What are We Not Making Space for in Our Online Teaching?
A lot is going on right now around the edges of our predominantly online teaching – we all know it! In the middle of giving an online workshop on Saturday for the 2020 CETA Symposium, I noticed a text message from my neighbour, who is in isolation with her family having driven to Stansted Airport for COVID-19 test yesterday. She was texting to ask if I can go and buy them some milk and eggs.
Our days are fractured and sprinkled with events, small and large, that impact us. Normally, well, in what used to be normal, we found unstructured moments in the day where we would check in with each other, process things, and connect. It could be in the staffroom, a quick laugh while preparing lessons. Or while getting a coffee in the staff kitchenette. The time we spent as students chatting as we took our seats and pulling out the things we needed from our bag. Or the quick catch-up in between sessions and presentations at a conference.
These were precious moments. And now with online teaching and working from home, we are missing them.
Online Teaching and The Interstice: The Spaces in Between
As an artist and as a teaching artist, I’m really interested in the spaces between things, I’m drawn to the white space, the silences and the pauses, what is happening that may not be taking place on centre stage. I've mentioned this before: in gardening, the edges of things - the borders of plants, where one species interacts with another are the dynamic places to observe (See "Where the Growth Is" an interview with Jim Scrivener). It’s where quite important things happen. In these current circumstances, we need to become fine-tuned to these valuable in-between spaces as facilitators of growth and learning.
Why Task-Based Learning is Valuable in Online Teaching
I am a big fan of task-based and project-based learning (see other articles) because I’ve seen the multi-layered value of doing things together. As I’ve often said, it’s the old way of learning. Imagine this, a group of people sitting around together weaving, or sewing, or building, or working alongside each other. You can see clearly what is happening: there is the activity itself, the learning by doing, the guides, and the experts alongside the apprentices. But look more closely. What is also happening around the edges of that activity? Can you see and hear the shared lives, the talk, the storytelling, the singing, and the laughter? That is the interstice I want to highlight – those rich experiences of being together that we are missing right now.
The Lockdown Drawing Studio
During lockdown, I did some online teaching – specifically drawing sessions with kids and parents. I called it the “Lockdown Drawing Studio”. It was a way of bringing us together and often it was simply about being together, learning to draw something together, and sharing our progress.
Building on this, I want to share with you a couple of some drawing-based ideas we can adapt and use in online sessions to facilitate connection with our students and course attendees.
A lot of people say, “Emma I can’t draw”. I was always that kid who drew. It’s like my other language. But it hasn’t come easy. Drawing is just like learning a language. Anyone can do it. It just depends on how determined you are. Also, drawing can have many purposes beyond some beautiful end-product.
The process of artmaking is a conversation, both with the work itself and the people around you who see it developing. And that sense of the making and creating in a community is an aspect I really enjoy. Doing things like making and drawing alongside one another can be a way of creating a comfortable setting. This is because our hands are engaged. This helps give a focus and it tends to calm people right down. I find that slowly it creates a comfortable setting for conversations to begin. To follow is an activity to try.
An Activity to Make Space for Checking-In
First a Little About Drawing
Drawing is essentially like a text. It’s made up of single marks, multiple marks, all the way up to a full complex text. To demonstrate this, I’ll include a couple of links to drawings from google arts and culture. Open the link and zoom right in to see the detail:
1: Sun Zhi, 1368 to 1644 Ming Dynasty, “Calling on a Friend in the Snow”
2: Julie Mehretu, contemporary, “Entropia Construction”
So, we’ve looked at the different ways that marks can be made and employed almost abstractly to tell a story. Anyone can make these kinds of marks. Here is a drawing.
It’s a drawing of an experience of a plane landing. Did you guess that? Can you see it now?
I get nervous on flights and I find drawing helps me focus on something and get me through. You need to know that at that moment when this drawing was made there was a lot of tension moving through my arm as you can see, I think you can almost see my heart rate! That’s what I mean when I say that drawing is a process, it’s very visceral, physical, and cathartic and can reflect much more than just interpreting what your eyes see.
Now It’s Your Turn:
Think about the kinds of marks you’ve seen. Use the cartoon or comic grid template.
The challenge here is to use marks in an abstract way. What marks can become symbols of stress or tiredness or boredom? What about the euphoria you felt as your kids finally went back to school after six months, or fear and anxiety as you wondered if it was a good idea.
Now take time to create a sketch of the last few months for you. Think about the kinds of marks you can make that express your feelings or what was happening.
Finally, if you want to do an activity like this, give the participants time to think, time to draw and time to show and tell. Put them into smaller groups or breakout rooms to chat while they do it.
Being With: Finding Presence and Connection in Online Teaching
So, a good reason to put people in breakout rooms or small groups while they do the activity is to give participants a chance to be with each other and do something alongside each other. Being with refers to the importance of paying attention and being present for one another. Doing things like making and drawing alongside one another can be a way of creating a comfortable setting. Our hands are engaged, we’re right there “in the room”, and slowly we can create that connection through working on an activity alongside each other. Just like the old days.