I would consider myself quite a bit of a classical music nerd back in high school. I played French horn, while my twin sister played flute. One of our friends, Megan Garza, also played flute and became a music teacher – SUCH a cool gig! When Megan agreed to be interviewed, I was beyond psyched to hear what her experiences with distance learning were as a band teacher. Here I was lamenting about how hard it was to teach high school math remotely – but to teach music to 5th graders who literally have never played an instrument before!? I can’t even imagine! But as you’ll see, Megan made it work!
Julia: Tell me about your school and your role. What are the demographics of your school? How many students do you have? How many staff? What grades do you teach? What subjects? How long have you been there?
Megan: I teach band and general music at Smith Intermediate School in Forney, Texas. My school is located in a rapidly growing suburb of Dallas. My campus has about 80 teachers/staff and just over 1,000 students total, but students continued to enroll constantly (even when we moved to virtual learning – so yes, I had some students I never even met face-to-face). We are kind of the “hot spot” suburb at the moment, so there are quite literally entire neighborhoods springing up all over the place. The low price of housing, especially to purchase a newly-built home, definitely is a big draw for our area for people to move from out of the city, and even from out of state, although this also means we have a lot of families who are “house poor.” We have a fairly large Black and Hispanic population. We are a Title I school with probably about a quarter of our students on free and reduced lunch. Our demographics are constantly shifting with the move-ins and our schools are trying hard to navigate the influx of new students and the challenges that brings.
Smith is a 5th and 6th grade campus, and this was actually our first year with this particular setup… so it was already a crazy year before COVID hit! Prior to the change, we had elementary K-6 and middle school 7-8. Before teaching at Smith, I taught band at one of the middle schools in our district for 2 years. When they opened the new intermediate school, I decided to move down because I love teaching beginning band and we were transitioning to starting our beginners in 6th grade instead of 7th grade. So I taught 3 sections of beginning band (split by instruments – so I taught flute/oboe/bassoon, trumpet, and French horn) as well as 4 sections of 5th grade “exploratory” music. My 5th grade classes learned how to read music and play recorder, and learned about the band instruments they could play in 6th grade. This class was part of a (slightly confusing) rotation with Art and STEM classes.
Julia: In what ways was your school prepared for distance learning?
Megan: District-wide, all of our students from grades 3 up had Chromebooks and were familiar with how to use them, so this was a big help. The students were also used to using Canvas for their classes (although, I personally did not use it much for my classes before this started!) We were one of the first districts in our area to launch our virtual learning. The closure was announced toward the end of our spring break week, and we were up and running with virtual learning the following Wednesday. Having the technology infrastructure already in place was a huge help in being prepared to make that shift.
Julia: In what ways was your school unprepared for distance learning?
Megan: This is more of a personal note, but I was not prepared for using Canvas as much as I did. I had to teach myself a lot and dig back to my training from years ago. Obviously, we were all trying to figure this out as we went, so how could you really be prepared for something like this, but grading was definitely one point that I felt the most unprepared for. From the district level, the decision on what/how things would be graded took a long time to come, so we went from “nothing is being graded, really, but please participate,” to “you need to complete these assignments, but they will be graded on mastery/nonmastery.” And then there was the fun added bonus of, “well, electives don’t really count anyway.” It was hard to explain these changes and keep students engaged when they didn’t have a clear understanding of what they were expected to accomplish, and I felt like I had to send out an overwhelming amount of communications as things kept changing.
Julia: What does your typical school day and week look like now?
Megan: This was very flexible at my school. We were told we should offer some sort of live instruction, but with no set schedule or requirements. My typical day would be a Zoom staff meeting in the morning (which were daily, then were eventually cut down to a few times a week). Then, I would grade playing assignments on a program called SmartMusic and offer feedback on 5th grade music assignments on Canvas. I would also make instructional videos and work on the plans for the next week’s assignments – typically, I had two to three assignments per class to be completed by the end of the week. I would answer about a million emails from students, mainly with login questions (so fun!). Then, in the afternoons, I would have one hour of Zoom office hours, where my band students could stop by for help on their playing assignments. These weren’t incredibly well-attended, although I did have some “regulars” who actually excelled with some one-on-one attention! Then more email answering and grading. Between all of this, I was also trading off taking care of my one-year-old with my husband, who was sporadically teaching private music lessons on Zoom. I’m thankful we didn’t have to put her in daycare, but it definitely made for some interesting times!
Julia: What platform do you use to teach (Zoom, Google Classroom, etc.)? What are the pros and cons of that platform?
Megan: As mentioned, we used Canvas and Zoom as a district, and we for the band program used SmartMusic. Canvas is fine, once you get used to it, although I think it has a steep learning curve for teachers and students. I like that it’s customizable and you can really create some great assignments on it, which are easy to grade in Canvas. However, the customizability also means that each teacher is going to use it in a different way, which I think can be confusing. For our exploratory 5th grade classes, the four rotations had to “share” a Canvas page, which made things challenging for the students not to get overwhelmed with a ton of assignments since they had a choice of which activities they wanted to complete. Another major con for me was that since I was using SmartMusic, there was no way to integrate that with Canvas, so I had to put information and grades in multiple places.For Zoom, like any video conferencing tool, the main con for me is that you can’t play music in realtime because of the lag. So I can listen to students, but I can’t play along with them, and they can’t play together. So for small groups and one-on-one lessons, it works well, but with larger groups, they have to take turns, which isn’t the most efficient method. Plus, with the varying qualities of student’s internet connections, you never know if you’ll really be able to accurately hear what they’re doing!
Julia: What’s the funniest thing that happened so far during distance learning?
Megan: One day, we had a discussion with a few of my students on Zoom about how long their hair is getting (my school has a pretty strict dress code, which includes restrictions on the length of boy’s hair – obviously not in effect during virtual learning, but basically, I’m used to seeing them with short hair) A few weeks later, I got an email with the subject HAIR UPDATE. One student sent a picture of how long his hair was to me and a few other students. Another student replied with how long his hair now. It was the most random thing, and I loved it!
Julia: How do you think kids are handling this time emotionally? What should other teachers and schools prioritize?
Megan: I think it’s been very challenging for most students. They were really missing their friends and teachers – so many students said they really wanted to go back to school, which is not something you’d expect to hear from 5th and 6th graders! Several of my little band nerds (really good students) would tell me they were either overwhelmed with the amount of work, or that they were bored of just being at home and needed something fun to do. A lot of them fell behind in their work (since it didn’t seem like it would be graded at first) and then struggled to get caught back up, which I’m sure was stressful. My beginning band students didn’t get to have their spring concert or their spring trip, which is normally the most fun time of the year. I think we need to prioritize the human connection – talking to our students and being there for them, especially when they might not have anyone else to talk to. Of course, this is true virtually or in-person: the relationships are so important, and showing that you care about the students’ lives will make them more willing and able to learn.
Julia: What do you think will happen in the fall? Is full-time distance learning the future of education?
Megan: I certainly hope that full-time distance learning is not the future, at least for band! Here in Texas, the trend seems to be to offer a choice between in-person and virtual. However, my district has yet to release any sort of plans for next year. I fear that if that is the case, I will lose out on a lot of my best students who have involved parents who CAN manage virtual learning. I would ideally like to see some sort of a hybrid, where we see students in-person some days and virtually on other days. This is actually similar to what I would hope students do in band anyway: we work on music together in class, teach concepts, and then they practice their parts at home. The students who are most successful are the ones who spend more time doing good-quality at-home practice, and the whole band is better when everyone knows their parts and can dedicate their in-class rehearsal to learning how it all fits together. So I think my goal is going to be to really enforce the HOW to practice aspect to allow my students to learn more without needing me. But in the end, I NEED to have in-class time because music is a social activity and students need to learn to play music with others. Plus, there are so many things I need to see them in person to teach, especially when they have never touched the instrument before. So while I do actually think some subjects can work totally online, I hope that is not the trend because I think music classes would start to disappear, and our students need the arts more than ever right now!
One of the things I took away from Megan’s interview is how internet quality and video-conferencing software just really isn’t made for some things – like a whole band rehearsing together. I’m also so proud of Megan’s school for continuing to support the arts during the pandemic. I know my school at least had to cut back on most electives for distance learning. These are the things that keep many students engaged in school and provide awesome social-emotional benefits.
Final thing I’ll add is a throwback pic of Megan, my twin sister, Cat, and their other flute buddy from our senior year of high school! (I also found a picture of the three of us from our AP Calculus kickball game, but I’ll leave that one up to your imagination!)