Making together, from a distance: How Chinati Education pivoted to virtual learning

As Summer Shake-up went virtual this year, educators at the Chinati Foundation put together bags of art supplies which families could pick up. Here, Molly Bondy, lead educator at the foundation, hands art supplies to a car outside Marfa High School. Photo by Michael Roch.

MARFA — Earlier this year, educators at the Chinati Foundation and another local group, the Dixon Water Foundation, were working on a new project with eighth graders at Marfa Independent School District. The goal was to get kids learning about watersheds, and to realize that earth science didn’t have to be totally separate from art.

The Chinati Foundation took students to Dixon, where they learned about water absorption and soil types. Students started working on their own plaster landscapes. As a sign of how topsy-turvy life would soon become, Chinati had already implemented handwashing rules in its buildings as a precaution against coronavirus, which at that point had killed just a few people across the United States.

But that watershed project never finished — and by now, readers probably know the rest. Coronavirus was soon raging on the east and west coasts, and people as far away as the Big Bend started distancing.

Public schools across the region soon shuttered. Local officials imposed emergency rules, issuing stay-at-home orders and temporary hotel closures. The Chinati Foundation closed to visitors, as did countless local businesses. And educators at the foundation, who often relied on in-person activities and projects, were left scrambling to reassess.

Molly Bondy, the lead educator at the Chinati Foundation, said the weight of the pandemic first hit her when Marfa started shutting down. But at first, she said she figured it was just a temporary adjustment. “I didn’t think it was going to continue for as long as it has,” she said.

But as the weeks and months dragged on, and spring turned into summer, Bondy said she realized that she wouldn’t be giving class tours or meeting with students anytime soon. “I saw things were continuing to go in the same way,” she said. She figured “we’re going to be doing online learning for a while.”

In many ways, the position Bondy found herself in wasn’t so different from that of others across the state and country. At Marfa ISD, teachers were trying to find ways to keep students engaged and educated after students were told that they wouldn’t be returning to in-person classes after spring break.

Even Chinati itself was seeing changes. In the spring, like other institutions across Marfa, it closed to visitors.

In the summer, it started reopening to some guests for self-guided, socially distant tours of its outside spaces. “This is very much a process,” Jenny Moore, the group’s executive director, told The Big Bend Sentinel in June. “We’re moving slowly, with safety first.”

Michael Roch, the director of education and curricula at Chinati, was blunt about the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The foundation has been working with children in the region for decades, he said, with events like poetry readings, workshops and public events.

“The pandemic has challenged us in so many ways,” he wrote in an email this week — and Chinati Education, he said, realized it needed to pivot. That meant reaching kids not with trips and projects, but through computer screens.

In March, a couple weeks after Marfa ISD closed, Chinati’s education department publicly announced its first virtual project, Making Together.

In a video outlining the project, Roch emerges onto a green-screen. “Hi and welcome, friends,” he said. “We’re living in a peculiar time. It might feel a little weird to you. It might seem a little scary. I promise you, you’re not alone.”

In the video, Roch outlined some of the challenges of this new era, from teachers who were trying to figure out virtual classes to students who were missing their friends.

“We believe making and sharing art together will make us feel connected,” he added. He stressed the project was open to families anywhere, whether they were in Marfa, Presidio or “even across the ocean.”

Making Together ran for seven weeks, with a theme each week inspired by works at Chinati. Students studied shapes, transformation, storytelling, movement, design, light/color and friendship. There were also videos focusing on particular works at Chinati. “It was sort of a virtual-ish tour of an artwork,” said Bondy, the lead educator.

Each of those themes came with its own sub-projects, which could be anything from designing a hat to choreographing a dance. “These simple projects work toward building student understanding of the fundamental elements of art and design,” Roch said in an email. And with all the projects shared online — including in prompt videos posted on Instagram — students and classrooms could join in whether they were in Marfa or not.

For Bondy, the lead educator who produced and appeared in many of those videos, working remotely presented new challenges. “In a classroom, it can be pretty evident if students are engaged,” she said. It wasn’t so easy to tell online.

As she sees it, interacting with students also became a more delicate task in the pandemic. “Teaching at this time means having an awareness that students are experiencing stress and anxiety and trauma,” she said.

Still, going virtual wasn’t all bad. On Instagram, Chinati’s education department could reach an audience well beyond Marfa. Soon, people from across the country were commenting on the posts — and some were even sending in their art pieces.

Teachers as far away as New York and California started using the curriculum. One of those was Genevieve La Riva, a elementary school special-education teacher at P.S. 110 in Brooklyn.

As a special-education teacher, La Riva said she found herself overwhelmed as schools in New York City shut down in the spring. “I had so many students,” she said. “Because they’re special-ed students, they’re mandated to have live lessons. They’re also very young.”

Then La Riva said she came across Chinati’s lessons on Instagram. She loved them. She started incorporating the prompts into her own teaching, sometimes adding her own twists. Her students wrote and submitted poems, or drew visual representations of how they pictured sounds like bird songs and falling leaves.

La Riva said she especially loved how the Chinati curricula were open-ended and unpretentious. “They were very conceptual,” she said, “and yet they lend themselves to doing something that’s not intimidating.” They felt like projects that weren’t just the “providence of art teachers,” but something that she as a special-ed teacher could do.

La Riva also liked the soothing energy of Chinati’s videos and projects. “I like the slowness of them,” she said with a laugh. “It’s kind of like that Mr. Rogers thing.” Especially as coronavirus continues to disrupt the lives of children, “it’s better if everything’s not so speedy,” she added. She found the projects “calming and in-the-moment — like you’re sharing a space.”

Making Together was just the start of Chinati’s digital curriculum. Next up was Summer Shake-up — the Chinati’s standard summer programming for students, which this year also went virtual. The topic this year was process. Parents could also stop by and pick up art supplies.

After Summer Shake-Up, Chinati educators spent four weeks studying local flora and fauna. Then they launched their latest project, “Discover, Play, Make,” a project exploring the materials behind art, from natural materials to found media.

Now, the Chinati Foundation is getting ready for the rest of its school-year programming. Typically, that might include everything from poetry workshops with high-school freshmen in the fall to screen-printing with seniors in the spring. Educators at both Chinati and Marfa ISD say they’re committed to have their poetry workshops this year — but with the coronavirus pandemic still disrupting daily life, it’s unclear what exactly that will look like.

“We’ve been talking to Michael and trying to figure out ways we can still partner together,” said Oscar Aguero, the superintendent for Marfa ISD. “We’ve looked at doing Zoom meetings and videos, kind of like we did for Summer Shake-up.” He says the poetry lessons will still happen for ninth graders this year — though he acknowledges the school is “still brainstorming” what that means.

“It’s a really hands-on activity [Roch] does with the poetry,” Aguero said. “They talk about space and how to line up words on paper. That’s a little harder to do on a Zoom meeting.”

Aguero, who also has two children at Marfa ISD, has been happy with Chinati’s virtual programming. “They’re well-designed,” he said of the foundation’s videos. His own daughter has enjoyed the prompts and activities.

Both Bondy and Roch said they didn’t tailor their projects this year to focus on coronavirus. At the same time, they acknowledged the virus and all of its disruptions was a theme that showed up in artwork by students.

“We find ourselves in this weird time, and art is kind of a way to think about and process what’s going on,” Bondy said. Also, “it’s a way for us to continue to share Chinati.”

Bondy foresees Chinati’s all-virtual education continuing through at least the start of 2021. “Even if there’s a vaccine, it’s not going to be back to normal,” she said. “I think we’ll continue our Instagram presence. We’re remaining flexible.” She stressed that “any decision we make is based on the science and what public health officials are saying.”

Bondy misses seeing students in-person and looks forward to doing that again. “Being in person with the art is an experience that you can’t really replicate,” she said.

Still, being online has had its perks. “We’re able to provide greater accessibility to the collection, to the projects that we do, and that’s very exciting to me,” she said. Even after the pandemic’s over, she hopes to continue making lesson plans available online for students across the country. “Maybe that’s something we’ve learned along the way.”