As much as any of the nation’s institutions, education has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where classrooms once buzzed with activity, computer screens now hum from muffled isolation, as students and teachers adapt to the almost oxymoronic concept of “distance learning.”
Once the most active part of the educational process, teachers, counselors and aides have been relegated to the familiar role in an adolescent’s life of just another in a long line of images on a screen. But facing the expectation of providing an opportunity for learning in an unfamiliar setting, teachers have homed in on ways to strike the match of inspiration.
Ashley Suhr, instrumental music director at Roosevelt Middle School, has found that the best way to thrive in this environment is to keep things consistent. Rather than settling down in some corner of her home and open her virtual lesson plan, Suhr faithfully executes her daily routine and drives the mostly abandoned streets to teach from her classroom. She said recently that the key to successful distance learning is to develop that sense of sameness.
“Developing clear, consistent routines for students is very important,” said Suhr. “So much of our students’ lives has been turned upside down in the last six months. We are doing school in a completely new way. Students need that structure and predictability to reduce their anxiety and to help them know what we expect of them.”
But where Suhr sees familiarity, she also senses opportunity.
“The other key to successful distance learning is to be patient, flexible and persistent,” she explained. “So much of this technology is new to all of us, students and teachers alike. There are going to be internet connection issues. We need to teach students how to roll with these setbacks and not be stopped by them. There always needs to be Plan B, C and D.
“Students also need to know that just because something is hard or new doesn’t mean they can give up. We all need to try our best in this situation, even if the results aren’t perfect.”
Suhr grew up in Orange County and graduated from Capistrano Valley High School. She enrolled in UCLA, where she received a B.A. in music education as well as her teaching credential. Suhr’s primary instrument is the flute, which she has played for 27 years. She plays several percussion instruments and was a member of the drumline in the UCLA Bruin Marching Band for four years.
“I still play flute in my free time and I was playing in a community band, pre-COVID, of course,” she said.
This isn’t her first educational rodeo, but considering she began her teaching career in Bakersfield it’s understandable if she thought it was. Suhr spent two years at Compton Junior High in that city before moving to A.E. Wright Middle School for a decade. She taught for two years at Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank before traveling the exactly seven miles to Roosevelt.
Suhr welcomes between 30 and 50 students to each class — virtually, of course — during which each of them plays an instrument.
“Because of the latency issues with videoconferencing, all of the students have to be on mute for the majority of the class,” Suhr explained. “This means I can see them playing their instruments, but I can’t actually hear them.”
Under normal circumstances, the teacher would merely take a little stroll around the room to determine the students’ progress. Of course, these are anything but “normal circumstances,” so her new routine requires much more effort.
“To make sure that students sound as good as they look, I give the students assignments to record themselves, which I have to go back and watch later after class,” explained Suhr. “Classes are either 50 or 80 minutes long and during these periods, I go over rhythm, note-reading, scales and warmups, and learning new music. For anything where the students are playing, I either play an instrument so the students can play along with me. We also have access to a great program called Smartmusic, which has pieces of music the students can play along with.”
The program can even “grade” the students on their accuracy, and there are backup tracks for the students to play along with.
“I like to call this ‘band/orchestra karaoke,’” Suhr quipped.
Aside from the distribution of instruments — the vast majority of which are school-owned — Suhr has had no face-to-face interaction in a subject that has traditionally depended on close personal training.
“We have not performed together,” Suhr said.
It will be a can’t-miss, eventually.