Longtime art teacher Dan Poplawski was recently awarded the NASTARS award from NASTECH for his seamless integration of technology in education in his school district. From the front lines of distance learning, he shares the virtual global journey that he has taken his students on since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Listen: Transforming my Art Room into a Digital World Tour

As an art teacher for over 25 years, I have seen a lot of changes in education—I actually grew up as a student in the same district where I currently teach. I remember getting an old Apple IIC when they came out. When I was lucky enough to get a job in the district in 2000, the idea of computers in every classroom and teachers using email was the forefront of education. Now, I run my class online during the school day, streaming videos, online written assignments, online assessments, digital photography, 3D graphic design. My class has become fully technologically immersed.

On the evening of March 9th, I was having a conversation with my colleagues throughout the district. Suddenly, we received an email and phone call saying that we have a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the district. All after-school functions were to be cancelled immediately. None of us in that room even knew much about it except that it was a contagious disease that had originated overseas. That day, March 9th, was the last time any of us stepped foot in the building again.

Most teachers were already home at that time. All of our teaching materials and belongings were in the sealed buildings. The next few days were in constant flux. By the end of that week, we had a virtual superintendent's conference day to collectively work out how to teach online with what we have at home. Some of us had never even used Google classroom before. Others like myself were already completely digital. It was quite a learning curve for many teachers.

For me, I go right to all of the ed talk videos that I have seen on how education has to change. The old structure of education had been needing that overhaul for many years. But here it is: the swing is literally here, changing overnight with no transition. This is it. The moment of shift...25 years in the waiting, since I started teaching.

Art needed to be completely reimagined in this new environment. What materials do students even have at home? They didn’t prepare to do art from home, and I couldn’t ask them to buy anything. There were other concerns that came to mind: Is everyone in their families okay? Do they have food? Toilet paper?

Then I realized that what my students needed was joy. They needed to put their minds somewhere else just for a little bit. I started to look online for artwork that makes them feel good. Then I asked them to recreate it...not by traditional materials, but by using any materials they have, including themselves. Students began looking at famous art and posing for photos. I had a boy in my class pose as Mona Lisa for an art assignment. Another boy and his sister posed as the American Gothic painting. Then I had families joining in posing as royal family portraits. The joy of art spread beyond just the students, but to their families as well.

Next, I brought my classes on virtual visits of museums around the world, from local museums here in New York to Paris and beyond. The art that my students recreated started to evolve from posed photos to staged objects. Some students even went virtual with their recreations in Minecraft or 3D sculpting in SculptGL. Their desire to create and evolve echoed what we were dealing with in education: a shift was occurring. 

I feel blessed as an educator to be at the forefront of this dynamic shift of education in the world.

In my classroom, even the traditional arts ideals of pen and paper have moved toward the digital. From years ago when we first had computers introduced into the classroom, we adapted the tools to assist in students’ learning. Technology developed us to the point where Chromebooks were replacing binders, textbooks, and notebooks. In my world of art, the computers became our sketch pads, cameras, paint, canvas, even our clay. We have developed our rooms to use the technology to enhance education. During these hard times, education hasn’t changed—just the rooms where we teach.

The transition back to our classrooms will happen, and it will feel strange. But what we learn from the technology we are utilizing will transform our ideas of how education is delivered forever, for the better.