Photo: EdExploreSRQ logo

ExploreSRQ’s New Realities — Part I: Silver Linings

Posted on March 11, 2021 by Wendy Katz, consultant EdExploreSRQ
"Never let a good crisis go to waste." Winston Churchill

It has been almost a year since the pandemic changed our world in ways we could not predict. We wondered and worried how our local organizations would survive and then thrive, learning new ways of working and delivering their services. The Sarasota County School District EdExploreSRQ Leadership Team began coping with their new reality in April 2020, understanding that on-site, in-person Explorations would likely no longer be viable for the 2020-2021 school year. Once they informed the Providers that all Explorations would be virtual, a small group of organizations who continually demonstrate leadership for EdExploreSRQ jumped out as the first to create and post their explorations, offering their support and ideas to others.

This initial small group of Providers' collective ability to creatively adapt to COVID-19 challenges by exploring new opportunities was remarkable. At the outset, virtual learning was always considered an intended platform for EdExploreSRQ, but for years, technology and logistical barriers prevented this learning modality from gaining traction until the pandemic forced teachers and providers to "dive in," realizing digital learning would need to become routine practice.

A silver lining is a sign of hope in an otherwise negative situation. Beginning in 2021, during conversations I had with some of the early adopters, unanticipated silver linings began to emerge. At least 18 EdExploreSRQ Providers began to innovate behind the scenes by pivoting and creating over 80 vibrant digital learning experiences. To date, over 40,000 students have participated in virtual tours, live streaming activities, or on-demand live or pre-recorded performances and videos. Kelli Maldonado, Education and Community Engagement Director at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, commented that they have already exceeded their annual goal of reaching 30,000 students. As the year progresses, the virtual learning format is gaining in popularity and the attention it merits.

For us, it was not just an English Language Arts lesson but an opportunity to have an experience that most of our students may not have access to outside of school. They learned how to communicate (both through speaking and listening) and how to follow multi-step directions.

These are programs we would normally see, but I thought we wouldn't this year. Some students may never be able to see a show if they don't go through school, so they would have totally missed the performing arts experience without this show. (Charlotte's Web)

Providers who initially resisted virtual learning, obviously preferring in-person, live Explorations, have realized that long-term, offering virtual options have definite benefits. A number of these new virtual Explorations are free, which has strong appeal, especially to schools serving low socioeconomic student/family populations. Teachers love the flexibility of the on-demand feature and the easy access that the digital options offer. Some Providers have been diligent about creating digital learning packages encapsulated with lesson plans, pre-activities, and post activities that are attractive because they are user-friendly and respectful of teachers' time constraints.

I am so proud of Van Wezel and its AMAZING Education Department. They are ALWAYS bending and going with the flow to create incredible experiences for the kids. I really appreciate your inspiration in bringing the arts into a very difficult concurrent teaching classroom situation. The kids NEED the arts so much! Thank you!

The virtual lessons are still required to be aligned to curriculum standards, and teachers have gained an even greater understanding of how performances or works of art serve as primary sources for students to ponder, question, and write about to demonstrate higher-level thinking skills.

Now that Explorations are available digitally, some of our local Providers, such as Embracing Our Differences (EOD) and The Ringling Museum, have noticed an increase in participation from private, public, and home schools across the country. Teachers in at least 22 states have connected to EdExploreSRQ, selecting relevant Explorations to enrich student learning through tours with live docents, writing prompts, and imaginative art activities.

I love all the educational materials on your website. The materials are creative, well thought out, and well designed. My boys are participating in a circus-themed play in March, and since they have never been to the circus, I wanted to plan a field trip to visit the museum before the play. After visiting your site, I was so inspired by the activities that we are now doing a two-week unit study on the circus before our visit.

Ben Jewell-Plocher, Education Director from Embracing Our Differences (EOD), shared the huge task of planning and implementing the Exhibit tours virtually, not only for teachers but also for figuring out how to train the high school docents and providing the technology to orchestrate the tours digitally.

Katie Nickel, Ringling Art Museum School and Teacher Program Coordinator, offered to conduct the docent training, illustrating how providers leveraged their colleagues' talents and skills to strengthen the quality of their learning experiences. Ben also explained how they were diligent in finding innovative ways to give students greater agency by allowing them to select the order of exhibit pieces to explore.

With concern to EOD Exhibit virtual tours, we are finding that teachers are leaning more toward the On-Demand option (i.e., pre-recorded, 30 min. webisode tours that teachers can do with their students at their leisure). I think this is possibly in response to scheduling concerns (i.e., teachers not having the mental bandwidth to take on the scheduling on their end right now).

Brad Tanner, Senior Schools Program Coordinator at Mote Marine Laboratory, collaborated with Cheri Dame, Sarasota County Schools Elementary Curriculum Specialist, to offer Fruitville Elementary families a virtual experiential learning evening highlighting the life cycles of the sea.

The Circus Arts Conservatory had to pivot quickly last spring, realizing they had to find a way to continue training the high school performers. They were fortunate to hire Miguel Fargas of Cirque du Soleil. Not only did he begin offering on-line workouts, but because of his worldwide connections, he was able to contract renowned circus artists to inspire students with his fantastic workshops. Karen Bell, Outreach Education Manager, is convinced this opportunity evolved only because of the situation created by COVID.

Whether an Exploration is offered virtually/remotely or in person, the goal is the same: ensure all students are engaged in high-quality experiential learning. Our extraordinary providers must be commended for their perseverance and diligence to pivot to unfamiliar virtual platforms. Their intentional collaboration and collegial support for each other's learning and shared aspirations remind us that organizations can thrive even in the face of adversity!

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.