Vermont Arts Council

Teaching Artists Can Be “Leaders of Re-entry” in Unexplored Territory

In early June, teaching artist Alissa Faber and Champlain Elementary School embarked on an experiment—a virtual artist residency, the first of its kind held through the Vermont Arts Council’s Artists in Schools program. To teach students about waste reduction, Alissa gathered plastics and recycled materials to be woven into art pieces and displayed in a mural in front of the school.

To adapt the process for social distancing, Alissa prepared the lesson materials into “ready to go weaving kits” and dropped them off at the school for students to pick up—a method schools have been employing for all manner of lesson materials. In place of in-person time with her students, Alissa consulted with them throughout their weaving process over video conferencing tools.

For teaching artists like Alissa, and for the students they work with, arts education in the age of COVID-19 presents unique challenges. But the evidence that it can be done is there, in a splash of color outside Champlain Elementary. Alissa has shared a time lapse video of her installing the mural on Vimeo.

The Champlain Elementary residency was Alissa Faber’s first foray into remote teaching, but she used a few methods that have been successful—to varying degrees—for other teaching artists around the state. Using live video, working across disciplines, creating at-home content, and other creative methods will likely see wider adoption among teaching artists this fall because the State of Vermont’s guidelines for schools explicitly prohibit “outside visitors and volunteers except for employees or contracted service providers for the purpose of special education or required support services.”

Adapting practices together

In mid-June the Arts Council held a webinar where teaching artists and state arts education officials convened to discuss adapting their practices while the pandemic persists. As participants shared tips, challenges, and policy insights, a consensus emerged: This is largely unexplored territory, but arts educators are especially suited to explore it, to be “the leaders of re-entry,” as one Vermont Agency of Education official at the convening put it.

The first presenter at the convening was Judy Dow, an Abenaki educator and basket maker based in Essex Junction who has taught and exhibited for schools and organizations around Vermont and New England for over two decades. Judy has felt prepared in many ways for socially distanced learning, and for scarcity of funding and materials as schools adapt to Covid-19. She has always taught outdoors when possible, using natural and recycled materials, and her lessons have always been interdisciplinary.

Students listen to Judy Dow tell the Abenaki creation story in Brandon (2017).

“I make sure I’m also teaching something in addition to my basket making,” said Judy. “Schools are more open to hiring someone who’s going to teach science, math, and history, so I’ve tried to teach science, math, and history with art being the way you reflect what you’re learning, to assess or to document what the students have learned.”

Like Alissa Faber did for her Champlain residency, Judy Dow has used take-home kits with her students, and she is embracing virtual content like video conferencing and presentations.

Also presenting at the convening was Rajnii Eddins, a Vermont poet whose work is rooted in dismantling white supremacy and “finding ways to affirm common humanity through shared story.” Originally from Seattle, Rajnii has been working with youth in Vermont since 2010. Rajnii has found that tools like Zoom translate well for projects based in writing, reading, and speaking. For Rajnii, such projects have involved helping classrooms diversify their reading lists or helping students to weave “chosen words” into poems that bear witness to and celebrate each other’s stories.

Rajnii Eddins (far left) and students in workshop (2020). Photo credit Maia Buckingham.

At Fred Tuttle Middle School recently, Rajnii adapted his “chosen words” poetry workshop for the digital environment, and students were just as eager to engage as they would be in-person. His main challenge was to recreate the sense of intimacy that empowers students to self-express and share as a group. To do this Rajnii made sure students knew they could chat with him privately outside of the video conference, and he used two tools he would use in any learning environment: sharing his own story and personal perspective to set a tone of open, honest vulnerability, and assuring students that whether virtually or in-person, there is no wrong way to make their art.

New concerns arise

Two common concerns among teaching artists at the Council’s convening were intellectual property rights and determining artist fees and rates. Teaching artists who provide content such as recorded presentations and on-demand lesson materials will have to be clear about their intellectual rights, lest schools or clients reuse materials without properly compensating or receiving permission from the artist. The preparation, sanitation, and delivery of content in this new model are all factors that artists should be prepared to calculate into their budget and rates.

It’s clear that any artist who hopes to work with schools in the fall will have to adapt what they do with care and diligence. For many of the artists at our June convening who have begun adapting for remote learning, the process is one of trial and error. Around the country, arts educators are committing to the task of ensuring access to the arts, even in a time of pandemic.

We’ve gathered a few resources to help teaching artists adapt to the new environment: