(Editor’s note: A two-part series will address how teachers of subjects which typically involve extensive hands-on assignments are conducting instruction in the distance learning environment. Gustine High ag teachers will be featured in an upcoming story.)

NEWMAN - Art and music teachers at Orestimba High are among local educators faced with the challenge of delivering online instruction in subject areas that, by their nature, involve hands-on activity and projects.

Art teachers Renee Stearns and Gabie Layne and music teacher David Clark do not have their students physically present in an era of distance learning - but are striving to recreate to the greatest degree possible the experience students would have in the traditional classroom.

“Obviously this is an unprecedented situation,” Layne reflected. “We looked at how we taught things before, and had to start over from scratch in many ways.”

Art materials and band instruments have been distributed to their students, the teachers said, and despite the distance learning environment pupils will have the opportunity to take part in hands-on activities.

“We felt very strongly about sending home supplies and materials and not making it another computer (based) class but making it a hands-on class,” said Stearns. “We think it is important (that students) have that break from technology to work with their hands.”

Layne and Stearns each said that they will provide as many project opportunities as possible, but acknowledged limitations.

“I don’t know if we will be able to do as many projects. In ceramics we won’t be doing as large a project,” Sterns commented. “I am paring down the size of the projects to be more adaptable to a home environment. We fully intend to do a materials swap with the kids, with ceramics for there. There is a component where they need to bring in (their project) to be fired, and then sent home with glazing supplies. Every few weeks we will have a swap of materials.”

Layne said he will not be able to offer print making or acrylic painting, but noted that his students are supplied with water colors, pen and ink, colored pencils and high quality paper for their projects.

“They are able to do a lot, but there are a couple of things I can’t quite do,” he commented. “We are making it work.”

Clark said his band students spent the initial weeks of the new school year studying music history.

Band instruments were distributed last week, he said and “now that we have instruments in hand there are are couple of digital platforms that we will use to test playing ability, and in order to offer almost an individual lesson with each student.”

The band experience, he said, will be vastly different.

Band has experienced foundational shifts as well, Clark said.

“The thought of what band is is fundamentally different now. We were one of the community faces, at Fall Festival, homecoming, all these events where people can see who we are and how we represent the school. All of that is gone,” Clark reflected. “We are fundamentally changing what we do as a band.”

The fall competition events have been canceled, he noted, although there is a possibility that some may be held in the spring. 

His guitar and piano classes also pose a challenge in the digital learning environment.

“I can’t send 30 guitars or pianos home with students,” Clark said.

In the interim, Clark related, he is teaching the music history, basic-level knowledge of guitars and pianos and other fundamentals.

But, he said, without being able to put a guitar in their hand or a piano in front of them, “I can’t teach them to play well, and that is what they signed up for.”

Clark said one of his goals is to “focus on what we can still do” until a return to the classroom is possible to keep students motivated and interested until some sense of normalcy returns.

“We are going to make it work,” he stated. “It is going to be different....extremely.”

The teachers shared a determination to make the distance learning work as well as possible, but said their best efforts cannot replace the personal connections and experiences students enjoy in the traditional classroom settings.

Zoom sessions offer an opportunity for direct instruction and interaction, they said, but are no substitute for having students present in person.

“I am trying to do as much direct instruction as possible so it feels like they are in school,” Layne commented. “The kids tell me that they miss school, so I try to make it as authentic as I can.”

Stearns said reading the classroom - checking for heads nodding in understanding or seeing puzzled looks indicating that a topic must be re-taught - is critical for teachers and much more difficult in a Zoom setting.

“What we do all the time as teachers is to read the room. We don’t have that advantage any more,” she reflected. “Even though we are not getting the immediate satisfaction of the feedback of teaching the kids in the moment, I am getting feedback in other ways that shows they are with me.”

Stearns said she misses the ability to have in-person grading conversations with her students. Forging relationships with her students - particularly those in her class for the first time - has been a challenge in a distance learning environment, she shared.

“How do I build the relationship component if I don’t get to see them in person? I have a million lesson ideas of things that kids can make at home. The part I take home with me and I can’t resolve is the relationship component of it. That is what I am always working on,” she told Mattos Newspapers. “How do I make a class feel like a class when they are not in class?”

Band students in particular, Clark said, are used to spending hours of time together after school, special events and competitions - bonding experiences that are not currently possible in the distance learning environment.

While a supportive administration has enabled them to make the best of challenging circumstances, the teachers said, they look forward to the time when students can return to campus and in-person instruction resumes.

“We want our kids back,” Clark said, “but we want them to be safe, and we want it to be safe for everybody on campus.”