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Virtual art camp helps CCPS students learn coping skills, ease stress

Carroll County Public Schools is midway through hosting a five-week online "camp" for students called Art for Positive Power, in which art teachers and counselors create activities to teach students about dealing with stress and coping skills.

Many of the middle-schoolers participating were offered a spot at the camp because they have faced loss or other traumatic events. Pupil Personnel Workers and other school staff who know their students well helped to recommend them.

The art teachers and counselors meet with groups twice per week for five weeks over video chat. The meetings include instruction, time for individual work and time for discussion and sharing work.

Their goal is to make it feel personal and connected even across the screen. Each of the campers came into the first day with a different level of comfort sharing their art.

To serve as models, all of the teachers and counselors do the projects alongside the students. Students can share their finished pieces over video, or in the chat function if they don't want to talk on camera. Art teacher Megan Breckenridge made a "gallery" in the Google Classroom where each piece shows up in a frame.

The adult mentors at the Art for Positive Power camp did each activity along with students to help them feel more comfortable sharing. (Courtesy Photo)

Sykesville Middle School counselor Laura Moses took time during the first session to ask students to keep everything shared within the group.

Beth Buckalew, a fellow counselor at West Middle School, said, "I think that's just another way of encouraging students to feel more comfortable knowing that this is a safe space for them to share. What they're experiencing both art wise and emotionally at the same time."

Breckenridge and fellow art teacher Jennifer Girard started by planning activities and a theme for each week. Next, Moses and Buckalew started making ties between the activities and concepts like breathing exercises and stress management tools.

"I mean, we all need them right now," Moses said. "This and also just engaging kids in conversations with each other, and conversations with us. It doesn't necessarily have to be really heavy. We've had some pretty nice, in-depth conversations. But we've also had just fun conversations and having a good time with the kids this summer, which has been really nice."

Before the start of Art for Positive Power, each student got an art kit with everything they'd need. For the art teachers, it was important to give lots of choices, from acrylic paints to drawing materials to sculpting clay, they said. CCPS staff delivered the art kits by hand to each student's doorway.

And the kit is not just for the assignments. Girard said she hopes the students will be able to continue making art and using art as a therapeutic tool far after the five weeks.

The summer of 2019 was the camp's first year. It went by the name Camp Thrive and took place at Carroll County's Outdoor School. It was designed to be a supportive space for middle-schoolers whose home lives have been touched by addiction or by addiction-related loss or trauma. Many students have returned this summer, and others are new faces.

Judy Klinger, supervisor of school counseling for CCPS, has stopped by some of the sessions this summer. She said it was heartening "to see these students readily engaged that don't necessarily know each other."

The teachers have said this is good practice for all if CCPS education is at least partially online next year. The kids are getting more comfortable with the technology and teachers are learning how to make an environment that feels less sterile and more engaging.

The camp is funded by a grant from the Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center, for education and prevention purposes. When the onset of COVID-19 made it clear the camp could not take place in person, it was repurposed for the online experiences, said Chris Tobias, assistant supervisor of Health Education.

When students finish the camp, she hopes they will have built coping skills, self-expression and resilience and made a connection with adults they can trust for support.

Even the teachers have felt the benefit of being a part of the camp.

"It gives some structure to our week, give some something to look forward to something to think about," Moses said. "Something that we're doing that we feel is is meaningful."

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