Unexpectedly, the world moved into a new phase that comprised of a global health pandemic and socio-political awakenings. As a museum leader at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I contemplated the critical role education and programs could play in these times. The COVID-19 pandemic manifested countless shifts, adaptations, unknowns, and recalibrations to shape new pathways for education. In August 2020, the provincial government of Ontario (Canada), announced that schools were moving to online learning at home. With much of the world regulated to close, museums education leaders around the globe had to figure out how to engage with audiences when the physical doors were closed. More than ever before, we were all met with nuanced solutions culminating on various tech savvy digital platforms. Our solution was to create a digital school program, which became quite the success. Imagine, in the span of two years, we reached 1.2 million students! Exponentially more that we have ever welcomed for onsite school visits.
Similar to many museums, we, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) wanted to remain relevant in the shifting world filled where we were not only in a dire health pandemic, but we witnessed racial reckonings spurred by the killing of George Floyd—an unarmed Black man by the hands of an armed police officer. Questions about how to talk about race with young people, quickly surfaced in many of our worlds, especially in education, where teachers were expected to know how to do the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion immediately with their students. We saw this as an opportunity to support classroom discussions around race, culture and identity.
As an advocate for art education, I saw the opportunity to support bold conversations in the classroom with art as the entry point. With a new method to reach audiences, I designed and implemented an integrated Diversity, Equity, Access and Inclusion (DEAI) pedagogy into a digital school program to support teachers and students in the Fall of 2020. This program I developed shows one method in which you can apply a DEAI framework into museum education for K-12 learners. The principles of DEAI are not an addition to the work I do—it is the work I do. This article shares an example of how we conceptualized and implemented DEIA into virtual educational programming. This program is now in its third year! Feel free to view more here.
The digital program we created was completely new for us and knew it had to be relevant in order for it to have an impact on learning, and so I structured the program content to address race, identity and the environment, with pedagogy based on works of art from the AGO’s collection. We named it, simply, Virtual School Programs or as we lovingly called it, VSP. This entire program was all offered for free, largely due to generous philanthropic supporters. Once we shared the model with prospective donors, they appreciated and believed in our mission to bring the joy of art education to students during the pandemic closures. Their bigheartedness of giving to fund this program ensured we could deliver the programs free of charge for all.
Belonging and Community
The implementation of this program began with an idea I brought to my Director/CEO. He said yes to this program, and we all propelled it forward. He made it an institutional priority, and all of Leadership Team dedicated staff to make it happen. This program manifested out of Education & Programming, by a phenomenal school programs team and many others across the museum including: Digital; Marketing; Communications; Advancement and philanthropy; Visitor Services; Curatorial; Copyrights/permissions and Media. It really was a museum effort. We all worked together to bring this program to reality as a community working towards a common goal.
The synchronous sessions for VSP were inspired by a live program the AGO did with TakingITGlobal, where the teaching and learning were in real time with students, which I knew I wanted in this new program. In the design of this program, I listed four DEAI goals: 1) sessions should address societal concerns relevant today—race, identity and the environment; 2) each segment must have a mini-art making lesson and an element of wellness; 3) the programs had to be synchronous/live and interactive; and 4) free of charge. Each session connected to the provincial school curriculum, yet the teachings were applicable across the world, because each grade level, worldly, learns the same content developmentally.
We offered three sessions per day based on grade levels (grades K-3, 4-8 and 9-12), with a different theme each day, for a total of fifteen programs per week. Each session was structured so that Art Educators delivered the 30-minute session with the guide of on an introduction, looking at two works of art with a focus on BIPOC artists, a mini art lesson, and a wellness session. There was also time within these sessions, to field/build conversation with the Art Educator using a Q&A functionality. The overall metrics revealed that the three most attended sessions over the past two years were Indigenous Art and Artists, and Art of Africa and the African Diaspora, which are the programs I intentionally set my focus for this paper.
VSP became a means of belonging and community for teachers, caregivers and students during an isolated time. Five days per week, at the same time, people knew that an AGO Art Educator would be on screen to welcome them and support learning, so much so that our Art Educators reached celebrity status! On multiple occasions, Art Educators were approached at the grocery store, at a park or on transit, with a hello and thank you for the sessions offered by the AGO. Not only was the sense of belonging and community for participants, but for staff as well.
Registration and Technology
For the registration process we collected practical information to help us measure the program metrics, including participant’s location, the number of students who would be joining the link, email addresses and the option to join our mailing list. Once registered, people received a link to the full week of programming so they could join once that week, or five times, with that same link. All free of charge. If you had access to an internet connection, you could sign into our programs virtually, accessible with a few links to click. To be critical, the digital divide absolutely exists, and the access was for those who already had the means to access technology.
When we consider the inequities in access to technology, we assume and/or take for granted that folks had access to internet, when we know fully, this is not always the case. Sociologist Natasha Wairkoo (Nelson, 2020) , sheds light on the overlooked aspects of moving online, “The COVID-19 pandemic has created or exacerbated inequality that already exists in education—and really in American society,” she states and continues, “Families who are disadvantaged are experiencing economic hardship, food insecurity, and lack of access to technology, all of which hinder their access to remote learning”.  We acknowledge this is a topic that deserves more attention, and we aim to work towards better solutions.
Findings/Qualitative and Visual Data
In order to collect data on the impact of this program we created #AGOSchools on social media sites so teachers could post student work from the mini art making activities and their post visit activities. The AGO built this digital program that had a renowned impact on learners based on the qualitative and visual data we collected from our social media feeds. There were hundreds of posts, which can be accessed at #AGOSchools or @AGOSchools on both Twitter and Instagram. Based on the data we collected from our social media responses and attendance numbers, it was evident that VSP was relevant and helpful to discuss DEAI subjects in the classroom.
We heard many reasons on why participants attended our sessions, ranging from geographic, economic and cultural access. For the focus of this article, I focused on the cultural aspect of the data set, in regards to learnings about Black and Indigenous communities. There were numerous wonderful posts, and t was difficult to make selections on what to share, but here are a few. One teacher spoke to the representation of Black artists and thinkers that we focused on, and shared this response from a student, “#AGOSchools @agotoronto today grade 2 loved Celebrating Black Creatives. SA’s fave part was I.M.F’s song because “it is a song about little Black girls and I am a little Black girl.” In a conversation on Art of Africa and the African Diaspora, a teacher posted that she introduced a new world of Caribbean folk tales to her students following the VSP session:
“LOVED last week’s trip to @agotoronto on Art of the African Diaspora! Students were introduced to Anansi, the work of Caribbean artist, Sandra Brewster and created a story with spiders. This week we continued reading Anansi stories and saw an Anansi Puppet show!”
Another teacher posted that our sessions helped open up conversations in the classroom, “Today, my Grade 3/4 class enjoyed the AGO Virtual School Visit. We learned a lot about Indigenous Art and Artists. Thank you to @RedSlam for a fantastic presentation. Led to a great discussion about current issues affecting Indigenous communities in Canada. Another teacher shared this statement and an image from her students and the artwork that inspired them, “Students learned about Indigenous cultures & the sacredness of water last week @ AGO Schools Virtual Workshop: Indigenous Art & Artists. We were then inspired to draw our own waves. Thank you @agotoronto & @RedSlam for engaging presentation!” (See figure 1).
In addition to qualitative posts, we also encouraged participants to post images of their session to share what they learned. One teacher and class joined one of our partnership sessions with Jade, from the super fly, Jade’s Hip-Hop Academy. This is what the students experienced, “We participated in an awesome virtual field trip to the AGO this morning and learned all about the art of Hip Hop. We danced and wrote our names graffiti style! @agotoronto #AGOSchools” (see figure 2).
Another post spoke to the ways in which a parent and child learned about an Indigenous artists together, “Artwork inspired by today’s #Indigenous #Arts #AGOschools visit with @RedSlam. Gabriel and his mom worked together to create ‘Floral Medicine’, showing their appreciation for and connection to the universe and all it has to offer” (see figure 3). This data shares something we heard multiple times, which is an expression of multigenerational cultural learning that our sessions encouraged at home and in the classroom.
The data showed copious ways in which these VSP sessions help open up discussions on race and identity, leading with art. Teachers joined our programs to learn alongside their students and help bridge topics on Black and Indigenous communities. The program proved to be a trustworthy, well researched and professional curriculum source for the classroom with a careful delivery from AGO’s Art Educators. Out of the hundreds of posts, more than half were around DEIA subjects, which is congruent with our attendance numbers. While this program was set out to make art education accessible, it did more than that, it propelled culture and DEIA measures into the classrooms and homes of thousands of learners. Additionally, it brought art education to those who were geographically out of reach. It brings me great pride to consider the number of bold conversations we sparked with the wonders and intellect of art, and the numerous ways we came together as a museum to bring the curiosities of education to learners on a digital platform.
- Nelson, A. (2020, October 6). How Does COVID-19 Create Inequity in K-12 Education? Tufts Now. https://now.tufts.edu/2020/10/06/how-does-covid-19-create-inequity-k-12-education
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