Teachers reach out to inspire students’ creativity

“It just shows the resilience of art teachers. We are scrappy, used to being ignored, so we fight to make our programs happen no matter what.”

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

When the city’s schools closed for COVID-19, Leslie Grace “was the first teacher to reach out,” said Hilary Truppo, whose son George is in 1st grade at George W. Nebinger Elementary School in South Philadelphia.

Grace, 38, has been the K-8 visual arts educator at Nebinger for the last six years. She teaches “every single class, every single grade, every single kid.”

When it became clear that the closure was indefinite a week ago, Grace wasted no time in coming up with unique ways to stay engaged with her students remotely.

“Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I do an online live-stream art lesson through Zoom with any students who can attend,” Grace said. “So far we have made a folded origami crane, a collagraph made from cereal boxes, made our own paint, and created a [Jackson] Pollock drip painting and Rorschach paint blots.”

If that wasn’t enough, the teacher and students “also made our own salt dough clay sunflowers and will soon be making our own papier-mache bowl.”

Stebastien Bacle and his daughter Madeleine, who is in 2nd grade at Nebinger, regularly tune in to Grace’s Zoom art classes.

Madeleine Bacle’s clay flower

“I think having fun and open-ended creative projects at a time like this is so important for these kids to help them maintain some balance in their lives,” Bacle said by email. “I think the art live streams are the most relaxed and engaged I’ve seen my daughter these past few weeks.”

Michelle Ditto, another parent at Nebinger, agrees.

“As a parent, filling the day with meaningful activities can be a challenge, so Leslie’s classes are a bright spot in the day,” she said via email.

Her son Cooper Mellon is in the 4th grade and is particularly proud of the flower bowl he made from salt dough last week, which is now on display in the family’s living room. Even Ditto’s daughter Catherine Mellon, who is a 5th grader at Masterman, participates in Grace’s Zoom classes.

“It is a testament to her teaching ability that she can simultaneously engage such a large age range,” Truppo said by email. “On top of this, she is the face of the school, sending messages about the yearbook, spring photos, Chromebook distribution, etc.”

Grace is adamant about making sure her classes are available to all students. Last Wednesday, she helped with the distribution of computers to families in need at Nebinger and made sure to include a handout with clear instructions on how to access the online art resources.

“Every time I do the online class, more and more students start to join. It is the students who need the computers that I am not seeing at those meetings, so I am hoping with the computer distribution, I will see more of them joining,” Grace said. “I want to make sure all my students are able to find a creative outlet to share their emotions during this time.”

Grace is also careful to provide parents with supply lists before each lesson and suggests alternatives like substituting old notebook paper for papier mache if a family does not have access to a newspaper.

“Leslie is sensitive to the fact that not every family has a house full of art supplies, and her lessons thus far haven’t required much more than paper and kitchen staples like flour and salt,” Ditto said.

Because the focus of the District right now is on academics, Grace and other “specials” teachers have largely been on their own in planning any lessons they could offer.

“It’s definitely been less guidance. It is understandable, but it is sad to me that art is getting left out,” Grace said.

She added, however: “From my perspective, when I go on Facebook or social media, what I see is a lot of art teachers coming together and stepping up their game to share resources and be able to reach their students and give them ideas for creativity outlets at home.

“It just shows the resilience of art teachers. We are scrappy, used to being ignored, so we fight to make our programs happen, no matter what.”

In addition to the live classes, every weekday Grace uses Google Classroom to share more art project ideas and student work, participates in the #OneArtPhilly initiative on Instagram, and posts a video of herself reading a chapter a day from the book, Kid Artists: True Tales of Childhood from Creative Legends by David Stabler. She said she does all this not only for her students, but also for herself.

“My whole world is art education,” Grace said. “Without the classroom, I feel like I am losing my identity. The online classes help me still feel connected to the students and what I do.”

Masterman makes music

Jessica Waber, another Philadelphia teacher who is encouraging her students to get creative during quarantine, agrees.

“Even though I miss school, there is something comforting about seeing my students and colleagues in their little grid boxes on Google Meet,” she said by email.

Waber, 36, teaches 10th and 12th grade English and drama at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School.

“All of us, students and teachers, are working together to figure out new ways to do things. You could say that [the shutdown] is bringing out the creativity in each of us.”

In order to encourage her students to get creative during this time, Waber proposed a unique online challenge to her students.

“A friend sent me a video of someone singing 20-second handwashing parodies, and they made me laugh. I posted a video of myself singing one of the parodies on Google Classroom to make my students smile and realized it would be a fun optional creative writing assignment, so I asked the students to write their own 20-second parodies.”

Students sent in parodies about the current crisis to the tune of classic artists like the Beatles, Queen, Cyndi Lauper, Vanilla Ice, and Disney’s Mulan. Waber enlisted other teachers at Masterman to film themselves washing their hands while singing the new lyrics. They shared the resulting videos on Google Classroom for students and staff to enjoy.

However, one of Waber’s students, senior Filip Przybycien, decided to take the project further.

“I spent around an hour scouring my music library for a song that not only my fellow classmates would know, but also any teachers,” he said by email. He finally settled on the 2000s alt-rock hit “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes.

“After figuring out my 20-second hand-washing section, I realized that I could not leave it at just that part, and decided to make a beginning, along with an outro. The finished product was around 1:20 in length, but I believe it really channels what everyone is feeling while stuck in their homes right now.”

He even recorded his parody and filmed a music video to accompany his performance, which he reports “was apparently a hit within the Masterman faculty.”

Przybycien said he appreciates his teachers encouraging their students to stay creative. “Whether or not a project may be realized, it definitely keeps the attention on creativity and growth, and not just focused on a computer monitor all day, which can affect people negatively and discourage them from doing much else.”

Sir Andrew and Sir Toby from Twelfth Night

Zuza Jevremovic, a sophomore at Masterman, has also been inspired by Waber to get creative. After reading an Othello and writing a related poem for an optional creative assignment, she began drawing characters from Shakespeare reimagined as animals. However, Waber said Jevremovic is “so creative and has been working on all kinds of projects” and “would do the illustrated characters whether there was a project or not.”

Waber sees an upside to this crisis.

“Unfortunately, we all know how competitive our education system has become,” she said, “but in this moment when students are allowed the space and time to simply choose what projects to invest their time in, they have a chance to hone in on what truly inspires them, and we get to see the incredible places they go as less focus is placed on the competitive parts of school.”