Skip to main Content

Public school music teachers get creative during the pandemic

  • Author: Loren Holmes
  • Updated: November 8, 2020
  • Published November 8, 2020

Homestead Elementary music teacher Hannah Johnston plays the ukelele for her 2nd grade students during a Zoom class on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020.

On a recent school day, around 30 Homestead Elementary second graders joined music teacher Hannah Johnston as she sang happy birthday to one of their teachers. As she played piano, the children all joined in at slightly different times. The result was not exactly harmonious, but everyone was happy. Because even though they were all in different rooms, they were making music together, connected over the videoconference app Zoom.

When the Anchorage School District switched to remote learning at the end of the last school year, some classes only required minor retooling. But for many of the performing arts classes, any delay in a videoconference connection or a bandwidth hiccup can make learning difficult.

ASD has said that prekindergarten through second grade children will return for in-person learning on Nov. 16, with older children to follow, but for now Zoom is the only way Johnston and other music teachers can connect with their students. Even when in-person learning resumes, Johnston will continue to teach her music classes over Zoom because the students will be in small cohorts with a reduced length of day.

Homestead Elementary music teacher Hannah Johnston in her classroom last week. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

“I’m extremely fortunate in that my staff and my administrator recognized how important the arts are,” said Johnston. “We were originally told that specialists, meaning visual arts, physical education, music, health, they wouldn’t be allowed to deliver their content, it would be delivered by a generalist. So, our PE teacher would be responsible for a grade level, and he’d teach the music lesson, the art lesson, the PE lesson, the health lesson.”

Johnston’s schedule has changed a little bit because of the remote learning setup, but not as much as she initially feared. She now teaches third grade general education in the mornings and music in the afternoon.

“We are certainly struggling,” said Dr. Bruce Wood, ASD’s Director of Fine Arts. “And then doing the best we can.”

For some older kids, learning a new instrument online has actually been a blessing in disguise. Lucy Stone, a sixth grader at Bayshore Elementary, says that she likes the virtual setup. “I like doing it online because he can give each one of us feedback,” she said. “We submit videos to him, and our teacher, Mr. Zelinsky, he can give every single person feedback. Instead of, if we were in person, he probably wouldn’t be able to give all of us feedback.”

Bayshore Elementary 6th grader Lucy Stone is learning clarinet with teacher Rick Zelinsky. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Rick Zelinsky, who teaches beginning band students from multiple schools, has embraced the virtual learning platform. In addition to using Zoom to teach students as a group, he posts short lesson videos on another online learning platform, Flipgrid, and asks his students to respond with a video of their own. For example, in one of his first clarinet lessons he asks the students to name each part of the instrument and put it together. If a student has a question they can ask it directly in the video, and Zelinsky will respond with another video.

Lucy’s mom, Shannon Stone, is happy that her daughter is able to learn a new instrument during this time of remote learning. “It’s nice to have a new activity when you’re stuck at home,” she said. “When we found out school was cancelled she was really hoping that band was still going to be able to happen because it was something she was looking forward to.”

Another sixth grade clarinet student, Isabela McMillan, says she likes the one-on-one feedback of the online setup but that she misses her friends. “It was so fun to play duets and stuff, and it was just kind of nice having a social life and music,” she said.

For Klatt Elementary 6th grader Madden Pitka, learning to play the trumpet online is easier than some other subjects. “When I’m not on Zoom and I have a math question, sometimes I get stuck on one part,” he said. “I go to my parents sometimes and they don’t know the answer either.” (Loren Holmes / ADN)