Teaching Music History in April 2020: Covid-19 Interrupts, but Does Not Stop Us

It has been three weeks now since my classroom was abruptly moved into my home office, onto my computer, into Zoom, Google Forms, emails, and, and, and...

Today was the first day since the changeover that I truly could not face any work.

I felt depleted. I felt drained.

So instead, I am writing a rambling blogpost with various thoughts about my experience over the last three weeks.

In general, I have stopped using paper notebooks in recent years, mostly because in teaching at several institutions, travel with 'luggage' weighs me down. But my immediate reaction to everything moving online was to incorporate paper and pen back into my life.

When this all started in the second week of March, I began to take notes about my feelings, notes that seemed helpful at the time, todos, and agendas for classes all into a paper notebook. I suppose this is not too surprising. It is actually more practical to be able to see what I needed to do on something that wasn't an electronic glow.

Looking back through these early notes, however, reveals the desperation for clarity and order in the sudden move away from the physical classroom. Things changed by the hour, and it is evident among the notes that are scratched out, that many todo items were no longer relevant the very next day.

At the beginning of the semester, my students always receive an electronic folder full of readings, music recordings, instructions for assignments, and extra materials that they will need. Since I began teaching at two different institutions several years ago, I normally have most of my teaching/learning materials in electronic form. It guarantees that I don't forget anything since everything is in the cloud or on my computer, at my finger tips when I need them.

This allowed the Great Transition Online to be quite smooth. I knew that my students had everything they already needed to finish the semester. They also were already familiar with these online platforms, reducing the shock of going fully online. Nevertheless, before we were dispersed into the far corners of the world, I made sure that everyone would be able to access these resources if we ended up in completely different places. I was grateful that they were all able.

For Covid-19, I decided to offer two platforms of learning for my teaching: Reading questions generated through Google Forms and Synchronous Classrooms and Office Hours.

In the past, when I needed to be away for conferences, I have made Google Forms and small little video clips that instruct my students what I wanted them to do for the week that I was gone. They are crude little video clips, but they are just enough to show my face, tell them hi, and offer a sense of reassurance that I will return soon.

I generate a set of reading questions for the assigned readings and place them into a Google Form. This allows me to see how students individually engaged with and understood the text. The resulting responses to these questions can highlight what I might need to cover later in class when we meet again. Because I knew that this method already worked really well in the past, it was my immediate go-to online teaching method.

I decided that our synchronous time would be spent discussing what we had learned individually with some additional material offered to my students by me through PPT transmitted across Zoom.

For one of my optional office hours, I offered a tutorial on the Pomedoro Technique. I introduced  the basic concept to my students and then practiced with them a short, synchronous writing session. The collaborative silence in which we worked was very effective.

Despite having a good plan that was tested and was going to work decently well, it has been a challenge to move entirely online. It is time consuming, and deciding what is most important right now has given me unanticipated decision fatigue.

One of the things I also did not anticipate was that teaching online offers very little "teaching high."

Now, given everything else that is going on right now in the world, perhaps this is the least important. But I, like many other teachers I know, thrive from the energy generated by the learning that takes place in the classroom. I engage with them, ask them lots of questions, ask them to repeat what they have just learned, and ask them to share what they have learned with each other.

The first synchronous class that I held on Zoom wasn't a failure. But it sure did not have the same level of satisfaction I have learned to cherish in a physical classroom.

I am learning that the method of asking questions has to be different. The chatbox, where students can type in their responses, works really well as an alternative spot for everyone to chime in their opinion. It is a silent response, with shouts of "yes!" or "I like that idea" or "let me read what xxx says here..." But the fact that they can communicate quickly without interrupting each other has been an interesting new classroom experience.

Learning and engagement is happening.
It is just different from what I am used to, and is taking some adjustment of expectations.

In the final question on the Google Form I ask: "What did you learn today? What was most interesting to you?" Because this is a required question in order to complete the assignment, I get everyone's response. And the results from this have been the most satisfactory for me.

Often within a physical classroom, I don't get a chance to hear from all of my students when I ask this question simply because some are more willing to share with their colleagues more than others. I've learned that this is just fine. Not everyone has to speak up all the time. But the personal responses that I have been receiving has made me realize afresh that learning is always taking place, even when it is not shared willingly in the open.

What I have started to do is ask every student to share their thoughts during the synchronous class as a closing activity (admittedly, I have smaller classes that enable me to do this without taking too much time). We go one by one, sharing with each other what caught their attention most. Interestingly, perhaps because they are sitting in the comfort of their own bedrooms (which is where many of my students are carrying out the remainder of their college education this semester), it is easier to have them share their learning experiences.

I do feel my students are engaging more deeply with their weekly readings and listening assignments. So much so that I think when I return to a classroom with a blackboard or a whiteboard and a projector, I may continue to find a way to incorporate this style of learning. It is pedagogically very effective.

In my third week, I am only now beginning feel comfortable(?) in this new world. My students have become a little more comfortable too. What I am beginning to see now is that by the end of this semester, there will be many moments of learning that I will witness in ways I never thought possible.