Finding hope, exhibiting empathy and artfully learning through Quaranteens

My high school experience was largely defined by sociopolitical events. Freshman and sophomore years were book-ended by anxieties related to Y2K and the partisan fallout from the infamous 2000 presidential election. I was just starting my junior year when the September 11th attacks took place. Although we were given the option of taking the day off from school, many of us chose to spend time with our friends and teachers. My school provided a sanctuary space for students and faculty to try and make sense of the events, while openly discussing our feelings and lending support to those who needed it. The formation of empathy and sense of community is pivotal to our social development and mental well-being. Exhibiting empathy and collaborating with our peers are key principles of a good educational framework.

The class of 2020 has endured an even more distressed four years of schooling. They began their high school experience with the 2016 presidential election, which was arguably more divisive than the 2000 election, and their senior year has significantly been altered by a global health pandemic. At the moment, the physical school year has been curtailed, making attending graduation with their classmates and experiencing the joys of end of the year academic and social celebrations unthinkable. However, that hasn’t stopped students from giving up hope in the world that their generation will go on to lead. It has been inspiring to see some of the artfully poignant and uplifting documentation from students responding to life in times of COVID-19.

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The artist’s view from sheltering in place. Still from the film Oh, the places you’ll go by Olesya. Courtesy of the artist and EVC.

Quaranteens are a collective of New York City high school students and their teacher Kate Levy, who is the Co-Director of the Youth Documentary Workshop at the Educational Video Center. The Educational Video Center (EVC) is a “non-profit youth media organization dedicated to teaching documentary video as a means to develop the artistic, critical literacy, and career skills of young people, while nurturing their idealism and commitment to social change.” Prior to the pandemic, the group had been working on a documentary film that addressed their commitment to nurturing social relationships within their community and compassionately supporting social change.

In light of the pandemic, the Quaranteens have continued to utilize the medium of storytelling and multimedia art processes to document individual and collective adolescent experiences in response to the abrupt and drastic changes in their daily lives. Although they cannot meet together on set, the students have been working remotely and virtually sharing videos, photos and articles that communicate how the pandemic, New York’s shelter-in-place order and the closure of the city’s schools have been affecting them. It hasn’t been easy as Levy reflects that “Students have sick families, new responsibilities at home, and are woefully unprepared to manage their own schedules in an online learning environment. At times, the only thing I can do with students is help them develop a schedule or recommend mental health resources. I ask myself every day ‘what is the best way to engage students in a fulfilling learning process, one that doesn’t stunt their growth as lifelong learners, nor destroy any opportunities for pleasure in their pursuit of knowledge. In reality, the best I can hope for is that my students remain in contact.”

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Still from a short film by Ashlee. Courtesy of the artist and EVC.

Being away from the physical school environment for such a lengthy period of time can be detrimental. Educational experts fear that extended time away from in person learning will lead to significant social, emotional and cognitive atrophy and widen the inequity gap (see: Lederman, 2020 and The Learning Network, 2020). Levy continues to reflect upon the impact that school closures have, proclaiming that “Education is about community, and the obstacles for online learning are just too much. School buildings were a place for my students to access the internet, get fed, connect with many mentors and supports all in one place, socialize, exercise and stimulate their minds.”

Although the aforementioned struggles are incredibly problematic to maintaining a semblance of progressive learning, especially in a constructivist and student-centered environment where students thrive from collaboration, relationship building and group dynamics; Levy and her students have gone above and beyond the challenge, even with so little time and resources to properly prepare. I asked Levy what she is most inspired by as a result of the uncharted process of taking this project, which relied on interpersonal collaboration, into a remote setting: “From time to time, my students reflect on their work, and express pride in their work. They also have received some submissions from other students across the United States and have been really excited about that. One of my students is an amazing editor, and I am really pleased he’s been able to hone his skills.” So not only have the students expressed a critical eye and an efficacious outlook for their work, but they have made connections with people outside of their social network and extended their socially engaged vision and concept across the country. Furthermore, the students are showing their digital dexterity by expressively utilizing forms of media that their generation came of age with to make powerful statements documenting moments of living, working, learning and just getting by in light of significant local and global current events.

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A video by Quaranteen artist Khalil, discussing his experiences communicating with different generations in his household and how reactions and responses to social, cultural and emotional issues contrasts from one generation to another. Courtesy of the artist and EVC

It is refreshing to see some of the more positive aspects of remote learning via this project, which lets students express themselves creatively and communicate with their peers in a profound and socially engaged manner. High school is a time for both innovation as well as for fitting into groups. Adolescent learners in the arts are meaningfully expressive, which means that they feel their art must say something. This is the time in their artistic development when the concept and aesthetic experience simultaneously inform their creative process. They consider their work as a fluid body (part of a series, period/movement and style), which takes viewers’ experiences and observations into account. They are interested in a cultural discourse, which includes the artworld (i.e. galleries, museums and other sources of visual and material culture). Often times, they will appropriate works of art or iconography from the visual lexicon to make statements regarding their sense of self within the cultural landscape. It is important to qualify this phase of development with prior artistic learning, so that students can combine their artistic backgrounds with contemporary experiences and knowledge in order to create meaningful and expressive works of art that significantly impact their audience. This is clearly exemplified through viewing the multidisciplinary artwork by the artists in the Youth Documentary Workshop. It is evident from the work of the Quaranteens collective that these young artists are able to view their work through a critical and reflective lens, while symbolically communicating and considering the range of impacts it might have on viewers.

One of the artists in the Quaranteens collective named Olesya responded to my prompt of “why do you think art is a good medium for communicating messages of hope and unity?” by saying “Art means different things for different people. So art can invoke powerful meanings and feelings while expressing a message about hope and unity. It can create sort of a median ground so people can be inspired and do something about a social justice issue. And that’s what Quaranteens is about and what we are trying to do.”

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Lederman, Doug. “The Shift to Remote Learning: The Human Element.” Inside Higher Ed, 25 March 2020.

The Learning Network. “What Students Are Saying About Remote Learning.” New York Times, 9 April 2020.



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