Renee Kuharchuk (top right) listens as her AP Art students actively share and discuss their art pieces over Zoom. “They’ve been totally jumping in, using Zoom, using the chat, really trying to make it an authentic experience,” Kuharchuk said. (Photo courtesy of Renee Kuharchuk)
Renee Kuharchuk (top right) listens as her AP Art students actively share and discuss their art pieces over Zoom. “They’ve been totally jumping in, using Zoom, using the chat, really trying to make it an authentic experience,” Kuharchuk said.

Photo courtesy of Renee Kuharchuk

Visual and performing arts programs work to overcome challenges presented with remote learning

September 24, 2020

When the school year began remotely in August, every department at York had their work cut out for them, and the fine arts department was no exception. For a more hands-on cluster of classes, it is no surprise the fine arts department has struggled not only with simple practicalities like internet connection and lack of supplies but also with keeping students engaged in classes that normally rely on a community aspect that is hard to replace over Zoom. Yet, with every struggle the department has faced, a viable solution has presented itself in both the visual and performing arts as staff members, students and administrators work together to get the most out of their experience with remote learning.

For starters, one major struggle the fine arts department dealt with were the practical implications of not being physically in the classroom. Visual arts students started out the year without access to the supplies needed to work on major art projects in classes like jewelry or sculpting.

“For my other two art classes, acrylic and jewelry, it’s a little more complicated because there are classes that need certain materials that not everyone has at home,” senior art student  Addison McClary said. “Especially with jewelry because, well, I currently don’t have a torch in my house.”

McClary is taking both acrylic and jewelry in addition to AP Art. As well as dealing with a lack of supplies, she also has trouble finding a dedicated place to do her artwork.

“I personally would much rather be in a school studio space than at my desk that I also do all of my homework and math and all that kind of stuff on,” McClary said. “I have to clean it off completely for all of my art stuff, which is a little bit annoying.”

Patrick Baker, the visual and performing arts department chair for York, worked to address the visual art department’s practical challenges. He collaborated with teachers to organize a supply drop for students to pick up necessary equipment for students to create art at home.

“That [supply pick-up] was a really great opportunity we had,” Baker said. “We partnered with the school leadership and seized the opportunity to do that. That’s been a really great opportunity for us because we really want our students to be able to have access to the same supplies that they might have had access to if they were in school so they can fully express their creativity and their artistic nature there.”

In terms of finding students a proper workspace, visual arts teacher Renee Kuharchuk worked with her students on creating a miniature makeshift studio in their own homes.

“You have to create that space for yourself,” Kuharchuk said. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with my classes about setting up a dedicated space to work […] which, for some students, can be really cool, because you can have your own little studio space, and you can listen to your music, you can eat some snacks maybe.” 

On the performing arts side of the fine arts department, one of the major practical concerns was dealing with internet lag. It’s virtually impossible for students to practice or create music together over Zoom because of different internet speeds.

“When you’re online of course,” band director Michael Pavlik said, “you’re not playing together, because all of our computers and data are streaming through various types of servers, so nothing can be lined up perfectly. You can’t play with someone in real time over the internet. Until we’ve developed much faster speeds of data transfer. So, how do we try to keep people engaged?”

Once again, the fine arts administration was able to find new and unique workarounds, this time in the form of new technology programs. For example, students in music production are using the program SoundTrap in place of LogicProX, the program normally used in music production classes.

“It [SoundTrap] is a much more affordable alternative,” senior music production student Anna Collins said, “and according to [music production teacher Chris Gemkow]- and I think I have to agree with him on this – it’s one of the best, really affordable options out there to mimic Logic. Of course, it doesn’t have everything, but it still definitely has a lot of the tools you would find in any DAW [Digital Audio Workspace] that you would use in class.”

Along with SoundTrap came SmartMusic, which is currently used by band, orchestra and choir students to aid in practicing their music. The program provides students with feedback as they practice along with their assigned recording. 

“Basically what happens is that […] all of our music is uploaded to SmartMusic, and we’re assigned a part based on our seating arrangement,” senior band student Shayari Liyanapatabendi said. “Then we’re assigned an excerpt from whatever part of the music we have, and we have to play along with the music […] I think it’s pretty cool because it listens to you, and it will pinpoint which specific notes you got wrong, or which specific rhythms you got wrong, which is helpful.”

Practicalities aside, there is still one aspect of both the practical and visual arts that’s been especially hard to bring back; the in-person interactions between students and staff, and collaborations between students that created the communal atmosphere inherent to all fine arts classes. 

“Last year it was fun when, while you were working on your stuff, you could talk to your friends and just have a conversation which helps get you in the mood to make good art,” senior art student Kendall Dirks, who is taking AP Studio 2D Design, said. “Right now, we’re just on our own, we can’t really talk to people while we’re in the class and making stuff, so that’s the only downside I see.”

Mr. Baker acknowledges this. He and his fellow administrators worked hard to focus on creating multiple opportunities in their respective departments for students to have as much of a meaningful experience as possible despite the current circumstances.

“So, one of our big areas of focus in the spring was how we could make sure that we, as administrators, are working to keep things narrowly focused, so it doesn’t get overwhelming and unmanageable [for students], but yet at the same time meaningful so that you, as students, have a positive experience amid all of the anxiety and craziness and change, but also to have that meaningful experience that you signed up for,” Baker said.

And teachers did find opportunities for interaction in their classes. For starters, fine arts teachers reached out and connected with their students, checking in with their work as well as on how their students were doing in general. 

“I think in terms of what my [fine arts] teachers are doing – putting us in breakout rooms, spending the first few minutes in class […] just talking to each other, asking each other about our weekends, and group work – I think they’ve all so far been doing a great job with trying to keep that sense of community,” Collins said.

Mr. Pavlik, in tune with other fine arts teachers, has been reaching out to students individually, asking them to play for him and checking their progress. In this way, he actually found a new teaching strategy that he may use in the future.

“We have an opportunity to have just a unique connection, to hear them play, and just to be able to let them know that we care about what’s going on,” Pavlik said. “And that type of unique connection opportunity has been good and powerful I think. And it’s part of a set of skills that we’re developing that I think will be carried over into a post-pandemic teaching scenario [in the future].”

And as teachers have been reaching out, students have been responding positively, which has teachers like Mrs. Kuharchuk ecstatic.

“I’m so proud, especially of a few of my classes where I’ve maybe made my students talk to each other,” Kuharchuk said. “They’ve been totally jumping in, using Zoom, using the chat, really trying to make it an authentic experience. As a teacher, that’s really heartwarming to be like, ‘I’m so proud of my students’, you know, for working with this new experience and trying to make it worthwhile for them.” 

So, despite the multitude of challenges faced by the fine arts department regarding remote learning, it seems as if students, teachers and administrators alike have pulled through to make the fine arts classes be the best they can be. As more challenges are bound to arise in the future, Mr. Baker emphasizes that despite our different situations, we’re all in this together.

“Obviously, any time you do something like [the fine arts department did], it takes some work, it takes some adjustment,” Baker said. “It’s definitely been a heavy lift but we’re all in the same boat. All of us as teachers and educators, all of you guys as students, we’re all in the same boat and trying to navigate this new reality [that we’re in].”

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