches do you plan to use during this difficult time?


Elizabeth: Zoom is popular and we are using Google Classroom Learning Management System. I use Zoom with my iPhone to share screens and demonstrate techniques using a tabletop environment. I can draw live and speak and share directly with up to 25 students at a time. I also use live streaming, premade videos and pick up/drop off projects.


Tim: Unfortunately, shows that were already in production had to be canceled. But we have been working on solutions. We have to be realistic as we develop our contingency plans. I've created a mask with a clear window so facial expression can be seen better. As we come back to classes this fall, I will use Zoom as a tool to relay teaching materials and students may upload videos to YouTube to record acting/speaking assignments. With Zoom we can have round table readings similar to a classroom environment. Live streaming, with actors in different locations has potential. Google Classroom is a great online platform that is used throughout the school. I can create assignments and students can upload their work. One advantage we have at Greenwood High is we were able to buy Chromebooks for everyone. This is an enormous technology advantage for our students. It allows us to intergrade the internet into our classroom approach. We work with our technology partners to ensure every student has some level of internet access. We are hoping, as the school year progresses, a vaccine for the virus will allow us to have a normal stage production but if not, we are ready to pivot to these new remote technologies to create some level of production, even if they end up being simpler not unlike the old radio theater shows from the golden age of radio.


Will you continue to employ any of these new approaches after the pandemic? Which ones and why?


Elizabeth: Absolutely! As we prepare students for careers in the future, understanding digital technology is a train they have to be on. Whatever the shortcomings, remote learning opens up new and engaging learning content to a very wide audience. The sheer level of access and reach is incredible. Now, from the safety of your home, you can tour 12 Frank Lloyd Wright houses. It will never replace the experience of sitting with a student at a potter's wheel, with a chunk of clay, helping them learn to control the material. But in my classroom, technology will play an important, necessary role.


Tim: Yes. The pandemic has forced us to look outside of a standard teaching approach. In the process we have a renewed appreciation for adding digital/internet components into the teaching tool kit. The sheer ability to reach out to experienced, professional actors, to connect with my students is a valuable resource that makes the learning experience so much better. It's also just rethinking about regular stage productions when they return. Dressing rooms are crowded, makeup is often shared. We are learning a lot now about how germs spread and we can establish new sanitizing protocols that will remain as a result of the pandemic. Another element we learned from the experience of creating virtual productions is now we know we can do it. It gives us confidence that if something like this happens again, we'll be ready. So, in some ways, dealing with the pandemic will result in some unexpected positive outcomes.


Any advice. ideas or opinions you'd like to share with other art teachers?


Elizabeth: Art education is still really important in student development. Keep making art. Regarding technology, be patient with yourself and always be kind. Things will get better on the other side of the pandemic.


Tim: It's okay not to have all the answers. Do the best you can. Reach out for help. Don't be afraid of failing. There is a difference between failing and becoming a failure. Get started and try something. If it doesn't work, try something else. Just keep moving forward.


This column is produced by the River Valley Arts Coalition, whose mission is to inform citizens and visitors of the available fine art exhibition and education opportunities in Fort Smith and surrounding region. We also want to tell the stories of the people who make the local art scene such a vibrant and important part of our community. To send comments or for more information on the River Valley Arts Coalition contact lmeluso@fsram.org.