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 Modern Dance, taught by Professor of Dance James Hansen, held outside.

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  • 2020-09-29
  • Meghan Finnerty

Fresh Air Brought a Fresh Approach to Brockport Courses

In the era of COVID-19, outdoor teaching was a creative solution for some SUNY Brockport faculty this fall.

The spring semester was a challenging time as SUNY Brockport turned to remote learning as a result of COVID-19. “You know when it’s good, and you know when it’s not,” said Lecturer of Theatre and Music Studies Maria Scipione of her remote improv class. Professor of Dance James Hansen said he, too, wasn’t comfortable teaching modern dance online.

With the pandemic still lingering, instructors across campus took time to re-imagine their courses for the fall. That included more hybrids and the new AB/ABC-formatted class structure. The new structures help reduce in-person classroom occupancy but maintain the benefits of in-person learning.

Separately, three School of Arts and Sciences faculty members came to the same conclusion. They should hold class outside.

Now, Improvisational Theatre with Scipione meets on the backside of the Tower Fine Arts Center.

Photography with Associate Professor of Art Kitty Hubbard also congregates outside Tower.

And Modern Dance with Hansen filled Hartwell Hall’s front lawn.

Using fresh air as a solution to navigating a pandemic has happened before.

In July, The New York Times published “Schools Beat Earlier Plagues with Outdoor classes. We should, Too.” According to the piece, in the early 20th century, some New England classrooms were taken outside as a means to prevent the spread of tuberculosis. By 1909, 65 open air schools operated around the country.

About a decade later, the United States was fighting in World War I, and the influenza pandemic landed on United States soil. According to a thesis written by Department of History alum Daniel Cody ’07/’10, “Rochester Coughed: The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Rochester, NY,” President Woodrow Wilson had urged the public to avoid crowding, smother coughs, breathe through one’s nose, open windows at home and in the office, and keep a clean mouth, clean skin, and clean clothes.

Now in 2020, the outdoors add another layer of protection to social distancing when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Improv class outside

Scipione has taught improv at Brockport since 2000. She explained that the style of theatre is based on relationships, spontaneity, and trusting one another. If you can't look someone in their eyes, or see how they move, it’s difficult to build a relationship.

“For me as a teacher, to do improv, it’s crazy to be online all the time. It's very difficult,” said Scipione.

Each week, her students learn remotely for two days and in person for one. She says that one day together outside is facilitating the connection they need for improv.

“I see how they move, they see how I move. It makes for us to be more creative,” said Scipione. The freshmen, specifically, have been enjoying the experimental learning. “They’re really excited to be in a group of people,” she said. “It's just plain old fun.”

Scipione has added to that fun by embracing the outdoor distractions, including weather, pigeons, yellow jackets, boats, and deer. “That's part of what improv is in some ways. Just include it in what you're doing,” she said. “If you can say 'yes' to the distractions, it becomes a gift.”

“It was 46 degrees, but we’re going to be out there. And I'm going to stay out there as long as I can,” she added.

Photography class outside

Hubbard’s students, nearby, were spotted walking around with cardboard boxes on their heads.

The boxes are head-mounted camera obscuras, a historic technique in the development of photography that projects an inverted image through a piece of metal with a small hole, a process similar to pinhole photography.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hubbard would bring photography students into the office in small groups to see a larger camera obscura demonstration. However, with social distancing in effect, that wouldn't work this fall.  

Instead, Hubbard found instructions to make personal head-mounted camera obscuras.

Hubbard was also thinking ahead: What if Brockport returns to remote learning?

So, she added multiple forms of UV (sunlight) printing into her curriculum. This way, the students can make prints outdoors or from home. These techniques include coating paper with plant pigments (anthotypes), blueprints (cyanotypes), and expired photo paper (lumen prints) and using hand sanitizer or even alcohol to further affect the prints.

“It’s been fun to slow down and teach about the earliest processes of light sensitive printing,” she said. “It’s forced me to be more inventive.”

Dance class outside

Besides a few sunburns, hosting outside dance class has been going smoothly, as well.

“They were just so happy to be moving and be creative again,” Hansen said. “Those first three weeks were some of the most uplifting experiences I've had teaching in the past few years.”

According to Hansen, three students were planning to defer their arrival at Brockport but changed their minds and enrolled when they learned class would be in person.

When the weather started to cool down, Hansen’s class moved inside. The rainy fall or snowy winter wouldn't be conducive to modern dance. But technology has allowed the class to stay in person by utilizing two dance studios and a camera that projects Hansen live into the other room.

Hansen expects spring courses to use the same projection technology and for more courses to be hybrids. That way, students can head outdoors to dance, starting in April.  

“The more flexible and creative we can be, the better served the entire Brockport community will be,” said Hansen.

Last Updated 10/1/20

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