Journey from the Classroom to Online Teaching (and Back Again)

Classroom to online teaching

I know all states, districts, and teachers are currently in different phases of remote teaching at this point. You may already be a few weeks in; maybe you’re starting to hear what the plans will be; maybe you’re still on spring break and this is still a few days away. Regardless, we all have to start somewhere and at some point. Here are a few things I have learned (and am still learning) in my own journey.

First Steps: Setting Up and Planning Lessons

Since the beginning of the school year, I had an email just sitting in my inbox from my AP. It was of an online program called Flipgrid. I briefly checked it out and then ignored it because how I had typically interacted with and quizzed/tested my orchestra students in the classroom worked pretty well. Also, being a Title I school, some of my students don’t have internet or technology access. In other districts, I used to have them record themselves in a practice room because my program numbers were much larger and it killed less class-time. However, due to this new virus, having to teach online, and now having to think a bit differently, I was reminded of that email—and thankfully it was sitting there waiting for me. That email got me thinking about what else I was going to need and do and prepare for this unknown future ahead…

As it turns out, Flipgrid was a huge help! Flipgrid is a program that allows students to record 15 seconds to 5 minutes worth of material for you and their classmates to view and interact with. You can post assignments or topics and then they can make a video to share their response back or you can shut-off their responses depending on what your goal is with the post. It’s free and it’s worth using! I incorporated free concerts and museum tour links for the students to view during this time, gave them my SoundCloud page, and will set up activities using SmartMusic. 

SmartMusic is giving you and your students free educational access through June 30, 2020. It’s pretty cool that we are able to give and receive assignments, get instant feedback on our students’ performances, as well as explore the full SmartMusic library of content from over 400 publishers. If you don’t use it currently, now is a great time to explore it with your students!

Look into other programs that are available to keep in touch with your students and parents. Some options are: Remind, Class Dojo, Google Classroom, Skype, and Zoom, just to name a few. If you’re able to choose one yourself, make sure to choose one that you’re comfortable with. Set it up, try it out. Play around ahead of time so you’re not jumping in and trying to use it right as virtual classes begin. 

Next Steps: Taking Care of Your Students from Afar

It’s wild to think that there’s a possibility that we may have seen our students for the last time right before our doors closed. Supporting our students and parents is something that is essential for us to do as much as possible. I know there are a ton of questions out there regarding how the education systems will host graduations, how we will go about grading students over this extended break, how we will decide to advance students for the following school year, and so forth. This is uncharted territory for us all, so the questions and lack of responses are normal and expected.

Begin utilizing those aforementioned resources (whatever you decided on: SmartMusic, Remind, Google Classroom, Zoom, etc.) as soon as you can so you can establish contact and a routine.

When you do start communicating with them, ask them how they’re doing. Make it a safe place and a place they look forward to meeting each class time. Though we don’t know how this will play out, reassure them that everything will be fine. That you all will get through it together. Get them set up in SmartMusic, not only to keep their practice up during this time, but also so they can have fun and help alleviate stress. For those that may not have access to the internet, contact them however you can, as soon as you can, and see if there’s a way to regularly get packets delivered or meet via phone. 

And lastly, encourage them to spend time with their families and help out where they can. These are trying times and the days can be long and stressful, but for many, it’s creating more time to be together; more activities, games, movies, and playing outside than during “normal” life. 

Future Steps: Planning Your Return to the Classroom

I think it’s safe to say that most of us will have limited time, if any, in the classroom once we return. So, how do you handle that time? In Texas, they canceled state testing, so that helps a lot and gives us more time than usual. No matter what the scenario is, use your time wisely!

Once you’ve found a rhythm in your newfound virtual space, try to slowly start focusing on and thinking ahead to your return. What technique exercises should I work on next with my students? How is current inventory for instruments? How do we address and tackle fully sanitizing everything? How is the stock of—and condition of—the method books and performance music? What audition materials should be used to start placing them in their next proper ensembles? And so on. 

Whether or not school ever resumes session this year, start hyping up summer music camps! It could be an extremely welcome release and fun way to not only see their peers again, but make music together again in person. Start pulling up a list of local camps and lesson opportunities. Or, if feasible, host your own summer camp so you can reconnect with your students and try to make up for some of this lost face time. 

And finally, think about how you’re going to wrap up your year. Regardless if it’s in person or virtually, consider doing some kind of award ceremony or classroom ceremony to recognize the hard work your students have given throughout this unbelievably difficult and trying year. Talk through the challenges, but most of all, celebrate all they’ve accomplished and learned together despite the hardships.  

Mark Hillegass Jr.

Mark Hillegass Jr. attended the College of Wooster (Wooster, OH) on a performance scholarship, earning a bachelor's degree in Music Education with an emphasis on Saxophone Performance. Mr. Hillegass has been teaching 9 years in Texas public schools. Over the course of those 9 years, he has taught grades PreK-12; band, choir, orchestra, general music, music history, and music theory. He has also received various honors and awards such as being a TMEA clinician, named Teacher of the Year, and was a two-time Dallas Symphony Orchestra Music Teacher of the Year Finalist.

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