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Monday, April 13, 2020

Equity in Distance Music Education: Relationships

We're now a few weeks into this whole distance learning situation, with plenty more to come. While there are a million things we have to figure out as we restructure our entire profession, no question is more important right now than how we continue our equity work and re-imagine what social justice looks like in this new school environment. I certainly do not have any answers, but I wanted to share my initial thoughts to encourage us as a profession to have these conversations and work towards solutions.

I know I'm not alone in thinking about how far "behind" all of my students are going to be when we finally get back into our physical classrooms. It's bad enough trying to review everything when we come back from summer vacation- how much will my students remember when they've been away from me for this long?!? So then the question for me becomes, what are the most important things I need to do my best to maintain with my students during this distance learning time to make that transition back to school easier?

The answer I've arrived at for now is relationships. The most important thing I need to maintain is my relationship with my students. The #1 key to my students' ability to learn from me is our relationship- the stronger it is, the more they (and I) grow. Reading music notation, using proper vocabulary, demonstrating proper singing and instrument playing technique... they'll pick that all back up pretty quickly. But if I lose my relational foundation with my students? That will take much longer to recover.

But how can I maintain relationships with my students when I can't even see them? In my district, we aren't allowed to host any live video classes or conversations- we're only interacting online via google classroom. Here are some of the solutions I have come up with so far.

1. Classroom Interactions

Without the ability to have live conversations and interactions with students, I've realized just how important every interaction I have with each student is. I am making sure that I return every assignment and activity that students turn in with a private comment that includes a personal and positive note. In every video I make for my online lessons, I try to be conscious of looking at the camera to make "eye contact", and imagining the particular students the lesson is for in front of me and talking to them as if they were there- interjecting humor and keeping my energy level up. Every chance I get, I tell them how much I miss seeing their faces and how excited I am to hear from them. No matter how small, I respond to every single comment and submission- it's time consuming with hundreds of students, but I've realized this is the most important part of my job right now.

2. Watch My Language

This is always important but never more so than now: I have been very conscious of what I say in my videos for lessons and any text directions for assignments. If I'm talking to them about getting someone else to do something with them, like encouraging them to teach someone a song or game from class, I refer to "people in your house" rather than parents or family members. Not all of them are living with their parents and never have students been more acutely aware of this than when they're confined to their house! I also avoid saying things like, "most of you probably have ___", like if I'm talking about objects around their house that they could use for found sound. I don't have control over their learning environment right now nor am I fully aware of what that looks like for each student. Little comments like these can make students feel distanced and forgotten.

3. Individualize

I'm still working on this because it's such a HUGE adjustment for me, but I have been realizing how much more effective it is if I speak and write to one person rather than a group. So in my videos, I'm trying to switch from "Hi everyone" to "Hi there", from "OK everybody echo after me" to "OK my turn, then your turn". In my written directions and messages I'm trying to switch from "I miss you all" to "I miss you". From my perspective I'm speaking to the whole grade level, but from the students' perspective I'm speaking to them alone in front of a computer. These are hard habits to break- after 13 years of teaching to a group I still catch myself saying "everybody" a LOT- but it's important!

This hit home for me the first day my daughters started their online learning. They are in 2nd grade in another building in my same school district, and one of their homeroom teachers had recorded an opening video message for his students to watch first before starting their assignments. The video started with a shot of his desk at home, then he came into the frame, looked straight at the camera, and said, "Hey! I remember you! I haven't seen you in so long!". My daughter's face lit up. I started bawling. We have to remember that our students are now primarily interacting with us and our lessons as an individual, not as part of a classroom full of other kids. And that can be very powerful!

I know some teachers are using different distance learning platforms outside of the online teaching format I'm using, either sending out hard copy packets, or hosting live teaching sessions. If you're only able to send out packets, this endeavor is harder, but I think still possible. Include some form of contact information for families to get in touch with you in every packet if you can, and encourage students to reach out. Put a personal message at the beginning of each assignment, even if it's just to say "I miss you". Reach out to families whenever and however you can. If you're teaching live in one way or another, lucky you! Be sure to allow time for students to connect with you and with each other on a personal level, and advocate hard for access to those live sessions for all students by communicating with administration about families who aren't connecting. Find alternative ways to maintain communication with those who can't be involved in your live classes.

I hope this sparks some reflection and conversation for other music teachers as we continue to figure this stuff out. I'd love to hear your thoughts- please leave a comment below. Of course all of these thoughts are based on the understanding that you've been building positive relationships with your students before schools closed- here are some of my previous posts on creating a more equitable music classroom for all students:

I have been and will continue to share lesson ideas with tech and no-tech options, tips for managing life at home, and more here on my blog. I encourage you to check my closure page regularly for updates:

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