Robinson Middle School art teacher Barbara Atkins had an established art club with students meeting every Wednesday after school to flex their creative skills. Jardine Middle School art teacher Chastity Romero-Latham was in the process of building one at her school.


Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, closing all of the school buildings in the state. Latham contacted Atkins wanting to start a virtual art club. Since they had the Google Classroom set up for their regular art classes, they joined forces.


At last count, the middle school virtual art club had 79 members. Now that the school year is complete, the group is continuing as part of Topeka Unified School District 501’s summer enrichment program, opening membership to all middle and high school students.


"It’s exciting to have that many people excited about art and hanging out with a couple of weird art teachers," Atkins said, with a laugh.


Latham added, "We just wanted to create an engaging space for our student to come and create. More times than not, in our meetings, the students just want to be together in a shared space. They are working on independent things, and more times than not, we’re just having silly discussions. My favorite discussion we had last week was about terrible inventions. We were talking about, to be inventive, you have to go through a process where you have a lot of failures, so what are some terrible inventions."


Almost anything can capture the members’ interests during these virtual meetings. Some have played ukuleles and others showed-off their pet rats. Some of them are creating textile art, others are drawing. Some of the kids are just there to hang out and look forward to spending time in a space that was created just for them. They also have a Padlet website where they can share their creations. (https://padlet.com/atkinsbarbie/virtual_art_club)


"When I was in art club at school, it was really fun," said Jessica Hendrix, who just completed eighth grade at Robinson. "So, I thought it would be fun to be online, too."


Fellow club member and classmate Anastasis Jabary added, "We have lots of fun in art club, and the best part is being able to interact with everyone. It’s one day where you are not sketching or painting alone. You get to interact with someone, joke around and have fun."


Latham also coaches track and volleyball, which hampered her efforts with building the art club at Jardine. She sees this virtual opportunity as a great way to collaborate with Atkins and build the program at Jardine. Her hope is next year, while she’s busy coaching, she’ll still be able to maintain a digital space with her art club kids.


Atkins said she was scared about how online teaching and the art club would come about, but soon realized how it opened up a lot of opportunities she wouldn’t necessarily tackle inside the classroom. With Latham, she works hard to create engaging activities that are easy for students to do at home with any number of materials on hand. She also wants them to be a bit silly and fun.


In the past few months, the club has created posters supporting first responders and a project requiring them to balance water bottles in a sculpture. Recently, the teachers had them make Flemish selfies, which required them to take a photo of themselves dressed-up to recreate a piece of Dutch artwork. They made opulent costumes by wrapping towels around their heads and napkins around their necks.


While both teachers and students are enjoying the online version of the club, most said they were looking forward to meeting in person again in the fall.


"I can’t wait to get back into the classroom and see my students," Atkins said. "I miss it so much. This is the best that we can do for now, but there’s a lot lost in this virtual space. So, for me, I’m just really excited to get back."


Student Emma Ludlum said, "It’s definitely weird, and I miss being in the classroom and seeing everybody every day, especially since I’m an eighth-grader and I won’t be going to Robinson next year. Online learning is weird, but I think we’re doing it the best that we can for it to be a pretty good experience with the situation."