How Do You Teach Art, Music and PE Online? In China, They’re Figuring It Out.
by Siyi Zhang
2020-03-10 11:09:15

“Downstairs neighbor is banging on my classmate’s door, complaining about her jumping in the apartment and making the baby cry.”

“My mom is going crazy. She needs to make slippers for my little brother as they follow the livestreamed art class.”

Since Chinese authorities closed schools to control the spread of coronavirus, the Ministry of Education has called for students to learn at home. On Feb. 17, officials launched the National Public Service Platform for Educational Resources (also known as “national cloud classroom”), a collection of online resources compiled by education authorities across the country.

Over the past few weeks, educators, students and parents have taken to social media to share their experiences with this abrupt move to online learning. For the most part, lessons for subjects that have been traditionally taught via blackboards and Powerpoint presentations—like math and reading—could still be delivered effectively using online tools.  

But what about hands-on subjects like art, music and PE that often require equipment, movement and interaction? Fortunately, most schools did not cancel these courses due to this challenge but instead explored distinctive experiences under Covid-19 outbreak.

Storytelling by school teachers

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On the evening of February 19th, Zeng, an art teacher at a primary school in Qingdao, Shandong Province, China, started a livestreamed art class via DingTalk with the theme of What would I do if I were a giant. “It’s my first time to teach online,” she said, “ facing over two hundred students and parents from eight classes on the screen, I was a little bit nervous so I don’t think the teaching effect is good enough.”

Amid the prevention and control of the epidemic, schools and teachers are banned to force students to submit the assignments, so Zeng was greatly moved when she received the photos of paintings from parents: “My students have granted the medical worker super power to battle coronavirus. That’s so brilliant!” During the class, she guided students to look for the heroes around us, “they’ll understand that the hospital staff fighting to curb disease is a hero of our age.” Proud of her students’ infinite artistic creativity, Zeng shares their paintings every day via her Weibo account.

Guo Han teaches art for students in grades 2 and 3 in a public elementary school in Chaoyang District, Beijing. With remote learning ongoing nationwide, she is responsible for answering questions raised by students when they are drawing pictures through group chat in WeChat. “Online courses are provided by the District Education Committee, so we have no compulsory teaching tasks until schools reopen offline.” But she told JMDedu that few parents would like to share the works for feedback.

Making hand-drawn posters is the main content of the art class during this period. Xiong Fangyan, the grade leader of a top middle school in Haidian District, Beijing, told JMDedu that the art teacher has recorded a short tutorial video and uploaded it to Tencent Video. “Students can submit their posters to our school’s education platform if they are willing to, and normally we can receive almost ten pictures a day.” Said him.

Compared with the art class, the practice of physical education in Xiong’s school seems more interesting and worth learning. During the epidemic, “One Hour of Exercise Every Day” is still an essential component of students’ daily life insisted by the national government. “We introduce a mini-program on WeChat which provides professional training videos. PE teachers will also give a demonstration and tell students the precautions.” During the class, students should follow the videos with their mobile devices well placed while the mini-program will record the entire process and upload random clips. “Parents are quite supportive because they are not asked to supervise the children anymore.” Said Xiong.

As for the music class, Xiong told JMDedu that teachers would assign each piece of lyrics in a song to individual student and ask them to sing, record a video and send back to the teachers. “Teachers should know how to edit videos,” then, the final version of the work will be uploaded to school’s education platform.

Since February 10th, the primary and secondary schools in Wuhan, Hubei Province have started to offer online courses. As a music teacher at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, Sun Xiaoxi provides her students with recorded videos for remote learning. “It’s hard to teach online through livestreaming. Many teachers have been trapped outside Wuhan due to the sudden lockdown of the city, and they may not have instruments at home such as the piano, as well as access to stable Internet connection.” Therefore, Sun found some general contents related to music education and cut them into 20-minute videos as the learning materials for students, “we also select some simple songs created under the theme of combating the virus, and appreciate them together with our students.”

Voices from students and parents

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The picture above has been widely spread across the internet, immediately provoking netizens’ heated debate of the “online physical education” during the control of the epidemic. Livestreamed training such as push-ups and mountain climbers sparks controversy and “extremely intense online PE class” has become one of Weibo’s hot searches on February 25th, and by 27th with 170 million views and 24,000 discussions.

Huamu, a sophomore from a university in Jinan, Shandong Province, is one of the netizens involved in the topic, “Another PE class tomorrow afternoon... my leg has still been aching just after jumping for a few minutes last week.” Posted on her Weibo account. At the current stage, the training plan designed by her teacher consists of lung capacity increase and stretch exercise. “Downstairs neighbor is banging on my classmate’s door, complaining about her jumping in the apartment and making the baby cry.” Said Huamu.

During a 90-minute PE class, Huamu and her classmates are asked to send short videos with different contents every half an hour for attendance check. “At the beginning, the teacher didn’t state his requirements clearly, so some of my classmates just lie in bed after sending two videos. And when asked for the third one, we immediately stand up and take off the sleepwear...” Also, Huamu told JMDedu that most of her classmates usually finish the shooting in a few minutes and perfunctorily deal with the assignment by cutting the video into three pieces.

Tang is a sophomore as well, studying at a university in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, showed us the tasks of the PE class posted in DingTalk last week. Although the school provides different options like taekwondo, martial arts and rhythmic gymnastics, curriculum for all the students during this period is the same. Apart from the physical fitness exercises and “Ninth Set of Radio Gymnastics”, they are also required to do eye exercises against vision loss. “The record videos should be submitted before 12 o’clock every Friday including the eye exercises for twice a week and the other two parts for once.” Unlike Huamu, Tang must shoot a set of moves without a break in continuity, “my classmates are all feeling reluctant about such a teaching method.” Said her.

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Physical education may not require parents to participate while art class actually tests parents’ ability to do handcrafts. “My mom is going crazy. She needs to make slippers for my little brother as they follow the livestreamed art class.” Said Zoe, a senior girl living in Luoyang, Henan Province, who has a younger brother in the second grade.

According to Zoe, the live courses that her brother required to watch were developed by the provincial department of education and its radio and television office.

With a lack of interaction between teachers and students, this teaching model is also not convenient for students to make preparations before the class. “We didn’t know in advance what tools and materials were needed, making us feel messy when the class began.”

Majoring in early childhood education at a university in Zhejiang Province, Poppy also needs to take art classes that the courses in the first few weeks are mainly about art appreciation according to the syllabus, “The teacher has shown us some works like oil paintings, landscape paintings, as well as those he painted amid the quarantine at home.” But she worries that if the schools still need to prolong the closure due to the epidemic, follow-up courses of painting practice are unlikely to be effective by teaching online, “hands-on training and face-to-face tutoring are necessary.” Said Poppy.

Does online learning fail to deliver?

Although “cloud physical education” allows Huamu to do less exercise which is some girls’ little trick during PE class, she feels that the way like uploading videos for attendance check still needs to be improved. From her perspective, teachers should do the action demo and provide real-time guidance through livestreaming if there are any questions. “Actually we didn’t do much exercise just by providing the tutorial videos and leaving us to practice by ourselves...it’s not realistic to grasp the essentials only by watching a video.”

“Online education lacks the interaction compared with offline teaching”, agreed by most students, teachers and parents after experiencing these days. It is a fact that the unstable internet connection results in poor teaching effect. And for some students, it is an objective problem to have difficulty accessing online resources. “In these aspects, online teaching of PE, art and music faces the same predicament as traditional subjects, even more challenges.” Sun Xiaoxi said. “Parents’ participation in the education process is actually a major factor that affects the effectiveness of teaching. Some students live with grandparents. It’s hard for the elders to cooperate in line with the teaching goals.” Under remote learning, teachers cannot take care of all students, and students are hard to concentrate, putting more pressure on parents.

Staying in Wuhan, Sun told us that some of her colleagues and students’ whole families have been infected with the coronavirus, even many are still sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. “Amid such a gloomy atmosphere, people are unwilling to cope with the arrangement of online education. But listening to music can exert a relaxing and soothing effect on our minds and bodies, especially at this moment.”

“Coupled with the fact that schools are still closed offline, we teachers and students can’t get textbooks of the new semester, I don’t think the effect can be good enough just by watching livestreamed class without any learning materials.” Said Sun.

However, she proposed that teaching online also has some benefits. “There is not too much limitation on the teaching content without a unified textbook,” Sun has collected a lot of learning materials suitable for children’s learning from the internet. “They can get more novel knowledge that is not accessible in the classroom, plus, e-learning also helps students to catch up with their schoolwork amid the outbreak of the epidemic.”

More significantly, Sun believes that remote learning can regulate students’ learning behavior and strengthen their learning consciousness. “They will know that learning does not only happen in classrooms, but they also need to form a mindset of lifelong learning in different environments.” Said her.

(Some names in this article are pseudonyms, at the request of the interviewees.)

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