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Letter from Lombardia

Sunday 5 April 2020

Advice and Solidarity for these times

I asked my friend Nicola Shears who teaches IB art in Milan and has been living at the epicenter of the corona virus crisis in Italy for the past 6 weeks if she would be willing to do an interview with me and share her experience teaching during this extraordinary time.

It is my hope that her words may be of help to teachers working from home, or even just a comfort to hear of another teachers way of dealing with the challenges and triumphs, the things that help... and those that don't. We are all feeling isolation in this moment and the more we can create a sense of community and common ground, the better for everyone.

This interview took place on April 3rd. It is long, but there is so much of value for teachers here I was reluctant to edit too much. Next time it will be an audio interview, I promise! A heartfelt thank you to Nicola for sharing her valuable insights and advice. Please add your comments to the thread below and let us know how you are doing.

Letter from Lombardia

an interview with Ms Nicola Shears

What is the situation you find yourself in, can you set the scene?

School closed during our half term break so we were last in school on 21st Feb. Our students were all over Italy and the world on holiday. Some of them struggled to get back, some are still outside Italy and quite a few have found themselves not even with family but stuck in other countries with friends. I came back from holiday and the next day began teaching using a virtual platform (Bluejeans) at 8am on Monday 2nd March. There was very little time to start thinking or planning how I was going to manage this and it’s has been a very sharp learning curve since then!

I was lucky I managed to get into school for an hour after the first week and was able to get much of my IB student’s work out of school and parents were able to collect it for them ( wearing masks). I also managed to get some materials and a bit of equipment to them such as the projector for one student and printing materials for another. This really saved the day for some of them.

How do you manage your different classes with remote teaching?

Overall teaching has become even more individual than usual even with the younger IGCSE students. Content has changed little for Year 10 students who are working on skills in drawing and painting. Drawing tasks have been modified to objects easily found at home.

First year IB have continued with the CS without much difficulty.  For the rest of the time they are developing work in their journals using the artist from the CS and doing larger more intensive drawings connected to the work they were doing pre-Covid rigorously from direct observation.

Some have limited materials and the largest paper is generally A3 so I have encouraged them to be creative with grounds - joining pieces together, using flattened cardboard boxes, old canvas, pages from books with a wash of acrylic or primer,  fabric, used clothing, and old sheets primed with gesso, used and ironed paper bags from the bakers, envelopes, tracing paper, wrapping paper- anything they can find really! For medium we have been fairly lucky, most have the basic materials at home (I always make sure they have this at the start of the year). Some students have managed to buy from Amazon and others are just managing with whatever they have, felt pens, pencils, biros or using collage Matisse-style with painted papers.

Individual tutorials- looking at their journals and discussing work in progress takes up much of the time and they generally manage to get about 2 weeks work from this, so next tutorials are for touching base and addressing problems. Fortunately my students are used to working individually even by now in Year 1, so the teaching is very much one to one even under normal circumstances. The virtual tutorials are more time consuming for me, but it makes work for the students much more interesting and personal..  I will direct them to work that I know they can manage and it is mostly experimental art this stage.

Once they have a number of journal pages they convert them to PP screens- I have done this from early on in the course so it has become second nature- some are so good they will use them in the final PP, others might be edited or excluded. It becomes an orderly way of working and has helped the work during closure. I foresee that time, when we do get back to school (terrifyingly probably not till September) will need to spent creating studio work so hopefully we can get plenty of PP skills covered and work underway now.

Year 13 ( IB2)  teaching is now entirely individual although we always meet as a group for the first 5 mins to catch up on the lessons and for a goodbye at the end of each.  I am trying to see them all every day, group lesson or not.

What is a typical day like?

We have kept the same timetable as normal school-  we start at 8:00 am and have 4 x 90 min lessons a day until 1. 50pm - the first week was exhausting and we soon realised that we needed to give our students and ourselves time in between lessons to get up, stretch and move around, so we cut lessons 10 minutes short now.  I have approximately 2-4 lessons a day then the afternoons (2.50-5pm) are dedicated to meetings and open studio. 

Staff meetings are carried out virtually online with Bluejeans and my open studio is now a series of individual tutorials with students who need them- that is mostly all of the IB students and my IGCSE year 11s in particular. It is non-stop and I now have to go on well into the evenings and even Saturday if I cannot fit everyone in. My ‘free’ planning lessons are used for meeting students too or spent planning lessons and looking for resources to help ‘redesign’ my courses and tasks for virtual teaching.. My days are packed full, which is a blessing as at least I am busy and have less time to focus on the rest of current life under lockdown!

A normal(!) lesson consists of a Bluejeans call which the whole class joins- I take a register and we have a little chat about everything and anything- I really think that 5 mins spent giving space to a little social interaction is vital and it is a chance for us all to share a few stories, laughs or frustrations about the life we are living.  My students often appear with their cats walking over the keyboards or with dogs in their laps and numerous cups of tea and snacks delivered by their personal waitresses (mothers) while they work. Some lessons literally start off with a dog show!

The Year 13 ( IB2) students created a Whatsapp group ( called Art Crisis!!) in the first week of closure- they were frantic- where they share their work with each other and give each other help and feedback too- this has been great for them to touch base and is their preferred method of contact but we do still have the scheduled lesson and 5 minute chat before I deliver whatever I need to deliver and they get working.

Now that the exams for other subjects have been cancelled they are allowed to work on their art all the time so generally they contact me all day long when they need help or advice. This is tiring for me and I’m finding it hard to end the day properly and formally, but I guess it is for a short period and we are in exceptional circumstances, so it’s ok. The IBO extension to the deadlines came as a welcome breath of hope but when this decision was revoked the panic set in again. It is exhausting and we, my students and myself, are all emotionally drained by the stress of trying to pull the course and work together, having lost our most crucial weeks and months of the entire course. The impact is and will be of course negative on their work even if we are working flat out to get things done as best as we can and limit the damage. We will apply for adverse circumstances and I am praying that some consideration will be given to those of us who will have been closed for months.

At the moment I am giving my afternoons over to year grade 10 and IB2 as priority. Once we have finished the submissions, I am planning to make the afternoons available to all students as a virtual drop in session where I will be permanently online if they need help. I hope this will reduce the enormous number of emails for help/advice I am receiving in this period which take up much of my ‘free’ time. I will encourage students to contact me through the Bluejeans call much as if we were in school and they called by the art studio for advice.

How are you organizing tasks, assignments etc?

We have always used Google drive and Classroom for sharing assignments, information etc - I find this has been invaluable: I have developed and am still developing my use of this even more over the past month of lockdown and now my students photograph their work (I have had to give them short tutorials about how to do this which I guess is a useful skill in itself) and upload it to specific folders for ‘marking’.

My first year IB students now share ‘online journal’ folders with me where they now upload their obligatory 4 A3 pages of visual journal with me every week and I can leave written feedback directly on these images which is a really good way of working and keeping track of tasks I have given them individually. It is also a great way for them to produce the reflections they need and keep track of the development of their work and ideas. I started doing this about two weeks ago and it is something I will definitely keep doing back in the real world: it is a great way keeping check on progress and it is also an excellent habit for them to get into. It means they also have all their work digitally should they lose their journals… something which does happen!  They also have another folder for other work, such as drawings and studio work which they scan or photograph and upload at stages: I can comment on these too before we have a tutorial which makes things a lot easier. Occasionally I upload a sketch or diagram to help explain feedback, or work by artists they should look at, or even links to online tutorials- ( I am loving Artprof)- websites or materials etc. they  should look at. It is a fast and efficient way of working and it is also foolproof and safe: you can retrace the history of actions so if I hear‘ you didn’t tell me’, it is all there in black and white!

The IB students also have folders where they share their PP & CS screens with me- they work in Keynote and then save the screens as pdfs in these folders. However I get them to copy all text on to a shared google docs which makes it easier for me to read and leave comments on. I mark up the pdf for feedback regarding layout, imagery etc.

Year 2 have their individual Exhibition folders with sub folders for studio work, rationale and exhibition texts. The studio work is uploaded numbering the pieces 1-11(HL) as they complete or develop work. Seeing the works together here has helped us see the body of work as a whole.  In the same folder, we also have sub folders 1-11(HL) for each piece of work which contain any other materials such as an influence, experiments including screenshots of notes or stages in digital works, photos of stages in their process etc. The rationale and exhibit texts are again on shared google docs which makes commenting and feedback easy and reliable.  For the written work, feedback is obviously easy. For practical work I am finding giving feedback for direction, development of ideas and some skills straightforward, but I miss the group tutorials or opportunities for other students to chip in and share their ideas or help each other as normal in the real classroom. This is an invaluable part of our working that is difficult to recreate. There is the possibility for students to work in groups in ‘breakout’ session which I will try for critiquing work in groups.

I am finding it very difficult, almost impossible, to give what I feel is good feedback on technique and quality of practical work, especially 3d work, painting and some drawing. Much depends on the quality of their photographs and it is also hard to evaluate the impact of works such as that coming from scale or texture, and even colour. It is a moment to reflect upon the reliability of assessing work digitally: how reliable is a digital image of a work that is created manually?  At the moment I am marking practical work and the pieces solely on effort. It is somewhat easier to grade PP or CS of course.

At the same time, I am greatly missing the possibility to physically show students how to do things, fix things or improve work -  even hold their pen or brush , or mix the paint correctly , or how to sit when drawing and measure scale- all the things we do a million times over in any lesson: suddenly the things that take us a second or two take 15 mins or longer of explaining in writing, documenting and sharing! It is both frustrating and so very hard and I feel will never replace our physical presence in the classroom. I have made some short video tutorials but its not easy filming and working at the same time.

What do you find works well with IB students, differentiating between year 1 and 2?

I have recently created a sheet for recording tutorials/tasks which they must update after every tutorial or feedback and share with me-  I was finding it hard to keep up with making notes while I was talking to them so now get them to do it for me!! How I wish I had had these things set up from day 1- it would have made everything so much easier! I also record important lessons (particularly those regarding the CS)  with Year 1 and all individual tutorials and I share the audio of these with the students- another great way of working which replaces the audio recordings of critique sessions we often make in school.  Additionally I might share my screen with students and vice versa during the virtual lesson, for example to show how to use Photoshop or similar and to show the work of artists or techniques immediately, as if we were in the real classroom. These can also be recorded as ‘presentations’ and shared with the students afterwards.

For the PP in particular and also the CS, I found that if during the tutorials the students share their screen with me while they are working on their Keynote file, It is really easy to give them immediate advice as to how to rearrange layouts, what to not include/ include etc. They can edit their files while we talk which makes the process much more efficient in terms of time and accuracy. I can see the modifications immediately so know they are done and done correctly- I will definitely work like this in the future.

For Year 1 I am finding that now after 5 weeks of lockdown, practical work is what they need: it keeps them busy in a different way to other subjects, they enjoy it and are happy to work at it for hours on end and, most importantly, it serves as a distraction and almost a sort of meditation for them. At the same time the benefits are, I hope, improved technique and more considered ideas are emerging as they become more confident with paint and graphite in particular.

Could you share some tips for teachers?

Don’t set too many screen based tasks! My first thought was, great, I can get the CS done and dusted in year 1! very soon it was apparent that students are spending too much time on screen but also SO AM I!! The marking of all the quick turnaround of written work has been phenomenal and I have suffered migraines and eye strain terribly. Now I’m cutting back and focusing on getting the Year 2 work sorted as a priority- to be honest that is enough to be doing on screen.

Don’t stress if you can’t get back to them for their emails or homework’s immediately: they need to understand they are not the only students you teach and a little bit of patience is good. At the beginning I almost killed myself to get work back to them immediately and gradually realised I had to to slow down… time is different in the virtual world and while we think everything should be and is instant, it just cannot be all the time. We need a break too and students have other subjects to work at. I am the first person to forget this at times!!

Do get students doing more practical work in their journals! My year 1s are running out of journal pages already as they are loving the chance to experiment and spend time off screen. They consider themselves lucky (and so do I!!) to be art students who can do this and do creative, therapeutic work which gives them a break from screens, phones and the TV. It becomes their downtime and I am seeing really thorough work overall.

Do look out for the student who hides! there is always a student or two who are not as motivated as the others and this is the one to watch out for now as it is very easy to ‘hide’- we register any absent students and I always follow up with an email and often by sending an audio recording of the lesson. (also useful for absent students although thankfully not too many of these ). The online submission of work into individual folders in Classroom makes it easy and fast to check up on students and their work.

Do be prepared to diversify even more than usual! I find I am problem solving even more than usual ( if that is possible) and every lesson is a challenge in finding work they can ALL do - that means being aware of where they are, what they have and what their abilities are- the individual tutorials aid this.

Do be extra-patient and understanding!  There can be lots of reasons why a student misses work or a lesson. Some have wifi or computer problems (every lesson there is one!) , some students have sick relatives and all are struggling with the enforced isolation, so I find I am much nicer than usual with them- at least a little less severe and more patient !!-but still creating a structure (and boundaries) for them which I think is as important as ever.

Do slow down and don’t overload students! my first instinct was to load them up with tons of work:  surely now they were stuck at home they would have plenty of time and need things to do? again, not only do you need to find the time to mark or give feedback, but also they need time off- they need to watch a film or do some pilates or just chill.

Do stay online for students during their lessons: I turn off video but leave audio open or use the chat to communicate with them and let students know I’m are there for them if they need help while you are working. I always go back in and encourage them to share work in process with me through classroom

Do have the social chat at the beginning of lessons- they need this and it helps ‘normalise’ the lessons and is also a pleasurable moment with your students.

How have your IB 2 students coped with preparing for their exhibition?

This has been enormously difficult but I have been truly amazed at their resourcefulness and motivation,  notwithstanding the circumstances and of course not least of all,  their huge disappointment of not being able to exhibit their work in the gallery- something they had been looking forward to for the best part of 4 years. I feel terrible for them and hopefully we will have an opportunity in the future to show their work and turn it into a giant party for the entire school.

Their work has been impacted massively; every student has had to change some planned work completely, most often because of now unavailable equipment or materials; for example all the drypoint etchings that cannot now be printed have had to be reworked into drawings or other work.  Large scale sculptural work -  I have a student who had 3 metre hanging sculptures planned and underway that were just too big to work on at home- have had to be reconsidered  and replaced with new pieces; works which required specialist materials that they do not have at home now adjusted to being created with whatever they have handy. There have been happy accidents, such as a whole new piece developing from a dodgy printer that we are praying holds out till the work is finished and reflections on isolation and our inflicted prisons becoming subject matter for a new direction to work that was all about freedom of movement.

They have gradually over the 5 weeks of lockdown, spread out from their bedrooms and taken over entire dining rooms and kitchens in their homes and their parents have in most cases become assistants too!! These kids certainly know how to organise a work force! Some completed works have already taken up permanent residence on walls in the house. They are using garages and corridor spaces and currently looking for the best space to ‘exhibit’. While it has been, and still is, an emotional rollercoaster for them, they all feel that they have become more independent- usually I’m hanging over their shoulders and they look to me to endorse every teeny decision, but now they are just getting on with it. They are remarkable.

They have all gone through phases of complacency, low motivation and morale but ultimately they are responding to the challenge, finding ways around the biggest problems such as no materials. I have had to get angry with them and push them to go on but I know they will get there and probably be the hardest working cohort I have ever had. They deserve 10s not 7s.

What are the organizational and emotional consequences for students and teachers?

I have discovered the importance of routine. I have a proper breakfast and eat and dress properly,  (no pyjama bottoms!!). Ihave a proper functional and tidy working space, which I tidy and clean every evening ( Covid-19 habits), have eye drops at hand ( I will need new glasses after this),  make coffee at a certain time, try to move about in between lessons and exercise when the day is over. I am punctual for my lessons and try to answer all emails in the same day. It is easy to not do all of this but I find it helps stay positive. At the end of the day, I treat myself to a little aperitivo, call up friends and loved ones on Facetime and then try not to look at a screen, although Netflix and Prime have been a saviour.

Emotionally it is also very hard: the isolation and not being able to go out at all here even for a walk or fresh air in Milan has of course been the biggest hardship. Work-wise, during the first few weeks I felt like I just could not do it: I had to reorganise my  planning and my teaching entirely, my methods needed to be altered or changed completely and my expectations revised. I was setting so much written work and deadlines that I couldn’t mark it all or give feedback and I felt like a trainee teacher all over again. It was all so hard and I was exhausted. In the second week I began to realise that I needed to slow down, that pace needs to be different in the virtual world and that I had to be nicer to myself.  It has got better and better and together with my students we marvel at how (scarily) we are actually getting used to these strange ways of living, working and learning. It is still up and down, at the end of week 5 I feel tired and longing for the Easter break, whatever that may be under isolation.

Is there anything you've learned from this, any silver linings?

 -  new organisation of work and methods which will definitely help me back in the real world

-      how much I value my colleagues and miss the live exchange of woes!!

-      how much I value my students and their company

-      how much freedom I have in the real life- not just personally but also with work where ANYTHING is doable.

-     there are some great tutorials out there when you are desperate for time and ideas. I will definitely use these more.

What will you appreciate most about getting back to normal teaching?

The physicality of being with the students and having their work in front of me- there is NO replacement for that even if their work is digital! ; the group critiques and the invaluable contribution students make in helping EVERYONE move forward; the classroom and resources; MY BOOKS; the chatter and the banter in the classroom; being active again and moving around all day; the routine and being with colleagues;  being in the heart of the city with the world around us again and having a quick walk around the block at lunchtime.

thank you so much for sharing Nicola, good luck everyone!


Tags: corona virus crisis, lockdown, distance learning, remote teaching, quarantine, teacher advice, teaching from home, Nicola Shears, epicenter, letter


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