Life without large gatherings has given the dining room table at the McDonnell home in Ridgefield a new purpose.
These days, the antique wooden table — handed down from a great-grandparent — is the only spot large enough for 14-year-old Ridgefield High School freshman Daniel McDonnell to sculpt clay during his ceramics class at home. Remote learning continues to be the default for most schools in the state as COVID-19 cases rise.
“We had to improvise a bit. I think we found a good spot,” said Daniel’s mother, Jen McDonnell. “You need a lot of elbow room because you’re throwing clay. We didn’t want it to be on a food-cooking surface. We’re not having company over for big meals at the moment, so it was available.”
The school sent Daniel home with a kit to complete his ceramics course, including a 25-pound box of clay. It’s about the “size of a small cooler you might take to the beach,” McDonnell said.
Although the course is an elective, students are required to complete two credits in fine arts, which can be acquired through visual arts or performing arts courses. Daniel was drawn to ceramics when he and his mother toured the high school while he was a middle-schooler.
“We went into the art area in the brand-new building. The room was massive and had a great big pottery wheel,” McDonnell said. “The sad part is, he didn’t get to play with it or learn it. Can you imagine that in the middle of the living room on the carpet?”
The McDonnells are one of many families across the nation having to improvise during remote learning — on top of other challenges:
“I was unfortunately one of the people who lost their job during this whole mess,” McDonnell said, adding that she was laid off from IBM in June after 22 years. “I’m still looking for work.”
Adapting art courses to remote learning has posed some unique challenges due to their hands-on nature.
“We’re not always able to see what the students are working on during Zoom, depending on the camera angle,” said Union Ridge Elementary School art teacher Heather Peeler. “Sometimes we can give immediate feedback. But we’ve had Zooms with more than 60 kids. When you have that many, it’s really hard to give feedback versus a normal day in a classroom.”
Peeler, 42, a mother of two, starts the day with about 20 reminders set on her phone. In a unique position this year, she’s the art teacher of her own daughter, Natalee, 7.
“Whether it’s meetings or time to prep lunch, a Zoom is starting or ending … It’s been crazy, but I think we’re getting into a much better place,” Peeler said. “I have her in class on Wednesday; it depends on her mood if she wants to do morning Zoom or afternoon Zoom.”
Peeler works part time teaching 16 one-hour block classes over four days. Thirty minutes is spent on Zoom; students spend the other 30 minutes working on their art projects. “If students need watercolors or Sharpies from us, we purchase extra so we can provide those to students who weren’t able to get them on their own. We’re not able to use the full set of things, like circle tracers and stencils and things that kids love,” Peeler said. “It’s a matter of them going to their kitchen finding a round lid and using that.”
To allow students more flexibility, all the elementary school art teachers worked together to record each lesson so students can access it on their own, Peeler said.
“It takes so much more time. I mean, regular classroom takes time, but recording and spending time commenting — it’s all valuable — but it takes a lot more time,” she said.
While her children work downstairs, Peeler teaches from her art studio upstairs. This will likely be the setup for the Peeler family for the foreseeable future. While cases continue to rise in the county, the district recently delayed in-person “hybrid” learning for kindergartners (hybrid meaning some work remotely, others in class).
But Peeler is not interested in any version of hybrid learning for her children while the pandemic continues.
“(Natalee) has asthma that is so severe, she was intubated in kindergarten,” Peeler said. “She’s high risk. Both are very social so they miss being around their friends. But even when hybrid (learning) starts, we will stay remote.”
A visual learner
On the flip side, Daniel hopes to return to school as soon as possible.
“I’m more of a visual learner so being there and watching (pottery) made helps a lot more than being at home,” he said. “I feel like it’s harder for me to understand it, especially through a tiny screen.”
He watches lessons on his school-issued Chromebook, taught by Ridgefield High School ceramics and advanced art teacher Tamara Henderson-Hoodenpyl, 50. Henderson-Hoodenpyl teaches five high school classes, each with around 28 students. Currently, she’s teaching from an RV; she and her husband recently sold their home and are looking for land to build on.
“In the beginning, parents were not ready for 25 pounds of clay to come home and be plopped down in their kitchen,” said Henderson-Hoodenpyl, who has worked at the district for seven years. “But you know, I think overall in our district kids are really appreciative that we’re trying to keep an intact art class.”
“It’s always nice to let out creativity, especially like this,” Daniel said. “A lot of activities are limited, so being able to do something in your house is really nice.”
Henderson-Hoodenpyl said that she has received good feedback to her classes, but she knows it’s still a struggle.
“I think just everyone’s really edgy right now. Everybody’s stressed out. I try to take that with a grain of salt and keep moving forward,” she said. “Typically art classrooms are super engaging. But … it’s really hard to gauge the engagement while we’re sitting in a Zoom meeting. Some kids can’t turn their cameras on; they don’t have great Wi-Fi access.”
Over the summer, Henderson-Hoodenpyl created kits for her students, which included clay, paint, tool sets, towels, sketchbook and other necessary items. Since the students don’t have immediate access anymore to a kiln, they now drop off their greenware at the school during allotted times.
“I just had a drop-off yesterday and I’m amazed. Like utterly amazed at the quality that I’m getting,” Henderson-Hoodenpyl said. “Never in a million years did I think it would be this quality away from a classroom that wasn’t being monitored all the time. I think we’re finding that kids maybe are using this as a down time and time to center and de-stress. They’re really producing amazing work.”
Most recently, Daniel sculpted an ocean-themed coil pot. It’s not a pristine process, and there is no at-home substitute for a school janitor.
“Did you get the table cleaned?” Jen McDonnell asked her son.
“Yes,” Daniel replied in a slightly ruffled tone. “I did get the table cleaned.”