As I write this, I am beginning my eighth week of distance learning due to the Covid-19 virus outbreak and school closure. Never did any of us expect to be in this situation nor for it to last this long. At this point, we have no firm date of when we can re-open school on site in Beijing. With new rules about quarantine procedures in Beijing it also makes it difficult for families to return.
On January 23rd, our Chinese New Year break began in Beijing. My husband and I had just enjoyed two glorious weeks in New Zealand for the winter vacation and we looked forward to staying home for this break.
Our school population largely travels during Lunar New Year, as does most of China, and many people left with nothing but their suitcase and a cell phone. We knew by February 1stthat we would not be returning to school on February 3rd, as planned. So, I took a suitcase to school and packed up some resources, instruments, and materials to bring home so that I could create a teaching space from home. Both my husband (who teaches high school science) and I felt very fortunate to be in Beijing so that we could create two separate spaces in our apartment from where we would make our lessons. We couldn’t imagine being in a hotel room somewhere trying to make and produce both of our lessons.
As a school, we had no plans for this: there was no prior warning to prepare and for teachers staying abroad, they would have to make and produce online lessons from wherever they were and with whatever they had.
That first week was extremely stressful and felt, essentially, like my first year of teaching. We had long online meetings with team members, designed lessons that would transfer online for students who had little to no materials. We also experienced multiple technological issues, and navigated the balance of working from home.
Optimism and Survival Mode:
At first, I felt optimistic about this experience. As a team we made an online eLearning mission that we sent out to students and parents the first week of eLearning:
The ES Performing Arts department is excited to share our goals and eLearning program framework with you! The many and varied obstacles in teaching eLearning courses in the performing arts are, in a way, exciting as they provide an opportunity to be innovative in our delivery and design of lessons. We are aware that students may have limited access to instruments and other materials during this time. The ES Performing Arts department aims to offer lessons that are engaging, require active music making, and are delivered in conjunction with supplemental online activities, applications and other resources with minimal need for instruments or additional resources. We also welcome this opportunity to grow our relationships with students by maintaining close contact through Seesaw by responding to every student post. In this manner we aid in our students understanding, confidence, and ability to engage in the performing arts anywhere they may be.
Getting into a rhythm and making adjustments as we go:
After the first week, it became clear that we couldn’t recreate our classrooms in an online setting. We also received feedback from families that eLearning was overwhelming and unrealistic. As specialists, art and music scaled back to one lesson per week with one assigned task. Videos would have to be 5 minutes or less and the tasks would be simple.
Technology issues decreased and we learned better ways to deliver our content.Student work has not shown to be of high quality nor full participation, but seeing student work is delightful. I realize how much of what I do actively in the classroom is based on the day-to-day interactions and how special it is that we create music together.
From student submissions, it has become very obvious that some lesson activities are better than others in developing successful student work. Melodic lessons on new material, as well as singing in tune, has been less successful than rhythmic-based activities such as rhythm reading, dictation, body percussion, and found sound projects.
Working in teams can be difficult in this setting and I want to praise my team for the outstanding care and collaboration they have exhibited in order to create captivating lessons (that aim to move our curriculum forward). It’s not always easy, especially for this long of a time, but there has been honest conversations, flexibility, grace, patience, trouble-shooting, and humor.
I continue to be intentional about my time. I am resolved that distance learning is the reality and I need to be ok with it. This is not ideal, but we are making it sustainable and manageable. We want to create joyful lessons and create community for our students away from school.
Everyone is doing the best that they can. Online learning is stressful for children and families. Hopefully, families are taking a balanced approach to eLearning. I hope that students are getting plenty of movement, time for creativity, off-screen time, and have ample opportunities to think and behave artistically/ musically (even if they don’t always engage with it digitally).
Tips for successful lessons:
- Begin with the knowledge that nothing you do will not replicate what you do in the on-site music classroom… and that is ok.
- Like us, students are learning how to do all of these lessons online and may be managing the learning with a varying amount of support at home. It is difficult to manage this many subjects for all students (from elementary to high school).
- There has to be a hook, a spark, an element of excitement that will attract the students to engage.
- Make simple lesson formats with clear and succinct directions.
- Give one assignment task with extension activities.
- Provide notation and time estimation of the activity.
Care: Tips for managing professional anxiety in this uncertain time:
- What are the basic priorities? For me, it is still creating joyful lessons that connect to children and help maintain community while we are learning in isolation.
- Life isn’t normal and it’s ok to struggle. That means that concerts will most likely be cancelled and some curriculum expectations have to change.
- Being real: this is not how we prefer to teach. This is not how we interact or facilitate active music making. It’s ok to feel uncomfortable.
- At the end of the day, we hope that students find a way of thinking and behaving musically/ artistically.
- Take care of you and your family. There is lots of information and articles online about how we can use this time to nourish ourselves in order to be the best, possible (blessedly-imperfect) versions of ourselves now.
Skye Sanford has been in the music education field since 1999 and has taught in the U.S. in Wyoming and Minnesota before teaching in New Delhi, India and Beijing, China. Currently, she is in her fourth year at the International School of Beijing as an elementary music teacher, elementary choir director, and team facilitator of the elementary music team.