19 May 2021

Kerry Fleet: Making Teaching Art Virtually Look Like an Easy Feat

Kerry Fleet is a creative and caring art teacher from southeast Michigan. She has over 10 years of experience teaching students of all ages, from kindergarten through to 12th-grade. This school year she’s been exclusively teaching using her school’s virtual academy, so she definitely knows a thing or two about remote teaching! Kerry and I recently chatted about how she got started in education, her experience remote teaching, what she’s done to help her students mentally this year, and more!

The challenges of teaching art remotely

Last year, as it became clear that COVID-19 would necessitate the closure of schools across the US for a large period of time, Kerry’s school gave her the option to teach exclusively remotely for the entire school year through their virtual academy. Having never been one to back down from a challenge, she jumped at the chance. “I really enjoy learning about technology, so this has been an exciting new opportunity for me”, she tells me.

However, there’s no doubt that the switch from teaching in-person to exclusively teaching remotely wasn’t an easy task. “It’s definitely come with its challenges”, Kerry says. When asked about what has been the most troublesome aspect of the experience, she tells me that it’s the challenge of “thinking of different projects to do with the students, knowing that not all kids have access to lots of art supplies”. Kerry can’t just ask her students to go and grab their oil pastels or acrylic paints because the vast majority of students simply don’t have access to them at home. Equity in learning is a constant topic of discussion, so Kerry is constantly needing to think of assignments that all her students can complete, regardless of the supplies they have available to them at home.

To get around this problem, Kerry has needed to get very inventive with the types of assignments she sets her students and the supplies and materials they would need to complete them. Back in April, to celebrate Earth Day, Kerry and her virtual students made robots out of recyclable items. With her younger students, Kerry often gets them to get outdoors and create a lot of nature-based art using flowers, sticks, leaves, and anything else they can find. “Instead of skilled-based assignments, this year I’ve really focused on encouraging students to be creative and get engaged, and to come and create art together as a group”, Kerry says, explaining what has been her overarching teaching ethos this year.

Some of the artwork Kerry’s students made for Earth Day
A selection of their nature-based artwork

Kerry has also taught the students how to create art using basic supplies that they can find in their homes. Back in February, she and her students brewed coffee and hot chocolate and painted using those instead of with conventional paint.

Paintings made using coffee and hot chocolate

Making remote learning easier on students

“This year, my goal is to get kids as connected as possible because I know that it’s been really tough on them emotionally. I think it’s so important that they still get that social aspect of school”, Kerry says talking about the effect remote learning has had on students this year and how she has endeavored to alleviate its negative effects.

Kerry created two extracurricular virtual clubs for the students to join — a virtual yearbook club and a virtual art club. In the virtual yearbook club, students have been assigned the task of organizing all the art that the virtual academy students have made this year and to create a virtual art show with it. “The yearbook kids have really, really impressed me with how ambitious they are about things and working together”, Kerry tells me. “We’re calling it our first ever virtual yearbook, we’re doing it to have a memory of this different, historic year”, she continues.

Kerry also started a virtual art club. She created it as a place for the students to hang out and chat outside of the virtual classroom. Most of the time, Kerry will put on music and chat with the students about anything that comes to mind, art-related or otherwise. “Sometimes though, I just mute myself and turn off my camera altogether and they can just talk about Minecraft or whatever they want to talk about”, Kerry tells me, laughing.

With how much remote learning has shaken up students’ lives this year, it is certain that Kerry’s students have greatly appreciated how the two extracurricular clubs she created for them have allowed them to experience some of the social aspects of school that they otherwise would have missed out on during remote learning.

A life-changing trip to South Africa

While Kerry had always been interested in art, pursuing a career in the field, or a career in teaching, was not something that she foresaw herself doing. “Many of my family members are in the newspaper writing industry, so I thought that’s what I should do as well”, she tells me. However, in 2009, when Kerry got the opportunity to travel to South Africa for 6 months as part of an overseas study program, her plans changed.

As part of the program, Kerry had the chance to teach art to children at The Ubuntu Crisis Center in Pietermaritzburg. The children spoke mainly Zulu, and while Kerry had learned some basic Zulu phrases before leaving, it was through the expression of art that they were best able to communicate, learn from each other, and connect. “It was at that time that I just kind of realized that art is such a universal language”, she tells me. After her experience in South Africa, Kerry knew that a career as an art teacher was right for her. “I just decided, yep this is it, I can teach art!”, she exclaims. 

Kerry during her trip to South Africa

After returning to Michigan, and shadowing several art teachers, Kerry knew that she’d made the right decision. She would go on to receive her teaching certificate from Michigan State University a few short years later.

OKIOCAM in the virtual art classroom

“For me, OKIOCAM has been a complete game-changer”, Kerry tells me, talking about how much it has benefitted her during remote teaching. “I didn’t have it for the first half of the year, but since then, it’s been great”, she continues, right before describing how she would clumsily conduct art demonstrations prior to purchasing her OKIOCAM.

Before getting her hands on OKIOCAM, Kerry would need to hold her artwork up to her front-facing webcam during demonstrations — something that is definitely easier said than done. “Before, when I was doing a painting demonstration, I’d be trying to paint, and I’d have paint dripping all over my lap. Or I’d be trying to hold my paper up and draw while showing it on my webcam, and it would just turn out looking awful. It’s been so nice having OKIOCAM”, Kerry tells me, talking about how the portable document camera has made her art demonstrations much less messy and stressful.

Kerry using OKIOCAM to teach virtually

Even though OKIOCAM has made remote teaching significantly easier for Kerry, she’s still very eager to get back into the classroom and teaching face-to-face again. “I do miss interacting with the kids in person, so I’m really excited to get back”, she tells me, beaming. I’m sure her students have been immensely grateful to have such a passionate art teacher guiding their remote learning experiences, but I bet they’d be really excited to get back in the classroom with her, too!

Want to hear more from Kerry? Check out her Instagram @artwithms.fleet and her website!