About fourteen months ago The Before Times ended, ushering in The Age of The Virus. On 16 March 2021, my little school transitioned to distance learning, and like other schools in South Carolina, we finished the year online.
With Awards Day today and graduation just eight days away (next week is Exam Week, so it will be a much lighter week than most for yours portly), it seemed appropriate to review this highly unusual school year, and to reflect upon how it went, and what the long-term implications of it will be.
One of the truest statements I’ve ever heard is “if you want to learn something, teach it.” Much of my teaching career has been built upon that premise, and it’s stretched my mind and talents far beyond what I thought I was capable of achieving.
A young education major at the local liberal arts college once told me that it’s unethical to learn on the job when teaching. As I recall, I laughed in his face, and said, “Kid, the only way to learn how to teach is by learning on the job.” No one knows everything, especially educators (why do you think we became teachers?).
That’s certainly been the case with teaching guitar. I’d always struggled to wrap my mind (and hands) around string instruments, and while I picked up bass (one note at a time is much easier than six), I assumed I’d never be able to play guitar. Indeed, I’m still not very good at playing guitar, and would not consider myself a “guitar player.”
What I discovered is that as I taught guitar lessons—often fumblingly so initially—I was learning to play guitar.
Last week was an exceptionally busy one for yours portly, with a number of duties and responsibilities intersecting at once. I’m sure many readers have noticed this phenomenon, but there is a decidedly cyclical nature to workflow; indeed, it’s almost tidal in the manner it ebbs and flows: I can go for two or three weeks enjoying a fairly placid schedule, only to have a couple of weeks of intense activity. Everything seems to come to a head at the same time.
That’s particularly true in education, a field that is structurally cyclical, with regular intervals of heightened activity baked into the calendar. The third quarter ended Friday, marking the beginning of the end of the school year (fourth quarter—that last, mad dash to summer vacation—starts today). That means last week was a flurry of finalizing grades and writing report card comments.
My school requires unique, individualized comments for every student, and though we teach (on average) fewer students than the typical public school teacher, we’re expected to go above and beyond. Because my colleagues and I were scolded as a group for comments deemed inadequate (for the record, I always write exceptional comments), I decided to double-down and write even more ridiculously detailed comments. Our registrar read through them Friday morning (after I worked furiously and late into the night Thursday to finish them before the weekend) and said, “I felt like I was reading a novella.” Mission accomplished.
That’s all to say that I’m very tired, so I thought this Monday would be a good opportunity to offer some brief updates.
It’s that time of year when Christmas music dominates the airwaves and our collective consciousness. It’s always a tad irksome to me how folks will complain about Christmas music during the Christmas season. Of course you’re going to hear Mariah Carey every fifteen minutes—it comes with the territory. Naturally, let’s at least get through Halloween (and, preferably, Thanksgiving Day), but at least make an attempt at getting into the Christmas spirit.
Last year I wrote extensively about Christmas carols. Indeed, one of my many unfinished projects is to compile a small book containing the stories of some of our most cherished carols (I want to write a similar book about hymns, too). I play and sing a lot of carols this time of year: I’m a music teacher. Perennial favorites—and the selections my classes are currently playing—are “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” and “O Holy Night.”
We’re back to distance learning today after a positive case of The Virus, and since it’s the day before Thanksgiving Break—historically the biggest blow-off day of the school year—my administration decided to play it safe and declare today a distance learning day. As such, I took the assignment derived from The Story of 100 Great Composers and ported it to my high school music classes. Those classes will share about their composers today.
Yesterday my school ran its second Live Remote Learning Rehearsal Day. We have actually done really well with keeping cases low—almost non-existent. Nevertheless, our administration is taking a proactive approach by testing out remote learning in various scenarios in the event we need to go fully online.
Today my school is doing its second Live Remote Learning Rehearsal days. These are days for us to test out remote learning in the event The Virus necessitates returning to distance learning full-time. Last time teachers tuned in from home while teachers were on-campus. This time, both teachers and students are able to work from home, so I’ve been enjoying a more leisurely morning.
Indeed, I just wrapped up my first morning class of the day, a section of Middle School Music. The students in that section wrote brief, rough draft biographies of renowned composers, and after giving them feedback in-class yesterday, they presented on their composers this morning. It was a good lesson for digital learning, as it required their active participation for the bulk of the class, and they all did quite well.
I’ve assigned composer biographies in music courses for years, but what inspired the assignment this time around was the rediscovery of a charming little book I keep on a small end table in my den: Helen L. Kaufmann’s The Story of One Hundred Great Composers. Published in 1943, the book is a tiny, pocket-sized digest of two-to-three-page entries—arranged chronologically—of composers from the sixteenth century forward.
The school year is roaring on, and we’re already coming up on the end of our first quarter (an unusually truncated first quarter, as we’ll only have been in school seven weeks by this Friday, plus two days). I’ve been writing a bit more about education lately, as is common during the school year. In The Age of The Virus, it makes for slightly more interesting writing than the usual complaints about overstuffed classrooms and understuffed paychecks.
I also haven’t featured education since “Lazy Sunday XXIV: Education,” so it seemed like a good time to revisit the topic that consumes most of my daily life. Here are some recent posts on that all-consuming topic:
“Progress Report: Teaching in The Age of The Virus” – I wrote this post just a few weeks ago, when interim/progress reports were coming out at my school. It was a good opportunity, after nearly a month of teaching, to reflect on the additional challenges and burdens of teaching live to students face-to-face and online simultaneously, and of recording (often with buggy apps) for international students to watch later. The workload has since taken on a more familiar pattern and rhythm, but those first few weeks consumed huge amounts of time and energy.
“Teaching in The Age of The Virus: Live Remote Learning Rehearsal Day” – I wrote this post just two days ago, and it was a bit of an update on my “Progress Report.” This post reviewed our “Live Remote Learning Rehearsal Day,” in which all students stayed home and livestreamed classes via Google Meet, while teachers taught from their respective classrooms. I was surprised by how challenging it was to maintain the rapport of a classroom setting while having students sitting at home. Very odd.
“SubscribeStar Saturday: Making Music, Part II” – When I wrote this post yesterday, I had forgotten I’d written anotherSubscribeStar Saturday post of the same name in May! That was bound to happen eventually, so I hastily added the “Part II” to this one. Yesterday’s post was a bit of a counterpoint to the frustration and pessimism of Friday’s review of the live remote rehearsal day: it was a celebration of music education, and the joy of watching student-musicians forming bands, writing lyrics, singing songs, and all that. Indeed, it’s a reminder why teachers teach—and why music teachers have it the best, even if they work hard.
Progress reports go out to students today at my little school, so I thought it would be a good time to provide an update of my own now that we’re nearly a month into the school year. I posted about teaching in The Age of The Virus after the first day and the first week, and now I have a much better perspective on how the year is unfolding.
As a refresher, my school is doing mostly face-to-face instruction, but with some students doing distance learning. Students have the option to go to distance learning pretty much at will (for example, I had one student who stayed home today with a cold, but who tuned into my music appreciation course), and can return to school at any time. Students engaged in distance learning are required to attend during the scheduled class period.
The caveat to that general rule pertains to international students. We have a number of students overseas who, because of new restrictions due to The Virus, are stuck in their home countries. Many of those students’ classes are late at night, or even in the very early morning, after accounting for the time difference. It’s a long way from South Carolina to Vietnam.
What that means is that we have to teach our regular classes; livestream them; and record those livestreams, making the recordings available after the class. It sounds easy enough—so long as everything works perfectly.
That’s turning out to be the fly in the pancake batter. As one of our dedicated science teachers said—the lady who troubleshoots our woeful technological glitches—“I can livestream, or I can record. The trouble is trying to do both.” Amen to that.