But with COVID-19 in full swing, Larson had to shelve his high-end software and hardware because his remote students couldn’t access technology outside of school. However, they did their best with tools like Autodesk Tinkercad, a browser-based program that they can use on their personal Chromebooks.
“I was just impressed by how quickly they picked up the message, and then how much creativity they expressed,” Larson recalls. Working via Zoom, his students collaborated to create burritos and pasta dishes that they “shared” in virtual reality with avatars they created in the Hubs chat room. Later, for their low-rise homes, many looked to their favorite movies for ideas and inspiration.
“I couldn’t believe what they did,” Larson says. One group recreated the Pink Palace from the 2009 movie Coraline, while others built elaborate creations that ranged from a religious center to the towering old house of Tim Burton Beetlejuice.
“A lot of these kids are really talented and could do anything,” Larson says. “I always tell them, ‘You don’t have to become a professional animator or artist, but you’ll need to know how to visually communicate to tell stories and share information, no matter what you’re doing.'”
While some students have gone on to careers in technology and design, many have chosen careers in fields like nursing and business, Larson says. “That’s what makes the techniques they use so great: They’re great at creating art, and they’re amazing at how they create opportunities.”
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Digital art is available to all students
Gone are the days when arts education was mostly about learning how to draw, sculpt or draw by hand. In a modern art class, students get this traditional foundation, but they are just as likely to create with computers as they might on paper with pencils or brushes.
For art teachers who suddenly found last year that they were no longer able to lead their own classes on their own, this trend had become a saving grace. While the pandemic has forced teachers in other regions to move their usual hands-on classroom activities online, many in the arts world were already familiar with the digital technologies they needed to succeed.
“I had a lot of tools to use. It made it a lot easier for me,” said Erica Sandstrom, a digital media teacher at Higgins Middle School in the Peabody Public School District in Massachusetts.
When Sandstrom started teaching 30 years ago, you hadn’t heard of the internet. Fast forward to 2021, and you’re not going anywhere without a green screen and tablet app. You discover new digital art tools almost every day. Her most recent obsessions include, as she describes it, her students creating “breathing bubbles” and word cloud art using online arts tools, Adobe Photoshop, and Google Drawings.
“The number one goal in every school district now is social-emotional learning, and we use green screen and other digital tools to encourage positive self-talk or make a thoughtful GIF for someone else,” says Sandstrom. “I would tell my students, when you need to escape stressful thoughts and be in the magical moment, there is nothing better than using a computer and doing some art.”
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Creativity thrives in remote and classroom environments
For the past year, Sandstrom says she has taught both distance and in-person lessons. And the techniques she loves most, she says, give her students a “fearless place” to be creative. “You give someone a drawing pad, and they think, ‘I’m not an artist,’ and they have all these limiting beliefs. But you point them to drawing and illustration apps like FlipaClip or Procreate or Do Ink, and there’s a lot of confidence — like, ‘I can do this.'”
John Bellonio is a visual arts teacher at Downers Grove Grid District 58 in Illinois, and he couldn’t agree more with Sandstrom.
“I get full screen time, but tech is all about creativity,” he says. “I’m a cartoonist, so I know from experience that I can sit and draw on my tablet all day.”
He says all K-6 students at Bellunio schools have their own tablets, so when COVID-19 hit, he knew exactly what to do to continue with art lessons. During the last days of the schools in person, everyone took pictures of their work and uploaded it to the student participation site Seesaw. Then he turned to the green screen and YouTube to create and post videos of the art lessons the students had to complete themselves from home.
“My whole job was to prove that art is everywhere and can come from anything,” Bellonio says. The work his students have done over the past year – outside of his art room and through all kinds of technology – has “really shown that it’s true”.