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Bright, multi-colored, green, purple, yellow, pink modern style painting in a white frame.

In a normal school year, students and staff at Alex Haley Academy spend the month of April celebrating student artwork and preparing to enter the All City Visual Arts Exhibition, which they compete and shine in every year.

But this school year is far from normal. The Alex Haley Art Show fell victim to the COVID-19 shutdown and art instructor Cynthia Solomon is preparing to submit student work online for the citywide exhibit.

The 25-year veteran art teacher also is striving to keep her 500 plus students engaged in authentic instruction. She tries to be creative and sets up an easel every day in their “Google Classroom.”

Online art instruction

But online art instruction presents some difficult challenges, especially for the mostly Black and low-income students Haley serves. For April’s sculpture unit, she asked students to make “sculptures” out of cereal boxes.

“But then we realized, not all the children have cereal in their home,” she said. “Some of my students don’t have scissors, paste or crayons at home so how are they supposed to use laptops and do art class online?”

Solomon wishes CPS appreciated the value of art instruction more, especially for the community Haley serves. She spends hours every week on grant applications to make up for resources CPS does not provide.

Art is not extra

“Art is not extra. It makes you think. It builds creativity and it gives you self confidence,” she said. “It relieves stress. It provides an important outlet. It doesn’t matter what it is–even just cutting up scraps of paper and making a mosaic. It has a calming effect. Our students need that now more than ever.”

For example, she teaches students to sew and they stitch up stuffed animals to sell at the art show. That project especially helps calm special needs students and boosts their confidence. “They are so proud when parents buy their work,” she said.

The annual art show, combined with a school play–this year’s offering would have been Beauty and the Beast–serves as a huge, school wide community-building event. Students make and sell their artwork, parents love it, and it provides a big school spirit boost.

“The students have been working really hard all year so, naturally, they’re disappointed,” she said. “The whole school is.”

Solomon takes it all in stride and will continue setting up her easel. “You can learn anything through art,” she said. “It should really be incorporated into every subject we teach.”