Creativity & COVID: A Lesson from Art Educators on the Importance of Creativity in a Crisis

At National Geographic Education, we see the work of educators encompassing a wide range of skills: flexibility, thoughtfulness, application of the most up-to-date content and pedagogy, relationship building, and so much more. A common thread across subjects and content, in every teaching setting—and now especially in the move to digital or hybrid learning—is the importance of creativity in your work designing learning experiences. You are each adapting to the unknown, forging ahead using new technologies, and making constant adjustments to keep your students feeling challenged, productive, and supported. 

On National Creativity Day, we’re taking notes from the experts in our community—art educators!—about what creativity means to them, the creative pursuits they’ve been doing with their students from afar, how art and creativity can be made accessible and equitable, and why we should all think through a creative lens to ensure learning is engaging, relevant, and meaningful. Check out their stories below to see their ideas, lessons and learnings during this time.

Are you finding ways to engage your students in creative pursuits? Join the conversation using the hashtags #TeacherStrong and #NationalCreativityDay!

Tim Needles
Tim is a high school art and media teacher at Smithtown High School East in Long Island, NY. Connect with him on Twitter: @TimNeedles

As an artist and art teacher, one of the things you often hear is, “I’m not creative.” Part of my role is helping people learn that everyone can be creative in every discipline. The pandemic has changed the world and educators have had to adjust and find ways to connect and teach creatively in a short period of time. We’ve all had to approach what we do differently, experiment, and find innovative solutions, which means we’ve all been learning a great deal. In many ways, it’s been an opportunity to understand our students better and find ways to best engage them in learning. For me, I have found working with the students as collaborators, and offering choice and flexibility, to be one of the best practices in my remote learning because it leads to more engagement and authentic connection.

I focused my attention entirely on creative challenges and mindfulness when we began working virtually because creativity is equitable and the limitations in materials actually aids students in thinking out of the box. One of my favorite examples was taking on the Getty Museum Challenge, which required us to recreate a famous work of art with three items from our home. 

Tim recreates a Vincent van Gogh painting as part of the Getty Museum Challenge. Photo by Tim Needles

We also worked with the school to redesign our school’s athletic logo for school uniforms, built fantasy homes out of cardboard, constructed color wheels with non-art materials, collaborated to create a series of short animations using free tools which were linked together into a larger film, and used visual tools to tell a short story they cared about on any topic (real or imagined) followed by a review of the tools they chose to use.

I tell my students that everyday is an opportunity to be creative and to consider different points of view and approaches to what they learn and create. It’s that type of thinking that widens our perspectives and offers solutions to our most challenging problems.

Kate Mochon
Kate is a high school art teacher at Noble High School in North Berwick, ME. Connect with her on Twitter: @KateMochon

Creativity has always been central to who I am; creative play and practice are built into every day. I find that creativity can be deployed anywhere using any materials. It pushes the limitations of constraints, builds confidence and better instincts, and promotes self reflection and awareness. Most importantly, creative practices build the ability to cope with the unknown and flex our adaptive muscles. Through this work, I have found that my students have developed a strong backbone of grit, innovation, inventiveness, and a sense of personal narrative, which has been critically important during this time.

Kate’s students study the history and anatomy of public service announcements and designed their own posters based on a theme of their choice. Photo courtesy Kate Mochon.

Like many of you, in-person school ended abruptly, which didn’t give a lot of time to plan. Many of my students don’t have art supplies at home, but I luckily was able to secure a donation from Continuum Arts Collective, a local non-profit, to purchase art supplies and have them shipped directly to homes. Knowing the stress many families and students were facing, our district was encouraged to promote flexible, asynchronous learning with a high regard for the emotional wellbeing of our community members. I took time to think up some fun, engaging activities that my students could do even with minimal technology and resources, including:

  • Using recycled materials to innovate and make a collage, sculpture, or stop motion animation (Stop Motion Studio is free!)
  • Doing a scavenger hunt to find, observe, and draw or sculpt objects at home
  • Dressing up a family member (or a pet!) to stage a famous piece of artwork
  • Exploring collections from famous art museums around the world (check out The British Museum, MOMA Learning, National Portrait Gallery Learning Resources, Art 21 Education)
  • Studying the history and anatomy of Public Service Announcements and creating their own posters from a theme of their choosing
  • Taking part in a Bob Ross look-alike contest for a paint-along Zoom meeting
  • Using Zoom and Google Classroom to gather virtually to critique artwork

As the weeks wear on, I know my students are engaged and enjoying these challenges, but each of them is also struggling with isolation, feeling unmotivated, and not knowing how to connect. I have been heartened by the creative projects they have embarked upon on their own: painting rocks, embroidery, crafting graduation gifts for peers. I see them using art as a form of therapy to connect and build community. I remind my students that creativity can happen anywhere, and that the important part is the process, not the product. They are actively building skills that keep them resilient now, and for the future.

As for me, inspired by the National Geographic Mapping as a Visualization and Communication Tool course I recently completed, I created an art-infused story map of my COVID-19 journey, “When the World Gets Smaller”. It has been an opportunity for me to reflect on my own journey, recognize all the change we have gone through, and tell my own story to the world.

Johanna Marshall
Johanna is an elementary art teacher at Chesterbrook Academy Elementary School in Philadelphia, PA. Connect with her on Twitter: @johannateaches

For me, I cultivate creativity with an open-minded learning environment, projects tailored to the needs and interests of my students, and with a curriculum where everyone has the chance to add their own ideas. Art is a conversation that everyone can participate in, and art can be made from absolutely anything. Artists (and scientists, inventors, and so on) throughout history have done some of their best, most out-of-the-box thinking when given limitations that challenged them to work with what they had available, because they had to use their imagination to address a challenge or communicate an idea. Being creative is about finding joy in looking at interesting things and telling good stories.

For my younger students, I thought up some lower tech options for engagement. I asked them to curate the toys into mini museum collections. We turned cereal boxes into Calder-inspired animal sculptures, and made board games from a piece of paper and any fun items they had nearby. Agamographs—folded artwork that looks different from each angle—have been a huge hit, with students challenging themselves to create complicated optical illusions.

Johanna’s younger students create board games from paper and fun items around the house like this 2nd grade submission. Photo courtesy Johanna Marshall

With older students, we looked at work from artists who also had to stay home, like the self-portraits of Frida Kahlo, and I asked them to photograph themselves with their favorite things. They’ve loved taking virtual trips to museums around the world and sketching as though they were in the galleries, and learned to draw still lifes from assemblages made at home. As a way to give back, we made Robert Indiana-inspired window posters with messages of positivity and hope for our communities.

The students have followed the lessons and prompts—but they have gone way beyond my expectations. I’ve gotten work that clearly took the student hours to make, and videos with students giving tutorials and talking about their processes. One of my favorites was from a student who found a conference presentation of mine online and then made her own, explaining how to do her art project! They see themselves as participants in the arts in a new, serious way, and are finding amazing ways to share out their ideas. Art is about finding your own voice and what you like. I remind my students: don’t aim for perfection or identical outcomes; just enjoy the process of creating.

Kathy Trost
Kathy is a K-12 art teacher at Columbus County Schools in NC. Connect with her on Twitter: @KathyTrost1

As an art educator, my work is creative in its nature. My goal is to bring students out of the classroom—literally or figuratively—and build empathy, create a sense of adventure, and open up avenues of opportunity. Creativity creates an environment of relaxation, fun, and healing.

During the past few weeks we have embarked on many new, creative adventures while using materials found around my students’ home environments. Surprisingly, some students who otherwise were shy and may not normally participate in a classroom setting now consistently participate online, especially with their parents. Some of our favorite activities have been: 

We have even had some unexpected new relationships form from this work, including teachers in other subject areas who have been interested in the virtual field trips as well as donations of peacock feathers from the Aloha Safari Zoo after we did a peacock painting contest. In the future I hope there are opportunities for my students to meet these animals and create deeper empathic relationships. In the meantime, I invite you to create with us from art materials found everywhere!

Jennifer Kaste
Jennifer is a 5th grade teacher at Gowen Science Academy at Yuma, AZ. Connect with her on Twitter: @JennyKaste

Being creative in designing lessons and engaging young kids is what I really love about teaching. This realization has broadened my definition of creativity personally, and I began to think of it as essential for my well-being. That is when I decided to make sure I was providing and celebrating creativity in my students every single day.

Creativity is essential now because we are facing unprecedented challenges. Creativity is about innovative thinking, turning things in different directions, and using things in new ways. This is how leaders and scientists will help us get through this time, and it is how we can better prepare for our future to make sure it never happens again.

I’ve created a lot of opportunities for creativity in recent weeks. I’ve asked kids to create their own photo essay with self-created drawings, create and describe their own cyborg, and draw their own ideas of book characters. I’ve given a creative challenge each week, including things like forced perspective photos, laundry art, personified pictures, book faces, and cardboard structures. I find that the creative project is always the first thing turned in each week! Kids are even asking me to reveal them early and have submitted multiple examples for each challenge. One student said, “I love doing this so much!” and another wrote to me, “I’m obsessed with this. Thank you for making it an assignment!”

One of Jennifer’s students display laundry art. Photo courtesy Jennifer Kaste

My favorite project so far was creating a Rube Goldberg machine for students to demonstrate their learning about energy. Watching their videos of them using their machines filled me with so much joy because I saw them be genuinely excited about their work! It makes me realize that creativity needs a broader definition: if you are creating options, you are also providing opportunity for creativity. It doesn’t necessarily need to be in the form of a visual or a drawing. Putting creativity into your lesson is a mindset of letting go of some control. Experiment with adding only the necessary parameters to an assignment and keep the rest open. Creativity is not an extra; it is an essential part of learning. My philosophy is that the opportunity to be creative in learning is not a privilege, it is every kid’s right!

Starloe M. Galletta
Starloe is a middle school theater teacher at Electa Arcotte Lee Magnet Middle School at Bradenton, FL.

As a theater teacher I try to see the world through creative expression, motivated by my innate curiosity to be responsive to my students’ needs and educational pursuits. I aim to propel my students towards a path of life-long learning and set them on a quest for knowledge, while using their creativity to actively explore their surroundings.

There is no better time than during a crisis to foster an appreciation of the arts and the creative ways humans express their emotions and feelings. As an educator, I see my role as a facilitator, and foster my students’ development, open expression, and freedom through creation. Being supportive of my students’ needs is very important to me. It has been very difficult to transport the magic we create together on a theater stage to an online platform, where it can be harder to work in groups, role play, and act out our feelings in a constructive and purposeful way.

My most successful assignment thus far has been one where students find an object at home and spend two minutes talking about why it is important to them. They were asked to create a video or written piece describing three objects with an option to discuss three current events in their lives that were affecting them. While many students used this as an opportunity to describe their lives in the present, others were able to creatively speak about the past in positive and meaningful ways. Without having an audience in front of them and the fact they interact with their phones as if they were people, the submissions were so much richer than those acted out on stage. Another fun assignment was writing a rap or poem with teacher-selected words from an excerpt of Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage” monologue in As You Like It.

I think the impact that creativity has had on my students does not come from my class or any other class, but rather, it has come from their sudden adaptation to the changes in their lives. My students are being forced to be the most creative and adaptive they have ever been and seeing this gives me hope. It may be hard for educators and caregivers to motivate students to be creative or think creatively as they adapt to the new normal. But children are resilient. It is vitally important that we listen to their ideas and creative suggestions on how to fix problems. If they believe their innate curiosity and creativity is being appreciated, they will produce more.

Feature image courtesy of Kathy Trost

One thought on “Creativity & COVID: A Lesson from Art Educators on the Importance of Creativity in a Crisis

  1. These are all wonderful ideas to engage students during this pandemic period. I think there is definitely a creative element teachers can pry open in students in times of change or hardship where students may feel different kinds of fluctuating emotions with an uncertain situation like we are all currently facing. Bringing out their creative talents is a critical element to grounding their states of mind to regular school and feeling part of a community. Every area of art creation should be explored with all students including visual, music, or performance. They may discover new things about themselves during these times that they otherwise never realized. We can certainly bring a little positivity by having them create their own ideas and manifest them into the real world for an audience. That will help re-connect them back into their communities and perhaps learn something new about themselves.

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