Things are moving fast at Thomas Armour Ballet, and we don’t only mean the dance classes.
Since mid-March, the dance program that has operated four school outreach programs located in lower income neighborhoods in Miami for the past two decades began transitioning to providing virtual services for the close to 1,000 families that participate in its programs.
And while Thomas Armour has been a model of how to successfully evolve during the pandemic, staff and administrators are already looking forward to the summer when society will face another coronavirus challenge.
“We’re most worried about the traditional summer slide and how things will be even more challenging this year,” said Ruth Wiesen, executive artistic director.
Fortunately, the close to two months of experience the program has with providing virtual after-school programming for its children will come in handy as it refocuses on summer programming. Staff members and instructors are now experienced with the digital tools they need to reach and engage their students. The students and their families have also been provided with devices to be able to receive the programming.
Beyond the equipment and training, however, Wiesen says that the two months have shown Thomas Armour a lot of what works and what doesn’t when trying to reach children.
“For many kids who are already struggling, if we are not very interesting they will not be signing in,” Wiesen said. “We already were challenged to make things interesting but in the summer we are going to have to ramp up the fun and engagement factor. The summer will be more of a challenge. “
Yolando Washington said that when the pandemic first forced the closures of schools, her daughter worried about becoming isolated. “(Now) she looks forward to meeting with her peers and the staff through Zoom… and see(ing) her friends virtually,” Washington said.
Thomas Armour is constantly finding ways to make learning and activities more attractive, including turning school assignments into games, reading to them and other ways to engage with games and activities centered around stories. During the summer, they are also planning for ways to take virtual field trips to give children the chance to experience different places if they can’t physically go to them.
Although Wiesen says that the new realities of distance learning make the personal connection between instructors and students suffer, in some ways the pandemic has given Thomas Armour a look into the lives of its students.
“You can see a lot in their homes. Who is coming and going and the conditions they are (living) in. It gives us information we don’t normally have,” she said.
For the students, the connection with teachers and other participants provides a social outlet that is just as important as the learning. “They are missing that personal connection. Not only to the teachers but to other kids,” Wiesen said.
“I like the program a lot. It permits my girls to stay in touch with their friends and TAYB staff. The teachers work in the same materials and same pace as if they were face to face with the children,” said a parent of two Thomas Armour participants who identified as Mr. Charles.
Carina Fernandez, who also has two children attending Thomas Armour classes, agrees.
“For my family, it has been enormously helpful for the program to keep providing activities online. My daughters have been able to get in touch with their classmates and teachers. That has helped to cope with the restrictions imposed by quarantine,” she said.
And while the program has shifted its priorities to focus on learning and engagement since the pandemic has taken center stage, don’t think that the ballet and dance instruction has been left behind. Sure, the challenges are new, but the joy only reached through dance are the same.
“It’s been very challenging to teach dance. Everything has to be done in place, on different surfaces – some safe some not and all in a 4x4 square area,” Wiesen said. “Still, the students appreciate being able to dance.”
Looking to see what your children have been missing at Thomas Armour Youth Ballet? Check out a new feature on StayHome.Miami with 13 videos of dance instruction from the program’s experts. Have your children share their dance moves in a video and post it on Instagram, tag @thechildrenstrust and @taybballet and use #StayHomeMiami, #TheChildrensTrust, and you could win a $200 gift certificate for classes at Thomas Armour Youth Ballet.