Art, music and PE are wild subjects to teach online. But creative Michigan teachers are making it work

Teaching young students how to hold a trumpet or showing them how to glue an art project together takes patience and skill any time.

Doing so in the virtual learning space caused by COVID-19, however, takes even more, and that has taken teachers outside their comfort zones and pushed them to get creative this school year.

Many kids across Michigan still are attending school from home at least some days each week and classes, such as band, choir, art and physical education, require that extra dose of creativity to keep students engaged and learning.

“We’re trying everything we can think of,” said Beth Jonker, a Mattawan Consolidated Schools band teacher. “I’m in over 20 years teaching and this feels like my first year.”

Jonker and others like her are using technology, along with teaching essentials like ingenuity, to teach their students the fine arts.

Music teachers battle audio lags that don’t allow virtual students to play in real time with their in-person classmates, said Jonker, who teaches in hybrid mode in partnership with teacher Bill Boswell.

Virtual students are muted on Zoom but play along with their classmates and keep time with a metronome played over the loudspeaker in the classroom, Jonker said. Breakout rooms allow small groups of students to practice together virtually or perform for their classmates and teacher, too, she said.

“It’s never as good as if we could have everyone here in person but it’s wonderful to be able to have some type of strategy where they can feel included and connected and enjoy not just the time with each other but building each day toward learning a piece of music,” Jonker said.

Mattawan school band

Mattawan Consolidated School students learning in a hybrid mode participate in band in both virtual and in-person settings. (Photo provided to MLive by Mattawan schools)

Playing her flute at home while following along with her classmates over a webcam is difficult, Mattawan sophomore Emma Coleman said. But continuing to play in the band even in virtual school is important to her because the band is “like a family,” she said.

Coleman’s mom often hears her daughter playing her flute while a younger child plays percussion while they each are in virtual school.

“So at different parts of the day I get to have my home filled with wonderful sound,” Bobbi Coleman said.

Heather Bigelow is an art teacher at Portage’s WoodsEdge Learning Center, a special education center-based school that’s part of the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency.

She’s embraces her acting skills and the use of puppets or pets to keep her students engaged, she said, adding that teaching during the pandemic “has really stretched me in ways that I did not know I could be stretched.”

Bigelow records herself doing lessons so students can access them at different times. She stays aware that students are doing these art projects at home and tries to find things they can do with supplies found around the house.

Students do a lot of paper cutting, tearing and gluing, she said.

Bigelow also collects supplies needed for the week’s projects and makes sure they are either picked up or delivered to each child’s home.

“I can honestly say that when I first thought about it, I thought there’s no way in the world this will ever work,” Bigelow said of teaching art to students with disabilities via Zoom. “We can do it. I think we can do a really good job and I was kind of surprised.”

Jonker has created games to encourage students to stay connected on Wednesdays when everyone in Mattawan schools is in virtual mode. Her class plays a Jeopardy-type game where students take turns playing their instruments for each other and answer trivia questions.

Jonker also will soon implement software that allows the high school students to record themselves both visually and auditorily so the full band can be pieced together digitally.

“That’s the closest thing right now in the performing arts world to helping them hear each other in the moment,” she said.

Jontaj Wallace II is in his first year of teaching middle and high school band and choir in Jackson County’s Hanover-Horton School District. He sends audio files or recorded videos to students to practice along with on their own. The students then record themselves playing and send that back to him, Wallace said.

Beginning band students also have participated in virtual workshops where they learn things like how to hold and clean their instruments properly, Wallace said.

“A lot of it is demonstrating it myself via Zoom,” Wallace said. “Having all the instruments there and demonstrating and then watching the kids do it.”

Hanover Horton Band class

Students from Hanover Horton schools learning during a virtual band class. (Photo provided by Hanover Horton Schools)

Alison Resor and her Jackson Public Schools physical education colleagues use online workouts and games to engage kids and get them moving at home.

When students were fully virtual, Resor hosted live Zoom workouts where she encouraged students to turn on their cameras and do aerobic dance together with their classmates and teacher.

“These were fun because not only students would be ready at those scheduled times, but many times their family members would join in,” Resor said. “This was exciting to see since the pandemic has left many lonely and longing for human contact.”

Resor and her team also created different workouts using decks of cards and fitness-based scavenger hunts, and taught students how to swap out hand weights with milk jugs or canned goods they could find at home.

The physical education teachers also focused on students’ social and emotional health by teaching yoga and stretching, mindfulness and meditation activities, and had students keep gratitude journals to focus on what they are thankful for, Resor said.

“We know that many of our students benefit from learning about mental health and staying happy during these challenging times,” she said.

Ann Arbor Public Schools theater teacher Quinn Strassel was forced to think outside the box when last spring, days before his students were set to perform, schools were abruptly closed due to the pandemic, he said.

Instead of throwing in the towel, his students created a five-part miniseries of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” using homemade green screens and lots of special effects editing, Strassel said.

“We shot all the footage in Zoom, but I think the eventual product is much more visually interesting than ‘Zoom Shakespeare’ sounds,” Strassel said.

To help you navigate this complicated school year, we’re pleased to offer you a simpler way to get all of your education news: Our new Michigan Schools: Education in the COVID Era newsletter delivered right to your inbox. To receive this newsletter, simply click here to sign up.

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