Relationship Building

Connecting from a Distance (Ep. 217)

With distance learning still in full swing, teachers are finding that it’s becoming more and more difficult to stay connected with our students and keep them engaged. Today, however, Jenn Russell comes back to the show to share some of her best ideas on how to connect with students from a distance. Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University. I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. Now, as we move further into our time in quarantine, I think we’re all finding that it’s becoming more and more difficult to stay connected with our students. It’s tough to keep them engaged. It’s tough to let them know that we still see them, that we still care about them. We still want to know what they’re doing and how they’re doing. Everybody is doing their best, but obviously there’s so many things stacked against us right now and we don’t need to go through them. We all know that there are a lot of concerns and a lot of struggles, but we’ve also seen so many people overcome that. We’ve seen so many people doing great things to keep their students engaged and to continue their teaching, even if it is online, even if it is from a distance.

However, at this point, no matter how well you’re doing, a lot of people are just, like I said, running out of ways to connect. To remedy that, Jen Russell is going to come back on the show. I’m hoping that today’s episode can help you with some fresh ideas and some new strategies on how you can make those connections with your students from a distance. Let’s start talking about those ideas. All right. Jen Russell is joining me now. Jen, welcome back to the show. How are you?

Jenn: Good. How are you?

Tim: I am doing great. Maybe going a little stir-crazy at this point but doing okay overall. I wanted to ask you as we’re getting further and further into this quarantine, into our schools being closed, it becomes, I guess, tougher and tougher for us to stay connected with our students. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about strategies and some of the things you’re doing to stay connected. I guess the big question first of all is, what do your students need from you right now? Is it just those connections? Is it art making? What do you think our kids need at this point?

Jenn: Interestingly enough, it’s hard to say class now. My meeting, I don’t even know. That sound so weird, meeting with 17 and 18 year olds. I started my classes, let me go back to that word. I start with just like, hey, how are you guys? Not like, how are you guys academically, like how legitimately are you? Like have we talked about the new show, have you guys seen this? Or like what are you guys doing? Has anybody did anything? I think that the idea of they don’t just need you academically, they need you to legitimately care. Because at least for my kids, my kids a lot of the times are the oldest, if not, some of the oldest in their household. Sometimes they’re caregivers and so I think that they’re into the art already naturally because that’s an outlet for them.

Jenn: I think more than anything, they just need you to be there past the role of educator and more of like just another adult who is in their corner or maybe just an adult who’s in their corner on their team. I think that that’s, at least for my kids, they’re just like can we just talk about something? Yeah, what you guys are talking about? I think that because we are getting deep into this, and at least for us in Texas, they just officially said that we’re not going back at all, which is a hard blow for everybody I think. We still had a little hope.

Tim: No, that makes it tough. I do want to talk a little bit more about connections, about being the adult in their corner. Before we get there, I do want to talk a little bit about academics. Can you just tell me, once you get past your discussions on latest Netflix shows and how everybody’s doing, what are you talking about art-wise? What do you have your kids continuing to do? What are you assigning them? What kind of things are they working on?

Jenn: My kids, I have right now in the spring, so we have block schedule in our kids’ shift in the middle of the year. I get a whole new set of kids in January. Right now I have drawing two, drawing three and AP drawing. Everybody’s doing something a little different. Right now we just actually dove into portraiture and character design. For the majority of my kids I have two classes working on that. We were starting to break down parts of the face and how to draw eyes and noses and putting it all together. Right now they’re doing studies of parts of the face. I gave them this whole handout about how you can practice drawing five pairs of eyes, five noses, and five mouths, but it has to be somebody in your house. Those are your models, your live models. We talked about figure drawing classes and what that means and my experience in college just figure drawing.

It’s always an interesting one. I asked for them to ask, thinking of their family, like hello, my name is so and so and I am interested in having you model and I am going to be drawing noses today. Would you be interested to be my nose model? Just reminding them that their nose that’s come from somewhere, look for the things because they have to draw their nose and for other ones from different angles and so I’m looking for those observational skills for them to practice this. It’s also an interesting skill for them to practice asking someone to be their model, always weird and awkward like, “Hey I want to draw you. Can I draw you?” Like you can ask somebody that, you have to work on it.

Getting their families involved is always a fun thing. They get to make their family a part of the art making. As far as character design goes, I propose the same thing to my character design crew and said, you can base your character off of a family member, you can base your character off of your dog, your cat, your iguana, whatever it is you have at home. You can do that. You can turn your entire family into characters and you can build your comic, your graphic novel, your show off of that because that’s where essentially we’re going to. Getting the family involved is something that is not necessarily new but for me it is a new concept. We’ve never had to stay at home ever.

I would always just be like, hey, go find your friends at lunch and they’re like, hey, who wants to model for my class? Just snap a couple of pictures and bring the pictures back and then we’ll draw in class. This is a really good chance for us to go live modeling, which is really nice. That’s what we’re working on making in my class. We have a really nice spot for them where they can just upload a picture and get immediate feedback from their class. They’re constantly getting assessed by each other. That’s just really a nice feature for them. Then, AP is going away.

Tim: That was going to be my next question. Like how are the AP kids holding up? Are they getting portfolios done? Are things going to get turned in for them? How are they doing?

Jenn: You know, we are, in 100% transparency and honesty in that spirit, I gave them the out. I was like, this is mayhem and it’s not mayhem in the sense of physical chaos and things are happening outside and there’s fires and looting. It’s just crazy that we don’t get that closure and we don’t get to see each other. We’ve never been faced with something like this, or at least I have. I’m not saying I’m relatively new and fresh here. The kids definitely haven’t. I gave them the out and I said, college board will refund you through whatever, ours is RevTrak. I was like, if you guys want to not do this, I totally 100% no one’s going to fault you for that. They were like, no dude, we’re good. I said, oh well, then let me sit down and figure out how we’re going to do this.

College board was great and they said, okay, studio AP, you guys have less to turn in. The writing is still there but you have 10 digital images instead of 15. I was like, all right, I’ll take it, cool, fine. You have to shift three, which I’m still uncertain of that, like quality is still three, which is, I’ve emailed several times on that. Anyway, they’re still going and therefore moving and creating. Like I said, our platform, they just upload a picture and then the whole class comments.

Tim: Yeah, that’s awesome.

Jenn: Almost like a text, like a group chat. They upload a picture. Now they’re night owls which-

Tim: That’s a whole another story, right?

Jenn: I’m actually trying to go to bed at a decent time. Last night at 11 I’m just here, it’s like a buzz. I’m like, what is going on? One of my kids was like, hey, late night art making. She uploaded a picture of her portrait that she was painting and it was, and I quote from one of my other kids, delectable, for describing art now. Someone was like, hey, I don’t know if it’s the glare, can you try to upload another picture? Stand over it. I don’t know if that’s a glare or blah, blah, but on here… They screenshot it, zoomed in and were able to pick it apart that way and do a tiny critique at 11:38 last night. They’re definitely going for it. I think we’re focusing now, which I think college board would be, hopefully will be happy about. They’re definitely focusing more on the process. A lot of their concentration has started to turn, not turn into, but is definitely affected by this.

You see them, like I have two kids that all of this COVID thing has made its way into their portfolio and their work too. I’m like, if you can squeeze it in, cool, because that’s definitely current events that is you’re exploring something that happened to you. As long as you photograph it and photograph your process and write down your process and talk that out, you’re good. Everybody has their journals and our weekly assignments are to do some writing. That’s what they’re turning in for me, that is their grade that goes uploaded into our grader. I’m not necessarily grading on pieces anymore. I’m doing the writing because that’s been a huge part of their AP portfolio. That’s what we’re at.

Tim: Yeah, that’s cool. No, it’s amazing that your kids are able to make that progress because I know so many kids are struggling with that. I think just the fact that your kids are willing to engage and excited to engage with each other speaks to the community that you’re able to build in your classroom. I think that’s a huge compliment to you. Kudos to you. I think that’s going well. Now I wanted to ask you a little bit more, like I said about some of the things that you’re doing to stay connected. You talked a couple of weeks ago at the webinar about the postcards that you’re sending to kids. Can you just share with us again what you’re doing with that and how you’re staying connected with kids there?

Jenn: Yeah, I actually just bought postcard stamps. I was unaware that they were postcard stamps you all. I don’t send a lot of mail. I was unaware that they are postcard stamps and that they are cheaper and you get more bang for your buck. If you’re going to do that, definitely go for the postcard stamps. Again, I’m a millennial, so I live my life online scrolling and just trying to see, just new cool things. It’s something that I haven’t tried before. I was scrolling on Instagram one day and I just saw this postcard. I clicked on her Instagram and it’s Laura Gardner. She has this hashtag and it’s Postcards of Positivity. She was sending these postcards to her kids, her students. I was like, I want to do that.

You know, because we’re art teachers, I mean teachers in general, we pick and choose and borrow and steal and beg from everybody just so that we can better our students’ experience. I was like, cool. She’d wrote a caption and it was like, you can do this too. Just send them to your kids and just say how are you? We miss you. I was like, you’re a genius. I decided to hop on it and I decided that I was going to send them to my seniors because they really got the short end of the stick on this one. In the crazy twist of events, it wasn’t their fault. I was like, cool, I’m going to do that. I decided to actually make that a tiny lesson for my kids. I was like, okay, if you want to send this to your friends, you totally can. Here’s how I made mine. I just happened to have, we were allowed to go into our classroom for 15 minutes and just get what we needed.

We had to sign up for a day and it was very like mission impossible style, which it just gave me most of anxiety. I decided to Instagram live it, which why would I do that to myself? I don’t know. It’s just this Instagram live video, I think on my Instagram about me going crazy for 15 minutes trying to get all this stuff out of my classroom. Anyway, I grabbed a bunch of paper. In this paper I grabbed what I thought were index cards, but it turns out that they were postcards that I ordered from Nasco once upon a time. They were supposed to be for this art contest. I didn’t do the contest, but it’s a four by six card which you can definitely just cut out four by six cards out of a card stock which is white card stock. Draw a line down the middle, flip it over and then do your thing. I reminded my kids because we were in review mode for two weeks of different mixed media techniques that they could use.

Every time I did a postcard, I would focus on a technique like a tape transfer technique or my favorite thing to do in mixed media is embroider but I couldn’t embroider because then I couldn’t read on the back. I was like, okay, we’re going to do watercolor wash and then we’re going to dry it and then we’re going to do pen and ink over it. You can use stencils. We can do watercolor landscapes and think about Journal Fodder Junkies and think about layering and creating space and using numbers and letters and all these things. I made all these little tiny, what I call tiny tidbits. I would send them to the kids on Tuesdays. Your Tuesday, tiny tidbit. It was like a 30-second time-lapse of me making several cards. I focus on a card each time-lapse and so that they could see what I was doing and they could choose to do their own. Then I posted it for my teachers to, just my coworkers and a few of them have done it or made it their own and sent their kids their own cards.

It’s just like a little, hey, I’m thinking about you. Here’s a tiny art piece from your weirdo art teacher. Hope that you at least, if anybody, missed me because I know that I’m your favorite class. Right? Just something weird and quirky and funny just to brighten their day. Just to remind them that someone is thinking about them and that it’s not just about their grade. Because you know, yeah, we have to take grades, but it’s art and I’m really there for the experience. At least for my kids, that’s what I want. I want them to gain a good experience, not get a great grade. I’m still in the process of making some. I have 67 seniors.

Tim: That’s a lot.

Jenn: I’m like, oh my God. Okay. I am literally trying not to spend more than five, 10 minutes on a card. I can’t make it too thick because then it’s not going to mail or I have to send a different stamp and all these things. You definitely just want to keep it flat. I just do spray water color or watercolor wash background and then do a couple of cool things with pen or colored pencil over it. Use some circle stencils and some letter stencils and then call it a day so that it still mails. You can cut out words, you can cut out letters. I’m a hoarder so I have a lot of magazine. Something quick and easy that you can send to your kids to say hi. Plus, it’s happy mail.

Jenn: At least for my juniors and seniors, they get stressful mail is what they call it. Like, hey, come to my college. Or hey, don’t forget your SAT is… Like hey, here’s the mail you were looking for. It’s like geez, something happy, something happy in their mailbox. That’s what I’ve been working on and that’s what I talked about on the webinar. I’m on my second batch out of three.

Tim: You’re getting there.

Jenn: Yeah, I’m getting there. Low and slow because I still have to teach, which is crazy. Yeah, low and slow.

Tim: All right. Not bad though. I really like the idea. I mean, it’s ambitious but I think it’s meaningful. I like it. Then I guess I also wanted to ask you a little bit more. You talked about your crazy Instagram live rating your classroom thing, but what else have you been doing on social media to connect with your kids as well?

Jenn: I also do student council for my campus, right, because I didn’t have enough to do before.

Tim: Right.

Jenn: We had virtual dress-up days a few weeks ago and we came up with miss you Monday. It was just a shout out to who you missed or what you missed about school. I was like, you know what? I miss a lot. I miss a lot and it’s too much for one miss you Monday. I’m like, maybe I’ll do miss you Monday every Monday and then I was like, I still miss too much. I decided to just do these shout outs to my kids. I have titled them different things. I have stuck with miss you Mondays sometimes, but other times it’s just, on this episode of I miss my kids and I just throw up a picture of me and my kids or my kids doing something. I think today I put a picture of my kids sitting on this futon, but it’s my digital drawers, because most of my kids are on paper but I have this core group of just pro creators that are just geniuses. Digital drawers both on Apple products and on Windows. I just feel like that is so far beyond and they’re animators.

I’m like, oh my gosh, that is so far beyond my scope of talent that I’m like, these kids need to be celebrated. I love seeing what they do and they’re so fast. I’m like, how? Teach me your way. I’m constantly just observing and hovering over them. I took this picture of the three of them and they’re just sitting there on the futon all three of them and just heads down, pencils in hand or styluses in hand and just going at it. I was like, you know what I miss? I miss all of these three. I definitely miss my digital crew. I mean, I miss my kids, I miss my classroom, I miss my black wall. I give them shout outs just to remind them that I’m still here, they’re still in my class. I encourage my kids to follow me. I mean, it’s my class Instagram so that I can tag them so that it pops up on their notifications, add it to their story if they want to or not.

I don’t get upset or hurt, but just to let them know that I am still thinking about them and that also I want to be able to tag their art or say, hey, you guys should definitely check out John’s art. John is so sublime and so great about doing his animation and so on and so forth, or check out Sabrina’s art. Sabrina, her entire AP concentration is her making her first full length comic book. Go read it. I want to be able to do all that so that my kids get exposure because if your art kids are like my art kids, my room is their sanctuary but they’re the quiet kids in the corner every other class.

Tim: Yeah, for sure.

Jenn: The rest of the school doesn’t really know what they’re up to but they need to because they’re mega-talented. I’m like, there’s absolutely no way people are not going to know what you all do in class. I’m like, I will shout it from the rooftops for you because you guys are too quiet to do it yourself. That’s fine. I am weird and loud and obnoxious and I will do it for you. I give them shout outs and I post their artwork when they turn it in virtually now that that’s happening. I’ve been so much faster at it because I grade it on the spot. I download it and then I just post it and it’s just so much more seamless. I’m like, this is week two of visual journals from drawing two. A selection of pen. I’ve been posting their artwork a lot more. I’ve been shouting out a lot more and just going through memory lane. On this day a year ago and tag whoever was there. I guess just to remind them that I’m still here and that I do think about them literally every day. Every day.

Tim: Yeah. That’s awesome. Cool. All right, well Jen, we’ll go ahead and wrap it up there but just one last question for you. Just any words of advice for people who are maybe struggling to connect with their kids or just good ideas that you have for people on how to get the word out there about what’s going on in their classroom.

Jenn: I am really relentless about, it’s going to sound really obnoxious you all, just hold on. Okay. I’m really relentless about showing off and not showing off like me but showing off what goes on in my class. We’re a 6A high school and it is very good at a lot of things. In that a lot of things that we’re good at, we get shuffled like most art programs do to the bottom just because we’re smaller. I’m like, well, you just got to make up for that. Right now especially everybody is looking to do something creative because it is no pressure. There’s no wrong in art. Everybody wants to use what they have and be creative with what they have. Now is the time. I told my kids, my kids are really good about they start things but they don’t finish things.

A lot of them have started their art account, their art Instagrams, but they haven’t posted anything. I’m like, now is the time. Now is the time. Why? Because everybody is on their phone. Everybody is on social media right now because we don’t have a lot of other options. You go for a run, okay, that’s only an hour. Everybody is constantly on their phone. Now is the time to showcase what your kids are doing. Now is the time to post their artwork. Now is the time to encourage them to post their artwork. It also keeps you connected to them. But now is definitely the time to even you do tutorials for your coworkers and say, hey guys, if you guys are bored or if you have littles at home, here are some examples of things that you could do with your own kids, not your students but your own spawns.

I’ve taken a lot of things that I’ve seen elementary school teachers and preschool teachers do and done it with Nate because my tornado of a child is a wreck because he also can’t go to school. I’m like, okay, what do I do with a two year old? Ideas that you can do as a family, here, some art stuff, build a museum. I showed my kids tiny museums that elementary school kids were doing, Mrs. D’s art class is doing. I was like, how cute is this? They were like, can we also do museums? I was like, yeah, you weirdo, of course you can do museums. I would love to see your knickknacks. All I see is typing. I has lots of knickknacks. I’m like, okay. You do have a lot of cool things.

Now my kids are doing museums. Their museums are due next week. I’m like, well that’s cool. That was an elementary lesson that my kids really liked that high schoolers are going to do. Now is the time to stay connected through art. Any lesson can be adapted to any grade level is what I’ve realized. Just keep posting so that the world can see what your kids are doing and that your kids feel like they are still like, I don’t think worth is the right word, but that they are still productive in some sort of way that they still have a role. Because I think a lot of our kids feel a little lost in that sense.

Tim: Yeah, that’s very true. Like you said, any ideas out there are good ideas at this point just because kids are looking for things right now. Anytime you can make those connections and give them those opportunities then it’s definitely going to be worthwhile. All right. Well, Jen, thank you so much. It’s been awesome to talk to you as always. Hopefully we can have you back on again soon.

Jenn: Yeah, I’d love to.

Tim: All right, thank you to Jen. It was an awesome conversation as it always is with her. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope it gave you a few ideas about what you can do with your students to make those connections as we continue to do online learning. Now, one last call before we go, check back on the AOEU website whenever you can for everything you need to help you with online learning. Whether you are looking for lessons, or resources, or ideas, or more podcasts to listen to, or even if you want to rewatch those six webinars that we did, it’s all on the site. Just keep checking back on Stay safe. Take care of yourself and take care of everyone around you.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening as always, and we will be back with you 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.