You can paint with beetroot juice, coffee, tea and mud. You can draw in the dust of your car window. You can make art anywhere – but usually, we make it in a well-resourced classroom.
In lockdown my high school art students ran out of paints. Only some had managed to get materials and works in progress home. Incomplete paintings were quarantined in the drying racks in the art room; teachers and students were separated indefinitely in their respective bubbles.
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I'm a high school art teacher, who added junior te reo Māori to his classload this year. When you train for this profession, you're put in front of students within the first two months. All of my learning, and all of my subsequent teaching, has been about being in the same physical space as students. I've been trained to teach in a classroom, responding to situations in real time.
We had two weeks to prepare for a radical shift. In the so-called term break I was unmotivated, living with a listless, waiting-room tension. A dull anxiety – how was online learning going to work in practical subjects like art, drama, dance and music?
The new term starts and the more on-to-it seniors send me pictures via Google Hangouts: Is this okay sir? Is it finished yet?
Some of the photographs are blurry, like the student has literally run past it and clicked. Their art is just as much in-shot as out. So I say polite things like, "Could you put it in a table with some more light?"
It's good to start work again. It is uplifting to see my teenage students in video chats. I realised I have missed them. They are hiding their faces in snuggly pink hoodies, eating potato crisps in bed at midday. A 5-year-old climbing over the shoulder of her older brother. "Check out my new haircut sir, do you like it?" Yes, I do, I say, aware that I might have edged over a professional line. Nothing is normal right now.
Anthony has not had a haircut since well before the lockdown. I can see an adolescent beard sprouting. I tell him he looks like John the Baptist stepping out of the wilderness, which leads to a brief exchange about the difference between atheism and agnosticism. He is a curious and brainy guy who has an internal dialogue that actually makes it out of his mouth. Some students demand more one-on-one attention than others. Via video, I'm a captive audience.
After the end of the first week of online learning, I say, "S**t I'm working hard." Ha, scoffs my sardonic bubble love. "You are still a teacher and you are getting paid for it."
We have very well-behaved Zoom staff briefings three mornings a week.
Senior management asserts pastoral care is the first priority in online communication with students. A "wait a little longer than you normally would" approach for work to be submitted, considering the physical and emotional obstacles to learning from home.
I learn that most will respond sooner or later if you zap them on five different platforms. They won't return your email but will pop up on Google Hangouts. Sometimes they will log into a video meeting and post a single quote from rapper Tupac Shakur. Faceless, voiceless, but present sir - with attitude.
A Year 7 te reo Māori student is getting some help from his auntie. I notice I've responded with ata mārie and it is 2:30pm. Then I realise I've done the same thing in a pre-recorded Screencastify lesson. Hey kids, can you spot the mistake?
I have been making a few mistakes. Like getting two slightly different teacher codes mixed up, thus sending resources to the wrong class. No wonder I've been getting confused student responses. The junior art students have transferred their classroom witterings to Google Hangouts. I mute. It isn't about art. In fact, it is barely about fully formed sentences.
Some students have managed productive learning time, but by the end of Week 4 there are vast numbers lost in the ether. I hear, anecdotally, that some teachers are concerned that they're only hearing from 80 per cent of students – others report far lower response rates.
Parents are always there in the background. Unable to escape. Trying to keep it all together. I hear them instructing their kids from the background of video chats. I have several brief but heartfelt email exchanges with a mum. Her son is frustrated with her and won't do his work. Home is now a space of unfamiliar roles and expectations. Parents being teachers being parents who teach students who are their kids. From the outside looking in, my students' families appear confined and compressed.
At Level 3, I am able to go back into school to organise art material packs for students. I'd demonstrated tonal modelling using turmeric and soy sauce and painted a still life of a pear. Students had tried to emulate, but what they really wanted were paints and paper. Not every home is equipped with these things, or even the space to make art in.
The material packs were laid out in an aesthetically pleasing row. Most students observed instructions and waited outside. Some rocked on in, grinning and advancing as I danced backwards trying to keep equidistant.
Every morning before Covid-19, I used to step inside a warm and thrilling helter-skelter. Propelled by laughter, kindness, questions, split decisions, dramas, mōrena … haere rā. Out with one crew, in with the next. (Did I mention stepping into the office to head-shout an expletive before carrying on with the lesson?)
Now it is like a waiting game. Fire off a week's worth of resources and tasks on Sunday night and see what, and who pops back. The thrill of my online teaching day is a response. A piece of art or a lovingly presented Google slide show spat down a cable. A precious gift to open, evaluate and then carefully store away.
I would struggle to find time to get to my computer in a normal teaching day. Now I am stuck to the screen from the first morning Zoom briefing, but I don't have to get out of bed until 8am to make it with coffee in hand by 9am. I can watch the pīwakawaka come to the birdbath daily, have lunch with my partner and go for a walk.
I feel scared about going back to school. I miss my kids but I'm scared of the sudden onslaught. I am also scared that I won't remember how to teach in a real classroom.