As professors nationwide transitioned their classes, Todd Lowery took his to the next level.
BY MIKE BROTHERS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF UNIVERSITY RELATIONS
Until just a few weeks ago, Todd Lowery had never created a video in his life. Yet using little more than his iPhone and some basic software, the Drury University art professor has shot, edited and produced dynamic lectures and demonstrations for his drawing and painting students following the university’s swift pivot to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is all new,” Lowery says, describing his shift in teaching methods – and perhaps everything about life at Drury since mid-March.
With the pandemic sending students and faculty alike to their homes to shelter in place, the typical small group setting for teaching and learning at Drury simply wasn’t possible. At least, not physically. The situation presented both a challenge and an opportunity. Drury’s faculty rose to the occasion, finding innovative ways to continue teaching students.
For Lowery, using video was a clear solution.
“What I teach, it’s visual,” he says. But it wasn’t the whole solution. Teaching fine arts such as drawing and painting is an art itself – an act that requires warmth, encouragement and a give-and-take that typically only happens in person.
“Any studio class like this is about that connection; about demonstrating at the same time as you teach,” he says.
So, Lowery also connected with students via the video conferencing platform Zoom. He set up portfolios for students on the online project management platform Basecamp. Moodle, the university’s online learning management system for all classes, factored in, too. And there were emails, texts and phone calls.
Throughout it all, the connections remained a constant.
“I really have to compliment Todd. It feels like I’ve never missed a day out of class,” says Alyssa Kirkham, a graduating senior from Marshfield, Missouri. “This is one of the classes where it feels like there isn’t a pandemic going on.”
Kirkham just completed her degree in organizational and leadership communication. She took Lowery’s Painting I class as an elective in her final semester in part because she’d heard other students praise his style.
“His teaching style is very energetic and he absolutely is focused on student success,” says fellow senior Grace Elbon, a fine arts major from Tulsa who’s taken several of Lowery’s classes. “He cares a lot.”
That touch wasn’t diminished whatsoever in the new format. Lowery’s buoyant personality and passion for teaching and creating art leap off the screen in the videos, which even come complete with a theme song of sorts.
“I wanted the energy to be there,” he says. “In class I try to motivate and uplift and help people understand that fine arts is something that’s learnable. It’s an acquirable skill.”
Some of Lowery’s videos helped students understand their own resilience. Need items for a still life drawing? Use found objects from around your house. Don’t have a canvas for sketching? The reverse side of a shipping package can work.
“At first I definitely wondered, ‘How is this going to work?’” Kirkham says.
She was impressed by how Lowery always seemed to come up with creative ways to get around problems “and still ‘play the game’ as he likes to say.”
Lessons about color, light and composition followed. Critiques of work via Basecamp and Zoom came after that. The lessons focused on technique, but they also carried a deeper meaning, for both the experienced art majors and the newcomers.
Watch Professor Lowery’s unique art class videos on his YouTube page.
“He stressed while this experience may not have been our first choice, it’s given us a lot of tools and abilities to set us up for future success if we choose this career path,” says Elbon. “Most people who enter the art field won’t have the money right off the bat for their own studio space. So, this has allowed us to adapt, change our environment and know that we can still succeed.”
For Kirkham, the communication major, seeing Lowery put in the extra work to create his videos and connect with students online inspired her to work even harder throughout the semester. She says she actually improved at painting along the way. But that won’t be her biggest takeaway from her time with Lowery during this memorable semester.
“Sometimes change is good,” Kirkham says. “It pushes your limits and you actually kind of surprise yourself in the end. I think Todd was a good example of that. He was so flexible and up for the challenge. I think seeing him do it all with a smile really encouraged the students – and me along with them – to think, ‘We can do this, too. And it’s going to be OK.’”