Sara Fox, 62, teaches grade 3-4 in a small public school at Connaught Elementary School New Westminster.
On March 13, Fox’s 23 students hustled out the classroom door to start their two-week spring break.
On March 17, Fox received an e-mail from the Superintendent of Schools announcing an “indefinite suspension of all in-class instruction for BC’s K-12 learners” due to the spread of COVID-19.
Until further notice, the curriculum would be delivered via remote learning, using “web-based technology”.
In BC, the curriculum for elementary schoolchildren includes science, social studies, math, language arts, and fine arts.
In Fox’s school, the fine arts teacher was working full time educating the children of essential workers - so Fox had a choice: kill the art program or teach it herself.
“I can’t even draw a stick figure,” admitted Fox, “I flat-out panicked”.
After Googling “How to teach art when you can’t do it” Fox came on the idea of asking the children the recreate a famous painting using their stuffies, dolls, pets or Lego.
“To get things going, I dressed up a raccoon puppet like the Mona Lisa,” explains Fox. “At least I knew my effort wouldn’t intimidate them. It was pathetic. I had a sinking feeling the project would fall flat. I had already mentally written them a note saying, ‘Let’s not worry about art’”.
An hour later, the first slide appeared. Angelica (9) took the American painting American Gothic and renamed it, “Stuffy Gothic 2020”. The somber pitchfork replaced with a jaunty dining-room utensil.
“’Stuffie Gothic’ make me laugh,” admitted Fox. “Angelica told me she’d used an iPad to create the background. I was relieved to have received a single entry. None of the online challenges are mandatory. I didn’t expect to receive another entry.”
Thirty minutes later, Fox’s laptop beeped.
A second student had submitted art.
“Dogs Playing Poker” by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge features seven boozy dogs scrutinising their cards – a grandfather clock looming in the background.
Fox’s student Kai (8) had reimagined the work with mini-yogurts substituting for whiskey glasses. Like a pro set decorator, he positioned a dining room clock artfully in the corner of the frame.
“In the painting, there’s poker chips in the middle of the table,” explained Kai during a video conference, “We don’t have a poker chips, so I used potato chips”.
“Is that clever?” asks Fox with naked excitement, “I think it is.”
Soon a third entry arrived.
In Afarin Sajedi’s original painting “Red Offer” – a stoic woman with blush on her cheeks is penetrated superficially by a fork. Fox’s student Rowan (9) recreated the effect with her Mother’s make-up and scotch tape.
“At this point I starting to realise these young people had gifts that I wasn’t aware of,” confesses Fox.
Then a fourth entry came in.
And a fifth.
And a sixth.
And a seventh.
“By the time I received ‘Doll with Watering Can’ I saw the children’s art – not as evidence of a hidden talent – but as natural extensions of who they are,” stated Fox.
“Sevilla is a grade four student who is meticulous in all her work. In math and science, she has a great eye for detail, no matter what she's doing.”
Fox mused that Sevilla must have hunted for a curved pathway. Dressed her doll in a billowing blue frock with a matching ribbon. The doll looks simultaneously hesitant and receptive - just like Renoir’s girl.
“I don’t create art, because I’m 100% sure I’m bad at it,” stated Fox, “But if I’m doing my job right, my students won’t carry those negative thoughts. I always tell them they can do anything. I guess they believed me!”
On Monday, June 1st, all K-5 BC teachers will return half-time to the classroom. Fox anticipates 40% of her students will return to the classroom.
She will continue to teach the other students on line.
About the author: Guy Bennett is a financial writer who lives in Vancouver, BC. His sister Sara Fox, is the subject of this article.