We though it would be fun to interview a music teacher to see what teaching has been like since the shift to remote learning. The following is an interview with Ms. Bonnie Foti who teaches music in the Commack School District and also gives private lessons
LIVS: Could you give us just a little bit of background about yourself as a teacher, how long you've been teaching, what do you teach?
Ms. Foti: I 've been teaching twenty-five years. I started in Brentwood as a middle school orchestra teacher there. I was there for eleven years. I've had my private practice here at home for ten. Then I went back to work – it’s been like twelve years already. Now I'm teaching fourth and fifth grade orchestra and fifth grade general music in Commack.
LIVS: What do you enjoy most about teaching?
Ms. Foti: Oh gosh the kids – 100 percent the kids. They always surprise me. Every day is something different. So even if you’re teaching the same topic, six lessons in a row, because of the kids it's a completely different lesson on how they learn, or the way they evaluate things, or see things, or think about things. Everyone's a different learner. It’s great. To me it's interesting. That’s the best part definitely.
LIVS: So how does the remote learning and teaching work for your class? What’s the setup like?
Ms. Foti: So we have a virtual classroom for each group that I teach. So my fourth graders have a classroom, my fifth graders have a classroom and my general music has a classroom and they (administration) ask us to post weekly lessons. Every Wednesday the special areas post, so music art, gym, library – that kind of stuff. So special areas post on Wednesday and they said keep the assignments happy and light you know nothing heavy duty just to keep the kids thinking about the projects that you put out and to keep practicing just a little bit - motivational. And then for three hours a week we are required to teach an online lesson like a live lesson so we Zoom. I usually go through the weekly lesson and see if they have any questions, focusing on the task that's new. Like let’s say a scale or bowing techniques. Then at the end of the lessons you just chat for a little bit, see if they have any questions or if there's anything you need to help them out with and that's it. So each class is about an hour forty-five minutes so I do that all on Wednesday. So Wednesday's pretty busy.
LIVS: And you said you have a Zoom meeting?
Ms. Foti: I use Zoom a lot yes. Zoom, Flipgrid, I've been recording a lot on Inshot on the phone. It's an app, and then I can download in onto my (virtual) classroom – only because it's a little more fun because you can add a lot to it. It's easier to use for me but it has a lot more kid-friendly material, like you can put music to it – things that grab their attention. So If I’m doing a video lesson on slurs and I want them to pay attention I can put a little symbol up for them to pay attention to me to make it more fun.
LIVS: What has been the hardest part of remote teaching?
Ms. Foti: Not being with the kids. Being a teacher is just all about being together and relationships and not having that one-on-one is incredibly difficult for tons of reasons, emotionally, physically what we do with performing it's almost necessary to be together, especially at this young agent it’s about technique and being able to show examples. It tough. And then your class size because you know we have eighty beginners trying to do this all at one time. It's incredibly difficult. So you can’t even put the sound on because the sounds that you're hearing are just not good and you can’t fix it. You can’t reach though the computer and say ‘hey, turn your metronome on.’
LIVS: You have all eighty kids at once?
Ms. Foti: I think I have sixty-two out of the eighty show up to the meeting. But I mean, any group larger than three, I can’t imagine me being somewhat successful you know between, a cat that's wearing a tutu on their lap and the phone ringing, the dog barking. It's just not conducive to learning well. I think it could have its benefits in a more controlled environment.
LIVS: So it's not as seamless as all of those videos of people playing orchestra music together?
Ms. Foti: Well I think you see that after it's edited a great deal. Well we did a C scale. We tried, and we ended not at the same time, we didn’t start at the same time. We didn’t sound in tune because their strings are a hot mess. But they had fun playing and that's what I wanted. I said to my principal ‘as long as they're smiling at the end of this I'm happy.’
LIVS: Is there anything easier about remote teaching?
Ms. Foti: I do think I would continue it. I think It's a good way to gather information all in one spot where it’s accessible to everybody. All the kids are linked to this through their school ID. So all the information goes directly through there so it's just them organizing their classrooms like their regular school class with their classroom teacher and then all the special areas. So it's almost like having an e-board like we used to have a school but it's much easier to access because Google’s just so great. We use the Google Classroom app and it's just teacher friendly. It has so many options you can add, extensions for – you name it, it's there. I just think the platform is good and easy to make attachments. Like I can have a lesson and if the kid's on a field trip, then I think I would like to have that up, almost like we're doing now. Like here's what we did this week in case you missed your lessons. There's no more excuses like ‘I was absent’ or ‘I was in a field trip’ or ‘I was in the nurses office’ or an assembly. So I think that would be a positive thing.
LIVS: So you think it would be nice to keep that aspect of it when you eventually go back into the real classroom?
Ms. Foti: Yes, definitely.
LIVS: How have your students responded to the change?
Ms. Foti: The kids who have always participated well continue to participate well. But the kids that have struggled I have either not heard from, even though I've reached out. But a lot of what's happening I find is there’s one tablet in the house and four kids and working mom. So I haven't pushed it because really if you have one tablet, four kids and a working mom, Is music going to be the first thing they go to or the last? So I think it's about prioritizing in the situation. Does that make sense? And it’s about being caring and understanding and nurturing and I guess just meeting everyone where they’re at. You know, we're all at such a different place. And I hesitated many times to even reach out through email because what if they lost somebody? Or is dad sick? I just think the real issue behind everything is the pandemic and the anxiety that these kids are going through. We all struggle with anxiety but these kids.... I can’t even imagine
LIVS: Do they talk to you about it at all?
Ms. Foti: They do. I'm really thankful that they feel they can come to me and open up. I just feel like this generation of kid is very open and accepting.
LIVS: Are they having problems with out of tune instruments?
Ms. Foti: It’s awful. I had a parent tuning class. Strings were broken and bridges fell. It’s such a sensitive instrument, like if you don’t know the history behind it, at the making of it – the shapes, and nothing's glued. You know these parents just rented it. They don’t have the touch for it – to be gentle, or to know how much to turn the pegs. So I told the kids the great thing about the instrument you play is that you can still play it without making noise. They can do the fingerings, hold it up and just go through it. Just sit and say the name of the letters if you don’t have your instrument. Read the music. Yes tuning is definitely a problem.
LIVS: Yes it's intimidating to tune a violin if you've never touched one. So you said you also teach private lessons?
Ms. Foti: Yeah, now those are better. They’re still not one hundred percent perfect. But the one-on-one aspect is just a lot easier. You can communicate a lot better. The sound is still not perfect but the communication easier one-on-one, definitely.
LIVS: And what do you use for those lessons, Zoom?
Ms. Foti: I use Zoom. I use Google Meet and I've done Facetime. It's harder with the beginners. I have two or three little ones but they’re only in first and third grade. They have a much harder time if the parents aren't there. They’re much more easily distracted. It's hard, and again you can't reach through the computer screen and fix things. It's a lot of repetition. I feel like it's been the same lesson two or three weeks in a row. Everyone wants to show me their stuffed animals and their room (laughs).
LIVS: Have you found any of the digital platforms to be better than others?
Ms. Foti: Well SmartMusic has been lifesaving. You know a lot of kids left their books in school. So we were able to get a subscription. It’s something I have them sign up and join. And I have to say they’ve been so generous out there with understanding for educators. Like there are a lot of companies that have been giving like two or three months free if you’re an educator. So that's been great and very helpful.