Miranda Nelken, a Keene Middle School art teacher, chatted this past week at a picnic table behind the school on a cool, misty morning because, well, there’s an elephant in her room.

It’s been there since mid-March, stalking the educational experience for teachers and students nationwide, in all age groups, forcing radical adjustments to the learning process.

“COVID was the elephant in the room,” Nelken says, “and we had to figure out what to do.”

While some subjects are more conducive to online learning than others, middle school art lessons are highly dependent on teacher-student interaction. Nelken says she was originally at a loss when the coronavirus pandemic shut down the building for what turned out to be the rest of the school year. “I definitely felt a lot of frustration and felt very overwhelmed,” she says.

Students in grades 6 through 8 take art classes for one quarter of the year, spending 42 straight school days in 40-minute sessions in the art room. The curriculum includes clay, painting, drawing and mixed media. “We basically carry on where the elementary schools leave off, and we prepare them for high school,” Nelken says.

Thus, she had to adjust quickly. In meeting the coronavirus pandemic home-school challenge, Nelken struck on an idea: Instead of trying to circumvent its drastic effects, why not take on the elephant in the room straight-on? Give the students a platform to express themselves in how COVID-19 has affected them. “It was an amazing opportunity to create art about something they’re going to remember the rest of their lives,” she says. “Twenty years from now, people will ask them, ‘What happened to you during that time?’ and I want the kids to remember those experiences.”

And what better way to express their emotions and leave a lasting imprint than through art?

Nelken opted for simplicity and even that presented plenty of complications. She asked her students to sketch out their coronavirus experiences by drawing a series of cartoons, ideally creating an alter ego in their comic panels. The characters could be human or not — one student used the personalities of cats and dogs and another chose pizza — but originality was the goal. Most, though, chose human forms.

“I was willing to do anything to get them interested at the start,” Nelken says. “Anything to do with COVID; let’s start making a cartoon about it.”

Nelken divided the lesson plan into three components: creation of the art, revisions, photography and publishing. The latter was optional and required parental permission, but the goal was to allow students to share their work with the public, motivating them to do their best. Virtual art shows using slides, Facebook, the school webpage and, now, the local newspaper all offer public viewings of their work.

Photography is not part of the regular art class curriculum, but since students couldn’t bring their work into the classroom, photos became the medium that linked their work with Nelken. Students took pictures of their comic strips and sent them in. Nelken gave them guidelines in taking the photos, such as lighting and camera angles.

All cartoons were drawn in black and white to keep the lines as sharp as possible. Students started their drawings with pencils, then inked them in with either a ballpoint pen or thin black marker. Students were given the option of coloring them after they were photographed, but Nelken says in many instances, the black-and-white strips were more eye-catching.

“The whole point was that they get to the heart of what COVID meant to them,” she says.

The process wasn’t without its challenges. Nelken says that after the first drafts came in, many revisions were necessary. They often required a title with creative and expressive lettering, character details, scene identifiers, close-ups to connect to the viewer, spell checks and improved handwriting. Some students pushed the boundaries and had to be edited for content. Throughout, they were handicapped by the pandemic restrictions — Nelken says the level of detail would have been much crisper if afforded a one-to-one classroom setting.

“If they put care into their work, that was important to me,” Nelken says. “It’s a way for them to be engaged and be a part of their community.”

In class, students are encouraged to walk around the room and check out the work of others. At home, through Google slides, they took virtual walks in inspecting their classmates’ cartoons. Ironically, the home settings may have helped. “They were able to see each other’s work in a way they may be too shy to do so in the classroom,” she says.

Nelken is writing an article chronicling their academic journey coping with the pandemic for SchoolArts Magazine, a national art education magazine committed to professional support for educators in the visual arts. Her article is still a work in progress — it’s in the revisions stage — and she says the whole experience of her students cartooning COVID has had a profound effect on her.

“It creates a way — and it could be painful or difficult sometimes — to brighten the outlook and allows them to have a voice in what they’re feeling,” she says. “It’s hard to bare your soul.”