Visual Arts Begin Returning to Normal at Bedford High School

May 1, 2021


Landscape by Christina Kolak

That prolonged sign of relief you may have heard emanates from Bedford High School, where the return to learning in person (with a fully remote component) last week has restored much of what 14 months ago was considered “normal.”

That is particularly true when examining the visual arts curriculum.

Larry Sheinfeld is one of the district’s senior teachers, in his 27th year at BHS. His classes for students in grades 9-12 include digital and darkroom photography, art I, art explorations, and senior project.

Katie Sussman’s background is in painting and drawing, and she teaches two-dimensional art, as well as ceramics, at BHS. She also is a co-teacher in a collaborative class with music and English called Creativity and Culture, addressing the art history portion. Her studio classes also are mixed, 9-12.

Also on the BHS art faculty are Eileen Wagner, teaching remotely this year, and Sean Hagan, the K-12 department chair.
“I think the hardest part of this year has been building community,” Sussman said, with “some kids in the room and some out of the room.” Normally, she explained, “Kids talk when they work, and see each other’s work.” Now that more students are returning to the art room, “it feels better.”

Sheinfeld reported that “we ordered some things and never gotten them in because of supply chain issues, like watercolor sets and colored pencils. It has been a great challenge to make do with what we’ve got and trying to be equitable.”

He related that when school unexpectedly went remote a year ago, he identified Plasticine as an option. Plasticine is oil-based clay that never hardens, he said, and thus is remoldable. “I like working with it and suggested it as a material we could give the kids.”

“There are supplies for the 2-D art classes that we sent home. And Plasticine is not as good but it’s something,” Sussman commented. “Often over Zoom the kids can follow along and do stuff. Sometimes there are one-on-one check-ins. But there’s no way around it – it’s not the same as having them in the room and getting messy and having the year they expected to have.’’

Sheinfeld acknowledged that “my biggest challenge, which I have not successfully addressed, is when students remotely don’t want to engage, they don’t engage. They might not join a breakout room. You can always walk over in a classroom – at least you know they hear you. There are some kids who I barely know and barely get a sense of their personality.”

He added that “there are kids who are able to engage pretty successfully. They can see what I’m showing and they can show their work.”

“Many kids are in situations where they don’t want the camera on,” he said. “I feel like I can’t press them. Some kids think the easiest thing is to not turn on the camera – in some classes almost all kids don’t have cameras on.”

Sheinfeld said he tried to “figure out ways they are going to be able to work independently and share what they are creating so we can give effective feedback.” He aimed to “put kids in a position to do some creative work and what would be most engaging, and give kids an opportunity to do things meaningful and express emotions about what’s going on.”

“The kids have said they miss clay and they miss materials. We can’t send that home,” said Sussman. “They are really grateful to have any time to be creative right now. Even if they are making less, they really value that time to work with materials and decompress, because it has been a stressful year for them.”

She added, “Ceramics is the one the kids see as a stress reliever the most. It’s tactile, relaxing, and they don’t have to be great at drawing.”

“I knew it wasn’t going to be a year where kids had as much output with physical work,” she acknowledged. “But art rooms are a place where kids can feel safe, rooms where they can be happy and engaged for an hour even if they are not producing as much.

“A lot of kids over the year eat lunch in here, spend time during our remote conferencing. Kids like to be in the art rooms. It may not be the most stellar year for everybody. If kids are happy enough to come in that means something is going good.”

Sussman related a helpful practice. “Every Wednesday we do a circle time-we all come up with a topic and talk about it. Community building brings them closer together. They called it ‘chill circle –chircle’ – at this point totally remote. For a half hour I think the kids need that – they need some time for community building and talking and not just stressful learning over a screen.”

Sheinfeld began his career as a humanities teacher. He was the first art teacher hired by the legendary department chair Tony Pilla.

“Early in the year I gave my classes a masked portrait project. I left it very wide open how they wanted to interpret it – literal or metaphoric. It really did seem to resonate with students. They came up with a lot of creative ideas.”

He said he “challenged” his photography students, “while being safe, to create a portion where you collaborate with your subject. Is this something you feel does express an aspect of your personality?” The photos were accompanied by a written statement; Sheinfeld said “it was a bright spot just seeing the work they are doing.”

Sussman, who grew up in western Massachusetts, is in her eighth year at BHS. “This was my first job out of grad school,” she noted. “Four full-time art teachers for under 900 kids is pretty amazing. I get a good cross-section of the school; I always feel I’ve met most of the kids here by the time the class graduates. I’ve had sets of siblings. I’ve gotten to know entire families. I love teaching in a tight-knit community.”

Teachers and students are looking forward to the annual K-12 art exhibition in early June, which for the second year will be virtual. “Some of the seniors have been planning this out since ninth grade,” Sussman said. “That art show is their big thing.”

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

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