Virtual Performances-- they have become commonplace in the age of online music teaching and the coronavirus. Our students put on their headphones, play or sing along with a recording, and then through the magic of editing, they are all able to perform together. While it’s not, in any way, the same as a live concert, it makes for a meaningful project, rewarding in its own way. And while I look forward to the day that we can return back to normal and resume the classic band concert or school musical, I assert that we shouldn’t turn our backs on the virtual performance and should continue including it in our teaching practice.
A little about me-- I teach kindergarten through second-grade general music at a public school in Virginia. I took on a project in the fall to create a music video of my 2nd-graders performing a choreographed dance to Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” Despite being a Final Cut Pro newbie, I was able to finagle the footage into something really special for our students. It was just a dance performance though-- Rachel Platten accompanied us as we performed.
That’s when singer and vocal coach, Laura Kaye (VP of the Electrify Your Symphony music education program), contacted me. Laura Kaye is also one of the contributing choreographers, along with EYS movement coach, Nathan Blake. She has become a great friend over the years, and I was very fortunate to work with her in person right before the world shut down. She said, “Your kids are amazing. Let’s do another video!”
While my teaching philosophy has always been to say “yes” to opportunities for my students and figure out the logistics later, I must admit, I was unsure that my 7 and 8-year-old students were up to the task of recording a professional-level video. She said, “Let’s use the song, ‘The Champion!’ And we will include your kids’ voices in the final project!”
What was I thinking?
So we spent a lot of time learning the words of The Champion. We listened to them. We read them. We spoke them. We sang them. We danced to them. And eventually, my students learned them.
Step one-- complete. But now I have to get two recordings from them, following very specific guidelines. I typed the instructions step-by-step. I shared them with their grown-ups. I recorded “How-To” videos sharing the precise method they should use. I talked them through it in class. They asked questions. I answered.
Now, the moment of truth.
I panicked a bit when the first of many submissions I received had to be “sent back.” They weren’t following the instructions-- they forgot the synchronizing claps at the beginning, didn’t record with headphones on, stood too close to the camera so we couldn’t see their head in the video-- the list went on and on.
But then, something amazing happened. The first student I clicked “send back” to, re-did his recording. Then the second, and the third. I reminded them to think of this as a rough draft. When we write, we revise our work multiple times before submitting the final copy. The only difference here is that we are recording, rather than writing. Some students had to make two, three, four, even FIVE recordings to get it right. That didn’t stop them. Every time they reflected, made a change, and resubmitted until I told them it was right on. It has become an unexpected lesson in perseverance.
Some of my students were worried about learning the words-- and they admittedly approximated many of the phrases in the verses-- but you better believe they belted out the chorus like it was nobody’s business. Some of them were shy about being on video but decided to go ahead and give it a try anyway. Some of them got dressed up, built a stage, added their own flair. I even got this heartwarming email from a parent about her son, “He was practicing and trying to teach the song to his “CareBear” stuffed animal last night in bed.” What more could I ask for?
Not all of their videos are of the greatest quality, and I am ok with that. So much so, that I even told the editor, “I am less concerned with the look of the video and more concerned that every student is shown throughout. They all worked so hard and took the time to record, so I want them to be seen, even if their video quality isn't great.” While this project was about getting a really great final product, the process was so much more important.
What about the other half of my students, though? Was my lesson ineffective since half didn’t even take the time to record? To that, I say “Absolutely not.” While the goal of this project was to create a grade-level music video, that is just a small part of the process. I received a handful of emails, similar to this, from my 2nd-grade parents.
“I tried to encourage her to make a video and audio recording for The Champion over the past couple of weeks, but it seems that she's feeling a bit self-conscious so we decided not to force it. I'm so sorry we weren't able to contribute to the final video. She has been practicing the song and singing it around the house, so I know that she learned a lot and enjoyed the lesson.”
This email sums it up perfectly. This student learned the ins and outs of the song. She learned the dance moves. She practiced with us. She supported her classmates who did record. While she didn’t end up submitting a recording, she learned about the process. She is one of many students who fall into this category.
And what about the others?
Well, my kiddos have been doing virtual school for nearly a year. They have been on video every single day. They have to record themselves for assignments and constantly look at how they look on screen. Perhaps they chose not to record a video because they simply didn’t want to be on camera again. I can hardly blame them.
So now, back to my original thought. This project is specific to our times. The only reason I took it on is that it’s realistically the only way my students are going to “perform” this year. However, it’s a project I plan to continue post-COVID. Let’s look at the benefits:
Now, I am in no way advocating that our music videos and recordings replace live performance. However, I don’t think we should forget the value that our virtual performances have. Maybe a virtual recording takes the place of a piece during a choir concert. Students can talk about and share the process. Older, high school students, can even edit the video.
I know that many of us probably want to forget about most things related to these challenging times-- but let’s not cast everything aside for good. After all, there have been some really incredible moments.
As I scroll through 80 files of my 7 and 8-year-old students with their headphones on, performing in their home studios, I am reminded of just how meaningful this project turned out to be.
There is no doubt that our 2nd-grade music video project is here to stay.
If you are anything like me, you entered this winter break with a mile long “to-do” list of personal and professional tasks you planned to accomplish. My list ranged from writing a project proposal to filming video lessons to lesson planning with a number of other tasks sprinkled in-between.
The grand total of these professional tasks I completed: ZERO. Yes, you heard me ZERO. (Though I did write this post, so I suppose once could argue that my total is ONE....)
Instead of writing my presentation proposal, I decided to watch reruns of Friends. Instead of filming a new video, I decided to take my dog on a long walk to a part of the neighborhood I had yet to explore. Instead of forcing myself to write lesson plans for January (since we sadly, will not be playing ukulele any time soon) I finished my book. I mindlessly scrolled through social media. I took my time chopping vegetables. I slept in late and enjoyed my cup of coffee. I stared out the window. I watched movies I had been wanting to see. I played fetch with my dog. I sat around and did nothing. Literally. AKA-- I took a break.
I loved every minute of it, and for once in my life I don’t feel guilty about not doing the things I intended. Because I know myself well enough to know that I will write my lesson plans. I will finish the project proposal, and I will make the video lessons. When I go back to work. When my break is over.
So, sure one could say I accomplished "nothing," but I will count doing laundry, cleaning my house, listening to an audiobook, playing ukulele, going on a walk, writing thank-you cards, touring the White House, playing with my dog, and the like a whole lot of "something."
It is no secret that teachers are constantly working overtime. We work when we get home from work. We get to work early to prepare for work. We work on weekends. We think about work when we are going to bed. And when we wake up. So why should we feel guilty for taking the 2 week break we so deeply deserve? And I’m not just talking about this “unprecedented,” “dark,” “challenging” year of 2020. I mean all the time. Take your break in 2021, when things are (hopefully) back to normal. Take your break in 2022 when COVID is a thing of the past. Take your break in 2023 and 2024 and beyond. To quote Eliza Hamilton, “Take a break.” You deserve it.
People often give me a hard time for how much time I get ‘off’. “Must be nice!” They say. “TWO WEEKS!? I’m jealous.” I mean, it is nice, but so is coming home from work and not having to do more work. Don’t get me wrong-- I love my job. I love my career. I love that it requires me to work evenings and weekends and mornings and every hour in-between. But I also love that it allows me time to reset and recharge, and I will certainly take full advantage of that. Wouldn’t anyone?
So for now, I will enjoy the last few days of my break, watching Home Alone 2, starting a new book, and enjoying time with my family. Because after all, isn’t that what a break is supposed to be? And what does it mean to do "nothing" anyways?
Happy New Year, my friends! Cheers to vaccines, hugs, and breaks that are actually breaks.
I remember teaching a particularly challenging group of kids. After a tough class, one of my students told me I was racist. I don’t remember the specific context of his remarks, but I do remember my response. “If I were racist, would I teach at this school?” Really. That’s what I said. That was really my response to this child. A response that invalidated his feelings. A response to a child who figured out that the school was built to teach him that his life isn’t as important as his White peers. “I can’t be racist. I teach at a mostly Black school.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that kids say things they don’t always understand. Maybe in that moment I wasn’t being racist, but just being his teacher. But maybe, just maybe, I was. Maybe he wasn’t only referring to me as racist, but was upset over his social studies lesson earlier in the day. Maybe he was upset that all of the images in his textbook were of White kids, except for the one, “token Black.” I don’t know. I’m not here to recall the specific events from a specific incident.
But then it got me thinking.
Have I used the “color-blind” approach when teaching my kids? Have I ignored their backgrounds, silenced their voices, or made judgements on them or their families based on the color of their skin? Maybe I have.
I remember my first year of teaching. I had a 3rd grade general music class that pushed me to my limits as a first year teacher. To be fair, I only saw them once a week, and sometimes even less than that. As a teacher, something I pride myself on is my ability to learn my students' names. In this class however, I didn’t know most of their names. Today, I couldn’t tell you a single child’s name from that room. They were names that weren’t common. Names that I had never seen before. And let me tell you, they knew I didn’t know their names. I didn’t take the time to learn the one thing that was most important to them because it was different from the names I was used to. Back then I would have told you I didn’t learn them because “I just couldn’t remember them for some reason.” Now I will tell you that it just wasn’t at the top of my priority list. It would have required too much effort. And they knew it.
I remember my second year of teaching at a new school. I had done a unit on film music that culminated in us watching a Charlie Chaplin silent film, “The Kid.” The only Black person in the entire film is a little Black boy who delivers flowers to the rich White people. During that short scene, one of my students looked at me and said, “Of course the Black person is the servant for the White people.” To which I replied, “Yeah, I know. Unfortunately that’s how it was back then.”
“Back then.” That’s how it was back then. What a terrible response. I am certain that she saw right through that white-washed answer. This was 2017. After Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Philando Castille. But this was music class-- we don’t TALK about race here! We don’t TALK about WHY the little boy in the movie was depicted that way. We don’t talk about WHY there aren’t ANY OTHER Black actors or actresses in that movie or ANY OTHER silent film I showed them. After all, if I were racist, would I teach in this school!? I still think back to that terrible response and what it taught that particular student in that moment.
I remember when a fellow teacher was called racist in an email from an unhappy parent. She was distraught. I came to her defense, “How does this student struggling in class make you a racist?” and “I can’t believe they would say that!” and "Why do parents always have to assume we are racist?" I didn’t think that maybe, just maybe, there was a deeper reason for that parent’s reaction. I didn’t challenge her on it. I didn’t encourage her to examine why that accusation was made. I just comforted her. Like a good White person should.
I remember teaching at my second school and struggling to connect with my middle school students for various reasons. The school was predominantly Black and Latinx. It was 2016. Donald Trump had just been elected President. It felt like the air had been sucked out of the school. I didn’t talk about it with them. I didn’t mention it. I felt their sadness, fear, and worry, but I didn’t take that moment to connect with them on how they were feeling.
I ended up switching schools that year for reasons that go beyond this blog post, but when I think back to my short six months there, the only kids I remember are the White kids. My fondest memories of teaching there are with the White kids. Why is that?
I remember my first year of teaching when a fellow teacher was having trouble with another student and asked me to sit in on their parent meeting. I hadn’t really had issues with this particular student, but still taught the class, so I joined her. I remember feeling intimidated by his Black parents. I was afraid of them, not because I was a first year teacher and still learning the ropes, but because their Blackness intimidated me. I remember sitting across the table from them and not being totally honest-- that I personally hadn’t experienced any issues with their son. I failed him that day.
I remember trying to find examples of Black and Brown actors, dancers, and singers to show my kids and struggling to do so. We watched short examples of opera and I could only find one Black opera singer. A tenor. When I asked my kids what their favorite voice part was, an overwhelming majority said, “The one with the Black singer.”
They notice. I noticed that they noticed. Now I notice too.
I remember showing my middle school students the dance documentary, First Position, and how engaged they were anytime the Black dancer, Michaela DePrince, came on the screen. I remember seeing their eyes light up when they saw her overcome the odds and become a professional ballerina. But let’s be clear-- she overcame the odds because she is Black.
I remember moving to Georgia and my friends and family members asking me if I was going to look for a job at a “better school.” I didn’t explain that I was actually leaving a great school with great kids. I let them go on thinking that I was at a “bad school.” I let them continue to have a negative perception of my Black kids.
But at the same time, I remember instances where I stood up for my kids.
I remember standing up for our best 7th grade trumpet player when they tried to take him out of an after-school activity because he talked “too much.” (He was a 7th grade boy… they all talk too much.)
I remember standing up for our best 5th grade trumpet player who wasn’t going to be invited to a special program because she was a “behavior problem.”
I remember when I stopped yelling at kids for shouting, “OOOOH” after their friend did something they thought was awesome or for dancing to a song they like when I turned on the music.
I remember how engaged my kids were when we listened to the trap remix of The Nutcracker.
I remember how excited they were to write their own raps.
I remember when I let my middle school students use their cell phones for backing tracks and every single kid was using their phone in a productive way.
I remember when I told three of my girls that their rap won the Little Kids Rock Songwriting contest. (They cried, by the way.)
I remember when I learned just how much I still have to learn.
These are just the stories I remember. The moments in time when my Whiteness got in the way that have stuck in my brain. I have come so far, and yet I have so far to go. What if I had learned my student’s names in that general music class? What if I had discussed race in the silent film? What if I had talked to my student about why he thought I was racist? What if I had challenged my colleague on that email? What if I had talked to my students about how they were feeling after Trump won? These are just the moments I remember. How many moments have I let pass me by?
And I am supposed to be one of the “good” ones.
The point is, we can ALL do better. We MUST do better.
When I was in undergrad I had this vision of going to an “inner-city” school and “making a difference.” After all, these inner-city schools need good teachers and the kids need someone who will help them-- guide them-- save them. I was taught this “savior complex” throughout my education and throughout my life. I was fed stories of white teachers going into urban schools and rescuing their students from the streets. I watched movies like Dangerous Minds where I learned that black kids are their own worst enemies, and the only way to a happy life was out of the so-called “ghetto.” I watched shows like Boy Meets World in which Mr. Feeny makes comments about people escaping to the suburbs for better schools. I was going to fix this problem. I was going to save the Black kids from themselves! I was going to make a difference!
But now I see a larger picture. I see how my thinking was flawed, and I see how not a single one of my kids needs “saved.” My kids, at a school with a high percentage of Black students, at a school with a high free and reduced lunch rate, at a Title One school, need what any other kid on this earth needs: love, respect, and to be heard.
My kids are no different than your kids or any other kids in this country, or around the world.
I have had a unique experience as a teacher. I grew up in schools in western PA that had a population of white students that was over 90%. I did my student teaching in Ithaca, New York. I taught in Palm Beach County, FL, New Haven CT, and Snellville, GA and now am getting ready for my time as an educator in Northern Virginia. As I search for a new school I find myself using the terms “good school” and “bad school” quite often. The more I say it, the more I cringe. After all, what defines a “good” or “bad” school? Many would say that my previous schools could be considered “bad” schools based on demographics alone. After doing quite a bit of reflecting on this, I decided that it doesn’t come down to “good” or “bad,” rather “well-funded” and “under-funded.”
When I look back at what I consider to be the “good” schools I have taught at, versus the “bad” schools, I realize it comes down to one thing: funding. The “good” schools have money to purchase new instruments. The “bad” schools do not. The”good” schools have the means to provide every student with a device for online learning. The “bad” schools do not. Why is it that the “bad” schools are almost always the Black schools?
How many times were negative images of these “bad” Black schools planted in your brain? They are dangerous. The kids are rude. The parents don’t care. We are educated to both STAY AWAY and that we can FIX this mess by bringing our holy White selves into these buildings and rescue the kids who go there.
I challenge higher-ed institutions to change this. I challenge them to rewrite their narratives. How is it possible that in SIX YEARS of higher-ed, my ONLY experience with Black culture was my undergrad institution’s annual Gospel Fest? (and truthfully, Gospel Fest wasn’t even taken seriously, it was just an excuse for the entire music school to drink… but I digress…) The single Black-male professor who is on staff at my university’s music school was seen in a negative light. He was seen as a Black “victim.” I never got to know him. I only ever complained about him. I didn’t understand his attitude or the chip on his shoulder.
Now I do.
We use the terms “inner-city,” “urban,” and “rough” to mean BLACK. ‘I teach at an inner-city school’ really means ‘I teach at a Black school.’ ‘I teach at a rough school’ really means ‘I teach at a Black school.’
I am going to be changing my language to match the reality. “I teach at an under-funded school.” It is not a good school or bad school issue, nor has it ever been that way.
Ever wonder why the teacher turn-over rate in these so-called “urban” (aka Black) school districts is so high? Ever ask yourself why the average class size in NYC Public Schools is 26.4 students, while the average class size of the “best” school district in the country (Naperville CUSD 203, IL) is 22 students. (For all of my non-educator friends, that 4 student difference is like night and day.)
“But every American has an EQUAL OPPORTUNITY to succeed! After all, we all live in the same country!”
I call BS.
My kids are amazing, beautiful, kind, talented humans. They love learning. They want to please me. They want to make their families proud. They want to succeed just like every other kid in every other school. And yet, I have taught at many schools that people consider, “bad.” One of my online assignments was to create a “bullseye rap.” We use a target and descriptive words to help guide them to create their own song. I didn’t assign them a topic-- they got to choose. One of my students, Jada, chose to write about herself. She is in kindergarten. She is Black. These are her, original, lyrics:
“J-A-D-A that’s how you spell my name. J-A-D-A that’s how you spell my name. J-A-D-A that’s how you spell my name. It’s Jada. It’s Jada.
I’m kind, sweet, and honest. I love my skin. I love my hair. I love my eyes. I’m strong, brave. It’s Jada. It’s Jada.
J-A-D-A that’s how you spell my name. J-A-D-A that’s how you spell my name. It’s Jada. It’s Jada.”
The moment I realized I didn’t need to “save” my kids was the moment we really began to connect. They are intuitive. They know what your intentions are.
At the end of the day, it is up to us, as educators, to decide what message we are going to send them.
This isn’t about my hip (More on that tomorrow), and this isn’t just my story. This is the story of every teacher across the United States dealing with 1,000 different emotions all at once.
I, along with the rest of the teachers of the world, said goodbye to about 25% of my students via Zoom. What happened to the other 75%? I have no idea.
This year wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was shaping up to be my best year of teaching so far. I had the BEST professional development of my LIFE over the summer. I was finally a RETURNING teacher, so I already had relationships built with my students. We got new guitars and started ROCK BAND. I got us buckets and drumsticks and had multiple Donors Choose projects funded. I did the Little Kids Rock 102 training and spent time with Dave Wish. I was part of the LEADERSHIP SYMPOSIUM at GMEA. I incorporated hip-hop and instruments into my lessons and was making SO MUCH PROGRESS with my kids. We even won the Georgia Music Foundation grant and hosted Laura Kaye and Nathan Blake-- one of the highlights of my entire teaching career.
And all of that momentum came to a screeching, grinding, HALT.
I left my classroom on Thursday, March 12th having no idea that I wouldn’t be returning for the rest of the year. To be perfectly honest, Thursday, March 12th was not a very good day of teaching. I was worn out from our chorus event the previous week, feeling unorganized with my lessons, and really looking forward to my planned 3-day weekend.
Little did I know, that 3-day weekend would turn into something much more than that.
My district was one of the last in the area to decide to cancel classes, and even then they cancelled for a week and said they would “reassess.” Well, they reassessed and decided to cancel for another week. It was fun at first-- for everyone. An extended break and some time away. We’ll come back after spring break and crush the remainder of the school year.
Then the governor cancelled classes for the remainder of the year.
Hi! I am Nicole Guimaraes. I'm a K-2 music teacher in Falls Church City, VA. I've got an amazing husband and a fabulous dog who keep me busy. If I'm not teaching or walking my dog, you can probably find me at the gym!