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Kansas City High School Students Find Creative Ways To Complete Art Projects During Pandemic

Courtesy of Laura Lenhert
Park Hill South High School
Soap carvings by Park Hill South art students (top row) Dani Drake, Valerie Rowlett, Lauren Hagerman, (bottom row) Brylie Goff, Mia Parman and Jose Montoya.

When metro schools closed in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Park Hill South High School teacher Laura Lenhert knew her students wouldn’t be content watching other people make art.

“At first, we were just going to have them watch videos and write about it,” said Lenhert, who teaches ceramics, “but at the same time we were like, they want to make art. They don’t want to just write about what other people are doing.”

Credit Courtesy of Laura Lenhert / Park Hill South
Park Hill South
Park Hill South art student Danny Askren carved this bear out of a bar of soap. 'I like that the curves that create the outline are smooth and precise,' a classmate wrote.

So Lenhert gave her students an unusual assignment: carve a bar of soap. 

Soap, they learned, is a lot less forgiving than clay, especially without the tools they have at school.

“Several students were like, ‘I went through like three bars of soap trying to do this,’” Lenhert said.

Still, she said her students had fun with it. For her, the best part was reading the feedback they left on photos of their classmates’ work.

“Your details are REALLY good,” one classmate wrote.

“I can tell you spent a lot of time on this,” another commented. “How did you do the color?”

When students were done with their projects, Lenhert told them to go wash their hands with the soap scraps.

The beauty in everyday objects 

Like other educators across the Kansas City region, art teachers are still adjusting to this new reality in which they only get to see their students online. But for such a hands-on subject, remote learning poses particular challenges. 

Many have had to figure out how to recreate what normally goes on in an art class using only materials families have at home. 

“If only we had known,” said Jamie Walkinshaw, a student art teacher at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas, “the last day we saw them, we could have sent them home with, you know, ‘Here's a bag of pencils, here's your sketchbook.’”

While Walkinshaw is taking her cues from more experienced art teachers in her district, she’s also seeing what work her elementary-aged daughters’ art teachers send home.

Credit Courtesy of Tara Hood / Lee's Summit North
Lee's Summit North
Lee's Summit North art teacher Tara Hood sent her students home with some clay so they could keep creating. One of the hand building techniques they're learning is to make pinch pots, which involves using the thumb to hollow out a ball of clay.

“Like, not everybody wants to sit down and do a painting with their 6-year-old, but they'll do Legos,” she said.

Tara Hood, an art teacher at Lee’s Summit North High School, was able to send clay home with some of her ceramic students. They’re teaching their parents and siblings to make pinch pots. 

“I don't want any of my kids to go out and buy anything,” she said. “I want them to use what they have at home.”

Kathy Graves is an art teacher at Lee’s Summit West who’s also trying to get her students to see beauty in everyday objects.

“They're studying artists that use recycled materials,” Grave said. “I told my students to start saving things – instead of having your family throw things away, start saving them into a pile. And they are looking at those resources to make their own recycled sculpture right now.”

At school, Graves would constantly be demonstrating different techniques, but that’s difficult to do online. Right now, she’s uploading instructional videos for her students to watch, then responding to their questions via email.

Hood is trying to get that one-on-one time in when she can.

“A couple of them will be  like, ‘Oh, Ms. Hood, can I do this and make this and would you show me?’” she said. “So then I’ll get online for an hour and we’ll go back and forth and I’ll demo. It’s been a learning curve for all of us,” but students have embraced the challenge.

Credit Courtesy of Tara Hood / Lee's Summit North
Lee's Summit North
Lee's Summit North art teacher Tara Hood continues to teach pottery techniques with materials students have around their house. Low relief is a method of making the design stand out from the surface, demonstrated here with paper.

“Some kids have used cans to make awesome sculptures. They did a low relief using just different varieties of paper. I'm quite impressed as to how after I’ve given them directions, they’ll just go with it.”

Unfinished work 

On Thursday, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced that school buildings would not reopen this year. It’s the same in Kansas, where Gov. Laura Kelly issued a similar statewide decree last month. 

The abrupt end to in-person learning has teachers and students feeling unsettled. 

“I'm thinking of one student in particular. She was always wanting snow days, and now she's like, ‘Well this stinks. I didn't want this many snow days,’” Graves said.

She’s been trying to check in with her students every few days, sending them a video or voice recording, in her words,“Just to say, ‘Hey, I miss you guys.’”

Then there’s the literal unfinished work that students had already poured their hearts and souls into before the stay-at-home orders were issued, like the bust sculptures currently trapped in Lenhert’s classroom at Park Hill South.

Credit Courtesy of Laura Lenhert / Park Hill South
Park Hill South
Bust sculptures by Park Hill South art students (from left) Natalie Verner, Taryn Brown and Ty Rouse still need to be glazed and fired. But no one knows when students will be able to finish the projects they started before the COVID-19 shutdown.

“They received 25 pounds of clay and carved out these unbelievably cool sculptures,” Lenhert said. “They spent three weeks on them. When I found out that they may not be going back, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I sent them a message and was like, ‘You will be getting your sculpture. You will have a chance to glaze it. I don't know when – it could be July – but we will make it work.’”

Lee’ Summit West students are anxious, too. Graves said they keep asking what will happen to their unfinished work.

“I tell them, ‘This is the last thing you should be worried about right now,’” she said.

Hood has tried to reassure her students by telling them that clay will keep for up to three months if it’s been properly bagged.

But she doesn’t think that’s what’s actually bothering them. 

“I think they miss each other,” Hood said. “I think they miss the classrooms. Their critiques were so funny. They would automatically give each other advice or suggestions. It was like a little family.”

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR and is an art teacher’s kid herself. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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