By Cynthia Kinnunen
By now, most of us are figuring out how to make teaching online work for us in some way. It was quite a pivot to move abruptly from our in-person classrooms, studios and groups to this new reality online using videoconferencing platforms, live streams, and in some cases, even telephone! The learning curve for many of us as teachers and leaders was fast and steep.
Though it has settled in some ways with our growing comfort in online spaces, there will always be more to learn, continued improvements in technology, and innovation in the ways we're connecting with our students. There are a lot of ongoing conversations on social media and online forums like Ukulele in the Classroom to keep us up to speed on best practices, personal experiences, and training opportunities.
It's good to be mindful of how your students would like to be welcomed.
One of the most important things we can do is to create spaces that are welcoming and engaging for our students. Regardless of the platform or the technology, whether we're virtual or in-person, we want to build connection with our students. It can be a little more challenging to do online but it’s not impossible. Here are a few ideas for engaging your groups in the virtual classroom.
The welcome can set the stage for your classes. When we come together in person, there is often a time of mingling and moderate noise. This allows participants to arrive in a way that isn't intimidating. Though acknowledging people as they arrive, much like "Norm!" from Cheers back in the day can be fun, it can make some people feel welcome and others feel awkwardly centred out. It's good to be mindful of how your students would like to be welcomed.
A simple way to ease people into an online videoconference setting (like Zoom) can be to have some music going in the background as they enter. You could strum a little something yourself or ask one of your experienced students to log in a few minutes early with you and play the group in. This can be a nice treat for your more advanced students to be featured as the welcome musician.
You could also use a backing track of an upcoming piece (hello, UITC Teacher Toolkit!) to informally introduce a new tune. Having music going as students sign in is not nearly as intimidating as popping up in a sea of quiet faces staring back at you!
As you wrap up that musical welcome, a fun way to get participants warmed up with each other and connecting in the session is to launch with a 'popcorn' style introduction. As instructor, you can have a question ready and then call out someone in the group to unmute and answer the question. That person then calls out the next person to participate and you can go through a small number folks each time in this way. Participants must be alert as they might get called on next! Having something specific to answer as well as having classmates make the choices instead of the teacher helps the warm-up introductions 'popcorn' around the online room. This is also a great way for students to get to know each other’s names and faces.
One of the toughest parts of moving into virtual classrooms can be the feeling of the teacher dominating the session with the rest of the group muted. While we still must lead and teach, it's important to create opportunities for your students to jump in and connect with the group. This can be easier said than done, however. For many students, turning on their mic and being heard and stared at can feel like a spotlight on a lonely stage, especially in the early weeks of a new group.
For many students, turning on their mic and being heard and stared at can feel like a spotlight on a lonely stage, especially in the early weeks of a new group.
Breakout rooms can be a super way to shake up the teacher talking head by creating short activities for your students to work through in small groups. Depending on the exercise, you can organize breakout rooms to have any number of students in them. Two per room gives students a chance to really interact with each other and work out a challenge. Keeping the number to a maximum of four or five allows students the best chance to participate. Activities could include working out a small passage together, figuring out an alternate chord voicing up the neck, or a musical scavenger hunt with a new piece you’re introducing, like this one.
Setting the stage for how you will respond to questions in the virtual class is also important. Will you use the chat bar so people can plug in their questions anytime and you'll respond at particular intervals? Will you take breaks every now and then to ask if anyone has a question and they can visually raise their hand and unmute when called on? Letting students know at the outset how you will respond to questions throughout the class is important to reassure your group and also helps curb potential question chaos!
The familiarity of the flow of activities throughout a session is important just as much in our online classes as with our in-person sessions. When people come to know what to expect each week or each class, their comfort level grows as well as their confidence.
Ultimately, our role as leaders and teachers is to help our students and groups grow in their learning and musical experiences. While being online doesn't replace the magic of making music in-person, there is much we can do to help create a warmer and more welcoming space, reduce anxiety, and build confidence in our students.
Cynthia Kinnunen is a Music Educator from Guelph, Ontario and is part of Team Uketropolis. www.cynthiakmusic.com
Subscribe to the Uketropolis Gazette. Free arrangements, tips, interviews and more delivered to your inbox.