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Some Dayton Teachers Find Creative Inspiration In Remote Teaching During Coronavirus School Shutdown

Stivers Choir Director Paula Powell teaching singing online during the coronavirus statewide school closure.
WYSO
Stivers Choir Director Paula Powell teaching singing online during the coronavirus statewide school closure.

Gov. Mike DeWine Monday extended his order closing all K-12 schools statewide until at least May 1. The emergency order was unprecedented, and virtually overnight it sent tens of thousands of Ohio teachers scrambling to adapt their lessons for the online classroom-- a particular challenge for teachers of phys ed, art, music and other highly interactive subjects.

Over the last few weeks, WYSO has checked in with some Dayton public school teachers about how they’re coping. In this story, we hear from two Stivers School for the Arts music teachers, who say teaching from home has inspired them to discover unexpected and creative ways to communicate with their students.

Singing teacher Paula Powell directs the choir program at Stivers. Her husband Jeff Powell is piano director. And since K-12 schools shut down, the couple’s staking out different parts of the house to work on music.

“We have three pianos in the house. And I'm up in the living room at the main piano, the grand piano, and he's down in the basement in the corner with his keyboard," says Paula. "So, I occasionally hear stuff coming up from the basement.”

There have been some bumps over the last few weeks in adjusting to teaching music and interacting with students online. Paula says it’s getting easier. But she can’t wait to see her students in person again.

“I try to keep in touch with my kids each day, which has been difficult," she says. "One thing that I miss so much right now is just hearing the gorgeous sounds that they can create as a group. I think that's the highlight of my my teaching career, is when we really create art together.”

Paula’s chamber choir was recently chosen to appear at the prestigious Ohio Choral Directors Association conference in June. Now, she worries her students won’t get to show off their skills as the coronavirus crisis escalates. 

“There's that little thing in the back of my mind that it may not happen and I just try not to think about it because it's really sad," Paula says, choking up. "But I'm proceeding with them as if we're still going to do it.”

Paula’s come up with sight-reading and other musical exercises her students can practice at home to keep their voices in good shape. She's also assigned some of her students video assignments, asking them to record themselves singing and share the file over email.

Some Dayton Teachers Find Creative Inspiration In Remote Teaching During Coronavirus School Shutdown
Student Rhian McClure in a message to teacher Powell.

“Especially for freshmen, sophomores and juniors, they are going to be coming back in the fall and we need to continue that trajectory, we don't want to drop down because we haven't done our work for a few months.”

Teaching remotely is opening up new perspectives on how Paula typically works with students, she says. 

"I don't assign a lot of work outside of the classroom because it's such an ensemble class for me, but it makes me realize that maybe having some students do some individual work outside of the classroom, it might be more beneficial to have them do a little bit more work on their own," Paula says. "If this works out, maybe they'll be stronger musicians because of it."

Making sure students stay on track academically may be even more challenging for Jeff, who is used to demonstrating proper technique in the classroom and working with his students one-on-one.

Stivers School for the Arts Piano Director Jeff Powell rigged up a camera above his keyboard in the basement to demonstrate technique to his online piano students.
Credit WYSO
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WYSO
Stivers School for the Arts Piano Director Jeff Powell rigged up a camera above his keyboard in the basement to demonstrate technique to his online piano students.

Paula describes how her husband has tried to recreate the experience during the school shutdown.

“He's hooked up this big contraption over his keyboard downstairs to hold a camera so that he can record himself playing piano for his students, so that they can see good technique, good piano fingering,” she says.

“So it makes it a little bit like juggling six cats every hour of the day,” says Jeff.

Communicating with his students via computer is frustrating at times. Simple tasks seems to take longer. 

“There are a lot of people that do online schooling and homeschooling online and that sort of thing all the time. I certainly wouldn't trade that for for being in a classroom with the students." 

He says being separated from his students and teaching online has underscored the disparities between his more hard-driving, high-achieving students and those who typically lag behind or are less participatory in class. 

What he misses most these days is witnessing the magic that happens when a student begins to grasp difficult new musical concepts. But as he grows more comfortable teaching from home, Jeff says it could change the way he works in the classroom when in-person school starts again, whenever that is.

“It’s probably going to help me to use technology more. Even though I failed miserably at some of the things that I’ve tried," he says, "I've learned more about recording and sharing videos and audios files.”

And, social distancing means more time to compose music. Jeff and some of his students are remotely collaborating on an original piece. They first began working on the composition after last year’s mass shooting in Dayton's Oregon District.

“So we're trying to write a piece based on our emotions and the journey from things being normal to being very much disrupted, to how we came out stronger in the end. The last part is what I call the Dayton Strong Anthem, although it's just a piano piece right now," he says. "The students have contributed some of the material and so we started building this song in this piece from the ground up."

The phone connection breaks up. The couple's dog barks at a nearby window. These are just some of the new realities of online teaching at home.

“Can you hear me? Hold on a second,” says Jeff.

“We're going to go upstairs to the big piano, not the keyboard," says Paula.

After a few minutes, they arrive at the upstairs piano and Jeff plays a few bars of the song he's composing with his students. 

"At the beginning there's basically an arpeggio, which means kind of undulation from the bottom to the top of the piano and back. Each kid gets their turn. So the audience will hear that there are six players," he says. "And then we go into the first theme, which I'm going to try and play a melody. This is more than I can handle in two hands but it will give you an idea anyway.”

His hands settle onto the keys. And with that, the Powells' home is once again filled with music.