Professional Practice

The Quarantine Mailbag with Andrew McCormick (Ep. 216)

This week is the return of Art Ed Radio’s former co-host, Andrew McCormick! Now that he has some time on his hands, he joins Tim for a mailbag episode. Listen as the guys discuss quarantine activities, distance teaching, and the importance (or not) of professional development during this time. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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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. I have been getting a lot of messages lately and a lot of questions via email and via Twitter. I don’t know if that’s because people are thinking more about what’s coming to us in the near future, whether there’s just a lot of uncertainty about how we’re teaching, how things are going in education or whether we just have a lot of time on our hands right now. I decided we’re going to try and answer some of those questions and talk about some of those messages and ideas today. I reached out to my favorite former cohost, Mr. Andrew McCormick and asked him to come on and answer some questions with me. He actually has some time now, which is rare, but he’s quarantined so he agreed to come on and chat with me for a little bit. Now before we get started, just real quick bit of history.

The first couple of years of Art Ed Radio, Andrew and I hosted this show together. There are a lot of episodes in the bank. He and I co-hosting, him doing some, me doing some, but it’s been quite a while since we’ve recorded anything together. I hope you enjoy this conversation as we catch up on old times and dive into some of the topics that have come to me. Here we go. All right, Andrew McCormick joining me now. I’m very excited to have you back on. Andrew, welcome back and how are you?

Andrew: Hey Tim, it’s great to be back. Thank you for having me on. This feels really comfortable and really good like an old pair of slippers. Wait, I don’t know if I just insulted you by calling you old pair of slippers, but yeah, it’s nice to be back for sure.

Tim: You know what, I’ll take it, because it is, there’s just this comfort level. I just feel very relaxed when you’re on the other end.

Andrew: All right.

Tim: I’m excited to be recording. Going back to old times. How are you though? How is teaching going for you? How is your kids being out of school? How’s life right now?

Andrew: Well, up until mid-March, things were going swimmingly well. I started a new gig. I got a new job in a new district. I moved from being three-quarters high school and a quarter middle school to then a district up the road where I was full-time middle school. Now it’s back to my roots in Cedar Falls, this community called Ankeny. I was in an eight, nine building so again, it was a little weird. The few ninth-grade classes I had were getting high school credit and then the eighth graders were just getting exploratory checking out art type of credit. You know what I realized with that move? I think part of my dissatisfaction with my last job, I am a middle school teacher. There must be something off with me a little bit that I really like eighth and ninth graders. I’m fully entrenched and we were having a great year. I was really enjoying it and then all of this craziness hits. Now that I’ve been cooped up at home for the last four or five weeks, it’s teaching and parenting, all our triage. Just trying to do the best you can and try to make it all comfortable and doable.

Tim: Yeah, no, that’s the best you can do. Honestly, with the middle school thing, somebody has to love them so we’re there to do that.

Andrew: You know, eighth graders and ninth graders are just like my people. They find me funny. I think high school kids are like, no dude, that’s not funny anymore. I don’t know. I just really liked that age group a lot. It was a really good first year. I know the first year at a new district can be a little tricky, but I was like, man, this is going great. Then all of this virus stuff happened, which is really unfortunate for everybody.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. It’s been just presented this whole new set of challenges for everyone that is very difficult, but you know, we’re all doing the best we can. We’re all managing as best we can. Like I said, we’re just trying to celebrate every success no matter how little it is. Every win is a good one. I wanted to bring you on because I’ve been getting lots of random questions via email, via Twitter, and who better to answer random questions than you. Question number one, what are you doing to fill your time right now? What are you listening to? What are you watching? What are you doing with your kids while you’re stuck at home all the time?

Andrew: Well, I wish I had a really awesome answer that I was like writing a novel or creating something, but it’s been a heavy dose of binge-watching Netflix, HBO. I’ve been playing more video games than I have in years with my kids. Trying to keep them on some sort of normal routine. I’m really thankful for my kids’ school. I feel like it’s not easy and I’m sensitive when I get on social media, when I hear people or see people complain about their kids’ school is not doing this or that or teachers. I don’t see a whole lot of that. I think most people realize this is crazy, unchartered territory, but I got to give a big shout out to my kids’ school. I think they have navigated this brilliantly. They’re not doing too much where kids and parents feel like, oh my gosh, I’m overwhelmed.

I’m getting 80 emails a day and I can’t check out all these platforms. They’re also not like crickets and just silence. They’ve struck a good balance. My kids do about an hour to an hour and a half of schoolwork and learning a day, which isn’t a lot, but you know, they don’t have that many distractions of hallway passing time and get settled down and all this. Then outside of that, it’s like we’ve been going outside for walks, playing four square. Then like I said, a lot of video games, a lot of Netflix.

Tim: Any shows in particular that you’re loving right now?

Andrew: My wife and I have been on this real tear where we are wrapping up old shows, shows that we loved and then forgot about. I felt like man, when spring break hit, it wasn’t even like school closure. I was just like a week off. I was like, I’m going to get Walking Dead caught up. I was like almost two full seasons behind on Walking Dead, which I know has fallen off lately. We got caught up on HBO shows like Westworld and The Leftovers. I know the cultural zeitgeist is that everyone needs to watch Tiger King. Of course we started that and watched that, and I like it, but I do have to say that sort of genre of misery documentary or documentary where it’s like, oh my God, look at how screwed up these people’s lives are. I always walk away feeling like kind of gross for liking it. Like I’m kind of delighting.

Tim: Yeah, it may feel uncomfortable.

Andrew: Yeah, it’s like I’m delighting in other people’s misfortune. I know there is a lot of crazy, crazy people in that documentary but then there’s like also stories of like, well, so Carole’s first husband’s family who’s now having this father who has died however he died, that’s all reopened up. I watched those shows with arm’s length and I try not to get too into them. It reminds me when everyone was really into Serial, the podcast. I did like it, but I also felt like I am excited every week when a new episode comes out about someone’s murder. I don’t know how I write the square with that. I like shows that I think are a little more fiction and then I don’t feel so gross and dirty watching dark shows like that.

Tim: Yeah, it does feel a little exploitative. I’m on the same page with you there. I was just going to say, I have gotten into a lot of old shows. I’m not a huge TV watcher, but now I’ve had a little more time. That’s what my wife and I have been doing. I’m finding all these shows that I should have found like half a decade ago but I’m just now getting into like Parks and Rec and Community. All these good things. I have nobody to talk to them about because it’s so far past their prime but I am enjoying them.

Andrew: I’m a big Parks and Rec fan, but I’ve also never watched Community. I’ve never gotten into that one. It might be something I watch. We’ll see.

Tim: Yeah, it’s old, but, well, I know. Yeah, it’s fine. It’s worth watching. Okay. Next question. If you could have any artist in history with you in quarantine, who would it be and why?

Andrew: Well, first off, I got to ask a question. I think it’s rare that I think pragmatically first, but the language barrier would not be an issue. Correct? Right? We have translators or universal whatever? Okay.

Tim: Going back to other shows I’ve watched, just like The Good Place where you can speak whatever language, but then whoever you’re talking to hears it in their own language.

Andrew: Got it. Got it.

Tim: We’ll go with those ground rules.

Andrew: I think selfishly I’d probably just go with two of my favorite artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Robert Rauschenberg. But then I think on a deeper level, I actually think maybe inviting some influential female artists to see how things have changed, not changed, the impact of their work on later generations. Maybe it’s just because I’m doing a collage unit online now with my eighth graders, but Hannah Höch I think would be really interesting because to me she’s like the grandmother of all collage photo montage type artist. I think she’d be really cool. Eva Hesse would be really great but then I also thought like man, Hieronymus Bosch is so weird. I would love to sit down with him and just see his brain explode at like what the future has become like 500 some years later. That would be pretty awesome.

Tim: Yes. I love those ideas. Bosch is a really, really good one. I don’t know. He was so out there. I think it would be fantastic. I was going back and forth between do I want an all-time great? What would it be like to quarantine with DaVinci? Could I even keep up in conversations with them? I don’t know if I could. I feel like Frida Kahlo would be amazing for me and just like so many incredible stories, such an awesome personality, great art. I just feel like she’s just crazy enough to make quarantine really entertaining. I think that would probably be my choice.

Andrew: I worry about that though. There’s an adage that says you should never meet your heroes, right? Because if you hold someone in high esteem they’re going to probably let you down. Maybe you want to pick someone who’s interesting but that you don’t absolutely love.

Tim: That’s something to think about. That’s something to consider. All right. I may need to put some more thought in there. Cool. All right. We need to turn a little more serious now. We have a few education questions here because as much as we try and entertain ourselves, I know people are still very worried about school things. We’re going to go that direction here. This question comes in and says, my school is not giving grades the rest of the year. Do you agree with this or no? I find it really difficult to motivate my kids if I can’t grade anything. What do you think about that?

Andrew: Well, I would definitely say for this school closure, I think that’s absolutely the right way to go because I think what happens if you do grade, you’re getting into all sorts of issues with equity and some kids not having maybe the wifi infrastructure or technological devices they need. I’ve always thought since this started, if a school is going to grade, what we’re really grading is students’ access to means and privilege and equity. I’m a big fan of not doing it. I think what this whole thing has taught me is to have some grace. I’ve always had plenty of grace with my students and look the other way when they tell me to F off. Okay, you’re having a bad day. I also think we need to give our schools and our administrators some grace, our teachers some grace, ourselves grace as parents.

This is unprecedented territory. If your kids are not motivated because of grades, who cares? If they don’t turn stuff in, who cares? There are plenty of kids out there with way bigger concerns right now than grades in school. I would even back up a little bit and say, if grades are really the thing that you think are motivating kids, I think we’re doing grading wrong, but that’s actually something that’s systemic to education pre-shutdown. Right? That’s like a whole other thing. On the radical fringe, I’ve been thinking about this. I’m like, okay, I know a lot of people on Twitter. My usage of Twitter has gone way up since all this has happened. I see a lot of people thinking about what are we going to take away from this?

What are schools and what is education going to learn from this? I keep thinking like, man, not only do I not care that I’m not grading students right now, I don’t ever want to grade students again. Or if I do, I want to give them a one-point rubric that says like, here’s the standard, you’ve met it or you haven’t, yes or no, pass or fail. Because, especially in art, man, I just think there’s so much funky murkiness that goes on with grading. I still do it too. This gets an A. What the heck is an A? It’s like, man, if something dies because of all of this education re-imagining, traditional grading is the first one that I want to offer up as something that does not need to look the same as it did before we started closing down. I’m totally fine with it. If kids aren’t going to do the artwork, they’re not going to do the artwork. There’s probably a lot of reasons for it.

I think to be fair, every district probably also has their own infrastructure or rationale for why they’re doing something. Maybe schools have to grade so that they don’t have to make up time. There’s this whole like, is it voluntary or is it required? If it’s required, it’s got to be graded. Schools are doing some different things to get right with their state legislatures, and I get that.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. I actually want to circle back to that grading thing. That will be a good segue into our next question, but just a couple of things I want to say, like every district is going to be different. Like you said, some have their reasons for requiring grades, some have the reasons for not requiring them, but it does all come back to equity. I think another point that you touched on that I was going to say something about is that this is unprecedented. We have not lived through a global pandemic before and so we need to keep things in perspective. Honestly, your only job right now is to stay healthy, and anything else on top of that is gravy, it’s extra benefits. If you can provide a good outlet for your kids to make art, that’s awesome. Keep doing that.

Doesn’t matter if you’re grading it or not. If you’re providing them that opportunity, that’s the best thing that we can do as teachers right now. If they don’t respond to that opportunity or they can’t respond to that opportunity, you know what, there are a million reasons why and we can’t hold that against kids. We can’t feel bad about ourselves as teachers. Just priorities have shifted right now and we need to be aware of that and we need to move forward with grace and understanding.

Andrew: Yeah, well said.

Tim: All right. Next question has a lot to do with what you just talked about. Do you think the future of education is going to be altered by this pandemic? Do you think we’ll be doing more online learning in the future or what other things do you see happening with education as we move forward? Very big question, but any ideas or any thoughts on that?

Andrew: Well, I mean, I would hope that education has changed. I hope that we don’t miss out on the opportunity to look at what we’ve done and are doing and the structure we have and not think about it differently. I do want to think about it differently. I’m not a huge fan of online learning. I think there’s a big thing missing, and maybe we can talk about that a little bit later, what’s missing. I think practically school districts, if I were calling the shots somewhere, I’d be like, all right, we’re going to get through this year but we have to have really solid plans in place next year for if and when this thing comes back. Maybe we don’t start when we think we’re going to start or maybe we start and then three months later and it’s winter and this nasty thing flares up again and we got to go back to this again, let’s not get caught with our pants down like I think a lot of school districts did where they didn’t really necessarily…

Andrew: I don’t blame them, I don’t think many schools saw this coming but I do think there are schools out there that have been proactive over the last few years to think about what does a different approach to learning look like whether it’s a pandemic or it’s just what’s best for kids. Whether it’s flexible scheduling, starting at noon and going to eight. I know there’s some schools that are experimenting with that or online or a hybrid. Me personally, I’m all for having a really robust online presence and having stuff there but I think there’s some stuff in the face to face interaction with students that just can’t be replaced. I think about it like this, there is not a lack of resources out there on the internet for kids to look at. Right?

If I just said, hey, I want you to do a collage project, go look up some collage artists and videos and stuff. There’s a million, it’s not about content, it’s about that connection with another passionate adult who shares their passion for learning to get those kids excited and inspired. I’m finding it difficult to replicate that, which I do in my classroom online, getting kids excited about stuff. Right?

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. You know, what we are excited about transfers to our kids and it’s so difficult to replicate that in an online setting. I just see like with my own kids here at home, anytime that they have either a short Zoom meeting just with their teacher or with some classmates, or even if they just spent some time talking with friends, the energy that they have after that, the way that their mood and their spirits are lifted, you see how valuable those connections are. Obviously, with the lack of them right now that that idea is going to be enhanced. At the same time, it goes back to your point about there are things that we cannot recreate online. Yeah, there are a million drawing tutorials. Yes, there’s so many different great instructions on how to do different things. But if you don’t have that personal connection, if you’re not sharing that excitement and even things like the interactions you have with kids that validate what they’re doing, what they’re thinking, what they’re creating, there’s no way to replicate those online.

We’ll continue to do the best we can. It makes it difficult when everything is taking place online. I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what the future is going to look like obviously, but I hope that it makes everybody realize the value of what we have in our classrooms and what we can do as teachers when we are working face to face with our kids.

Andrew: There was someone I follow on Twitter and I wish I could remember who wrote this because I’d give him credit for it. I keep thinking about it. I think coming out of this whole thing, it’s only going to serve to entrench people in their previously held beliefs. We as teachers have families and people in our community who don’t necessarily see the value in public education and want to defund public education. This is going to add fuel to their fire. Right. It’s also going to add fuel to the fire in those parents and wonderful people who support what we’re doing. I think once any sense of normalcy comes back, we need to have a discussion about how in this country we tend to get further politically divided on things and not come together. Because I already know there’s going to be this belief out there because I’ve seen it starting that, well, my kids did so much better with this or why can’t we always do this?

I just think there’s that critical thing missing, which is that connection. It’s funny, there’s an Edutopia article out there that said, I think it’s, what would schools look like if we put relationship and connection at the forefront? Right. That’s how I’ve been running my classroom for a long time. I think that the downfall of that is that when you don’t have the means to build those connections and relationships, your classroom looks kind of anemic. What I’m doing right now for my classes, dude, it’s pretty anemic because I don’t know what my students have. I don’t know where they’re at as far as how they’re feeling. I’ve couched it as this and I’ve said it since we started offering up resource, I’m like, hey, do this or don’t do it. I’m excited about the power that creativity has to break the boredom of being isolated. If you need some boredom busters, check this out. Right. But it’s not the same as having that face to face.

Tim: Yep. I 100% agree with all of that. All right, next question. Should we feel obligated to do professional development right now?

Andrew: Well, I think I’m allergic to that word, obligated. I’m not obligated to do anything. I don’t like that word. I mean, come on, especially in this time. If there’s a district or some outer external force telling you you have to do this, I wouldn’t listen to that voice. I know for most teachers, that voice is probably internal. Like, hey, you have all this time off, let’s make the most of it. I’m telling you, man, if what you need to do is eat a gallon of ice cream in bed watching Netflix so that you can wake up the next morning and go about your business, then you do that. Right? For me personally, if I got to go play two to three hours of video games a day and that hasn’t been the case since I was in college, I’m going to do that because I don’t know, it just feels comfortable right now.

Now if you’re the type of person where PD and getting some classes and getting a degree works for you, that’s fine, but obligated, no. Here’s what drove me crazy early on when this all first started like middle of March, everybody was in such a rush to stay productive and stay busy. I think, and I know I’m guilty of this. I’ve had a disease for a long time, which is like the disease of being busy. If I’m busy, I’m productive and if I’m busy, I’m being a good person. I think this whole thing has slapped some people in the face and been like, you need to slow down and also like busy-ness is maybe not great for you. Everyone was like, I’m going to post a video that no one wanted. No one wanted to see your video of you reading a story time book at 10 o’clock at night. Those videos already exist on YouTube by people who do it better than you do, so what are you doing?

I get it. It’s that need to want to stay productive and stay busy, but my attitude was like, everybody just needs to rewind, pause, be mindful. We don’t need to flood the world with more stuff that we don’t need. This is just a time to chill out and relax honestly.

Tim: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think the obligation is not there for you. I will say, if you have some time you’re looking for something to do, go for it. If you are energized by thinking about what the future holds or energized by thinking about what you can do better as a teacher, then by all means go for it. But no, just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you need to be working harder, keeping busier like you said. If it sounds really appealing to you, then yeah man, go for it. If you hesitate at all, then no. Now is not the time for it. We’re on the same page there.

Andrew: That goes back to just giving yourself grace. If we come back to school in September and you see a coworker who like me is going to pack on about 10 or 15 pounds, you’re not going to walk up to them and be like, yo Patty, you like really packed on the pounds. Right? We’re not mean people, but we do that stuff to ourselves all the time. We have these voices that says, I should do more. I should be more productive. I should use this time. How dare you eat those cookies late at night? It’s like, man, this is uncharted territory, whatever. Just be nice to yourself, be nice to everyone and we’ll get through those.

Tim: Yep. For sure. All right. Then one final question for you. Has this situation made you realize anything about your own teaching and will you be changing anything when you go back to school in the fall?

Andrew: I don’t know that it made me realize anything I hadn’t thought of before, but maybe just to the degree. It’s not just about my teaching, although it definitely rings true for my teaching, but it’s for everyone. Teaching and the interaction of teaching and learning has never been about just the mere dissemination of content. The content is out there on the world, right? It’s out there on the web. That teaching is about connections and relationships and providing a safe harbor to a lot of kids. I think for people who maybe haven’t realized that, I think that’s a light bulb moment that a lot of people are going to have. That the content that you give to kids, they can go find at lots of different places. That’s not what makes your classroom special. What makes your classrooms special is you and what you bring to kids every day and your relationship with them and how you talk to them.

It makes me think about though, if this does happen again, like I said, whether we start late or have to miss the months in the middle, man, I want to be ready. I don’t necessarily want to wait for a decree on high from my district that says this is what we’re going to do. I’m working on having all of my content able to be disseminated from me online so that I can maybe focus more on making all of that stuff fun and quirky so that the kids enjoy watching these little five minute videos instead of just saying like, well, I don’t really need to do that or want to do that. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m trying to capture some of that relationship and connection via the online platform even though I think that’s pretty difficult to do.

Tim: Yeah, I think it’s worthwhile to just think about how you can be more flexible with your lesson. How can what you teach work for both online learning and for in-person learning? How do you need to adapt that? If you have time to just think about your curriculum, lessons you have taught, lessons you maybe want to teach, and just think how they work in different situations. That can be huge. Like you said, if this forces your hand to do more flipped videos or find other ways to make connections with your kids, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think just taking some time to reflect on everything that you do, what works, what can continue to work I think can go a long way here. All right. Well Andrew, thank you so much for joining me. It’s been awesome talking to you. I appreciate thinking about big picture things with you and have that conversation. It’s been fun and I appreciate you joining me.

Andrew: Yeah, my pleasure man. Anytime. Thanks a lot. Appreciate it.

Tim: All right, thank you to Andrew. I thought it was a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope it gave you a few things to think about. Then really quickly before we go, I need to tell you about the Art Ed Now Conference. As you know, we’ve been doing those webinars for the last six weeks and those come to an end, but we are now turning our attention to the Art Ed Now Conference, which will be coming up at the end of July. We’ll be honest, nobody knows what education is going to look like as we head back to school in the fall, but I can tell you that no matter the situation, we will be ready for you at Art Ed Now with all sorts of new ideas, new resources, awesome presentations, awesome presenters, and a great community of art teachers.

No matter what kind of a situation we’re facing, we will be ready for it. Art Ed Now will be ready for it. We started planning already. We have a few presenters that are ready to go. You can check out all the details and get registered if you’re interested at All right, that will do it for us this week. Please 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, we will be back next week with Jen Russell to talk about how we can make connections with our students from distance. It should be a good one, and we will talk to you then.

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.