This has been an interesting year for me. I just started at a new school this year with the goal of establishing a performing arts program. Prior to this year, they really had nothing…one ‘music’ class was offered that was just basically a hodgepodge of students that had varying interests in music. Some students wanted it to be a choir class, some played instruments and were hoping for it to be band class, some played string instruments, some were just in the class because it was the only thing that fit their schedule…and a teacher who had no idea how to teach to such a mixture of interests.
This is the first year my school has had a full-time music teacher (and I’m not even teaching a full-time courseload). I have four students in my choir (actually, five, because one comes over from her study hall)…and 18 students in what started as ‘Music I’ but quickly turned into a theater class. Have I ever taught theater? Nope. But that’s what the kids wanted.
Starting from scratch
I’ve spent all of my free time this year (as a full-time teacher without a full-time courseload, I have an amazing amount of planning time!) trying to map out a curriculum for a course I’ve never taught, as well as trying to figure out what to do, meaningfully, with just four choir students. And, it’s been ultimately very successful! Until the tables got turned, and everything went online. And we all basically had to start from square one.
Like everyone else, I spent a lot of time panicking at the beginning, trying frantically to amass as many resources as I could to try and redesign my class. The core subject teachers at my school were just trying to negotiate how to transfer their courses to virtual learning…but I was trying to figure out what I could even DO with my students that would constitute ‘learning’ in a field where the ‘learning’ is based off of live performing! I found so many Facebook teacher groups full of teachers that were amazingly willing to share ideas, but I was quickly realizing that those ideas were for scenarios that were not mine.
I needed to find a way to keep these few precious students enjoying and invested in my budding program, and not to scare them away.
I was seeing all kinds of ideas for what to do with choirs, but I didn’t really have a ‘choir’…I had a few kids who were on their way to learning how to sing. They would not have been successful if I would have set them up with ear training and solfege exercises to do. I was seeing theater teachers posting about how to do improv exercises synchronously face-to-face, but we hadn’t even breached that subject in class yet, and I didn’t want to scare my kids away. I needed to find a way to keep these few precious students enjoying and invested in my budding program, and not to scare them away. I applied the same philosophy to my theater class, because many of those students wanted to sing and participate in my program, but weren’t in choir. I needed them to continue to want to participate!
As I was struggling to figure out how to continue my classes online, the same message kept popping to the forefront of social media…What was most important? What were the most important things I wanted my kids to get out of this? I decided that it was less important to keep going through my curriculum as planned, and more important for my kids to feel like they were getting a break from the 6+ hours of screen time they were needing to sit through a day. It was less important to hit every standard that I was desiring from my lessons, and more important for them to have a creative outlet during this scary time. It was less important for me to be able to give them grades, and more important for them to know they were cared about. Friends, this is such a hard balance!!
Virtual project based learning
I ultimately decided to go the project-based learning route. This more open-ended format would allow my students from all ends of the performance spectrum to challenge themselves appropriately, but not hold anyone to unrealistic standards. I took all these amazing ideas I was finding online and found ways to adapt them to the group of students that I had. I took Sarah Gulish’s Social Media Bingo, which she designed for her orchestra, and redesigned it for my theater kids. I took Danielle Larrick’s Blues Artist Instagram Project and altered it so my choir kids were researching a Broadway performer. We’re currently in the middle of a two-week project where I’ve shown them the mini-series From Swamp to Stage on YouTube, which gives a backstage look at how they turned Shrek into Shrek: The Musical, and then each of my students have chosen their own movie and are working on shaping it into a musical.
I had to learn to let go of my micromanaging nature…I assumed that if I wasn’t watching them synchronously do the work, that the work would not get done. But, I’ve found that most of my students are really stepping up to the plate, and I’m blown away by their creativity! I’m finding that some of my students have enormous talents in areas I’ve never known about! I’ve even gotten to the point where I am…dare I use the word, excited?…to move forward with some projects on deck (Beyonce-logues, anyone??)!
Even though I now feel like I’m settled into this online learning thing, I do constantly question if I’m doing enough. Should I be doing more? Should I be holding them to higher standards? Is this too much “fun” and not enough “meat”? I’m slowly trying to let all of that go, and to allow myself some grace. I’ve ultimately come to decide that as long as I am not causing my students more stress, I am doing a good job! And if they happen to be having fun in the process, I’ll chalk that up as a huge win.