D97 art department finds new ways to connect


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By Michelle Dybal

Arts Editor

While there are many questions regarding schools' decisions on how to open and function this August, one thing is clear. District 97's Elementary Art Department is working toward bringing the best possible experience to balance the days of the 3,900 students they serve in Oak Park. 

"As an art teacher, I see firsthand what a powerful tool art can be for kids to express themselves," said Jenny Raia, who is going into her 17th year teaching art at Longfellow School and is also the District 97 Elementary Art Department Chair.

"For many, creating art is an emotional outlet that enables them to navigate complicated and sometimes difficult feelings. Just getting lost in the creative process can be meditative. This is such a confusing, trying time in our world. Art helps us build connections with one another and communicate our identity and experiences."

To prepare for the fall, Raia said many of the district's art teachers have been training and teaching this summer "to improve our remote learning, teaching practice." A D97 Professional Learning Committee is also providing specific training to Elementary Specialists - the art, music and PE teachers.

In a change from the Spring, "students will have a more consistent daily schedule and expectations," said Raia. This includes live,  virtual face-to-face time for K-5 students for Specials (Art, Music and PE) each week and independent work time. For art, new material and projects will be introduced through Zoom in synchronous learning time. Then, during independent, or asynchronous, learning time, students work on the projects on their own. Raia said art teachers "will be available to work with students on an as-needed basis, to answer questions, provide feedback and to check in" during this time.

Since students are creating visual art projects at home, what supplies may be available is kept in mind. During virtual learning in the spring, Raia said they always included a pencil and paper option for their lessons. The planning continues for fall. 

"We've been working as a team to figure out the best way to distribute special supplies to students and to make sure all of our kids have access," Raia said. "There's actually so much we can do with basic school supply materials like pencil, paper, scissors, crayons and markers to teach foundational art skills. It's really been an exciting, creative problem-solving exercise for all of the art teachers."

The weekly lessons and dedicated website (https://sites.google.com/op97.org/d97elementaryart/home) continue what was created in the spring by the art department with projects for each grade level. The teachers provide essential art concepts, art-making tutorials and videos, and feature a diverse selection of artists and styles. A Student Gallery on the site makes up for work not being displayed on the walls and the showcases at the schools. 

Although they may not be meeting in person in classrooms first trimester, the act of learning, creating and benefitting from experiencing art will still be present.  

"Of course, and not unimportantly, artmaking can be a vehicle for great joy," Raia said. "We get to see some excellent smiles and happy faces on our Art Zooms."

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