Teaching From a Distance, still making a Difference

Bloggers Introduction:

Mrs. Angela Baer teaches orchestra at elementary school in Pennsylvania, USA.

I am so thankful that she contributed a guest post for the blog despite her busy schedule! In the following write up, Mrs. Baer details how she has been managing teaching orchestra music online. Teaching and playing musical instruments is usually a very personal experience. However, since the current situation imposes social distance, teachers were forced to account for the lack of interaction and teach online. A big shout out to all the educators who have provided continuity in learning despite the challenges

Shreyas A: How have students been learning online during the COVID-19 school closure?

Mrs. Baer: I teach orchestra at Shamona Creek, Springton Manor, and Brandywine Wallace Elementary Schools in the Downingtown Area School District.  Orchestra is an elective or what’s considered an “encore” class, and is offered to students in grades 3-12.  The elementary encore teachers (who teach either art, music, library, physical education, string orchestra, or band) were required to create weekly lessons and post them on the educational platform, Schoology.  Students were asked to complete assignments which included a wide variety of activities, some examples of which were google choice boards, nearpods, watching instructional videos and creating projects, and participating in online discussions. 

Live teaching was not required.  I posted assignments asking students to continue to practice their instruments to prepare for a Spring “Home” Concert. 

During the first month of the closure, I was learning how to use Schoology and other technologies such as zoom and google slides.  I did not offer live instruction, but I did create additional audio and video recordings to assist my students, which I already had in place prior to the COVID-19 closure.  Once I had completed training in facilitating or “hosting” a zoom session, I began live instruction, which took place from April 20th-May 29th.  Students were invited to join a weekly orchestra zoom meeting.  If they requested assistance with instrument tuning or repair, or in preparing music for their home concert, they had the opportunity to schedule a one-on-one zoom with me.  My class periods were 30 minutes each and I taught anywhere from 5-8 live classes each day, Monday-Thursday.   

Shreyas A: What feedback tactics were used?

Mrs. Baer: I provided live feedback to students who participated in one-on-one zoom sessions.  If a student needed assistance but did not schedule a one-on-one zoom, I made them a specific instructional video to help them which was sent either via Schoology or in an email to their family.  I provided feedback to all students who participated in the Home Concerts via Schoology Messenger. 

Shreyas A: What was the biggest challenge teaching orchestra online, and what was the biggest success?

Mrs. Baer: There were two main challenges to teaching orchestra online.  The first challenge was that students could not hold rehearsals or concerts via zoom due to the internet delay and issue with the microphones.  So at the first weekly class zoom meeting, I had to explain to students that our small group lessons and large group orchestra rehearsals and concerts would not be able to take place.  The students were all practicing their instruments individually at home.  The elementary teachers were not grading during the school closure, so our assessments did not take place.  I made recordings to assist my students as a regular practice for years before COVID-19.  However, the students were never asked to or taught how to make a recording online to submit to me.  Since the entire school closure has been overwhelming for everyone, I decided to give the students the option to record their Home Concerts and share it either directly with me, or with everyone to enjoy via a FlipGrid.  Since some of the students were not comfortable recording (although I did give a live tutorial on recording through Schoology), I did not get to hear all of them perform.  If online school continues into the 2020-2021 year, I will structure my zoom schedule differently so that students will be required to either perform one person at a time in a live class, or create a short recording and send it directly to me.  Then I can be sure to hear every student perform and provide them with the proper feedback to help them grow. 

The second major challenge was that I was not able to continue classroom routines of instrument tuning and repairs.  Students are not expected to tune their own instruments until 6th grade, and major repairs are not learned until high school or beyond.  The first few minutes of each class period in a traditional setting is spent with students unpacking their instruments, writing down their weekly assignment and getting set up.  While they are doing this, I tune their instruments.  Repairs are made as necessary throughout the day for students, and is completed usually during that initial tuning period in class.  When school closed, I created two new instructional videos for tuning.  Audio recordings were already in place, as my 4th and 5th graders learned tuning briefly last year, but the 3rd graders had never learned how to tune.  Some students found the videos helpful and were able to tune on their own.  However, some students preferred to have a live zoom with me to help them with tuning.  Many instruments needed repair during the school closure, and I had live zooms to help those students as well.  The nature of tuning and repairing an instrument is mechanical, and most times I was working with entire families, as an adult at home was needed to assist the student.  Repairs that would have taken me just a few minutes to complete at school took anywhere from 5 minutes to 50 minutes through a zoom.  It was perhaps one of the most challenging and time consuming experiences that I’ve had teaching online.

Shreyas A: What did you do during your free time?

Mrs. Baer: I have my own children at home at the elementary level and high school level who attend Downingtown Schools.  My time was balanced between teaching 300 orchestra students and teaching my 2 youngest children, all in elementary school.  The free time that I did have was spent completing domestic duties, weekly shopping for my own immediate family and elderly family members, walking my dogs, working out, and attending virtual mass.  I am thankful for the fact that my husband and I were both employed during this closure.  I tried to make a positive difference in the lives of my students during this pandemic, and I am looking forward to seeing them all again in the fall.  

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