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Estacada School District's performing arts classes adapt to virtual learning amid COVID-19 pandemic

COURTESY PHOTO - Participants in the Clackamas River Elementary School music club sing Happy Birthday.

To celebrate Halloween, music teachers and Clackamas River and River Mill elementary schools gave students a list of words with different syllables so they could create their own spooky raps.

But instead of sharing their creations with one another in the classroom, students submitted videos they each created from their own homes.

Like all classes in the Estacada School District, performing arts courses such as music and theatre are being held online to facilitate safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The school district will use comprehensive distance learning through at least Thanksgiving break.

"We're recreating music education," said Rebekah Vogt, a teacher at Clackamas River Elementary School. "Music is all about singing and making music together. How do you do that in a virtual setting?"

Both Vogt and River Mill Elementary School music teacher Daniel Czyzewicz have been striving to engage students in a variety of ways online. Czyzewicz and Vogt record video lessons for their students rather than teaching live, and students can access the lessons and submit assignments through their classroom teacher's page on the online learning platform Canvas.

Creating excitement around music during an unusual year has been a significant focus for both teachers.

"At the end of the day they're tired of being on Zoom, so I try to make it fun. The kids and parents are working so hard right now," Vogt said, noting that she's been trying to boost morale in a variety of ways, including facilitating a virtual dance off to the song "Smile" by Katy Perry. "They'll send me little dance videos, and I'll put them together in a school wide video. Estacada has been through so much with the fires and the aftermath. I wanted to do something to bring the community together."

Czyzewicz has been creating music video journals in which he highlights different genres of songs.

"I try to get (the students) singing and dancing," he said.

Some videos teach students how to make instruments, including a tambourine from paper plates and coffee beans and a xylophone from glasses holding different amounts of water.

Students use videos or written words to submit assignments for music class.

"They really enjoy being on video. They're like little YouTubers," Czyzewicz said while discussing how technological today's world is. "On the whole, we're probably much better off in this format now then we would have been years ago, but different students learn in different ways. Some kids excel, and other kids struggle. I'm trying to find ways to help all students as best I can."

Equity is also a significant component of this year's online music classes, whether it's ensuring that video lessons include both text and voice overs or allowing students to craft instruments out of alternative materials.

At Clackamas River, Vogt does a weekly live lesson on Zoom with the school's kindergarteners.

"They're so full of joy," she said, adding that they were recently excited to realize that they all live in Estacada. "It's great to be able to see them and interact in real time. With asynchronous learning, the relationships are harder to build."

Vogt has also started an online music club, which meets on Zoom weekly.

"We do a little singing and then a fun music activity," she said, noting that they recently made bucket drums. "My hope is that it will be a student centered group. Whatever they need, that's what it's going to be. They really want music club to be a way to connect with friends and be social. We can catch up with learning rhythms, but now it's super important to keep kids excited about music."

Evelyne Long-Drew, a fifth grader at Clackamas River Elementary School, has enjoyed participating in both music classes and music club.

"We're not in a classroom, but we're still doing music. It doesn't bother me," she said. "On Tuesday, we got together and celebrated birthdays. Everyone was super happy."

Czyzewicz plans to compile performances students have submitted over the semester and create a longer video that will serve as a digital performance.

"I think the community values getting to see that," he said.

Learning instruments virtually

At Estacada Middle School, Christina Hubbard is teaching one class period of band and choir, as well as a general music course.

Because of differing internet speeds, it isn't feasible to have students unmuted while playing instruments, but Hubbard conducts via video and has students send her a segment of them playing each week.

"If they're muted and I'm conducting, they'll still be at the same pace as me, but with the lag times, we just can't do it unmuted," she said.

A typical school year would have multiple periods of band, but this semester there is only one.

"We have people who had never touched an instrument before, and also students who have been playing for years and taking private lessons," Hubbard said. COURTESY PHOTO - River Mill Elementary School music teacher Daniel Czyzewicz teached students how to make a rainbow xylophone.

Working in small groups and in one-on-one sessions has been beneficial, particularly for beginning musicians.

"In a classroom, I'll walk around the room while they're playing and help them play. Now, I have them move closer to the camera so I can better see what they're doing," she said.

She added that it's particularly important to create student excitement around music during this time and plans to put together a digital performance video of the students, as well as potentially coordinate a digital sing-along for the holidays.

"We want to do anything we can to help the kids be excited and learn," Hubbard said. "The kids want that, too. We're preaching to the choir — literally."

Acting in a socially distanced era

At Estacada High School, musical theatre students are working on a production of "The Addams Family." The show will run in January over Zoom and potentially with a small in-person audience.

"We usually pick a show with a large main cast. This year we picked one with a small main cast," Collins said. "We only have 10 leads, and usually we have 15-20."

Rehearsals take place over Zoom and socially distanced in-person when possible. The lead cast and the ensemble cast rehearse separately when they work in-person.

"Safety is 100% our first priority," she said

Because the usual pit orchestra is not feasible for social distancing, actors will sing along to tracks with music.

In addition to participating in COVID health screenings, actors wear face masks and shields when they aren't working virtually.

"It makes acting hard with half of your face covered, but we're trying to find ways to decorate the masks and shields," Collins said.

Safety measures have also impacted the show's blocking, or where the actors stand during scenes.

"They're distanced as best as possible," Collins said. "If two characters need to come talk to each other, one will move slightly downstage after."

Though many elements are different this year, students appreciate the opportunity to work on a play.

"The kids are probably more enthusiastic than ever for this show. They're trying to make the best of this opportunity to be together," Collins said.

Music with Mr. C

To share the video lessons he's created with a wider group of community members, River Mill Elementary School music teacher Daniel Czyzewicz created the YouTube channel called Music with Mr. C.

"I want (the content) to be available to families who are homeschooling, or anyone who might be interested," he said.

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