Making Remote Learning Meaningful (Ep. 156)

There are so many questions and so many concerns that come with remote learning, none of which are easy to answer. But today, Nic talks to elementary art teacher Jason Blair about how he makes remote learning meaningful for his students. Listen as they discuss creativity, passion, and how we can envision a better school experience.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: Today, we’re going to talk to Jason Blair. He is an elementary art teacher in Ohio and he’s going to talk to us a little bit about remote learning. Some concepts to really think about when you are teaching in a distance learning sort of way. But what was really interesting is the heart and soul that he puts behind a lot of the lessons that he asks his students to participate in. You can definitely see his style in remote learning, the same way that you would see in his classroom. And I can’t wait for you to listen to some of the ideas he has to share. This is Everyday Art Room and I’m your host, Nic Hahn.

Hello, Jason. Welcome to the podcast.

Jason: Hello. Thank you for having me.

Nic: Jason, will you go ahead and just kind of introduce yourself, give us your past experiences and then maybe end with what your current situation is in education right now?

Jason: Sure. My name is Jason Blair. I’m an elementary art teacher. I have been in that role for 18 years. The last 18 I was at Eli Pinney Elementary School, which is in Dublin, Ohio suburb, outside of Columbus. And currently this is my first year at a brand new building called Abraham Depp Elementary School. And I also over the last two years, I’ve been Columbus Museum of Art’s teacher in residence, teacher leader in residence, which has been a really fascinating experience and been fortunate enough these last two years to work on a research project with Harvard’s Project Zero Initiative. And it’s on cultivating creative and civic capacities. That’s where I am today.

Nic: Wow. You wear a lot of hats. I like it. And a lot of years under your belt, so that’s good. Recently you shared an article with me that was very intriguing. It looks like you wrote it in May for a blog called Pedagogy of Play. It was about remote learning and how you provided distance learning or some things to kind of think about. I know many of us are teaching remotely right now, or might be in that boat again with influx of illnesses. You mentioned five different areas to kind of concentrate on when rethinking remote learning. Can we talk about each of them? The first one being design opportunities for students for play with the content through experimenting and discovering. I love the sound of that. Can you give me a little bit more, maybe some examples of what you were thinking when you wrote that?

Jason: Sure. The big thing for me there is just kind of slowing down. I think one of the things that we do a lot of is we’re just speeding up through things so fast to cover things. And I found that when we slow down and provide opportunities for experimentation and playing with materials, it leads to a lot of more deep connections and possibilities. And it could be in a couple of different contexts. One is, in our specific discipline, playing with tools and materials. Playing with oil pastels or paint and finding new ways to do things with them. An example was I had one little girl wanting to make a sunset and kind of use a craft stick to kind of smear the paint in different ways. And instead of kind of getting on her about not using papers for everything, that’s what we want, is we want that experimentation so she can be open to new ideas, new possibilities.

And then also just kind of playing with the ideas that we’re posing to them. If it’s kind of a bigger idea like we want you to create this artwork that’s centered around identity, kind of playing with identity. What does that mean? How do we form our identity? This idea of letting kids have time and slowing down to experiment and play with tools and processes and techniques, I think leads to a lot of deeper understanding if we can do that. That’s one of the big parts for me that I’ve discovered is just kind of slowing down, giving some of that time for experimentation and play.

Nic: Right. And I think your years of experience have probably led you to that. Would you agree? Do you think this has always been your theory? Or has it developed?

Jason: No, I definitely think it’s developed over time. It’s one of those things where you can step back and start to see the forest through the trees and realize that there’s a bigger purpose to what we do. It’s not just about getting a child to paint this or draw that. It’s about getting to be a creative thinker and getting them to experience the world in the way an artist experience the world and developing that artist lens. And I think part of that is what’s so powerful about the arts is the ability to slow down and notice what’s not been noticed before and find connections that haven’t been connected before. But the only way that can happen is if we start training these kids to slow down and be mindful of what’s going on around them.

Nic: Yeah, from a very young age. I agree with you. All right. Then that just sounds dreamy. That’s exactly what I want to do is slow down. And I think remote learning is a kind of an opportunity for that. Now, number two, you write, design opportunities that our student centered and allow for infinite exploration. When you’re saying exploration, what are you thinking in your head when you’re using that term?

Jason: Again, it’s kind of two parts there. One is a little bit of a piggyback on the last one of infinite exploration with tools and materials, one thing. Recognizing that a craft stick could be a lot of different tools. We kind of touched on that before, but the other thing is also infinite exploration as far as themes and big ideas. At every grade level I do a different theme. For first grade, it’s relationships. For second grade, it would be community. For third grade, it’s communication. Fourth grade is identity and fifth grade is leadership. And I chose those because they’re very broad and I can do something different within those themes. And they also align very much to social emotional development of kids. They’re very much consumed with themselves so in the beginning, it’s kind of thinking about relationships.

And so for first grade it might be in the beginning, what’s our relationships with ourselves and how do we make that visible? What are some things that you’re interested in and are passionate about? And then from there we might go to the next lesson, which is relationships with others. Well project idea might be, how would you design a toy or a game for a classmate? Well, let’s go through that process. Let’s interview our friends in the class and let’s start to think about that. Going up a little bit with community, in the beginning of the year we did last year, we did what are some of the values we have in our community? And how we make those visible. And we talked about values and if you value creativity or fairness or you value taking risks, then how do you make that visible? How do you show that in a piece of art?

And so I’ll show them examples of some contemporary artists. I’ll show some examples that I’ve done and then we have some conversations about it and let them have some experimentation time as well until we roll into that. But then maybe the next big lesson would be, going on from the values in our community to then what are some other things in our communities that are valuable to us as far as outside of just ourselves. There’s a lot of different ways you can explore them. Communication, one of the things we did to start off the year was an unfair museum. Communicating what you think is unfair and showing that. And then from there, communicating how do you make your feelings visible? The idea is that you take these big themes and string them out over the year, but within there you can have different ways to explore them.

There’s infinite possibilities because I’ve used those same five themes for five, six years now and we still haven’t done the same project. It’s about taking the context you have and the kids you have and say, “Oh, this is a group that needs to really work on that empathy so let’s bring that in to this idea of relationships. How do I have empathy for myself? How do I have empathy for others?” It’s just that idea of infinite exploration with tools and materials, but also with the concepts behind what your art making is about to get a little bit deeper in your art making process.

Nic: I love it. What a broad and very deep concept. I love that. You also mentioned designing opportunities for playful collaboration. Now that’s easy in the class. Well, not easy, but it can be done in my mind, much easier in the classroom than distance learning. How did you encourage collaboration remotely?

Jason: Well, it was definitely tricky. It was one of those things where, when you’re going to that remote environment and you have all the things in the classroom, what does that look like at home or where the context is they are now? The two things I did there was one, I had to rethink who you collaborate with. In that situation, when we are in school, you have your classmates and what not to collaborate with. Now at home, you have the people in your household, whether that’s mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, any sort of caregiver, how might you collaborate with them? An example of that would be for one of the challenges we did was we did this happy space challenge where I had the kids design a happy space for somebody in their household.

The first step was to interview, conduct an empathy interview with somebody in the house. And then I wanted them to take away from that. And one of the things I posed them when I gave them the directions was to really think beyond just what’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite? But it was things like what makes you smile? What’s the best smell you’ve ever had in your life? What’s an embarrassing, funny thing that’s happened to you? Questions that really dug a little bit deeper and they weren’t yes, no questions. They were more open-ended rather than close-ended questions. And then once they got that information, then they had the design and build a happy space for them. And then the kids submitted back what they created on Flipgrid. I saw these just great, amazing opportunities where these kids engaged with their family in these different ways.

I had one little boy who submitted one where he had his grandma in this fort reading a book, eating her favorite snack, and he would tell about what he did and how he created it for her. And she was all smiles. And it was just this really interesting way to think about who we collaborate with in that way. And the other way was to rethink. It was fascinating. And the other way was to rethink the ways we collaborate and not necessarily having it to be, since we don’t have bells and schedules and stuff, that’s the benefit. The collaboration things didn’t have to take place during the day when they would have their art class. One of the things I kept trying to say was, please, please, please do these at night as a way to wind down. Do these on the weekend. Do these when everybody’s kind of away from their office, computers, whatever and just engage as the whole family.

Those were the two things I was thinking about with collaboration was just opening up their mind to say, “How might I collaborate with grandma or grandpa or with my sister or brother? And then in what ways might we collaborate that might be different than we’ve done in the past?” It ended up being one of those things where I was really pleased with what the kids were turning in and the smiles and laughter and the joy during a time that was obviously kind of filled with anxiety and nervousness. But it was a breath of fresh air to see some of these amazing creations the kids came back with.

Nic: Oh specifically that story about the grandma, just brightens my day. Thank you for sharing that with us today. You also talk about creating opportunities for artifact creations and celebrations. How did you do that? Or how do you see other people celebrating what was being done remotely?

Jason: The thing with that was obviously tricky too. And I think for the making part of it, the two questions I always ask my own kids is I say, I don’t necessarily ever ask them, “What’d you do at school?” Or, “how was school?” because we know the answers there. I ask them always, “Who did you make smile today? And what did you make with your hands today?” Because we’ve talked since they were little kids, that’s really the most important thing. Brightening somebody else’s day and making them smile and making something with your hands, making your learning, making your thinking visible in some way. That was one of those things that I focused on during the remote process was how do I create these opportunities where kids can design and create with others? The one example of the happy space was one, another one we did was this hidden emotion art gallery.

And the purpose behind that was I had the kids create artwork that expressed feelings they had during this time. But I had them, I said, “I want you to find a place in your house to hide it. And then I want you to create a hidden emotion art gallery opening. You can invite the people in your house to come find it.” The idea there was one, was that these emotions we’re not really making visible right now. And the reason why is because there obviously, we’re going through a lot and we bottle those up. And so metaphorically, I wanted them to think about this idea of even though you’re bottling them up, you can open them up to show other people because that’s how we’re going to heal. We’re all kind of being vulnerable together. The one kid who hid his artwork underneath the stairwell and then invited his parents to come see it.

And it was so great because a lot of the kids got their parents to be involved too. The parents created little artworks too that expressed kind of what they were feeling during this time. The kids and the parents, some of them dressed up, put on ties and everything and then they videotaped that. And so it was a way to kind of one, obviously get the whole family involved in making, but also as a way to celebrate what they were doing. And in that case, to have a conversation. I wanted these artworks to spark a conversation about where people were and have people check in and it was a kind of a fun whimsical way to check in with some pretty serious stuff that we’re feeling right now. Those were just two ways of creating an idea of getting kids to create something with their hands, but also celebrating the process as well.

Nic: Boy, I’m sure our listeners are thinking the same thing, but my brain is just bubbling with ideas with this conversation. I love it. I love it so much. You hit on this a little bit, designing opportunities to take advantage of the no bells or the flexible schedule. And I definitely saw that with my learners, that there were some students that worked a ton, but I also had students that I needed to figure out how to encourage them to work some or a little bit more. How did you encourage that? And did you have anything more to add about that flexible schedule?

Jason: Well, two things there, one, I don’t have any magic answers. If anybody out there does have answers, I think we all struggle with that at times. It was very different last year, too, because we had several months with those students already. But the one thing I kept thinking about too, is that learning is constant. Whether they’re in school or not, they’re constantly learning. It’s just, what are they learning about? That was one thing. And then the idea of kind of what we intended to have learned and then what was some of the hidden learning that took place. And thinking about relationships and a sense of belonging. For me, it was this idea of taking advantage of no bells and schedules was like I said earlier, just kind of designing situations and experiences where they could make connections.

And that’s really what I wanted to do was to not necessarily, I tried to pose very broad creativity challenges to hopefully harness in and bring in some of the things they wanted so that if they enjoyed playing sports, well you can bring that into this creativity challenge. If you enjoy playing video games, you can find a way to bring that in. I didn’t want to compartmentalize it or make it so narrow that there wasn’t a lot of room for veering out of that, because then I knew I would lose people as it was. I just approached it as the more broad I can make it, the better. And also the other thing was just kind of focusing on for me, it helped me understand that I really needed to get away from specific things how it is in my classroom and I shifted my mindset to being that of the dispositions.

Because what I thought was, if these kids are going home, I want to help them to exercise and cultivate those dispositions of thinking like an artist so that they’ll come back to me even stronger. I needed to create opportunities for kids to exercise curiosity, gain a comfort with ambiguity, exercise imagination and wonder. Some of those things I wanted to facilitate experiences for that at their house so they could come back with those kind of core foundational dispositions of an artist that would help them excel even further. That was one of the big things that this idea of no bells and schedules was, get them to go in the world and look at the world from an artist’s perspective and practice and exercise some of those dispositions that artist inherently do every day.

Nic: Yeah. Wow. Powerful. That was kind of the gist of your article, but then you also gave a couple of examples, which you did in our conversation here. Is there any additional examples that you just want to highlight that were really helpful or successful during your distance teaching?

Jason: Yeah. I think a couple of the other, just thinking about challenges and things like that, because I know we’re all kind of trying to source as many ideas as we can. I’ll just kind of throw some of these out there for challenges that we did. One of them was the Quarantivity Challenge. The idea of that was I kind of posed to the kids, when you’re in quarantine, how do you use that as an opportunity for creativity? We called it quarantivity. And so the kids had to show me how they use their quarantivity in some way. The idea is you’re so bored, you’ll do anything to kind of be creative. My example I gave them was, I found my shoes and I put some Google eyes on them and made them into these little characters and did a little show with them.

The kids gave back these Flipgrids of these really creative ways that they were showing how, even though they were bored, they found this opportunity for creativity. And that’s where I think we always try to help other teachers and other people recognize is that creativity starts at the end of boredom. And so that’s a necessity and that’s one of the things that we’re losing a lot of is we don’t really have any time to be bored now because we have something in our pocket that we can pull out and we can check the phone, check Twitter or Facebook or whatever else and then we don’t have that downtime. Now this time during that quarantivity time, that quarantine time, it was an opportunity for kids to reset and kind of think, look, there’s a moment of boredom that’s hitting you, use it as an opportunity. How can you be playful and whimsical with your approach to what you’re doing at home? It was really neat to see that.

Other things would be just quick things too, like dinner challenge. Go around the table and say have a napkin, what kind of accessory can you make to wear in the next five minutes? Just little quick things like that because the thing I always tell the kids is that your creativity is a muscle and if you don’t exercise, it’ll go away. And so, and I said, “And for most of you, your parents would probably say that it’s gone away for them because they don’t exercise it regularly.” And I say, “You don’t have to be an artist when you grow up. It’s not about that. It’s about being creative and no matter what you’re going to do in your life to be successful, you’ll need to be creative. Do these little challenges as much as you can.” I just try to pose to them as many of those kind of simple, quick, low tool or material challenges that they could do at their house and with their whole family too.

Nic: Yes. Wow. That’s beautiful. Yep. I like it. I like it a lot. And are you getting your inspiration from yourself, from the people around you, from social media? Where are you finding some of your inspiration for some of these challenges?

Jason: Everywhere I can. Definitely all over Twitter and the PLN. I know you and I are both a part of that K12ArtChat, which is a fantastic group, so many great resources they share. There’s a lot of great, great books out there, which I’ll go through and then websites like, The Kids Should See This and I’ll use My Modern Met and I’ll use what else? Bored Panda, some of those kinds of websites that have art pools to them. And then Art21, Colossal’s another one. They’re just, there are little websites that curate really cool creative stuff around the world and they update it constantly. I might not take something directly off them, but usually it will provide a spark or a seed that you can get something with it. And I think that’s what we’re all looking for. It’s just the spark or a seed to kind of get things going because it can kind of seem overwhelming at times.

Nic: Completely. Yes, yes it can. But this is why we listen to the podcast. This is why we are seeking our PLN, like you just mentioned. I agree. Through our conversations, , you have brought up a word that was new to me, inconvenient creativity. Can we talk about that in your own classroom, what you present to families, maybe even in your own personal life with your personal family?

Jason: Sure. Yeah. A couple of years back, one of the things I realized was that if we want to kind of change the narrative about arts education and the value of it, then we need to kind of step out of the shadows and kind of host opportunities for parents. And so a couple of years back, I started holding creativity talks and it was a group for parents to come and we could kind of talk about how to harness that creativity, how to help instill it in our kids, how to grow it at home. And from there, one of the things that I came up with from seeing my own kids was this idea of inconvenient creativity. And the way I describe it is that convenient creativity is like when we say to draw a picture or paint a portrait or do a dance or play a musical instrument, but inconvenient creativity is when it doesn’t always work out the way we want it to, or it’s at a time that’s inconvenient for us as adults. What I found is that those are the most impactful moments on creativity development with children.

I’ll give you an example. In my house a few years back, one of the examples I always tell people is that my daughter has a horrendous time keeping her room clean. It’s just a never-ending battle. I walked in there one evening and she had completely emptied her closet. There was nothing in there. It was just completely empty. And all the contents of her closet were all over her floor. I walked in and I looked and in that moment I realized I needed to take a step back for a second. And so before I responded to anything before my knee jerk reaction was going to be to, what is going on here? Clean this up. I said instead, “Tell me what’s going on here?” And she looked at me and very calmly said, “Well, I saw this show on YouTube called Tiny House and I wanted to create a tiny house in my closet.”

Nic: Oh my. Yes.

Jason: I looked into her closet and she had a little family room, a little bedroom. She had a little kitchen area. I took pictures of it all. It was phenomenal and it took my breath away. And one of the biggest reasons why it took my breath away is because I realized in that moment, I could have destroyed that moment. I could have simply said, “Get all that stuff picked up, put it back in your closet and tell me when you’re done.” But I realized that those are the moves, those are the micro-moments that are more impactful for kids. When we’re at school and we see a kid’s desk that’s very messy and we say, “Go clean up that desk.” That might be how they process things. And it’s almost like going up to somebody with a creative mind, say, “Go clean up your mind, it’s all over the place.”

For a creative kid, that’s how they make connections. They see those things out there. This idea of inconvenient creativity is just this idea of slowing down and realizing that creativity is 24/7/365. It’s not just when you have a project that you want them to be creative on. It’s not something you can just say, “Go be creative on that,” or have the word creative on a rubric and tick it off. It’s about an experience. It’s how kids live, breathe and experience the world. For us to sit there and say that it only is certain times, it’s not true.

Another example in the classroom was we were in the middle of a project and I had one little girl come up to me and say, “Hey, it’s so and so’s last day here do you think it’d be all right if I made a little sign for her?” And I was like, “Sure, go ahead.” And so she started to make a little sign and then she’s like, couple minutes later, “Hey, do you mind if I bring these other two friends up to do it?” “Sure. Go ahead.” And then she’s like, “Well, can we get a bigger piece of paper?” “Yep. Go for it.” And then the next thing you know, she’s like, “Well, do you mind if we get some other people to come up?” “Okay.” Slowly, our project area of the room is dwindling. And now they’re all in the front of the room with a big roll of paper. And then she comes up and she asks the classic question, “Do you mind if we splatter paint on the art?” I was waiting for glitter, but nobody said that.

They were doing this whole thing by this time the whole class goes up and they’re all doing it. And it’s really nice. And then they leave and they say, “When can we come back?” And I say, “Well you can come back and get it at the end of the day when it’s dry.” And so sure enough, they go off. Well towards the end the day, I’m in a meeting and there’s a knock on the door. And I go out and it’s this one little girl and she said, “Hey, can I pick up that artwork?” And I said, “Well, sure.” She said, “Do you mind if the class has it?” And I said, “Well yeah, where’s your class.” And I look out the hallway and there they all are. They’re all out there. And they took the piece of paper and what they ended up doing was they rolled it and stretched it out and held it as a banner for this little girl to run through as she got on the bus on her last day at school.

Nic: Oh my gosh.

Jason: It’s moments like that, that wasn’t convenient for me because I had this project all lined up and ready for them to work on. But this inconvenient moment of creativity was far better than anything I could have created. They were exercising a tremendous amount of empathy, a tremendous amount of flexible thinking, a tremendous amount of collaboration, all those things that we want in our classroom, just sprouted up from this one little girl saying, “Do you mind if I take this time to make a sign?” That just underscored for me the power of these moments and having an opportunity to say, if we have an environment in our space where kids feel comfortable to exercise creativity, both convenient and inconvenient then we’ve done our job.

Nic: Wow. That’s, Jason, I cannot thank you enough for sharing so much of what you shared today. I had chills at least four times in your stories. You just are really seeking a bigger picture to art education and I appreciate you sharing it with us today.

Jason: Yeah, no, it was my pleasure. I appreciate venues like this. I appreciate all that you’re doing to help elevate and amplify the voices of art educators across the world.

Nic: Thanks a lot.

I have been impressed with Jason Blair for years. We’ve only known each other on this digital platform on K12ArtChat. You heard us kind of talk about that a little bit. But everything that he shares on that chat, I can relate to. I think that’s why I was excited to bring him on to Everyday Art Room, because I wanted him to be able to share his passion and the way he’s creating better humans for this world, with all of you. And I think he did that really well right down to talking about the nuts and bolts of how do you teach remote learning? But then also getting into some of those theories that he brings to his families of his school, that inconvenient creativity. Man, I am just thinking and thinking on that. I don’t think that my brain is going to let that one die for a while. I think I’ll continue to consider those words that Jason shared with us today. Thank you so much, Jason, for joining us today and sharing your passion for teaching and we’ll talk to all of you again next week on Everyday Art Room.

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.