When the pandemic swept through the world in 2020, it hit us like a ton of bricks. Halfway through an amazing line-up of teaching artists for our Artists-in-Schools Initiative, we did not want to halt the program. We were determined to continue reaching students with a creative outlet that has been proven to provide unique opportunities for a deeper engagement with learning objectives. So, we did what so many organizations did – we shifted our mode of delivery. We were on a learning curve, but we could see the possibilities!
Not long after, we began planning for the new 2020-21 school year. After multiple brainstorms with the fabulous leaders at Chatham County Schools and public charters, we found myriad ways to enhance the program – and thus, Artists-OUTSIDE-Schools began to take shape. Most importantly, the program needed to be an asset for teachers, rather than creating more work for them. We landed on a mix of virtual arts residencies via the schools and physically distanced performances in neighborhoods, focusing on resiliency through the arts. The goal was to help kids feel seen in their pandemic experiences through cultural and historical context around challenge and perseverance.
“The move to video artist presentations for elementary students in Chatham County Schools has provided an opportunity for artists to perform and students to be exposed to outstanding theater, music and dance performances,” explained Sharon Allen, Lead Arts Teacher, Chatham County Schools. “The video performances being available for an entire month gave teachers flexibility to use them in both in-person and remote learning.”
When all was said and done, our cherished program looked a little different, but the confidence it built and the outlet it provided for students looked very similar. Here’s a snapshot of our school year:
- Virtual Artist Residencies: For five months, we provided an artist video for third-through fifth-grade students to be used with arts or music curriculum. Participating artists included Black Box Dance Theatre, Mike Wiley and Howard Craft, Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana, EbzB Productions, and John Brown. We’re talking about education surrounding virtual modern and Spanish dance, theater, storytelling, and jazz woven into literacy, history, social studies, language arts, Spanish, music, and dramatic arts curricula. A whirlwind virtual program that students soaked up each month.
- Interactive Virtual Workshops: Every fifth-grade class also participated in a virtual, live-streamed artist workshop – that’s 35 interactive workshops! In addition to the talented artists above, Teli Shabu of The Magic of African Rhythm also joined in.
- Roving Performances: With the support of The Jester Group at Baird, we teamed up with some pretty amazing artists and formed mini-parades that weaved through four different communities this spring. The idea was to infuse art into multiple neighborhoods so families could merely walk outside and be a part of something magical. West African musician and Artists-in-Schools teaching artist Diali Cissokho; his nephew, Diabel; Takiri Folclor Latino dancers; and Geoffrey the Bubble Guy brought their characteristic exuberance to these events. This was quite possibly, the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae.
Ok, ok, all of this sounds fine, you may think. But what does this mean? What did it really look like? Let us tell you!
With the monthly video residencies, students could view the performances multiple times during the month, if they wished. Allen shared that she “heard great stories about students sharing these experiences together with their families.”
When a fifth-grade class at Siler City Elementary watched the Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana artist of the month video, they were so excited by the presence of a Latino man dancing. “My group of pre-adolescent boys was enthusiastic and engaged with this material,” explained Kaye Pluth, Music Specialist at Siler City Elementary School. The boys wanted to know if he would be part of the interactive workshop so Pluth reached out to Flamenco, who worked to add him into the class’s interactive workshop. The boys were thrilled and encouraged about the role that men can have in a dancing group!
During one of the roving performances, a 10-year-old girl came running out of her home to be part of the parade. “I think I might cry,” she exclaimed. “I’ve never seen a live band before. This is the best day ever!”
Right now, we are excitedly looking back on the school year and grateful is the word that comes to mind. We are grateful to the talented artists who were open to creating videos and adapting their content for a virtual setting. We are grateful to the teachers who welcomed this modified program into their classrooms. We are grateful to the administrators who partnered with us to find a solution that would benefit both teachers and their eager students. And importantly, we are grateful to all the sponsors who made it happen. Thank you to The Jester Group at Baird, R.E. & E.F. Crane Foundation, Dorrie Casey & Archie Purcell, Lesley Landis Designs, Miki Adams, Women of Fearrington, Jeff & Gina Harrison, the loving family of Tim Mattimoe, the Triangle Community Foundation, and our long-standing partner – the North Carolina Arts Council.
“The innovative thinking of the Chatham Arts Council exemplified the saying, ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way!’” said Allen. “During a year of uncertainties, the CAC continued to provide quality arts experiences for CCS students.”
If reading any of this makes YOU feel grateful for the arts, consider supporting this work. Teaching artists have an enormous positive impact in Chatham County schools. Click here to donate to this program.
Until next year…..