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The Challenge of Arts Education In A Virtual World


While educators throughout Maryland face the challenges of virtual learning, arts teachers are in a particularly difficult situation as they try to recreate rehearsal and performance spaces online.

Arts teachers in Baltimore City say they are focusing on students’ well-being as well as new ways to teach.

Without the ability to perform face-to-face, Rosiland Cauthen’s theater classes at the Baltimore School for the Arts have to get creative about how they’ll perform this year. One possibility is a radio play. Cauthen played a classic radio play for her students during a recent class.

“The students were really digging it,” Cauthen said. “They’re like ‘Oh, this is cool. We could do that. It’s like voiceover acting!’”

She said her classes have become more academic, focusing on things like script analysis, which depends less on movement and facial expression and more on studying the craft of writing.

So far, Cauthen said, more students are in class and engaged than they were during online classes last spring. She says she’s trying to work from a mindset of abundance this semester.

“Alright, what do we have? What do we have today?” Cauthen asked her virtual class one recent day. “Oh, we have 21 amazing students logged on. We have all of their creativity. We have this play by August Wilson that we’re studying as our script this year.”

One thing Cauthen definitely has less of this year is time. The usual school-day has been shortened to leave more time for office hours.

“But we still have to take the time to make sure that we’re checking in with our students, we’re taking care of them, they’re taking care of themselves,” she said. “What can I do to support you?”

The refrain of social and emotional learning also rings true for James Childs, director of bands at Baltimore City College.

In the first few days of school, Childs’ classes included time for students to talk about what they did over the summer, but also what they’re anxious about coming into the fall.

“Many of my students are kind of bummed that they possibly may not get the opportunity to actually come together to actually create music together,” Childs said.

In a normal year, the band program at city college would include marching band, symphonic band, and a jazz band. This year, Childs’ is still working on the basics.

Most of Childs’ returning students can practice on instruments they have at home. But he said it’s heartbreaking that students who have never played an instrument before probably won’t get to start during remote learning.

“There can be so many things that a child can either learn incorrectly or possibly do the instrument,” he said. “And we just can’t assess and fix those things over the computer.”

Childs is still looking for the right technological solution to hold a full band rehearsal online.

“The way that zoom operates, and many platforms like zoom, you can only hear one microphone at a time,” he explained. “And whether it’s band or choir, you need to be able to hear multiple parts at once.”

Rehearsing over video chat is difficult for singers too, especially with internet lag. Robin Paige, the choir director at Western High School, says she’s hoping that administrators could approve an in-person choir rehearsal with PPE and social distancing.

“What things need to be put in place so that the students are comfortable with what they’re doing,” she said. “And that they are not feeling anxious, because that’s no way to sing.”

Technology could eventually allow for a virtual performance. Students could record their individual parts at home, but Paige said putting all those videos together may be beyond the reach of most public schools.

“Getting the technology to make sure that all of the videos and all of the audio lines up,” she said. “It’s a lot of different pieces that have to go into it.”

Paige said she’s glad to see her students, who are looking for some sense of normalcy.

“They’re looking for connection. They’re looking for artistry. The singing is the salve.”

Arts educators all say they’re still looking for the solutions that will bring their students back to the virtual stage, but in the meantime, they’re looking out for young musicians and actors for what they are: kids.

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