In December 2017, I curated a large art gallery at my school, featuring hundreds of pieces from my students, along with artwork from school staff. Nearly 250 parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends attended the gallery, perusing different exhibits and breakout rooms organized by grade level. And after the event, I was so excited to deliver over 200 pieces of positive feedback from attendees to my students on their artwork.
These are the joys of being an art and music teacher—helping students to create, and finding ways to share their art with their peers, their friends and their family. The only difference with my gallery is that it was created entirely online. At my virtual school, there’s no conductor’s podium in my music classroom, and there’s no row of easels in my art classroom.
But… how can that be?
First, let’s rewind. Before moving to Oklahoma with my husband in 2008, I was a general music education and concert band teacher in a brick-and-mortar school in Alaska for seven years. I loved teaching there, and after we moved south I continued to teach music and art in the Tulsa public school system. But in Oklahoma’s competitive job market, I knew I needed more education to protect my job security as an electives teacher. So, I went back to school and earned my master’s degree in music education in an online course from my alma mater. This was my fascinating introduction into virtual education—and I had no idea where it was about to take me.
By this time, I had a young child, and I wanted to be able to spend as much time at home as possible without sacrificing my professional goals. Then, a friend told me about online teaching. I was already familiar with virtual education, so I applied and was soon offered a position as the middle school music and art lead teacher at the Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy (OVCA). I started teaching at OVCA in the fall of 2014, and the opportunity has truly given me the best of both worlds—allowing me to stay home with my daughter while continuing my teaching career.
Over the past four years, though, there’s been one ubiquitous question I get asked frequently: Without the ability to practice or perform together in person, how on earth do you teach music and art online?
The question is entirely valid, and it’s one I love answering. Of course, in my classes we emphasize music and art appreciation, we study their history, their subfields and their theory, and we learn about listening techniques, brushing styles and concert etiquette. Some students perform in community or homeschool groups, while others study their craft privately. But most importantly, with so many OVCA students either homebound or living in rural Oklahoma areas, my classes provide students an outlet to share their art while otherwise they may not have the opportunity.
For example, just one month after I created the OVCA’s art gallery, I held one of my quarterly “Coffeehouse” performances for my middle school music class, where students could volunteer to perform or present pre-recorded solos, duets and other small ensemble pieces in front of their peers. The responses at these Coffeehouses are always incredibly positive and welcoming, and they demonstrate how important these opportunities can be for my students.
I’ll never forget an incredible performance from one of my most reserved special education students. Although usually shy and quiet, this student unexpectedly volunteered to turn on his webcam and sing live for the class, and I couldn’t believe my ears. His sweet voice and hilarious rendition had the room in stitches, bringing a huge smile to his face, and eventually, tears to my eyes. After his first performance, he’s been more confident, and has participated in every Coffeehouse since—a testament to the power of virtual music education.
Teaching online music and art in any setting can be challenging, no doubt. But between the flexibility I have to work from home, and the wonderful ability to create new opportunities for my students to grow as musicians and artists, I wouldn’t have it any other way.