Set to retire just before the coronavirus hit, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton High School teacher reflects on how her young students in the spring of 2020 pivoted to cellphone photography in the time of COVID-19.
Looking back at her last year teaching high school art before retirement, Shelli Fenske had somewhat of an odd end in the spring of 2020 to her 35-year career as the coronavirus pandemic impacted schools everywhere.
Just five weeks into the spring semester, her final semester before retirement, Fenske had to pivot her black and white 35 mm film photography class at Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton High School into something a little more approachable for the young creatives.
Instead, the teacher instructed each student to use their cellphones to shoot the places and spaces they saw while staying extended periods of time indoors and separated from friends.
The striking photographs in black and white compiled from her class include empty streets, quarantine barricades and students reaching out from their isolation to the outside world through the help of a little modern technology.
“Teaching during COVID changed my relationship with them and I found myself feeling more connected as we all had to work through this time together,” Fenske says.
Using a Bruce Springsteen song as inspiration to help her students examine their environments, Fenske played “My Hometown” to kick off the project — a song she said they weren’t familiar with before she played it for them.
“I was really touched to see how some kids who had dealt with a lot of peer pressure when they were in the classroom, kind of open up and express themselves,” Fenske says about the switch to virtual learning.
But the transition wasn’t easy for all of her students, notably for a few seniors who had to miss out on track and field in the spring.
“Some of my artists that were the strongest in the classroom, like totally shut down. And that was just so defeating, because I’ve always been able to get everyone going,” Fenske says.
For the class, she dug deeper into black and white concepts by sharing the work of venerable photographers like Dorothea Lange, known for the Depression-era pictures she took for the Farm Security Administration.
“Some of them didn’t know they had it within them when they were in school and in their little groups and stuff, they didn’t dig down inside, and I think this really did make them reflect,” Fenske says.
As the only art teacher at the school, Fenske served as the catchall coordinator for classes in sculpture, drawing, painting, graphic design and ceramics throughout her time at the school.
“Teaching everything was wonderful because I learned a lot of extra things that you don’t typically get,” she says.
A self-described maker, Fenske grew up just outside of Valley City, N.D., where she would later go to college at Valley City State University and major in graphic design.
“That’s such a key component I think nowadays to be able to teach kids design and communication with your work,” Fenske says.
Fenske’s personal artwork is guided by her experience teaching each craft, and her work often leans toward mixed media. Her jewelry is inspired by childhood trips to western North Dakota, and her wire crafts can be traced back to the days she spent helping her father with horses and putting up fences.
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and first appeared online Monday, April 19, 2021,