Art, drama teachers get creative in teaching hands on skills hands off


AURORA | On a recent Friday afternoon, Vista PEAK Preparatory art teacher Angie Willsea was busy assembling packets of art supplies for her students.

The bundles of sketchbooks, pencils and paper for her drawing class and palettes, brushes, paints and canvases for her painting class would get picked up by students, but for those who weren’t able to make it to campus Willsea would drive to their homes and deliver them.

It makes for a lot of extra work, but it’s something Willsea feels is worth the effort.

“It’s important for them to have the materials in their hands and not be tied to a screen the whole time,” she said.

With Aurora Public Schools currently in an online-only learning mode through at least Oct. 8 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, arts teachers have had to get creative in how they teach their subjects, which are generally best suited for hands-on instruction. Teachers say they are working harder than ever this school year, but there have been some surprising upsides to the virtual instruction.

At Vista PEAK, Willsea teaches painting and drawing and Heathe Stecklein teaches drama. Both have had to adapt their classes to fit the online learning environment.

High school classes meet in three-hour blocks twice a day, and the teachers do a mix of full-class lecture, individual work and group work. Stecklein uses the breakout group function a lot to put students into smaller groups to rehearse scenes.

Learning how to perform is different online. Students have to look at the camera instead of directly at their acting partner.

He’s trying to fit the craft to the medium. He’s having students learn about film acting this fall, which in many cases requires actors to film lines separately, which are edited into group scenes in post-production.

This week, students are learning about radio dramas, and will write and record their own radio plays. He’s also putting together a documentary theatre unit, where students will be able to document what they’re doing during this unique time in history.

“It’s definitely a lot more planning on the front end,” he said.

“Even though we’re teaching classes that we’ve taught previously, we’re basically rewriting and re-imagining the curriculum that we’re presenting so that it can fit in this format,” Willsea said.

For her classes, Willsea does some large-group instruction and then lets students work individually, monitoring the chat for any questions. Making sure each student has the appropriate materials is the most time-consuming part of her job — some students are reluctant to admit they have a problem with getting to campus; one of her students is out-of-state right now but was able to get materials from a local crafts store.

The first week of class she had lessons that were less materials-intensive to give students time. She gave them a virtual tour of the Crush Walls in the RiNo Art District and then had them create their own inspiration board.

Some aspects of online learning have been positive. For shy students, the camera can help ease them into the performance process, Stecklein said.

“For students that might have felt self-conscious in front of kids in the beginning some of them prefer that camera, because if they’re working on a monologue they can record it and do a couple different takes before they present it to the class,” he said.

For Willsea, she’s able to give students her undivided attention during online one-on-one meetings, something that was harder in the middle of a busy classroom.

“I can give them my complete focus and I’m not worried about someone else being off-task,” she said.

Both teachers say students seem to be craving more interaction this year than usual. Willsea said students will take their camera and show her works of art that they’ve made. They seem more willing to share.

“That craving for community is a big piece of that, which I do think that we’re able to access easier than a lot of the core content teachers,” Stecklein said.

The class had a huge turnout for its virtual play auditions this year, especially from freshman, Stecklein said. Students will stay spaced apart and will not touch during the performance, and instead of being performed live it will be recorded and people will be given tickets to watch it on YouTube.

Adjusting the curriculum for online learning has taken a lot of work, but both say they’re happy students still get to have a creative outlet.

“It is a lot of work but I think teachers know this is a temporary situation, so we’re willing to work through it and figure it out,” Willsea said. “That’s just the nature of teaching — you work with the cards you’re dealt and try and make the best of the situation.”