Normally, the singers in the Bexley High School Vocal Ensemble would see each other and sing together 47 minutes a day, five days a week.
Since switching to distance learning March 17, the choir students now see each other 30 minutes a week in an online video conference, the technology doesn’t allow them to sing together. Nearly all of the performances they’ve been preparing for have been canceled.
“There’s no way to replicate what we do,” said Amy Blosser, director of choirs for grades 7-12 at Bexley City Schools director of choirs.
With the implementation of distance learning while Ohioans shelter at home, Blosser has changed completely the types of learning experiences she is able to give her choir students online.
Music and art teachers around Ohio are reshaping how – and even what – they teach to keep students learning and give them outlets for emotional expression during a difficult time.
Over the last several weeks, Blosser and her students have been coming to terms with a stark reality: Technology can connect people around the world, but it cannot actually bring people together.
“They’re performance ensembles," Blosser said. "They’re not just performing classes, they are performing as an ensemble, so they’re performing with others and they’re learning how to refine their craft through singing with others, which is not possible in any way right now."
While many teachers had only a few days to turn their actual classrooms into virtual ones, Blosser and other Bexley City Schools teachers had a week-long spring break and some additional district-wide calamity days to reconfigure their teaching for the virtual realm.
Blosser used that time in part to see how other teachers around the state and around the country were planning to revamp their work. Many of them, Blosser says, were planning to give their students a virtual choir experience, similar to the virtual choirs that composer Eric Whitacre made famous.
The singers in Whitacre’s virtual choirs video record their parts individually, then submit their videos to Whitacre’s team. The video recordings – which have often numbered in the thousands – are assembled and presented as a virtual performance on an online platform.
In their first week of distance learning, Blosser asked her students to watch three of Eric Whitacre’s videos, to listen to his recorded talk about the virtual choirs, and to write about what they thought of the virtual choir as a way for them to continue singing in choir while distance learning.
According to Blosser, some students thought virtual choir was an interesting way to connect people. But others pointed out that a virtual choir cannot substitute for the experience of singing together.
“I think it’s a cool way to be connected with people around the world when you’re not dealing with a pandemic," she said. "I think if we tried it four months ago just for fun, it would have been a different reaction than what a lot of people are feeling right now. But I know my students, and I figured a lot of them would feel this way.”
So Blosser has created a series of weekly assignments to engage her choir students with different aspects of music. One assignment asks students to use the GarageBand app to create a piece of music and to write about their compositional process.
Other assignments ask students to interview a family member or friend about their experiences with music, to compare two different recordings of the same piece of music, or to create a program for a choral concert and write about why they chose those particular pieces of music.
“I’m trying to give them things that connect them musically, but that are not trying to replicate what we do, because I think it would honestly traumatize them more," she said. "The loss of what they no longer have… it’s hard.”
"Screaming For A Place To Process"
Providing kids an outlet is precisely what art teacher Amanda Schaeffer says she’s aiming for. Schaeffer teaches 7th and 8th grade students in the art and ecology classes for Hilliard City School District.
“They are screaming for a place to process what’s happening,” Schaeffer said. “So I’ve really been trying to use art as a platform for that for them.”
Schaeffer’s class normally focuses on using natural and recycled art materials to explore themes about the environment. But in response to COVID-19, Schaeffer says she has adjusted her class’s usual themes to encourage students to create artwork that explores the themes of change and transformation, loss, and experience.
“We’re using art as a way to kind of document where they’re at right now at this place and time," Schaeffer.
To invite creativity and expression, Schaeffer instructed her students to create a piece of artwork in any medium in response to the prompt: What’s different today from a month ago?
“Many kids were talking about COVID-19, but they were also talking about a loss of innocence, in a way,” Schaeffer said. “A lot of kids made comparisons to 9/11, even though the kids weren’t born yet. They said, ‘We can only imagine that this would be how people felt during that time’ in that, all of a sudden, things are completely different and will never be the same.
"For some people, it was more the social thing, being in public settings," she continued. "It’s a lot of layers that I think we’re just beginning to peel back. So I think it’s interesting to give them that platform to talk about those things.”
In addition to changing the thematic shape of her course, Schaeffer has also had to adapt her schedule. She asks her students to check in with her every day during her virtual office hours. She also schedules one-on-one Zoom meetings.
Students participate in a daily discussion thread: They watch a brief video or view a work of art and respond to questions about it with comments in an online discussion thread.
“Students keep telling me these discussion threads are their favorite because they can still interact with other students," Schaeffer says.
Schaeffer also gives her class weekly artmaking assignments. She encourages students to use whatever materials they have at home – from pencils and paper, to homemade modeling dough, to shaving cream.
And Schaeffer now holds a weekly virtual “Bob Ross-style” art class, in which she and her students work on art projects together during a designated Zoom meeting.
“Kids bring their coffee cups and whatever art they are working on,” Schaeffer said. “We talk about everything from democracy to Tiger King.”
That hour-long weekly virtual meeting makes up for only a fraction of the 6.5 hours each week Schaeffer and the students would be spending together in their normal face-to-face class. But they all get to see each other, even if only on screen.
“That’s what I’m hearing consistently from kids,” Schaeffer said. “Seeing their friends is what they’re missing the most.”
"A Traumatic Experience"
Although the educational technologies currently available cannot perfectly satisfy many teaching and learning needs in the unified arts, the types of learning experiences they do allow are still valid, says Amy Palermo, chief content director for education for WOSU Public Media and head of WOSU Classroom.
“You can give students meaningful experiences and give them collaboration tools and allow them to connect that way, and I think it is meaningful and it does matter when they’re isolated in their house," Palermo says. "So we absolutely cannot replicate what happens in a face-to-face classroom, but technology will allow us to continue learning in different ways and even with different priorities.”
Palermo also says that, in the current situation, she is seeing the arts play a heightened role in how teachers of core academic subjects do their work.
“They may not have thought of it before, but suddenly we are relying on things that are available to kids at home to teach things we would have done differently in the classroom," she says. "We’re seeing a lot of teachers turn to music or visual arts to demonstrate their knowledge.”
For instance, teachers might use a drawing to demonstrate a concept, or hold a science contest in which they ask their students to create models using things they have in their kitchens.
“It could be historical lessons in which they are creating poems or cutting up magazines," Palermo says. "I’ve seen them create skits. It is a natural way to have kids express what they’re learning through creativity.”
Creative experiences give students an outlet for expression that is always important for their social and emotional learning, but even more important in the current situation."
“This is a traumatic experience for our kids and being able to provide outlets in the arts is a very recognizable benefit for the kids, regardless of the content area," she says.
Social And Emotional Wellness
Helping his students process trauma by expressing their feelings through art has never been more important, says art teacher Jonathan Juravich.
Juravish is the host of WOSU Public Media’s "Drawing with Mr. J" video series, which helps elementary school students build emotional and social skills through drawing. He teaches K-5 at Liberty Tree Elementary School in Powell’s Olentangy Local School District, and serves as the district’s elementary art department head.
“I’m a visual art teacher, but I really focus on the social-emotional wellness of my kids. That has been my focus in my classroom,” said Juravich.
Juravich, who was named the Ohio Department of Education’s Ohio Teacher of the Year in 2018, says the current distance-learning situation means that he can’t introduce his students to certain art materials and art-making techniques the way he normally does in his face-to-face classes. Like Schaeffer’s students, his students have to create artwork with whatever materials they have in their homes.
But, in the weekly video lessons he gives via Google Slides, Juravich says he is creating more overt opportunities for his students to express their feelings through their artwork these days.
“(For one project), I said, ‘We’re going to draw trees, and we’re going to throw stuff up into the trees. It could be stuff you want to protect. It could be stuff that you’re angry about right now. It could be stuff that you wish that you were doing,'" Juravich said. "And so, just by giving them those prompts, it really hopefully is prompting them to process everything that we’re going through and, in many cases some of the grief that they’re also going through."
"It's About Being Together"
Shane Harris is another teacher who says his middle school band and orchestra students also are going through grief. He's director of instrumental music at Pleasant View Middle School and also a music instructor at Holt Crossing School, both in Grove City’s South-Western City Schools District.
“That large-group setting is impossible currently, even with the great technology we have,” said Harris.
Harris, who teaches students in grades 6-8, can no longer rehearse with his ensembles. So, like Blosser, he’s using technology to help them engage with music in different ways.
Harris says he’s assigning some exercises on an online music theory app. He’s also assigning students exercises in their method books to practice their instruments. And online technology like Google Classroom is allowing Harris to stay connected with his students in virtual class meetings, to receive and submit assignments, and to ask questions.
Since his 7th and 8th grade students have been using these online applications for the last two years, Harris says the transition to distance learning has been relatively smooth for them. However, the transition has been more challenging for his younger students.
Although technology is allowing Harris’ students to learn things about music remotely, the students cannot have the same social experiences that playing in ensembles provides.
“Students have friends... and band, choir and orchestra are places where they come together and get to hang out with their friends," he said. "And for a lot of students that’s the reason they’re in these classes, and that’s OK. We can’t really do the thing that’s so central to music education, and that’s the collective part.”
Still, Harris says he has been able to replicate part of the group music experience for his students by holding his beginning clarinet class through the Google Meet video conferencing app. The students can’t all play together as they would in a face-to-face class, so Harris demonstrates and they play back at home. They only get to hear each other play if a student volunteers to play solo for everyone in the class.
“If you want to have your mic turned on and play for the class, that’s wonderful. But for a lot of students, that’s a bridge too far. They’re kind of nervous about putting themselves out there,” Harris said.
But even if current technology cannot allow band and orchestra students to make music in a group, Harris says it can still connect students. And at a time of widespread isolation, that’s doing a lot.
“Since we can’t do what we normally do, the focus has become a lot more on making sure the students still feel like they’re a part of our family and a part of our team,” Harris said. “We (recently) did a daily briefing to kick off the week, and we had 25 kids with their faces up there (on screen) all waving to each other.
"No one had their instruments out, but they were all together and showing their cats and showing their dogs, and that’s a win for us because that’s what music is," Harris continued. "It’s about being together. And just because we’re not playing doesn’t mean we can’t be together. We just can’t do them at the same time.”
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