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Arts teachers try to keep community alive while virtual teaching

Sarasota Schools teachers of fine arts say it is difficult to keep "family feeling" alive while teaching online.

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  • | 1:00 p.m. May 7, 2020
Head of the Booker VPA Dance Department Courtney Smith teaches some dance combos over Zoom. Photo courtesy
Head of the Booker VPA Dance Department Courtney Smith teaches some dance combos over Zoom. Photo courtesy
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Teachers of fine arts often spend their days fixing a student’s instrument, teaching a dance or staging a scene from a play.

Lately, however, they’ve been looking for ways to keep students motivated to work on their craft while at home.

After Sarasota County Schools closed in mid-March, arts teachers quickly had to find a way to teach classes that are largely community-based online.

“We’re dealing with kids who like doing and who like being together in a group,” said Tamara Lewis, the band director at Sarasota Middle School. “They’re not doing that anymore because it’s become this individual thing. It’s just not the same as it is in a classroom.”

Lewis and Andrew Dubbert, the band director at Riverview High School, have begun teaching through Zoom and using recordings of themselves that the student can play along to from home.

Although they said it has had some success, Lewis said students aren’t learning everything they normally would.

“All those ensemble skills where we’re learning to communicate with other people, those nonverbal skills like listening and balance and blend, we’re going to have to dig deep in the fall to relearn all of those things,” she said.

Sarasota Middle School band director Tamara Lewis records herself playing music so her students can play along. Photo courtesy
Sarasota Middle School band director Tamara Lewis records herself playing music so her students can play along. Photo courtesy

Dubbert said he’s also had a challenging time making sure students have functioning instruments through Zoom. Some don’t have instruments at all because they thought they would be coming back from spring break and left them at school.

“We’re going to have kids that will come back in August without having touched an instrument since March, and that’s going to be a world of difference,” Dubbert said. “I’m already thinking about what I can do differently when we come back, so that the students are as successful as they can be.”

Like music education, theater educators have also had to make adjustments.

Scott Keys, the head of the Booker VPA Theatre Department, said  in a typical theater environment, the students are up moving and interacting with one another.

“It’s very hard to keep the momentum up,” Keys said. “It’s tricky. I don’t want to say that I’m not enjoying a single moment, but I’m trying to be optimistic and be creative for my kids.”

Keys is encouraging his students to keep working on their craft in whatever way is inspiring to them. 

He and other teachers in the department are posting daily videos to YouTube or class Facebook pages to encourage students.

“We’re trying to be as lenient and open as possible to encourage them. If they want to sing a song, sing a song, and record it,” Keys said. 

“Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t feel like singing and dancing right now because they feel like it’s going into a vacuum. So we just have to do everything we can to keep them motivated.”

Although the switch hasn’t been easy, Keys said there was one silver lining. At the end of each year, the students perform an evaluation to get them ready for college and future auditions.

This year, the department decided to have the students record their evaluations to mimic the prescreening process many colleges now have, so the students were already preparing for an online environment.

The students just turned in their evaluations, and now the teachers are looking through them and virtually meeting with the students one-on-one to critique them.

Those critiques, however, are something the teachers are taking lightly, said Courtney Smith, head of the VPA Dance Department.

She has been creating video playlists of both herself and other dances for her students to watch and find inspiration in. She occasionally teaches dance combos over Zoom and meets weekly with students to discuss their progress.

However, she said her teaching method during this time has shifted.

“This is not about their skill level or me finding corrections and fixing them,” Smith said. “This is about me getting them moving and getting them connected into that passion they have for movement. This is an escape for them, and I don’t want to take that away.”

Although all the teachers said each line of fine arts teaching brought its own unique challenges, they all miss the same thing: the sense of community that comes with performing arts.

“This is such a family, and I can’t wait to see them again,” Keys said. 

“I’m looking forward to hearing their hearts pound and seeing them sweat as they work on their craft. Seeing them alive and communicating with them and collaborating with them in a much more vital way — that’s what it’s all about.”


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