Inspired Ideas
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Inspired Ideas

Amplifying Student Voice Through Collaborative Performances in the Pandemic

By Carey Crows, Music Teacher, Mary Tapia, Arts Educator, and Alison Keller, Instructional Innovation Specialist

In typical times, the K-2 students at Lyon Elementary School in Glenview, IL would have two in-person performances throughout the school year. These performances are developed with and by the students using an inquiry process to distill themes and messages the students care about, and to find ways to use arts skills to share the messages with the community. The goal of the performances is for children to have a joyful shared experience, and to understand that the arts are a powerful tool for communicating a message. However, starting in the spring of 2020, and for the majority of the 2020–2021 school year, students learned remotely on Zoom, which presented new challenges, and also new opportunities to think creatively.

For our in-person performances, we ask students big questions to determine a theme. Then, songs are selected by students and staff that fit the theme of the show. In art, students develop ideas to create the set. Students also choreograph dances and direct drama ideas to help communicate their message. We often also elicit the help of a PTA-funded artist-in-residence to help students share their message and learn about how artists work. Each grade level then performs their songs, dances, and drama tableaus for an audience of their classmates and families. With the majority of the school year being on Zoom, many of these parts and pieces needed to be reimagined.

It goes without saying that Zoom is not the ideal to teach fine arts classes. It is not possible to sing simultaneously with others, making the only feasible option to sing alone with your microphone on mute. Difficulties also arose in art class, drama, and physical education — how can students maximize their artistic and physical potential with a minimal amount of space, materials, and tools at their disposal? Through all of these challenges, the Fine Arts Team at Lyon had high expectations not only for students but for ourselves. Creating a student-led performance is one of the most joyous times for students at Lyon, and we did not want them to miss the opportunity. However, with countless challenges ahead of us, we focused on what we could do. We saw this as an opportunity to creatively solve the problem: How can we curate a performance opportunity for students that will be meaningful to them, and also safe for our community?

Show Up

The context: Our first attempt at a new performance format was in the spring of 2020 with our second graders. We had already begun preparing for our annual Second Grade Show when schools closed in March.

The questions: Why do we play? Why do we have fun? Why do we have friends? How can we depend on each other?

The theme: We depend on each other by showing up. We show up for each other by bringing joy, giving company, playing, and counting on each other.

The format: With inspiration from artist Oliver Herring’s TASK Party, we helped them create a virtual “Task Party.”

The process: First, students were invited to submit task ideas (anything they could imagine that might help someone play, be joyful, know they can count on their friends, and/or feel like they have company). A few examples include: climb a tree and shout supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, make nachos for someone, play an instrument in your yard, say the alphabet backwards, and make sidewalk chalk art to make someone smile.

Once the TASK ideas were collected, we sent each student a postcard with one of the submitted TASKs to perform and an additional task to color the other side of the card. Each individual postcard was part of a larger composite image (that was generated with student input about how to visually represent SHOW UP). Each student sent back a digital image of their completed card, which became our “set”.

They also each submitted video documentation of themselves completing their task edited by our artists-in-residence and video experts at Big Foot Media.

The product: All of this was shared via an interactive website.
While under a Stay at Home order and with eLearning as our classroom, we all learned how absolutely necessary “showing up” really is!

This Lyon Life

The context: In the 2020–2021 school year, in the context of remote and hybrid learning, our district theme was centered around Monique Gray Smith’s book, You Hold Me Up. We used this theme as the kickoff to our big questions for students.

The questions: What does it mean to hold others up? How can we hold others up? How can others hold you up?

The theme: We hold each other up when we accept others, when we join together and help, and when we make it better.

The format: Three original “visual podcasts” inspired by This American Life. Each episode (1. Accept Others 2. Join Together and Help 3. Make it Better) consisted of original music by kindergarten students, songs performed by all three grade levels, layered digital artwork, original stories written and told by second graders, and photography of students with movement poses created in P.E.

The process: For the music pieces of the podcast, students brainstormed songs they know that fit our three themes. They were given background tracks of these songs with detailed instructions to record themselves singing along to the track with headphones on. From there, their individual voices were mixed together to make them sound like one class singing together.

For the visual art and movement elements, images were constructed from students’ digital artwork and photography, similar to the layering of voices to make one audio track. Kindergarten artists created mood and emotion with colors, shapes, and textures. First and second-grade artists created digital imagery that communicated the words to their songs and stories. In drama and P.E., students collaborated with someone at home to take an expressive photo of themself, which were collaged into the digital artworks. This process maintained the collaborative feeling students were used to experiencing in our live shows.

The product: Students and their families gathered with Lyon staff on Zoom to view the three episodes of This Lyon Life.

Give More Space

The context: After a year of enduring the pandemic with no closure in sight, our school community was feeling the weight of the state of the world at large. For our spring show, we wanted to honor second graders’ emotions and experiences while navigating the difficulties and silver linings experienced throughout this time.

The questions: What was the most difficult thing about this year? What has been the most positive or comforting thing? What about this year has been surprising or unusual? What would be helpful for other people to know about living in a pandemic? What is the most important thing you learned this year?

The theme: Comfort, hope, and strength.

The format: We created a multi-media outdoor exhibit called Give More Space: our year for comfort, hope, and strength, inspired by installation artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s work “Border Tuner”.

The process: Students individually recorded themselves singing songs that communicated the message of each of the four themes (which were then edited in a similar process as in This Lyon Life). In drama, they recorded themselves speaking the poems that were formed from their responses to our questions. In P.E. and art, they created action poses that were then photographed, and incorporated into movement self-portraits, inspired by the photography of Gabriele Gamberti and Jan Von Hollenben.

Through our Artist-in-Residence program, fiber artist Kristine Brandel taught students how to finger knit. After students created strands of each color, she assisted them in weaving their strands on a highly visible outdoor fence on the perimeter of the school. Their colorful backdrop contrasted with the white strands that spelled “We Hold Each Other Up.”

The product: For the multimedia exhibit, students and their families were invited to come take a walk around the outside perimeter of the school. Student self-portraits were projected from classroom windows, and the songs that communicated their messages were played on a loop from the outdoor school speakers. When students left the event, they were given an original coloring book, consisting of student drawings, with the words of their original poems from Give More Space. Their artwork, poems, and music were compiled by staff into four videos on a website.

We Bloom

The context: The fall of 2021 brought us all back into our classrooms masked and socially distanced. We began the year with a district-wide focus on belonging. Before winter break, we hosted Belonging Week, with a hallway art installation, interactive activities about belonging, and a whole school assembly where we formed the words “we belong” and sang our school anthem as a community for the first time in over two years. When we returned from winter break, we built from that heart-filling experience. Without knowing what the spring would bring in terms of our ability to gather, sing, and share with an audience, we began our inquiry to plan for their spring show.

The questions: What does it mean to belong? What does belonging look like and feel like? Why does belonging matter to you? Why might belonging matter to others?

The theme: In response to why it matters to feel like we belong, one wise Lyon student shared, “because we bloom,” and thus, our theme was born! With “We Bloom” as our overarching theme, we had three sub-themes, whose words came from student responses to our questions:

Kindergarten: “To grow at a happy pace.”
First Grade: “You are every good thing.”
Second Grade: “We open our happiness and joy at each other.”

The format: Because of our space limitations with social distancing, we curated two in-school shows with only a student audience, with half of our student population performing, and the other half as audience members.

The process: In drama, students created tableaus that were inspired by poems (which were generated by student responses to our questions). In P.E., students created original dances to the songs in the show. In art, based on a student design for how to best communicate “we bloom”, the gigantic blooming flowers were hand-painted and created by students atop stamp-printed rainbows. The flowers were connected to a pulley system that allowed them to “grow,” and students were amazed when they “bloomed” in the performance! Students selected songs that reflected the themes of the show and created original movements. In one song, second graders wrote their own verses.

Through our Artist-in-Residence program, our second graders worked with documentary filmmaker Lucia Agajanian to create a documentary that tells the story of the show. It includes behind-the-scenes footage of the process, clips from the performance, and student interviews and reactions before and after.

The product: Students performed in an in-school performance, which was live-streamed for parents. Later, students and their families gathered on Zoom to watch We Bloom: The Documentary.

Despite the complexities and difficulties presented by the pandemic, the Fine Arts Team, in collaboration with Lyon School students, reimagined what performances could look like in new formats. We learned to scaffold the process for the students to let their ideas and messages lead the way in order to stay away from cute and lean into impactful.

If we honor the immense capacity of children and give them an outlet and some guidance, they will surprise, delight, and inspire us.

The virtual performances relied on a great deal of trust — in the collaborative process, in our students and their families, in each other as teammates, and in our own ability to find inspiration and creativity during one of the most difficult times in our educational careers. By showing up, holding each other up, and allowing space to create and collaborate, we felt our sense of belonging and were able to “bloom” together as a community.

Carey Crows is the K-2 General Music teacher at Lyon School in Glenview, Illinois. She spends her days playing, singing, moving, and creating with students to facilitate joy and engagement in music making. She believes that everyone, no matter how tall or small, has the ability to be a musician, and works to instill that belief in her students’ hearts and minds. Outside of teaching, she sings professionally in choirs throughout Chicagoland. She tweets at @CareyCrows.

Mary Tapia has been an arts educator in Glenview, IL for over 30 years. She is constantly striving to allow for more student agency and engagement in the art room. Teaching Artistic Behaviors (TAB) pedagogy is the foundation of the full choice studio environment in the Lyon School art room. Her Interdisciplinary Arts background has driven her to collaborate with artists young and old to create art installations and performances that bring their messages to life and tell their stories. You can find her on Twitter @MaryKTapia.

Alison Keller works with kids and teachers to implement innovative practices, most often related to inquiry, student choice, technology integration, learning spaces and play. This includes supporting the Lyon School Fine Arts Team in creating inquiry based, student driven performances. She has special interests in professional learning and the impact and design of learning environments. Additionally, she is an adjunct instructor for Michigan State’s Master’s in Educational Technology Program (MAET).

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