Art Kits and Virtual Learning (Ep. 157)

For those doing virtual learning, the question of supplies is one that has been difficult to answer. Today, Nic discusses some strategies that may help. Listen as she talks to Jesse Armstrong about her plans for distance learning, the kits she put together for her students, and her expectations for the next few months.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: As so often I am once again inspired by something I saw on Instagram. This time it’s from Jesse Armstrong who is a teacher in North Carolina. She has recently done art kits for her students, sending them home with each of them but I thought it was interesting the way or the materials that she was presenting to her students. So I reached out, she is willing to chat with us today about the art kits that she provided for her students kindergarten through fifth grade. This is Everyday Art Room and I’m your host, Nic Hahn.

Hello, thank you for being on Everyday Art Room today. Actually, let’s just get started with a little introduction. Will you please introduce yourself?

Jesse: Yes. So my name is Jesse Armstrong, aka Mrs. Artstrong on Instagram where most people know me from.

I am an elementary art teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s where I’m making it through every day in the art room.

Nic: Yeah and your background is … How long have you been teaching? Where’d you go to school?

Jesse: So this will be my sixth year in the classroom.

Nic: Okay.

Jesse: It hasn’t always been an elementary art classroom. Actually, my undergrad was in art therapy and right at the end I decided, “Hmm, maybe I should add on an art education so I have a certificate and can actually get a job.”

My first job was at a school for students with, I mean for lack of better terms, pretty profound cognitive and behavioral needs.

That really was my dream job. Through college, I worked as a one on one aid for kids with autism.

Nic: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jesse: But we, as in my husband and I, decided we were going to move to Charlotte from Pittsburgh.

Nic: Oh.

Jesse: I needed a new job so I landed in the elementary art room. The rest is history I guess.

Nic: Wow, what a good experience to have that under your belt just in your previous experiences though.

Jesse: Yeah. I have a lot of coworkers in the district that have extension classrooms with students with special needs but somehow I am at one of the schools that does not have any of those classrooms so there are days when I think, “Oh man, I could be doing that.”

Nic: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jesse: But it’s all right for now.

Nic: Yeah, right. Right. You’ve got a lot of teaching left in you.

Jesse: Yeah.

Nic: You mentioned a husband. You have a husband at home, is that right?

Jesse: Yes and he’s also a teacher. So I met him at that school in Pittsburgh.

Nic: Oh.

Jesse: A specialized school. Sometimes we’d tell people that we met spooning in a restraint. If you’re a teacher that knows about restraints, if you know you know. He’s a special educator.
It also happens to be my mom was a music teacher.
My dad was a college professor, my sister’s in higher ed.

Nic: Okay so you had no choice. You had no choice. Okay, got it.

Jesse: It would have been great if I would have come to that but I changed my major three times so obviously I didn’t know that and realized that education was the right answer but I made it there eventually.

Nic: Yep, no, I understand that. You can deny it for a while but then-

Jesse: Yeah.

Nic: Takes you over. So you’re in education but do you feel like you have any specialties that your school really looks to you for?

Jesse: Most recently I’ve been kind of deemed one of the tech go-to people in my school and then also in the district. The art department here, our district is pretty large so just in the art department we have about 150 art teachers, which is awesome.

Nic: Wow.

Jesse: Yeah. I fortunately don’t ever feel worried about losing my job because our district is pretty keen on the arts, which is awesome, but I’ve been working through the summer working on like the digital platforms. Our district is using Canvas and so I’ve been making Canvas shells and working on a team for that over the summer.

Nic: Wow.

Jesse: Yeah.

Nic: Actually I think you mentioned that a couple of times when we were preparing for this that you’re being pulled in other directions.

Jesse: Yeah.

Nic: Rather than just teaching you’re also assisting your coworkers with technology and so forth, right?

Jesse: Yeah. It’s overwhelming at this point I know for everybody because it just, I mean, the hot words right now are, “It is what it is.” There are just some teachers that they’re not friends with technology and that’s fine so we’re just working together to figure it out.

Nic: Yep.

Jesse: For the kids so that’s why we do what we do. I mean, we’re not here for the money.

Nic: Nope, nope, for the kids. That’s actually what brought me to reaching out to you and kind of seeing if you would be willing to share what is happening in your classroom right now. I was on Instagram and I saw these awesome kits. Tell me what you’re doing as far as actions to making … Well first of all, what these kits are that I’m talking about. Give us a good verbal idea of what that is and then just what are the actions you’re doing to take this over and make this happen?

Jesse: Yeah, so there have been probably four or five days where I didn’t really sleep so I mean, it’s a lot of work. I worked really hard preparing art folders for each of my students.

Nic: Okay.

Jesse: Which is about 500 kids and so these folders really are kind of like sketchbooks. They have just some blank printer paper in there.

Nic: Okay.

Jesse: In the Spring I realized that really the biggest need for my students was just paper.

Nic: Right.

Jesse: I mean, unlined paper. That was my number one was making sure I had those to give to every student but I also decided that I wanted to send materials for at least one project. Each grade has a different kit that just has very minimal supplies for a project. So-

Nic: Let me clarify.

Jesse: Yes.

Nic: You are teaching distance learning right now?

Jesse: Correct.

Nic: You’re remote. Okay, okay.

Jesse: We are all virtual at the moment. They’ve not really set a way in which they’re going to decide, “Oh, we’re going back.” I guess it could be tomorrow, we don’t know.

Nic: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jesse: Yes, we’re all virtual right now throughout the district. All of our students have technology so that’s already taken care of.

Nic: Oh, that’s good.

Jesse: But just wanted to make sure they had something. So as far as those little kits go, for kindergarten they just have some bleeding tissue paper and a paintbrush so we can do a lot of things with those. They just have primary colors so we’re going to work just kind of on the basics of color. Same thing with first grade, they have the primary colors but of watercolor. One of my friends here in the district figured out that if you just take two watercolor and make dots of it on a piece of cardboard it will dry-

Nic: Right.

Jesse: It’s kind of like those little dot candies.

Nic: Yes.

Jesse: Yes, that don’t really taste like anything. It looks just like that but I guess, yeah, you can just re-wet them and use them. K-1 really is just color and-

Nic: Color theory.

Jesse: Yes.

Nic: Right, doing some mixing. But what an ingenious way to-

Jesse: Right, yeah.

Nic: Send home a pallet. In two very different ways. I like that a lot.

Jesse: Yes and I will say both of those ideas, they stem from long conversations just mostly venting but also brainstorming with some other art teachers in my district. It really is teamwork makes the dream work.

Nic: Yes, you are correct.

Jesse: So I guess for second grade I really was thinking more along the lines of my students and all of our students, really, they’re struggling. Something that I do at the end of the year typically during testing time is fibers. I usually find, excuse me, I usually find weaving to be pretty relaxing so for second, third, fourth and fifth grade or I’m sorry, just second, third and fourth I send fiber stuff home. Second grade got one of those plastic needles.

Nic: Sure, sure.

Jesse: Some yarn in rainbow colors and a piece of burlap so they’re going to work on some stitching.

Nic: Oh great.

Jesse: Third grade, they just got a little baby Dixie cup and some random colors of yarn and so we’re going to cut up that cup and do a weaving there.

Nic: Oh sure, like a little basket weaving?

Jesse: Yeah. Yeah.

Nic: Okay.

Jesse: Then fourth grade’s going to do the famous paper plate loom. So they all got a paper plate and some yarn. I mean, people have asked me about budgets and how much money I’ve spent on this. Really nothing. Because those lessons I was planning to do in the Spring and then obviously that got canceled.

Nic: Sure.

Jesse: Fortunately I had a lot of yarn that was donated and yarn is pretty cheap anyways.

Nic: Yep, yeah.

Jesse: Yeah, then for fifth grade I sent home a pack of Model Magic, which again I had for a lesson in the Spring that we didn’t do. I sent home, I got some white Model Magic, a marble and a couple of markers. I will say, some people got two markers that have been used from last year and then one new marker.

Nic: Sure.

Jesse: I know at least they have one marker that works.

Nic: That’ll work, yep.

Jesse: They’re going to make those dragon eyes that we see all over Instagram. Our school mascot happens to be a dragon so I think that will be good.

Nic: Oh yeah, that’s perfect.

Jesse: Yeah.

Nic: That was a perfect combination. So what I like about this is that you are hitting many different processes and really thinking about your age level and I love that you utilized things that you weren’t able to use in the Spring. That’s pretty great.

Jesse: Yeah.

Nic: Can you give us, I’ve seen a picture of this but can you give us like kind of a verbal description of what these packs look like? How did you send home those items?

Jesse: Yeah so that’s another thing is I guess sometime on the art room wishlists was listed, “Ziploc baggies.” I will say, I don’t usually get a lot of donations or parents bringing in things for the art room but for some reason, last year all of these kids showed up at my door and said, “Here, I have Ziploc baggies for you.”

Nic: You’re like, “Oh, thanks.”

Jesse: I have an entire box filled with smaller boxes of Ziploc baggies.

Most of these kits are in Ziploc baggies, which can also be used. I mean, there’s the drawing with markers on the Ziploc bag and then use it for stamping.

Nic: Yep.

Jesse: Which I haven’t fully thought out about if that can work or if kids have markers but so yeah. All of these kits, they’re in small, just like those sandwich-sized Ziploc bags except for fourth grade because they have that big plate. Theirs are in a gallon size bag.

Nic: Sure.

Jesse: Then those bags, so they have the couple of materials, it also has a little note from me. I kept the note the same for all grades and it just kind of says, “Whoa, stop, don’t open everything in here.”

Nic: Yes, yes.

Jesse: “This is not for you to … I would really just love you to have a maker’s face but that’s not what this is for.”

Nic: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right, right. Yep.

Jesse: “At this step, all of these papers in here that I have spent hours organizing, they are not free draw paper.”

Nic: Right.

Jesse: “Also, don’t take this ball of yarn out and give it to your cat. This stuff is only for art so put it somewhere safe?” Yeah, this week has been our first week with students back and so almost every day someone pulls out their bag and says, “Are we are going to use this today?”

Nic: Yeah. Is it today? Is it today we get to use it?

Jesse: They’re excited but we got to hit a couple other things first before we get to that.

Nic: Oh, okay. Yeah, that doesn’t make sense to a kid but it does to a teacher I suppose.

Jesse: Yeah. So their bags are just stapled to the folder so-

Nic: Oh yeah.

Jesse: Everything is together for easy distribution. Yeah.

Nic: It looked to me that you had them kind of color-coordinated. Is that accurate?

Jesse: Yes.

Nic: Okay.

Jesse: When I first moved to Charlotte I was actually teaching at two different schools, which I know a lot of art teachers do but one of the other art teachers that I worked with, she kind of molded me into a color coding monster.

Nic: Yes.

Jesse: Is what we say. Kindergarten is red and then it goes just ROYGBIV up. Fifth grade is purple. It actually worked out pretty well because when people in the office at my school are working on distributing materials, they know kindergarten gets red and it’s easy for you to see that they have the right thing.

Nic: Yeah, for sure.

Jesse: Yep.

Nic: I love it. Tell me, now this is … Why was it important for you to kind of go this direction with your distanced learning? Why did you decide to, because this is a big job, so tell me your why.

Jesse: Really I guess I just am feeling for the kids. I know how hard it’s been for me to just sit at home and a lot of my students really don’t have a lot, which in my eyes they don’t have a lot. In their eyes they might but as far as art materials or things to do, most of them are just sitting by the TV, on the computer and not doing anything with their hands.

Nic: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jesse: Especially for the younger kids. I mean, they’re going to lose a lot of that.

Nic: Practice. That hands on.

Jesse: Yeah.

Nic: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jesse: So I wanted to send one thing at least. I’ve gotten some questions about, “Are you going to do second pass outs? What happens when you do that project? Then what?” That part I can figure out. I jus wanted to make sure that they had something.

Nic: Right.

Jesse: There’s going to be so much regression and delay in learning the standards. Really everybody’s going to be behind. There’s part of me that thinks, “Oh my goodness, everybody needs to repeat the grade that they were in last year because this is a mess.”

Nic: Yeah.

Jesse: But I wanted to at least be able to hit some basics with those younger grades with color theory. Those are things they need to be able to move on.

Nic: Yep.

Jesse: So kind of like that scaffolding.

Nic: Right.

Jesse: I just want to make sure that we at least hit on those basics. So when they are pushed through to the next grade, no matter what’s happening, if we’re on the computer or if we’re hybrid or whatever, they’ll still have some kind of ground to stand on as far as art.

Nic: Yeah. No, I love it. I love that you were still thinking about what the kids needed but also giving a lot of grace of like, “We are going to all be behind.” The whole world will be.

Jesse: Yeah.

Nic: We’re all kind of sitting in the same situation.

Jesse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nic: Okay so as I’m hearing this I’m kind of gearing up. You have already started school, I have not but I’m like, “Well yes, I want to go ahead and … This sounds wonderful. This is going to be the perfect solution.”

Jesse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nic: Okay. Would you suggest this to others? What would you suggest to change or do? It was great or it was challenging? Tell me about that.

Jesse: Well first I want to say do whatever works for you.

Nic: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jesse: I don’t have kids, I have a husband who’s also in education and so understands my madness.

Nic: Yep.

Jesse: If you are not in that situation this might not be the best answer for you. So doing what’s best for you, I think, is the most important. I see coworkers and teachers that are just drowning in so much new information and so that kind of causes you not to be able to be there for your kids.

Nic: Yep.

Jesse: For your students. If you’re stressed out about whatever digital platform you’re using. So don’t add that to yourself if you know that you’re one of those people. But I will, yeah, school is a mess right now really to say it kindly.

Nic: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jesse: Depending on when you ask me this, if you would have asked me a couple days ago I would have said, “Everybody turn around and run.”

Nic: Yep.

Jesse: “Find a new job. Don’t go back. Everything is on fire.”

Nic: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jesse: But today we’re recording this on Saturday.

I haven’t done any schoolwork before this so it’s been all right. Just kind of, yeah, don’t feel … I know that in the world we live in, in the art teacher Instagram, it’s so easy to say, “Oh my God, I’m not doing enough or I’m a terrible teacher,” just because everybody is showing highlights.

Nic: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jesse: And to make sure you don’t get wrapped up in that right now. Your mental health is important for your students because you’re not able to give to them if you’re not well. So just be good to yourself.

Nic: I appreciate you mentioning that and giving permission to do what’s right for you and not … Revisiting that concept of not comparing. I feel like because a lot of the people that I connect with are Instagram people-

Jesse: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nic: I hear that message over and over but it’s an important one to say over and over.

Jesse: Yeah.

Nic: So I appreciate that you bring that up. Yep.

Jesse: Yeah, absolutely.

Nic: It is the highlight reel. That’s what you share.

Jesse: Yeah it is, it is. Sometimes it’s not good to use sometimes. Other times it’s inspiring.

Nic: That’s right.

Jesse: You have to really be self-aware on how are you feeling when you’re scrolling through there. If it’s making you feel worse, get off.

Nic: Put it down. Put it down.

Jesse: Yeah.

Nic: Beautiful. Okay so because you’re a week in, any last suggestions for people as they enter their school year?

Jesse: Just something that I’ve really had to remind myself is what I’m doing is important for the kids, important for our students. I mean, even if you feel like your efforts and content don’t matter or they’re not a priority, they’re going to continue to improve the wellbeing of your students. I know that … I’ve personally felt, I mean, a math teacher … My husband is teaching math. He’s never had to advocate for his program.

Nic: That’s right.

Jesse: For some reason, ar teachers have to advocate for their program.

Nic: Yep.

Jesse: That’s still on the top of our list of things that we need to be doing right now and so even if maybe students aren’t showing up to your class or if you’re not getting the time that you think you deserve, even a little bit that you get, even the little bit of reach you have is worth it and is going to improve the day for your students if they’re getting to think creatively and make something with their hands. Just keep trucking away. You can do it. I mean, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be really hard. I will not lie about that but it’s worth it.

Nic: It’s worth it. Thanks a lot, Jesse, for chatting with us today.

Jesse: You are very welcome. Thank you for inviting me.

Nic: It was great to listen to Jesse for a couple of reasons. She gave us some really good ideas and tips on the kits that she created but what I also heard from her is give yourself permission to not be someone else. Do what you can do, do what you think is right and that will be right. Whatever you’re doing in your situation is right for you and I think I heard that over and over. Now, Jesse gave us some ideas of what to do as far as distanced learning and sending materials home but the Art of Education University also has a ton of ideas for our current situation of teaching. If you jump onto their articles, their magazine, you’re going to find articles on things like how to stay safe in your art room. Research-backed ways to improve online learning and then how to give feedback to your students as they’re learning online. These are just a few of the articles that I have seen recently. There are going to be more and more because the Art of Education tends to look at what is needed at the time and provide that information for you. So jump on over there to just find all the resources that we have for you and I will talk to you again next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.