Visual Arts Flourish in Bedford Schools Despite Pandemic

April 8, 2021

The first in a five-part series about the visual arts in Bedford’s schools

Peace Cranes created by the Bedford High School Origami group initiated by Catherine Chen early in the school year – Click to see full sized image

The Covid-19 pandemic has curtailed and compromised public education for more than 13 months.

But Sean Hagan, visual arts program director for the Bedford schools, won’t allow the virus to curtail or compromise his enthusiasm.

“There are fantastic things happening at each school, and our teachers are moving mountains finding ways to build community and keep students engaged through art during this difficult time,” he declared.

“The kids are really creating some wonderful work this year,” Hagan asserted. “When everything else in the world is terrible and you are just looking for something that’s good, students consistently surprise us with the quality and the value of the work they are doing.”

Teachers and students are planning the annual end-of-the-year K-12 art show during the first week in June. For the second year in a row, the exhibition will be online.

“Day-to-day is really the mantra,” Hagan said. “We are trying to keep kids engaged. That’s what all teachers are doing everywhere in the world. It’s incredibly hard to do, especially when they’re at home. It’s a Sisyphean task. You feel like you’re making some progress, and then…”

The teachers, he said, can’t execute the full spectrum of the curriculum “due to limitations we have with materials.”

For example, at the high school, ceramics historically has been the most popular art class. “We were able to purchase plasticene clay, a non-drying oil-based clay, for all of our students to use. We really would rather use traditional clay that we can fire in a kiln. But so many students are remote, and we want it to be equitable.”

He added, “They are creating beautiful work. But they want to be back in school.” (BHS is scheduled to return to five-day-a-week in-person school on April 26.)

“We are not materials-heavy this year. We can’t have all remote students with a set of acrylic paints,” the department head said. “We did get remote ‘art bags’ together. Depending on the course, “there might be ceramics and plasticine or a stylus or a sketchbook and pencils.”

When the limitations began, Hagan said, many teachers had to start “almost from scratch.” The primary challenge: “How are we going to prepare to teach two sets of kids at the same time, both at home and in front of you? That has been one of the biggest challenges for everybody who is trying to do that balancing act between remote and in-person – trying to get it to seem like one class, like a community.”

Davis and Lane School students are in art class weekly for 40 or 45 minutes. Students at John Glenn Middle School take art classes once or twice weekly, depending on individual schedules. “In a normal year, there are more exploratories, such as a STEAM-based class.” The “A” in STEAM is design-based art, going with science, technology, engineering, and math.

At Bedford High School, classes are “all exploratories,” Hagan said—traditional arts, digital arts, digital and darkroom photography, ceramics. “They need to take at least one visual arts course to fulfill the graduation requirement,” he said. “A lot of students come back for more.”

“Schools have done a wonderful job—an amazing job—with community-building,” he stated. “The teachers are just doing a miraculous job keeping those connections going with their students. That has been one of the greatest things for me to see. The excitement is still there, even when the kids are home, to see each other’s artwork.”

Hagan, who came to Bedford from the Lexington public schools, cited as “unsung heroes” the school principals and assistant principals for “creating and amending drafts of schedules, creating the different cohorts.”

Hagan acknowledges that first-year Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad was a high school art teacher before moving on to educational management. “I think that’s fantastic,” Hagan said, adding that he is looking forward to a more normal environment next school year where they can get to know each other better.

“This year has been sort of a whirlwind – no one has been able to catch their breath,” Hagan said. “I really haven’t had a chance to sit down and talk about art with him. But we have talked about what we like to do. He loves to sculpt and likes ceramics.  I’m just getting into sculpture; I’m more of a painter and digital artist.”

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763

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