On a sunny spring day, Jennifer Abbott sits on her deck with a trio of plush toys.
Kitty, Owl and Teddy Bear are on loan from her kids and today they have an important role. The stuffies are helping Abbott teach musical literacy to her students from afar.
“It’s kind of a nonsense song about fishes in the sea and it’s about taking partners,” she says by way of introduction. Then she begins. “Ickle, ockle blue bottle fishes in the sea…”
It’s a song her students know well, having sung the parts and tapped the rhythm with their friends in Abbott’s music classroom at Campbell River’s Sandowne Elementary. It’s part of Abbott’s trusty repertoire of music games that help children learn music literacy while having fun.
The Ickle Ockle video is just one of many that Abbott has posted to Sandowne’s Facebook page as an option for students and their families to try out during the COVID-19 pandemic’s in-class learning suspension. There was the Busy Buzzy Bee song and activities, the Engine #9 with a stand-in race car instead of the usual train and even a couple sing-alongs to familiar songs.
But sometimes posting videos for her students can be a challenge with her own school-aged kids at home. It requires their own support.
“There’s always time when my kids go to bed,” she says with a laugh.
From Italians serenading off their apartment balconies to virtual concerts with orchestras 50 members deep, to collaborative Internet songs, music’s importance has certainly been amplified during the pandemic.
“It’s very easy to dismiss music as a less important subject during something like a pandemic,” says Abbott. “Music really does lift people up in times of trial, in times when things are uncertain and where the global feeling can be of unrest, music can help everyone feel better.”
Music is healing and it’s as important as ever.
So when the dust settled a bit after the province’s announcement of the in-class teaching suspension, Campbell River School District’s music teachers got together and brainstormed how best to support their students even if they couldn’t see them face-to-face. In the beginning, they opted to just reach out to families, let them know how much they missed them and what the plan would be moving forward. Each music teacher chose a different platform to reach out on. Some chose the district’s Microsoft Teams software, akin to a social network, but with more protections for kids, others, like Abbott chose Facebook or YouTube.
In her first video, she’s just getting in touch with students, then came her rendition of You Are My Sunshine and even Sarah McLachlan’s Angel.
The goal was to be familiar. There’s comfort in that. Even with her own kids, the familiarity wins.
“As soon as we started singing some of our familiar songs, my own children would come and peek around the corner,” she says. “They’d want to sing too because it just makes us feel better.”
Before too long, it became clear her students wanted more.
“Quickly I realized that posting inspirational music was wonderful, but kids wanted more meat, more content and more actual music curriculum.”
She issued an instrument challenge. It’s an activity she’s done before and a favourite. Often parents get involved as well and over the years, the results have been impressive. This time, the goal was to make either a melodic or rhythmic instrument but using materials found around the house. Elastic bands placed over custom-cut cardboard boxes or rice in Tupperware.
“I got a lot of shakers,” says Abbott.
Students sent her emails of themselves playing their hand-made instruments. Then, she challenged them to play their instrument along to their favourite song.
“In that case, I got to not only see them and their siblings and often their parents in the videos, but I got to hear what they would choose for their favourite song to sing to or to play to,” says Abbott. “You get to see the family pet wandering in and out of the frame.”
One boy in Grade 3 assembled an entire drum-set out of his family’s recyclables. He pressed play and pounded along to his favourite tune.
The videos offer another layer of intimacy between teacher and student. Teachers are getting a glimpse into their students’ lives, while students are seeing their teachers outside of school.
“You end up connecting in a way you wouldn’t normally connect at school, which is really neat and unexpected especially during a pandemic.”
But it’s also made Abbott realize just how much she misses her students.
“You end up realizing wow, I really miss these guys when you don’t see their little faces,” she says. “Some of them I couldn’t believe how much they changed in the last two months.”
Like a librarian, Abbott doesn’t just have one class of students that changes year after year. “I have 260 students that are mine from kindergarten all the way to Grade 5.”
She misses seeing them in the hallways and in her music room.
“I miss interacting with them face-to-face,” she says. “Nothing can beat that.”
On June 1, some students will return to school for instruction twice a week until summer break.
While many uncertainties remain, the undying optimism of music teachers will endure. They’ll continue to inspire future generations whether music is in their career path or not. And they’ll spark meaningful connections at every age.
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