Teens Connect through RISD

Collage made out of recycling by Mara Newkirk, a Providence public school student

As Rhode Island public school students prepare to return to the classroom, many of them are looking back with pride on the work they created this summer in virtual Continuing Education classes at RISD. Thanks to an initiative funded by the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), 145 middle and high school students from communities most at risk for experiencing summer learning loss took advantage of free online art and design classes offered by RISD as part of the Summer Academy for Interactive Learning (SAIL).

“The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shifted all aspects of everyday life for many teenagers, who are pivotal members of the RISD Continuing Education community,” says CE’s John Murphy. “They experienced an abrupt change when school went virtual in the spring and then found out that summer camps and other learning opportunities were canceled.”

Piece made of dyed fallen leaves, by Margo Boccuni
Margo Boccuni-Godfrey dyed fallen leaves to create this stellar piece for Gail Dodge’s Assemblage of Ideas

The funding opportunity came along just as CE faculty members were transforming their two- and four-week classes—focused on everything from animation, documentary photography and sculpture to coding, augmented reality and video game design—into online experiences. Pivoting so quickly was a challenge, but as Director of Program Planning & Development Mariah Doren explains, it also provided some unexpected opportunities.

“In moving online, we became a more global community, so the RIDE-funded students were able to connect... with budding artists from around the world.”

Mariah Doren, Continuing Ed

“The most important opportunity,” she notes, “was expanding the range of students who participate in our classes. And in moving online, we became a more global community, so the RIDE-funded students were able to connect not only with other Rhode Island creatives but with budding artists from around the world.”

CE instructor and RISD alumna Rene Payne 83 GD was delighted to work with youth logging in from as far away as Kenya, Spain and Indonesia. “Large Zoom forums can be tough for kids,” she says, “so we broke the class into smaller groups that worked together on shared themes, which proved to be very effective.”

Still from a video game by Luke Taylor

Steampunk goggles by Kareem Kader
Above, still from a video game by Classical High School senior Luke Taylor; below, Steampunk goggles by Kareem Kader.

Payne’s popular course, Art for Social Justice, was more relevant than ever this summer, and she worked with local artist/activists—including recent RISD alumna Nafis White 15 SC/MFA 18 PR—to create a visceral sense of on-the-ground activism for students. “We videotaped interviews with Nafis and LGBTQ community leader Matthew Garza to add depth and a range of perspectives for students who weren’t physically here,” she explains. At the end of the class, multiple RISD faculty members and social justice leaders provided personal and meaningful critiques via Zoom.

“In live classes, you only hear a few voices, but online everyone came up with brilliant questions for each other and was very helpful and encouraging.”

Longtime CE instructor Jason LeClair

Longtime CE instructor Jason LeClair also tapped into young people’s passion for social justice with his class Art During Crisis and was pleasantly surprised by how engaged his students were in online critiques. “In live classes, you only hear a few voices, but online everyone came up with brilliant questions for each other and was very helpful and encouraging,” he says. And although he spent a lot more time creating tutorial videos for this summer’s students than he normally would in a live setting, the online forum allowed him to help participants explore more possibilities in terms of mediums and techniques.

Animation by Isabelle Sharp

Cup illustration by Margo Boccuni Godfrey
Above, Isabelle Sharp’s inspired animation made in Comics & Computer Color; below, illustration by Margo Boccuni-Godfrey for Words & Pictures.

RIDE recently announced that it received a new grant for $10 million to fund online classes for the coming school year as part of the Advanced Course Network, an initiative intended to “create opportunities for Rhode Island students to envision, pursue and realize individualized graduation pathways outside of the traditional school day.” Doren is hoping that part of that money will fund more online Continuing Ed classes in art and design.

“In any case,” she adds, “It’s clear that online teaching and learning are here to stay, and I'm really proud of our team for stepping up so quickly to make the transition.”

Simone Solondz

September 9, 2020

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