Research & Insights / Boston Public Schools Arts Educators Creatively Meet the Moment

Boston Public Schools Arts Educators Creatively Meet the Moment

By Anthony Beatrice and Ruth Mercado-Zizzo

This article is featured on Americans for the Arts' ArtsBlog as part of National Arts in Education Week

Within a week of Boston Public Schools closing its schools due to COVID-19, the district’s nearly 300 BPS visual and performing arts educators quickly shifted to offering remote learning in the arts. The creativity, responsiveness, and community approach educators brought to this task have ensured the arts remain a priority for our students during the spring and moving forward into the new school year.

Within days of school closures, BPS visual and performing arts educators congregated on our first Zoom meeting to take stock of the moment and build a plan going forward. In a traffic-jammed city where it can take over an hour to get from one neighborhood to another, meeting online quickly turned into a silver lining, creating a new outlet for collaboration and camaraderie. Discussions rapidly led to an action plan focused on pedagogy and approaches that would make arts learning relevant and sharing resources to do so.

The Zoom gatherings became a weekly ritual and generated online professional learning communities on Google Classroom to provide a space for educators to share student work, gain feedback from each other, and have a clear understanding of what technologies to focus on in both teaching and learning. The BPS Visual and Performing Arts Department partnered with the BPS Office of Instructional Technology to offer webinars focused on tools like FlipGrid and Google Classroom along with Final Cut Pro and Garageband for creating virtual ensembles. All of these resources were then placed on a new remote learning website so educators and arts partners could easily access them.

The Arts Department wanted a unified approach to connecting students and arts educators virtually to make learning visible, and so began the #BPSArtsChallenges. We partnered with the BPS Communications Department to highlight a weekly challenge, including choreographing a dance jam to Wavin’ Flag, creating artwork for the Boston healthcare community, and developing messages of hope to our isolated seniors as part of a collaboration with AgeStrong Boston. Student work from the art challenges was combined with arts instructional videos on a new television show featured on the Boston Neighborhood Network.

At the end of the school year, students and educators transformed our Annual Citywide Arts Festival into an online format. Featuring virtual bands and choirs, dance mashups, visual art, and theatre performances, students were highlighted from all areas of the city.

The combination of weekly virtual meetings and professional learning communities, showcases of student work, and practical professional development helped ensure the relevancy and access to our high-quality standards-based curriculum.

As we move into a new school year that will begin remotely for all students with plans to phase-in hybrid options, we are able to utilize best practices from the spring while digging deeper into connecting our pedagogy to the needs of our students and families. Over the summer our arts educators partnered with the district’s Social Emotional Learning and Wellness Department to design arts lessons themed on community building, self-identity, and social justice connected to the social-emotional learning competencies and the new Massachusetts Core Arts Standards. Our first project will be creating a district-wide virtual mosaic filled with student artwork and QR codes to dance, music, and theatrical performances. We will continue to partner with the community in monthly district-wide arts challenges. Though field trips might be on hold this year, we are collaborating with our cultural partners in Boston to engage our students in virtual concerts and museum tours. We will carry on highlighting student visual and performing arts presentations in unique formats through livestreams and our local public access television network.

This work illustrates the power of engaging in the arts remotely and why we must continue to support arts education as a vehicle to amplify the voice and agency of our students in the years ahead. As we navigate through these trying times, partners and stakeholders of BPS Arts Expansion, led by the BPS Visual and Performing Arts Department and EdVestors, will continue to meet virtually to discuss challenges and share best practices for remote arts learning. The broad network of partners and advocates—including Boston Public Schools and Superintendent Dr. Brenda Cassellius, school leaders and teachers, local and national foundations and arts organizations, higher education institutions, and the Mayor’s Office—are committed to working together to ensure our students have ongoing, regular access to equitable, quality arts education.

Anthony Beatrice is the Executive Director for the Arts at Boston Public Schools. Ruth Mercado-Zizzo is the Senior Director of Arts and Equity at EdVestors.