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Reimagining an arts education online

Artist Talk on Zoom with Shireen

Building on from the Learning Packs we sent to our students early on in the lockdown, our art teachers started filming video lessons that were bolstered by Q&A with the students in the Whatsapp classroom. This proved to be a great, practical platform - students could view lessons whenever they got access to a smartphone (usually a relative's and not their own), had time to engage with their teacher's ideas and prompts as well as to explore their own interpretation of the topic. Our teachers designed a host of activities: a haldi (turmeric) tie-dye exercise, arranging fruits and vegetables into portraits as mannerist art, making DIY paints at home with kitchen ingredients, and of course finding a creative outlet to formulate and express their thoughts on being stuck at home, being scared of getting COVID, missing school and suffering from the unprecedented urban flooding due to the recent Karachi rains. 80 of our students also enjoyed a talk with Amsterdam-based artist and museologist Shireen Ikramullah, learning the elements of art through a wonderful curation of some of the most stunning art from all over the world.

Being away from school, from their friends and, for many, from the only safe space they can freely enjoy, was a uniquely stressful time for our students, as it has been for children across the world during school closures. On top of this, the fear of catching coronavirus and bearing the economic impact of the shutdowns it necessitated, all added to the mental distress of our schoolchildren. To address this, we decided to begin lay counseling for our students, in order to support their mental wellbeing during this strange and difficult time. Realising that art teachers have always had a special connection with students and that for many students the art room is their safe space where they can truly express themselves, we decided to train our art teachers as lay counselors. After a 10-hour training spread out over 2 days in 2 groups, our teachers began doing phone check ins with students grade by grade. They ask them about their routine, chat about their time at home, give them some self care tips as well as some art activities if they showed an interest in art. Once a week, each group of lay counselors meets me and the School Counselor to discuss and review their calls, get support where they are struggling and refer any serious cases to the school management.

We hope you enjoy reading the following accounts of two of our art teachers about teaching art and counseling during school closure, in their own words:

"As a new art teacher, distance teaching has been nothing short of an amazing experience. I was connected to the students through online art classes during this difficult time. They showed a lot of interest in the art activities my colleagues and I suggested and were always asking us for the next art activity. This was a way for them to feel that they were not far from us, that they were connected to their teachers, to school. It gave them hope that schools would be back again and they would restart the things they like again. Some students who did not show much interest in art earlier showed a lot of interest now because they were a bit more relaxed, their minds were more free to explore art and so they were able to enjoy it.

About lay counseling - when you heal others, you heal yourself. I felt I learned something after every check-in call. Children deal with adversity so well, they have "mazay mazay kay" - very interesting and innovative - ideas when we asked how they made use of this time and adapted to the restrictions. I also learned that everyone's life is very different and if there is a difficult situation like this pandemic, everyone has their own unique way of bringing themselves out of it or living through it. Sometimes I would get so upset thinking how a student would survive or manage a particularly difficult situation but the child would find a way, an activity, a hobby, and get through - in fact teaching their teachers how to get through challenges.

After talking to all the students I can confidently say that there is an artist somewhere in every child who shows the creativity of their mind in a new way every day, not necessarily on canvas or through an artwork, but I think managing life well is also creativity, which I learned from my students. The biggest thing I felt was that these children have a lot of hope, they have this solid faith that they will get through this and good times are coming. So, lay counseling was a great lexperience and I learned so much.

There were some situations where children were going through a really critical time, where the problems they were facing seemed too difficult to overcome through counseling or talking to them. We shared these with our group of lay counselors, with the School Counselor who was guiding us and forwarded them to the School Principal/Project Manager and they tried their best to support the children and their families. Our overall goal was - because this situation was so weird - to keep them involved in activities, to keep them connected to us and to boost their spirits.

One student, Fareeba, told me she wasn't that interested in art before. She was keeping herself busy in housework during the lockdown until one day she was cleaning a cupboard and found some paints and art supplies which led her to create some art and slowly develop an interest in art. Now whenever she gets some free time, specially given that schools are closed, she makes some art. She's linked to me on Whatsapp and I give her some tips, where I'm usually just gently guiding her to consider a new perspective. Her artwork has really progressed during this time. I really like the art she has been making now. This was one of my favourite stories of change that I saw within a student during the lockdown. One of the most recent pictures of her art that Fareeba shared with me on Whatsapp is of a dark skyline, saying she loves shadows and this image just came to her mind - a sign that art her become a tool for expression for her."

- Fizza, Art teacher at Khatoon-e-Pakistan Government Girls School

"Distance learning was quite a learning experience for me. Lots went well but there were also a lot of challenges. I think distance learning has its limitations - it is not easy, specially for younger children who are not able to pick things quickly. When they're in front of us it's a different dynamic, they understand things from our facial and vocal expressions, from our demonstrated examples on the spot. In the classroom - or art studio - it was easy to communicate with them, to introduce a concept both orally and visually by drawing on the board and adding more details as needed. Now we had to deliver perfectly edited videos which would capture our entire lesson and also proactively answer any questions we anticipate they might have. In the (physical) classroom of course we could easily answer any questions that would come up but now that they were not in front of us we would have to craft our video in a way that would ensure there would not be any need for further questions or explanations as children did not have easy phone access for live back and forth). While this helped me get better at making and editing videos, it also made me realise the limitations of distance or online learning. In art your expressions matter so much and this must have been so challenging for our students to understand but we all did our best.

Overall, it went quite well, our students really enjoyed their lessons and stayed engaged and it also gave them a chance to divert their mind from the gloom of the disease and the lockdown. They invested their time in art and shared a lot of their artwork with us. I was so happy to learn that my young students realised that their teachers wanted to work hard with them, that they valued the explanations we had sent and the video lessons we made for them. Since May, they participated in several art competitions - a covid19 awareness art competition, another on the topic of what they miss about their school by Aahung, another by Colgate. It was a time-consuming process to guide the students remotely, select their work, scan and label it but it was so rewarding to see their wonderful work during the lockdown. Their awards felt like our achievements."

- Minhaj, Art Teacher at SMB Fatima Jinnah Government Girls School

* Please note that wherever in this report we have used the full names of a participant or facilitator, we have their consent to do so.

COVID19 art

Turmeric tie dye - a kitchen art activity

Artist Talk on Zoom with Shireen

"Labelling my lockdown emotions"

Student artwork on urban flooding in Karachi

Mannerist interpretation of food as portraits

Lay Counseling training for our art teachers


Sports promote physical fitness, alertness and better concentration, collaboration, self-esteem, and perseverance in children. Each of our schools features weekly sports classes for all students.
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