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Winola Elementary playground becomes a palette for art class
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Winola Elementary playground becomes a palette for art class

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Students at Winola Elementary in Viola are integrating art and math to create an interactive path on the blacktop of the school's playground with paint. Restrictions handed down by the Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinios State Board of Education mean children aren’t allowed to play on the equipment, resulting in an opportunity for art teacher Tony Vermeer to get creative.

“I like it better this way because it feels like real school — even with masks on. They’re not that hard to wear," 9-year-old Winola Elementary student Justine said. She's enjoying doing art class outside.

Vermeer said the idea was inspired by physical education teacher Bev Kruger, who showed him a similar idea using vinyl on the gym floor. They brainstormed how they could create something like it for the outside blacktop.

Coupled with the unique task Vermeer faced to provide art class to students in their own classrooms — a measure implemented by the district to reduce the possibility of cross-contamination — the idea was sparked to involve his students.

“My fourth grade always starts the year with an expressive painting project in the classroom," Vermeer said. "To avoid a paint mess in a carpeted classroom, painting outside became the solution.”

He now uses an "art cart" to take the supplies needed for that day’s lesson to each class.

“The cart challenges me each day to work on my organization skills,” he said, “(It) also forces you to make some changes to your lessons.”

Aiden, 9, painted various colors of pink and red in his circle.

“It’s worth wearing a mask to get to come (to school),” he said, adding he's glad to see his friends again. He enjoys the hands-on art project. For Aiden, remote learning brought technical difficulties. When he heard he would attend in person, he was “pretty happy.”

Vermeer mapped out the blacktop and used a graphic-design program to determine the size of each section where students would paint their works. Students helped measure and chalk-line the area. The painted sections will make a large S-shaped path across the entire blacktop on the playground.

“They’re having a lot of fun with the measuring; they’re really into the whole construction of it,” Vermeer said.

Teachers are facing challenges across the nation. Balancing in-person and remote learning has been an obstacle for Vermeer.

“More challenging than the cart has been the instructional videos,” he said. Vermeer, a guitarist in a local rock band, is used to playing guitar as a teaching tool in his art class.

“I am not comfortable when I know the "record" button has been pressed. I am a much better teacher and guitarist when I can move around, rock out and adjust my presentation to the audience. I feel too much pressure to perform perfectly for the classroom videos. It's just not me.”

“This was also a way to take them outside and get some fresh air,” Vermeer said. Teaching art to students outdoors had multiple purposes. Since masks are worn indoors at school, “mask breaks” are encouraged across the district. This has meant altering lesson plans to include an outdoor activity.

Out on the playground, Justine was focused on choosing the right colors for her painted section, she said.

“I’d rather be here than be at home," she said. "I feel like it’s a lot easier here than at home. Understanding everything ... and making sure you’re getting everything right. You have to email your teacher to ask her a question, and sometimes they can’t get back for a little bit.”

She said she would be playing volleyball this year, if it were allowed; she missed playing softball and soccer over the summer. She’s hoping things go back to normal soon.

“When you think about it, it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re actually going through this, and it’s not like a dream or something.’

It will be a good story to tell people.”

Alysse, 9, said she missed softball and the other sports.

“It’s bad. I don’t like that it’s happening," she said.  "I want everything to be normal, especially school. Hopefully this school year gets better — and as normal as it can get.”

Echoing the sentiment, 10-year-old Jaren said, “I like being back at school because then I can see my friends.”

The finished project will also involve the viewers, engaging them in physical activity.

Vermeer is passionate about teaching art, and though he faces challenges this year, to him it’s worth it to have students in person. He said amid those challenges are unique opportunities to get creative.

“The interactive playground project has allowed these students a one-time opportunity to express themselves through their art, on a canvas that can be viewed and enjoyed by other students for years to come,” he said.

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