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Episode 22: Students as Artists — Creating Contexts of Creativity and Community

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


[calm background music]

Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

Welcome to this month's episode of the DOE Digest. Before we jump into our topic, I'd like to congratulate Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan on her appointment as Acting Commissioner. We can't wait to see all the amazing things that the department will do under her leadership.

This month's episode features the topic of Art education and how to sustain students through this difficult time utilizing the arts. We at the department believe that now, more than ever, it's essential to ensure that we are sustaining students as artists. The four guests that I have in this episode talk about what they're doing in these times to do just that.

My first interview is with Lisa Spero and we talk about differentiating for remote learning settings. Next, I talked to Bryan Williams about conducting virtual performances with student groups. After that, Sheikia Norris and I talk about hip-hop, arts education, and the intersection of the two. And then I close out this episode with a compelling discussion with Angie Mikula about SEL [social and emotional learning] and visual arts.

I hope that you enjoy this episode and find it as engaging as I do.

Lisa Spero, Little Falls

Lisa: My name is Lisa Spero and I teacher Elementary Art for grades kindergarten through fourth grade in Little Falls. I've been in the district for seven years.

Ken: Thank you so much. So, as you think about your class and teaching, what's your favorite part about engaging students as visual artists in your classroom?

Lisa: So visual arts is such a great subject because it offers something kind of unique when you think about it. Students are allowed to take risks. It's a safe space for students. There's not necessarily a right answer or a specific answer that I'm looking for. So it takes some of the pressure off of students and it's a place where they can really just explore. So giving them the techniques. Teaching them a little bit about how to use a new material or a new style of art. And then just having them go for it, just exploring what they want to explore using those techniques and applying those things.

And it really gives them a chance to lead and to have control over their creativity, which they love. Um, you know, what's so great about the visual arts standards is that they lend themselves to the Four C's, which is something my district's really big on (creativity and collaboration). So it's just so great to see that in my room, whether it's in my room or whether it's virtual.

Ken: You talked about that room for creativity, and I'd love to hear a little bit more about ways that you've been helping students thrive in this new teaching and learning environment.

Lisa: Yeah. So my district right now is currently a hybrid. So we do have certain students that are in person. We have certain students that are completely virtual. And with our specials, we are Zooming into their classroom. So, um, one Zoom I will have students that are in school and then I'll also have students that are at home. So I'm Zooming in with them even whether that--whether they're physically in the building or not. So that's a little bit about what we've been doing.

And it's definitely been an adjustment, but I'm a big proponent of student choice and voice. So I really wanted to make sure that I allowed the students a way to, in the virtual environment, to have that student choice and voice and have those constrained boundaries for their projects. Um, just so that they have opportunities to be creative within the parameters that I give them for their assignments.

Um, so one way that I've been able to do that is I've been able to set up a virtual classroom. And what I've done is I've given students, each month, different project options. So if students like to draw, there are project options for that. If students like to use oil pastels, I've given that to them in advance and they have projects they can use for that. And basically what they're doing is, for the whole month, they're allowed to choose any combination of projects that they want. So there's no one-size-fits-all for them. 

What I ended up doing was I gave like a point system to my classroom. So one assignment might be worth one point. One more rigorous assignment might be worth four or five points. In this way students can sort of pick and choose between what I've given them, so that they do have a little bit of say in how they're learning the materials that I want to cover with them.

Ken: As students are thinking through the projects that they want to focus on and honing in their skills as visual artists, how do you ensure your classroom and your instruction meets them where they're at, in terms of them having so much amazing choice and also being able to receive feedback from you?

Lisa: Right. So that's where the point system I talked about really comes in handy, because it really allows the students to reflect and self-differentiate. So, if there's a student who thinks that a five point might be too much of a challenge, I encourage them to look at projects that maybe are a three point or a four point. If there are students that are doing things that I think aren't challenging enough, I encourage them.

One of the great things too about having them on Zoom, is that I can just have them quick, "Hey, hold up what you're doing to the camera. Let me see it." I can see it, not everybody else can, and I can give them feedback. I can give them private feedback by typing to them directly in the Zoom chat. So even though I'm not there in person with the students, um, it's really been helpful in allowing them--the choice component has been helpful in allowing them to choose projects that are where they are at, and then for me to formatively assess how they are meeting those parameters and if it is a good fit for them or not.

And I also believe too in the importance of catering to learning types. So I try to mix up the way that I give the instruction too. Sometimes a project will have a choice for them if they want to receive it in a--a chart, or if they'd rather watch a video that has instructions. Because we all learn differently, right? So one of the great things about this new model is that I can offer the students, right on their device, if they want to receive instruction audio or visual. and that helps to meet them where they are, as far as learning styles go as well.

Because my students have the choices of different projects, I've been putting different social-emotional projects within there. I haven't been calling them that, so they don't know that that's what it is. There are a lot of great resources with Art of Education (AOE). They have different art therapy inspired activities. I have been putting those types of activities within my choice board.

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Transition to Interview 2

Ken: A common theme that you'll notice between all of the guests in this episode is how they are leveraging this time as a potential opportunity to engage students even more as artists. My next guest, Bryan Williams, talks in his segment about how he is using this time as an opportunity to develop students in ways that he wouldn't normally be able to, and help them prepare for a virtual performance that really is innovative. I'm thrilled for you to hear him and his perspective.

Bryan Williams, Clementon Elementary

Bryan: I am Bryan Williams. I am the instrumental music teacher at Clementon Elementary School. I started in 2015. I do everything to do with instrumental music. So, you know, music lessons, band director, all of that.

Ken: Wonderful. So what challenges and opportunities have students had as musicians as it relates to, you know, the time that your school has been experiencing with COVID-19 and the coronavirus?

Bryan: Since we went to remote learning, our school has been closed since then. The students have been taking remote lessons. So some of the opportunities that they-- that we've had is been working with them on more of a one-on-one basis with their music lessons, which is something that they don't normally get with their other teachers. I find that the students are more engaged in their lessons than maybe they were before, because now they have this opportunity still to get that one-on-one experience, even if it is through Google Meets rather than in person. We can get a lot done. And then there's the other opportunity of, you know, now that we're working on what's called a virtual concert, we are having the students record themselves at home. And they're able to listen to themselves more. You know, that's kind of also a different learning experience than say, you know, every week going with a giant band and kind of playing as a group. Now you're more focused as an individual musician.

Ken: That's great. As your students have transitioned from in-person learning to remote learning, how have you noticed students shifting in how they view themselves as musicians?

Bryan: So it's almost like now they've shifted to this mindset where the music becomes very personal to them and their experience. With online lessons can give them a chance to view themselves as musicians in a way maybe they hadn't before, where before maybe it was an extracurricular activity or just something they did on the side. Now it's this escape from, um, you know their daily routine and it becomes more personal I think. And it's like, you know, the music that they're playing is more, "okay, how can I improve as a musician to this week?" rather than "how can I get ready for band?"

I do notice that students have lit up with their music in a way that they maybe hadn't before. They look forward to that one-on-one time where they actually get to interact with a teacher for a full 20 minutes, it's just me and them. It's, you know, and we're working on sight reading scales, whatever it is, you know, it is--it's a newfound experience where, you know, they're not in in an online meets where they're just with another 20 [or] 30 kids,  but rather they're getting the opportunity now to be, you know, have that one-on-one time and you do see them kind of light up.

Ken: That's awesome. You talked about the virtual concert, could you talk a little bit more about just the logistics of that?

Bryan: So this was something I started pretty much hammering away at since day one in September. It started obviously, you know, getting the music to the students. And I'm assigning different parts to each student. Basically, they are given recordings that I made at home to play along to. They are then, you know, once they feel comfortable running the song, they can practice with the recording at home. Once they feel good with it, um, they usually take two devices. So like have a computer with headphones in that has a, you know, the recording playing. And then they'll use a cell phone or an iPad, um, to video themselves performing the song. So that all I get is their audio and, you know, not them playing along with the audio. So that's--that's a big part.

And then I take their audio and I'm mixing it together in a separate file. And then eventually we're gonna to sync up all the videos so that, you know, you can see them performing their parts. To see them played together, I think, will be a really cool, um, thing for our community and something that maybe we haven't had. So I'm very excited to share that with people.

Ken: As--as teachers in these times, you know, you talked about students really finding solace in music, how can teachers can continue to encourage students as they kind of hone in their craft?

Bryan: So, you know, at our school specifically, I've seen tremendous support for instrumental music. It's-- whether it be homeroom teachers who are constantly reminding students to sign up for online lessons in their Google Classrooms, or actually I've had a teacher individually message students saying "hey, you know Mr. Williams has been trying to get a hold of you. You know, he wants you to continue, you know, with your saxophone lessons." And then, you know, the student did sign up after that. And we've had a lot of great lessons and it's gotten them back into playing music again.

So anything that a teacher can do to, um, those types of things I found to be very helpful.

[end of section]

Transition to Interview 3

Ken: Arts education in New Jersey not only takes place in schools, but it also has a huge role in community organizations, including performing arts centers. In this next segment, I interview a hip-hop arts educator about what's being done across multiple mediums within hip-hop to bring students together and to help unify them through this time.

Sheikia Norris

Sheikia: I'm Sheikia Norris. I'm lyrically known as Purple Haze. I'm the director of the hip hop education program at New Jersey Performing Arts Center, also known as NJPAC. And what that is, is a comprehensive hip-hop art and culture program where the foundational elements are taught for students to express their knowledge and discoveries about themselves through graffiti, which is our visual art form, beat making which is digital, uh, DJ-ing, that's also music production, and beat boxing. We also teach creative writing and hip hop, that's emceeing, lyric writing, rapping, also known as rapping, as well as our, I always say our creative cousin, spoken word and today's trendy hip-hop dances.

When we--we're using everything and anything we can to create--build community, inform and exchange information, and use imagination and envisioning to create content and--and unite people. And so it's been really inspiring to continue during 2020 and COVID, and with the--the unrest in our country, with art being an answer for human--humanity all throughout times, and it continuing to be. It was important to stay grounded in what we do, but open to new ways to discover how to do it and explore that in partnership, uh, with--with support, uh, curiosity and a lot of risk taking.

Ken: Yeah. It sounds like some really excellent work and I'm excited to jump into it. So first off, how did you come to hip-hop education and how did this field kind of reveal itself to you and--and how did you how did you find it?

Sheikia: I am an emcee for life. So I'm, what that is, I'm a rap artist, hip-hop--independent hip-hop performing artist. And my bridge to being a teaching artist was the stage. I actually was invited to help participate in a anti-police brutality protest concert or fundraiser concert at Rutgers.  Um, it was for, um, a conflict that happened in New Brunswick but the concert would happen in Newark. And I opened for incredible artists that I love, Dead Prez. And there, um, Tynesha McHarris, after my performance, asked me about, um, about teaching. And I thought that was so interesting that something--something I shared in my performance translated to her to ask me about teaching. And I fell in love with it. It's a combination of my love for hip-hop culture, that being such a pillar of my identity and--and my upbringing, and also that I have a degree in health education. And so it kind of was the best the--the best of both worlds coming together unexpectedly. In education, I--I've explored and discovered a really new horizon of passion and purpose work.

Ken: Thank you for sharing that. Uh, I think it's really informative for folks listening who, you know, may be somewhat familiar with the field of of arts education broadly, but--but not as much with--with teaching artists and--and hip-hop education specifically. So that's--that's really great.

So with the intersection of trauma-informed care, culturally-responsive or culturally-sustaining education, and I know that your--your organization has gone virtual, as well, due to the pandemic. So-- so, with kind of all of those overlapping issues and--and all of those overlapping factors, how have you been processing that and how have you been engaging students?

Sheikia: So I--it's easy for me to answer how I have been engaging students, honestly. Because that is something where it's constantly making choices, um, staying focused on what the overall growth of the program was going anyway. And then kind of using this real-time moment to also, um, test how we can apply it. We were already exploring what online and digital learning looked like, um, using our curriculum, finding opportunities in the curriculum that's being designed and developed, as well as finding opportunities to, we call it, "bring other voices in the classrooms."

Initially we made pre-recorded videos, in two days. We send email, after speaking to all of the parents, knowing what equipment everyone was working with, wi-fi capacity. We said, "let's start with pre-recorded video this week. Let's send it out next week. Let's go live." We used Zoom live. We had our first beatbox class. This was before we understood how to use our different levels and breakout rooms, and how we would be able to engage and create a multi-space program offering, as we did. So what part of-- of our brick and mortar did we need to let go of? Just be detached, you know. And then what part of it would be everyone playing. Another part was, um, that we have community meetings and that we we wanted to keep that up. Uh, that we didn't want to turn away and act as if the times were not pressing everyone. So we said "let's--let's keep the same time frame that we're meeting, but let's utilize it differently."

And so with having a partnership with the mental health association and NJPAC, we had our last 30 minutes of our hip-hop classes, our community building time, or our ciphers. We use that as a real talk about real times. So that everyone in our community could just talk about whatever was there- feelings, thoughts, seeing information, reactions, needs, discoveries, questions, silence. We grew and went through the beginning phase together. And we did it relying on professional support that was, again, already established in partnership for--for at least a year.

Um, so it helped that the social workers knew our students and they knew the students knew them, and that we could just create space. That's what that was, that it would not be as facilitated space, um, but that it was an acknowledgement that we may need space. And so I--I say that at the end to say I think that's how Ive been processing it. It's making sure I have space to say "I'm not sure." And or--or that we're we're taking a risk and we may fail. And that's how we continue to go. And I have to say, by saying what's possible instead of what's simple, even what's doable, but who do we want to be first? And how do we want our students to be with each other for these times? And, uh, how do we want to be when we come out of this? So the being is just as important as the doing. Has been really a new reason why we have our programs continuing.

The value. The parents support and the parents, um, expression of gratitude has been exceptional. And I can't, I'm saying a lot about our community and our relationship, but I must use the opportunity to say the art that was made. We kept going because we knew that this time would press humanity. We also know that in times when humanity is pressed, brilliant art is made. And that we are a performing arts center and that we could discover performance. And we could discover art making, in community together.

So, play with the unusual. And explore. And have everyone adjust the expectations of having a definite end, so that it's about process not product. Um, and see what can be soothing. See what can be useful, translated. And, uh, for that, the young artists can be affirmed as well. So the creatives can be affirmed and that they--their value-- the value of what their creative art making or their insight or their perspective, that it can be useful in society anywhere, anytime

[end of section]

Transition to Interview 4

Ken: So many students have experienced so much loss, in so many different ways, during this time. And it's essential that we leverage every area of education in the school, including arts education, to build up social emotional learning, and to ensure that students are able to thrive despite the many obstacles they face. This next segment addresses just that.

Angela Mikula, Delaware Township

Angie: My name is Angie Mikula and I'm an art teacher. I teach pre-kindergarten all the way through eighth grade at Delaware Township School in Sergeantsville, New Jersey.

Ken: Excellent. So, many, many students have been impacted socially and emotionally by COVID-19, not just because of changes in schools, but because of--of loss that they may have experienced, of increased strife, sometimes in their homes, in--in a lot of different ways. How have you, and how can teachers, leverage art to really foster mental health and positive self-image, and all of those things in their classrooms, so that students are able to thrive despite all of the many difficulties that they're going through right now?

Angie: The last decade has shown unprecedented numbers of students who've been suffering with anxiety and depression. The numbers have been rising, and it's not just in the United States, it's in other places around the world as well. 

So, the last bunch of years have already been this build. I was so worried about so many of my students struggling with anxiety, and many of which, a lot of them were some of my most talented at expressing themselves visually. They were withdrawing. They were having a hard time coming to school.

I reached out looking for some professional development. And I received the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching in 2018, which allowed me six months of exploring exactly how teachers can address anxiety, the growing anxiety and stress in our classrooms, using the visual arts.

And I traveled through, it was the United Kingdom where I did my work. It was so interesting to find their approach. One, I mean mindfulness was, it was, very big. It was really taking root. And, uh, the other was this their strong teaching of global education intertwined, in a lot of the curriculum there is the UN sustainable development goals, the 17 goals that were established by the UN to help create better life/lifestyle opportunities for everyone around the world. And so there was this move toward giving the kids a sense of purpose, you know, that they're not alone. They're connected to something so much bigger. And helping them find the platform through which they could speak to, you know, their desires, their wants, and their wishes.

So I--I started working with an artist, her name is Lily Yeh, she's--she's a renowned international humanitarian and artist who travels to places around the world in some of the most difficult living situations. Her goal was to use the transformative power of art to bring the community back together. So, she looked for places where they needed hope, they needed a feeling of connection.. to something light again, some some feeling that "we are connected." And she worked with the community in Rwanda and many other places around the world. She works with them. They create, together, their own visual imagery. And through it, work through a lot of the difficulties they've faced in their storytelling.

A lot of my approach now is, when I talk to teachers about, you know, how we can help-- kids who are struggling with stress and anxiety, we need to make them feel like they are a team. That we can work together and make something really wonderful. And that their individual part in it is so important.

And we--we recently created a mindfulness garden. It was great. We have--we have this garden. And the teachers came together and started cleaning up the garden. And we brought the students in. And we brought a mindfulness instructor, who's also, she did mindfulness through mural painting with students. So she worked with the students to design these beautiful murals throughout the courtyard. It's all brick walls and garden beds. So she create--helped the students, work with the students to create the murals. And a lot of them touched on the theme of mindfulness.

And then I had some students, uh, we wanted a sundial. So the kids had to, you know, learn about the way that a sundial might--would work, how it works. And then we used clay and we created this big, wonderful sundial in one of our classes. And then I tasked another grade level with, "well, we need a water fountain. And we need the sound of water."  And so they had to figure out how to create water to move through a clay sculpture. And it all came together in a beautiful example of what STEAM can do also, but we came together and now we celebrate in this space

Ken: So, as teachers are thinking about this context that we're in and--and also, just generally, thinking about equity and making sure that all students have access to--to art. And --and that they're doing art in ways that are culturally sustaining, how are you-- how are you thinking about equity in the classroom?

Angie: Well, I am so grateful. 2019, Governor Murphy made New Jersey the first state in the nation to provide universal access to the arts. So that right there makes me so proud to be a New Jersey teacher. [laughing]

I have been really re-examining, you know, the artists that I--that I cover in my classroom, making sure that...I've really been making a point of making it very diverse and up-to-date. We, as a class of middle schoolers, my middle schoolers that I work with, we've been creating identity maps to work from. So, in their sketchbooks now, we've started identifying--creating these webs of who we are. Learning how to tell our story in the most effective way. Really looking at where our families have come from. You know, what have our grandparents had to do to get us here here we are now?

So I've been really amping skill building for the kids, to learn how to examine who they are in the fullest way they can. We start with words. And now, we're actually in the process of doing this right now, we're taking these words and we are turning them into pictures through the making of a mask. Now normally you think of a mask as covering your face, right? Like hiding your identity? But these masks are actually wearing their identity on the outside and telling their story.

And part of the reason we're doing this is we've just started an art exchange with the Dandelion School, um, the only middle school in Beijing designated for migrant children. So many of these children in the middle school, I think we're working with about 30 of these students now, they've sent their images to us of their masks. And my students now are engaging with them in the making of an identity mask where they can tell, you know, their own story.

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Ken: We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

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Thanks so much for listening.

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