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Encouraging Participation in Distance Learning Lessons

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Encouraging participation in distance learning: Strategies for encouraging students to complete your music assignments

Have you been frustrated with the lack of participation in your music classes while distance learning? Are you spending hours creating lessons that few kids are completing? In this blog post, I’ll detail ways that I’ve encouraged participation in music lessons. 

A couple disclaimers

First of all, I’m not an expert in this area. I’m learning right along with everyone else, and have had my frustration with lack of participation. I don’t have all the answers, but I have seen improvement in participation, so I’l share what has worked for me. 

Second, there are some that feel that music assignments should be optional. I’ve heard this from some administrators (thankfully, not my own), from parents, and even from some music teachers. I’ve had to help my seven year old out with her school work, on top of wrapping my mind around distance learning, and coping with the stress of the Coronavirus. I get the overwhelm. 

However, as someone who is passionate about my curriculum, it pains me to think that music is the first to go, simply because the other subjects are perceived as “more important.” Although what we are doing is tied to curriculum, it can be a fun break in a student’s day. It can be a creative outlet. It can help students deal with current events. For these reasons, I’ve been encouraging participation in music lessons. I have accepted that not all kids will complete it.  I have accepted that I’ll have some catching up to do. But I’m still trying to create quality, engaging lessons that kids really enjoy doing, and can teach aspects of the curriculum.

Here are some ways I am encouraging participation in music lessons:

Message to Students

After the first few days of not hearing from students, I decided that I should reach out to students so they could see my face and hear my voice. My school district uses Schoology, and in that platform, under “course options,” you can message all students in a specific course. I created a video, saying hi to students and introducing them to my cat, and sent it as a message in Schoology. In the video, I told students I missed them, and gave them a brief summary of the lesson for the week. My first grade teachers use Class Dojo, so I asked them to send a similar message to parents through the app. 

After sending these messages, I had some students who sounded surprised that there was a music assignment. Even though we’d been sending out emails with a link to all of the special areas assignments and posting them in Schoology, some kids really didn’t know! Some students reached out to me after sending the messages, telling me that my cat was cute, or that they missed me, so I’m really glad I sent the messages—not only to raise awareness of the assignments, but to build relationships with students.

Making it Easily Accessible

To help students easily access the assignments, I’ve been putting them into Schoology—for the classes who I know use Schoology—and I’ve been sending out a Google Slides link every week to all of the special areas assignments. That way, parents and students have more than one way to access the assignments. My principal is also encouraging classroom teachers to send out the link in their communication to parents, which has also helped.

Making it fun to open the assignments

In the special areas assignments that I’ve been compiling in Google Slides, I’ve been adding fun videos so that there is even more motivation to open them. Examples include:

  • Video of special areas teachers, detailing our expectations
  • Slideshow of the teachers at my school set to music, with signs telling students how much we miss them
  • Virtual choir performance of my grade 3-5 choir
  • Virtual band performance from the elementary music teachers in my district (see it here.)

When inserting videos into Google Slides, there is a limitation on the amount of views it can get. For that reason, I’ve inserted text next to each video that says, “If the video isn’t working, click here,” and then I've inserted a link to the video on the words “click here.”

Rewards

A few weeks ago, in my weekly message to students in Schoology, I told them that if they completed their assignment by a certain day and time (which I can see because of their participation in Peardeck or Nearpod), then I would select one winner to choose a school-appropriate karaoke song for me to embed into the next lesson. Students who were chosen were pretty excited, and it gave everyone a little reward at the end of the lesson!

The week after that, I adapted the reward to let them either choose a karaoke song, or record a video, saying hi to the other students in their grade.  

As I write this, we only have two more weeks of lessons that we can assign before we wrap up the year. I’m not sure what school will look like in the fall, but if we are still distance learning, I’ve considered trying other rewards, such as having students record a video for the morning announcements (which are on Twitter), conferencing with a small group of students who “win,” and more, like detailed on this page.

A note here: I felt comfortable offering rewards to my students, because to my knowledge, all of them either already had devices, or have been provided devices by my district. I would be hesitant to do rewards in a situation in which not all students had access to devices, because then I'd be rewarding privilege.

Flipgrids and Conferences

I’ve had some classroom teachers reach out to me, telling me they have a Flipgrid and that I am welcome to record a message to students. I’ve enjoyed doing that as a way to build relationships with students (and to quickly mention the assignment for the week!) I noticed higher participation in an assignment for one class after I recorded a Flipgrid for that class.

My colleague Katie Minneci (who sometimes co-hosts my podcast with me) has been quickly hopping into class conferences hosted by the classroom teacher, to say hi to students and to encourage participation in the assignments for the week. She has seen good results from doing that. I’d like to try that in the future.

Lastly, Katie and I also hosted conferences with fourth grade, in which  we said hi to students and played a fun game of Poison. This was a fun experience, if nothing else, just to touch base with students, but we were also able to review syncopa with them, which they had (hopefully!) learned in distance learning lessons.

 

Words of Encouragement

I'd like to end with some words of encouragement I read in Nyssa Brown's E-Learning in Music Education Facebook group. A member of the group named Cindy Contois-Blachowski wrote these wise words:

“For every student who doesn’t participate in your lesson, there is at least one who wakes up excited to see what you planned for them.

For every parent that thinks your lessons are non-essential, there is a parent who is thankful for the music lesson because they feel inadequate in musical skills.

For every student that ignores the videos you suggest for them to look up, watch, and analyze, there is a student who is inspired by a video and decides to be a musician.

For every student that ignores the videos you suggest for them to look up, watch, and analyze, there is a student who is inspired by a video and decides to be a musician.

For every student who freezes every time they go to start their lessons, there is a student who uses the music lesson to escape the stress of other lessons.

For every student who makes you feel like your stuff doesn’t matter, there is a student who sees how much you truly care.

There is so much negative, maybe it will help if we think about the positive some. It’s there—it’s just usually not where we, as humans, focus.”

Thank you so much to Cindy for those words! It's a good reminder that we as music educators are making a difference, even though right now it might seem like no one is watching.

What are ways that you’ve encouraged participation in your lessons? Feel free to comment below, and happy (online) teaching!

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