Creative Solutions

When we left school on March 13, 2020, we were unaware that we were taking our first steps into the unknown. What we thought was going to be an average weekend took a turn when Governor Sisolak announced that Sunday schools would be closed for two weeks with hopes of returning after spring break. Coronavirus had reached Nevada and panic was rising in tandem with every confirmed positive case. 

Two weeks turned into one month. One month turned into the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. Lockdowns persisted throughout the summer months.  When schools initially closed back in March of 2020, teachers received an outpouring of support from the parents that were suddenly forced to take on a more active role in their children’s schooling. Unfortunately, unlike “distance learning,” that newly expressed respect and gratitude wouldn’t last, for it was announced that the 2020-2021 school year would be taught completely virtual, and parents were NOT happy. 

Big problems started to arise. How were we going to get through an entire year’s curriculum when we only “saw” students for 30 minutes at a time? How were we going to turn our curriculums digital? WHAT THE HECK IS CANVAS?! How could we be sure that students were actually attending class when they wouldn’t turn on cameras?  How can I truly reach my students when they’re behind a computer screen trying to juggle eight classes and a pandemic? All of our questions and problems were valid, and we did our best to navigate the digital school year. While we were doing our best to put out the fires as they arose, we regrettably were incapable of answering the biggest question: how will this year affect future school years?

We are now almost a semester into the 2021-2022 school year, and we are DEFINITELY feeling the effects of distance learning. I am an eleventh grade teacher with eleventh grade standards and material teaching students that haven’t been in a structured school setting since their ninth grade year. Not to mention the new push at my school to align every activity to a standard and a Depth of Knowledge (DOK) level. Students are being asked to climb a set of stairs, but half of the staircase is missing.  As much as we would love for kids to see this as an opportunity to challenge themselves and put in the work to climb that staircase, kids are shutting down instead. Absenteeism is at an all-time high, motivation has bottomed out, and God forbid you ask a student to put their cell phone away. It has become apparent that I need to get students engaged, close the achievement gap between where the students are and where they should be, and if I am going to survive this year, then I need to do it quickly. Solving this dilemma was really all I could think about when tasked with creating a teacher demonstration for my Southern Nevada Writing Project (SNWP) course.  

When I was looking at my teaching dilemma as a whole, it felt as though I was staring at a mountain. I knew that I wanted to have a presentation that gave participants something they could walk away with and actually use. I didn’t want to be giving the presentation that could have just been an email. The only problem was: I knew what problem(s) I was trying to solve and what I wanted to do with the presentation, but I had no idea where to begin. I sat for ages staring at the screen, overwhelmed by the daunting task in front of me, and being taunted by the blinking cursor. After talking to one of my former mentors (and now dear friend), I realized that I had to tackle my obstacle one stone at a time, and the way that I was able to visualize moving those stones was through the use of Arts Integration (AI). 

AI might not solve all of the problems that I am facing this year, but it does have room to create a domino effect of positive change within the classroom. AI allows me to increase engagement because creative tasks in English are naturally more engaging than repeatedly reading and responding to text. This allows students to begin closing the achievement gap because an engaged student is more likely to retain the information that they are being taught. AI also helps to close the gap between where students are and where they should be because AI is innately scaffolded material. AI tasks allow students to approach the activity from their own areas of strength which gives them a foundation upon which they can start challenging and building their understanding. 

Now that I knew what I was going to do for my teacher workshop, I needed to get organized. Breaking the workshop down into bite-sized pieces helped me to continue moving the stones of Dilemma Mountain. I structured my presentation to somewhat mirror the daily objective board in my classroom: What am I learning? Why am I learning this? How will I know I’ve learned it? For the purpose of the workshop, my structure was: What is Arts Integration? Why use Arts Integration? How can I use Arts Integration in my classroom? This was enough of an outline to begin the actual creating of the presentation. AI is such an all-encompassing approach that I did end up breaking the “How” portion of the presentation into three sub-categories: notes, formative assessments, and summative assessments. Based on the feedback from my teacher workshop, I succeeded in making my presentation structured and organized. Several of the comments pointed out that they liked how organized the presentation was.

When I was researching for the workshop, I dove headfirst into the rabbit hole. I bought books. I found online databases. I read digital articles. I perused websites. If it was connected to Arts Integration, I wanted to look it over. I was consumed by the idea of AI. Unfortunately, as my workshop feedback pointed out, I got so caught up in the “tool” for fixing my problem that I ended up losing scope on clearly tying the problem back to writing–you know, the focus area of the class. I also got so excited about AI that the beginning of my presentation was less interactive. I was like a kid explaining all the features of my new toy instead of letting my friends play with it. I was the good ‘ole sage on a stage in the beginning portion of the workshop. **facepalm**

As the presentation went on and we got to the more interactive bits, things really took off. Pretty much all of my warm feedback mentioned my Sketchnotes activity and I bet that’s because the participants were learning by doing–go figure, the part that actually utilizes Arts Integration in the teaching process had the highest level of engagement and excitement. Things were on the upswing and I was feeling more and more confident as I was giving the presentation. Then, the universe must have decided to keep me humble because I RAN OUT OF TIME before the culminating activity where participants were going to be given time to pick a standard in one of their upcoming lessons and create an arts-enhanced activity for it. At least participants walked away with their Sketchnotes, right? 

Looking back, this was such a great experience and opportunity for me. I will continue to tweak my workshop–admin better be prepared to give CUs (for those not working in Clark County, Contact Units are awarded for every three hours of PD and they get collected towards a pay increase)  though because by the time I’m done, this thing might be a full three-hour professional development session!