Keeping a Steady Beat

When Sidwell Friends closed down the campus, the teachers made sure they had what they needed to implement the Distance Learning Plan. They grabbed computers and textbooks, of course, and their lesson plans and anything they needed to teach, assign, and grade. But some teachers needed a few extra things: Lower School music teacher Matthew Stensrud made sure to get drums, maracas, a few posters, and anything else he could use to turn part of his home into an impromptu music classroom.

“When they told us about the Distance Learning Plan, the wheels in my brain started turning,” he said. “How this can best benefit the students and what kind of consistency I can bring to the students?” Stensrud created a template for his digital lessons. Each 10-minute video starts with a song, then kicks into a dance break, and ends with an activity the students should complete at home. The song and the activity vary according to the grade level; he also has introduced some synchronous learning, including meeting with the 70-member 4th-grade chorus. “When I make my video lessons, I try to teach them as if the kids were there, because that’s going to create that kind of consistency that I think students will appreciate. That’s probably what they’re yearning for right now, when everything is so upside down.”

There are other ways Stensrud is keeping things the same—even when it’s accidental. “There was one time I knocked the piano behind me, so all the books I had on top all came crashing down in the middle of the video,” he said. “And I was like, ‘Well, okay. Let’s just keep going.’ I think it gave the kids a little bit of a reminder of what the classroom is like—things like that happened in the classroom all the time. If we make these pristine videos that show everything is perfect, I’m not sure that’s what’s best for the kids’ learning and growth.” Besides, when real life intrudes on the videos, it adds a certain authenticity.

Watching the students complete their assigned activities from afar has also raised some possibilities in Stensrud’s mind for when he and his students are together again.

“I recently did an activity when I found patterns in my house and in my yard,” he said. “For example, I took some bowls from my kitchen and made them into music patterns; then I went outside and found pieces of bark and made patterns. Then I asked the kids to see what they could find.” The idea was to get the children to explore their own homes for makeshift instruments. “Some of them used little pebbles, and some of them used nail polish containers, and some of them used different markers,” Stensrud said. “It was a fun way for the kids to realize that you can make music out of anything.” He said that when everyone returns to School, he plans on using some of the activities that went really well in distance learning and incorporate them into his curriculum. “It’s exciting if we, as teachers, can be teaching the content and curriculum,” he said, “but also giving kids these avenues to be explorative back at home and still using their imaginations.”

The Distance Learning Plan has also given parents and others who are home with students a sneak peek into what goes on in the music classroom. “In music, parents are going to see the performance—the winter concert or something,” Stensrud said. “When you see the finished product in a concert, parents think perhaps that’s most of what happens in music, that we’re standing there tall and singing.” And while that’s a part of learning music, it’s only a small part. “It’s mostly exploring and creating in a more raw way,” he said. “I’m sure the parents see more of that now.”

Parents have an important role in helping their child during their music activities.

“The community aspect of music making is impossible to mimic or recreate” from a computer screen, Stensrud said. “Parents can recreate that community of music at home. Each family member has an important role to play by wanting to be an active participant in the kids’ learning,” whether it’s by joining their child for that dance break or playing a music-based game with them.

And a side bonus for parents? It gives their cooped-up kids an opportunity to get their wiggles out.

“We’re going to be singing, and we’re going to be making patterns on our body, and then we’re going to be moving around and dancing,” Stensrud said. “The kids are constantly engaging their bodies. And I’ve heard from some parents that the kids will watch the video three or four times because it’s a fun 10-minute thing. They’ll watch the lesson and then later in the day they say, ‘Ooh, I want to go back and do that again.’”

Consistency, innovation, and community—all ensuring the beat goes on.

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