In this episode, Dawn Williams speaks with Blue School’s Primary Program’s co-curricular teachers. Alex Kavo, Mariangela Lopez, Caroline McAuliffe, Megan Moncrief, and Will Steinberger discuss the transition to online learning in their arts classes this spring. Together they describe the opportunities for connection, collaboration, wildness, and even joy they’ve found with students on Zoom.
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DAWN WILLIAMS: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance at home and in life can be a challenge, and now we’ve been called on to be 24 hour a day parents while balancing work responsibilities and our own emotions during this difficult moment in time. If you’re finding it particularly difficult, we’re so with you. Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be joyful, creative, courageous and compassionate.
I am Dawn Williams, Blue School’s director of enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I’ll be talking to an educator, Blue School advisory board member, or special guest about today’s ever changing landscape, and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re here to partner with you. Together we’ll find our way.
I am so excited to be talking to Blue School’s primary programs co-curricular teachers today. I have here with me today, Mariangela Lopez, who teaches movement and dance at Blue School, Caroline McAuliffe, our studio art teacher, Megan Moncrief, who teaches music, Alex Kavo, our STEAM teacher, and Will Steinberger, our drama teacher. Welcome to On Balance.
Together you are holders of some really special work while school is in session, Visual and performing arts, making, process driven, materials work, STEAM, music, construction, design. Can you share a bit about the importance of continuing to provide those opportunities for connection and expression to students during this time?
WILL STEINBERGER: I think our student’s needs largely remain the same. There are greater challenges, and in some ways it’s challenging on how we deliver our student’s needs. But you know, teaching drama to kindergarten through third grade, which is what I do, means that my first goal is to let kids experience physical storytelling and collaboration and creative thought without the sort of pressure of planning. And it’s a really physical, energetic kind of storytelling. So then I think knowing that those are kind of my goals, what I’m just trying to do is like, how does that work in this funky Zoom life that children, adults, everyone are dealing with.
So in a lot of ways, I’m still trying to do what I’m doing, it’s just the challenge of how are you creative when you’re separate from one another, and what are fun ways you can sort of interact with each other, find ways to play games you play in the classroom now digitally. That has been one thing that I’ve noticed. And I’ve also noticed that my first goal has kind of gone from the immediate creative collaboration to encouraging imagination in an interesting, unique way about sort of what students find in their immediate surroundings. And there’s been joy in that — tackling that challenge.
MEGAN MONCRIEF: Yeah, I have also found myself really, really coming back to the idea of community and play, which are things that just flow naturally when children are in a room together. But when we’re all in our separate homes with everything on a screen, that is something that can really be facilitated by clever planning. So a lot of my thinking has been around how we create opportunities for play, how we create opportunities for playfulness in our creating together.
ALEX KAVO: I think these opportunities for playfulness and making and creating have been cathartic for children during this time as well. I think one of the things that’s lost from the STEAM classroom online is the ability to see each other’s work in action. But one of the things that has been gained online is the ability for every person to independently and individually share what they’re working on. And for some children to just spend 40 minutes with me building and not talking. And I think that children are able to use that time to process, to disconnect from the world and from the craziness that’s going on.
WILL: I think students are also seeing the connections between our co-curricular disciplines more, partly because we are communicating as the situation warrants in unison often. But also there’s a lot of co-teaching going on right now, because student’s schedules have altered slightly. So Mari and Caroline are co-teaching studio and movement every week. Megan and I are co-teaching music and drama to both kindergarten and first grades, that’s two classes. So I think that students are able to see some connections that they were not frankly able to see when we were together, and that’s really exciting.
We’ve spoken, Dawn, about Larry Cohen’s maxim of that we should be able to tell the story even when we’re in the middle of the story, which is in this case he meant very specifically the story of the pandemic and the sort of really challenging moment that we’re finding ourselves in together. And there are obviously ways that are age appropriate and are not age appropriate, and to be — really to being explicit and not explicit about that. So much of what I do, especially with my younger students, is about emotions. We play this game slow motion emotion. So it’s really important to give them a codified time to explore their emotions. To see what might come up I think.
MARIANGELA LOPEZ: Yeah, and I’d like to add to that that one of the challenges that we have also with the online learning, it’s that there’s a lot more going on where we are at than being real — really focusing in front of the computer or in front of a whatever device we are using to communicate with our children, and vice versa, and the children with us. So — and I think the arts in general provide the challenge to the student to be present throughout the — through the entire self.
And that’s where, you know, me as a movement teacher and dance teacher feel like I have a big responsibility or I want to focus my responsibility and try to help the students to be present with their minds and their bodies. Sometimes in different opportunities that we are teaching there is a lot going on at home, so that — to establish the importance of being in one place in one moment with your whole entire self, it’s something that I feel, it’s crucial for children’s wellbeing and for their mind, and their spirits, and their overall wellbeing and presence in the world.
DAWN: That was so beautifully said. I’ve been thinking so much about the fact that so many of your disciplines, drama, music, movement, maybe even STEAM, Alex, to what you were saying about children watching each other’s process, right? Learning from each other’s process. That all of these spaces are typically spaces for group work and ensemble building. It feels really central to the work that you do. What has been the transition of that online? Have you found ways to build collaboration amongst students in this new sort of Zoom world?
CAROLINE MCAULIFFE: I think it’s definitely been different and maybe slow growing at first, trying to figure out how to create materials based education collaboratively on Zoom. And I think it works really well in our co-teaching of STEAM and studio with Alex. We’re working basically with recycled materials. So that’s a guarantee, folks have that.
With a lot of my other classrooms, or classes, I am basically working with drawing, but different levels of drawing. Pulling references from books, drawing from life, drawing from ideas, creating exquisite corpses live. Directing kids to experiment with things off screen and bringing them back on screen. Today I did a few collaborative draws with the whiteboard tool on Zoom, because they had already all learned and showed me that they knew how to do it. So that was an experience also, and about — and it really brought up a lot of concepts of like each person takes a turn, and we’re not going to draw on top of someone’s drawing, and — and then there’s also this other time to just go wild and keep going, and for it to be ever shifting so that there’s space for all of those things. So — and you can capture those images so they all get that image emailed to them. So that’s cute too.
DAWN: That’s lovely. This idea of collaboration I find — you know, I know I spend so much of my day staring at people’s faces on Zoom, but how do you really bridge that space to make together?
MEGAN: The landscape of Zoom has been really interesting for that as a music teacher, being in a sound based medium I know that any adults listening who have had the experience of being in a Zoom meeting know what sound is like, you know? Things are constantly cutting in and out, the way that these softwares are set up, it’s intended for us to listen to one voice at a time.
The singing in unison is off the table. We are often all singing at the same time and watching each other sing and not being able to hear each other sing. And that has been a big adjustment, particularly as someone whose process as a music teacher is very centered around the idea of community music making in the ensemble. And I have begun to find some little avenues for that that are really exciting. It was actually a student who introduced me to an app called Plank, where each player gets to go on to this website and you choose different musical sounds.
And I think there can be up to twelve players at a time, and everyone is making these pentatonic sounds together. And it’s genuine collaborative music making in real time, which is really the dream. So there are things out there, the technology is kind of catching up with what we want to be doing, which is really exciting.
ALEX: For me it’s interesting how — the ways in which we’ve had to shift what we normally do. So I spoke before in STEAM about how the collaboration was often in the group work, and in the process of being together and creating together and seeing each other. And I found that a fundamental shift in how I design the class has been necessary. And so my second and third graders in particular have been learning about aerodynamics, and they’ve been designing different kinds of model airplanes, and testing weight, wing span, learning about forces such as lift and drag.
And what I’ve been doing is letting them create on their own and test on their own, and then we come back together to talk about what they’ve noticed. And the way that they’ve changed designs to make things work. And then they are able to sort of copy each other and work off of each other. And it’s been an interesting switch in the way that I often present a teaching material like that.
CAROLINE: If I were able to jump right back in there and say something along the same lines. I think when you’re talking about creating experience or encouraging children to make something off screen, that’s where the collaboration is. In reporting back your findings. Even in studio art. And then when you’re making on screen together, it’s calling out what you’re noticing others are doing so you can live share what is going on for you.
MARIANGELA: Yeah, I have found also that doing activities where children take the lead, it’s been an interesting way to collaborate in movement. So usually we develop an idea, or we work with a specific idea to create movement. And we allow different students to just be the leaders. And everybody else follows that move. And that simple act of someone being the leader and everybody else doing that action, and seeing the screen with everybody being in a completely different place in the world even, or some in another city, and noticing that everybody is doing the same movement with their bodies, it creates this immediate sense of community and collaboration, that it’s — it has this like sort of immediate satisfaction, an immediate feeling of togetherness that I feel like has worked really powerfully for the students. And the rapport between the students and myself.
DAWN: I wonder if you’ve noticed a change in how students approach independent work and what sort of independence looks like in your classes right now.
ALEX: It’s interesting that you bring up independence, because something that I found through the virtual learning that was impossible on site has been that students have really been continuing their work beyond the classroom hours. And I’m often getting emails two, three days after I’ve had a class with students saying, you know, so and so finished their project and wanted to share it with you. And that part feels very special and deep, that students are holding their work for many days, whereas often at school we kind of — we work and we know it’s there for the next week, but there isn’t a daily continuation. And that’s been very interesting for me to see.
WILL: I agree, that’s a really cool bonus, getting that email like from a parent. You know, “Eva and us are really into the shadow puppetry exercise you did, like here is a way cooler version even that we made.” That’s just one example, but yeah, you do that, get that a few days later, you’ll get like an email with a picture, videos or even I’ve gotten from a few students like two weeks later, and that is also really, really special as well.
MEGAN: I got some poetry in my inbox this morning that was inspired by a conversation that was had in music class last week. And that was so thrilling to me, and I think it’s an example of this. That being in this online space, for all of its disadvantages, I think it does lead kids to make some different connections, and to really, really, really reflect beyond class time on what we’ve been doing together. It’s been — that’s been really special.
WILL: Yeah, and Megan has made a really great point to me around some of our co-teaching that we’ve done, which is — and Megan, forgive me if I’m not saying this correctly, but for some students this is actually based on where they are psychologically, this is actually a more comfortable way to be in some manner. And it potentially points to ways that we all — that educators in general need to help our youngest students get past personal anxieties. But I have seen a few, maybe four or five of my students, are being braver because they — in the dramatic play. Because they are just so comfortable knowing a parent is in the other room. They are in their bedroom with their stuffie, and in several of my students they are silly and loud and quite wild in ways that I think they had trouble accessing in a more public way in Blue School proper.
DAWN: That’s so interesting. Has anyone else seen the effect of sort of the comfort of the home affecting their children or their children’s work?
MARIANGELA: I have to say that I agree with Will, and it’s been incredibly surprising to me, like I give the example of third grade. That’s the oldest grade that I teach. I teach from twos all the way to third grade, and I notice that third grade, it’s already beginning to develop certain social structures among — you know, like among the students.
And they begin to be a little bit more self-conscious in school about the choices that they make, and how the students are going to perhaps have a feedback or have a judgment about their choices, right? And so usually at school we have to — I have to do a little bit more of an encouragement to like have the students trust themselves about the choices that they’re making, that they don’t have to be all silly. Or if they are, you know, to own it that way.
And I’ve noticed that at home, I’ve been surprised to see children that are usually more timid, to be a lot more outspoken through their bodies. And so, you know, like those are the surprises that we find in these — this setting seems to be allowing other types of learners to shine. And that’s been great.
DAWN: I’ve heard several of you talk about what your classes provide sort of socially and energetically at school. Sometimes your classes feel a little bit like a place apart from the regular classroom, a place where they can process things or gather together. Can you share some of the ways that your virtual classes have continued to hold that space?
MEGAN: Yeah, I have absolutely — I’ve been focusing in a lot of my classes on creating structures for musical games over Zoom. That sense of an opportunity to play together, to acknowledge we see each other and we know each other. To create song lyrics as a group collaboratively. That seems to have been very meaningful for a lot of kids during this time. It has fed my spirit during this time to get to see the smiles on screen when we have those moments. I have also been trying to carve out little moments of time to breathe together, little amounts of time to answer silly riddles and would you rather questions.
Time to just kind of do what the arts do for us, which is give us that opportunity to see each other for who we are. And it can be tricky to do that when we are on -- when we are in this strictly online format. But I think we find those moments of clarity together, and I think that’s been really beautiful.
WILL: Yeah, and I think what I have been trying to do has shifted a little bit. I think the first couple weeks of live teaching, I was just trying to help folks like do a more traditional review. Because especially with our younger students, it can be a challenge even to stick with some of the basic tongue twisters that they’ve known for a semester plus from me. But then this Blue School Larry Cohen talk kind of inspired me to shift like a little bit my socio-emotional teaching goal, which is he was like, you know, schools can be really good at giving calmness and space for breath to help process trauma or potential trauma. But that students also need silliness and wackiness and higher energy to get out some of that potential trauma.
So all my classes now start with like the longest shakeout ever. Like you could not safely sustain it in a class of students. Counting — it takes like a minute counting down from ten on each limb. And I’m trying to focus on ways that folks are being loud. And folks are being silly and physical. And I would say that has been a development that I think has allowed folks to also shed some self-consciousness, because you’re able to see everyone else in the grid of — the Zoom grid being as kind of unhibited as you are. And that even makes — that gives me comfort to be more uninhibited in ways that I think are helpful for adults and kids alike.
ALEX: That’s such a beautiful image of all of you shaking it out together. I think in STEAM it still holds the same purpose in this — about a place together and a place to process that it held during school. What’s been interesting to me is I had all of these ideas of starting routines and how I might begin a Zoom session. Would I begin by reading a story, would I have a prompt on screen for kids to engage in as they start.
And what I quickly found is that kids wanted to start class the same way that they started class at Blue School, which was by saying hello and by greeting me and each other, debriefing a little bit about what’s been going on in their classes. And then hearing the STEAM instruction and getting to work. And I think being able to provide that continuity has been very important for the students at Blue School as well.
WILL: I relate, Alex, very much to what you’re saying, of giving our students the moments to check in, because like I have found that I actually have to encourage side talk. Because obviously when you’re with students in person, you can’t — you have to just plow through, especially with the youngest students. You can’t — you can’t stop to correct every voice that shouldn’t be talking. But that is a developmental need that our kids have. So finding ways — usually at the top and tail of class, sometimes if you know the students can handle the transition between activities within a class, to give folks a moment. I’ll literally find myself like, unmute yourselves, wave, and encouraging that. Because the mute button is a sort of all powerful, often difficult power to wield I would say.
DAWN: Can you talk more about the mute button? I’m fascinated about how the mute button sort of plays out in class with students.
WILL: And the Zoom people keep changing it, or maybe my Zoom skills are atrophying this late in the semester. But now I have to ask to unmute my kids. I don’t know, I think they developed the power in the last little bit. Zoom is funny because in terms of mute, what I’ve found myself doing is because it feels also really guilty to mute everybody, I’ll find myself going, bah-bah-dah-dah-dah. And then when they would say like, bop bop, I’ll hit mute.
Just to like — I want them to know what’s coming, I want them to know it’s just an important instruction. I don’t want them to associate the mute button as like some terrible grown up equivalent of shut up because it’s so not that, it’s just like let’s get the next instruction. So that’s like a Zoom mute difficulty. But then the kids — my third grade, they all changed their — I do a lot of renaming yourself as a character, like if you’re playing an animal that you’re making for the project that I’m doing with my third grade.
Bless them, all my third graders changed their name to Will Steinberger, host, a couple weeks ago. It was so hilarious. I was like dying. And then some of them would cover — you know, if you video, cover your video for whatever reason, if you need to for a second, then I couldn’t tell who was who. So it was like 20 Will Steinberger hosts. And obviously I was like, all right friends, like let’s be together, but I was just also just dying on the inside, it was so funny.
DAWN: That is hilarious.
CAROLINE: I had — that must be how they were doing that in my class. I was like, how am I signed in in two devices? I kept checking my cell phone. And then I realized someone had renamed themselves.
DAWN: They’re very wise, the children.
MEGAN: I had the next level of that happen this week. I had several kids screenshot me while I was talking and make me their virtual background. And change their name to Megan Moncrief - Host.
ALEX: That is something that was occurring today as well.
CAROLINE: Wow, that’s —
DAWN: It’s really good that it’s the last week of school.
ALEX: In fact — in fact, I had one student screenshot my background, print it out, and then use it in their STEAM final production today which I thought was very sweet.
DAWN: Yeah, that’s super clever.
CAROLINE: I was just going to say like those are — the things that we’re also bringing up were these things that are — the power that they do have, right? Like they do have the power to rename themselves if you don’t check that box, or change their picture. And it’s like a little bit of their voice seeping through, you know? And I think that’s — the mute button is definitely interesting. I hear about it more in after school class, and free talk, about what it feels like to them. And I don’t know if I was already doing it, or if it was from those conversations, I narrate that I’m going to do it and why, which is my typical teaching style anyway.
But I don’t ever mute children before telling them I’m going to do it, or if there is a reason for doing it because of their background being loud, or — or them not raising their thumb and speaking over folks. So I try to do it in a way that feels okay.
ALEX: Caroline, I agree completely. I think the power of the mute button is something that can easily take away a child’s autonomy, and that’s something as teachers that we want to build up and not take away. And I think that sort of some of the silliness that we were talking about before are little fun ways that they can, quote unquote, “break the rules” in safe ways, and exercise that. But the mute button to me feels like a matter of respect, and so I also will tell my group before I mute them and then again after I mute then even just in case someone hasn’t heard it.
And really just for the purpose of me giving a direction. And then I will say, you are all welcome to now, you know, unmute yourselves and we can continue our conversation. But I do think it becomes a matter of respect and autonomy for children.
CAROLINE: Totally. And it must be a regular practice in their classrooms, because even after speaking about the events that are going on in the country right now, I had a child type to me, which is another form of communication that’s all together new. Privately they can text or message us, saying that cross talk is really helpful, could you create cross talk so we could speak communally. And I was like, sure please go ahead, I never check the box that mute all, and then you can’t unmute yourselves. Like, please talk.
DAWN: Caroline, I think that thing you just brought up, that need for cross talk, you know, many of you also teach after school classes. And I’m putting after school in quotation marks as I say it in that we're just as a school just providing these additional spaces that can be somehow a little bit more casual or more social for kids who still need structure after the hours of school. Can you share what you’re seeing in terms of what children are needing or craving in that more open ended space?
CAROLINE: Well, I proposed this crafting circle, which I know is a simple idea, but it’s really been amazing to just show up and we’re all crafting and sewing and making friendship bracelets or drawing, or some of them have been working on their fifth grade activist studies. But just together, I think there’s something really powerful about there being no expectation other than making. I’ve had children call in having — you know, from the car even, having no materials but wanting to be together with us.
And they’re able to chat. I never mute them, they can choose to mute themselves. And we just share what we’re making at times. But largely we’re just together, and we’re all making, and there’s chatter. People share. It’s really great for me too. I mean, it’s my most social time as well.
ALEX: What I noticed from parent feedback and from times that I’m able to jump into classes, is that there are really these beautiful small nuclear groups that have formed that feel like true relationships and true bonding between the teacher and that group of children. A fantastic example is I hopped into Laura Winnick’s book club on Monday, and there were eight students that have come consistently every week to be together and share in a wonderful story.
DAWN: So lovely. Megan, you’ve been teaching D&D, right? And you’ve been — I feel like every week you’re teaching a new section of D&D. All the kids are clamoring to be in your class. Can you talk about what that world is giving to children right now?
MEGAN: Absolutely. So I currently have students in these groups from kindergarten all the way up through eighth grade. I can officially say that as of last week. So every level of primary and middle schooler at Blue School is represented in D&D in some way. And when I think about the stories we’re telling there, I think about coming back to themes of lasting friendships, coming back to themes of communities working out their differences, coming back to a theme that is incredibly pervasive in children’s literature as a whole. And I think in this time when we are seeing police violence, when we are seeing so much upheaval in our world, when we are seeing violence against Black people happening in our communities, I am noticing a lot of the stories that kids are coming back to in D&D are about people who band together to stand up against injustice.
And being able to do that with a community of people you love feels like a theme that’s just recurring in every single age group. And to be able to hold that space with them, to be able to really just kind of facilitate the experimentation they’re doing with their own senses of identity within this space. One of the magical things about D&D is that your character can be so many different things. You don’t have to be an eight year old kid, you can be a giant barbarian orc. You can be some sort of wizard, you know? There are endless, endless options. And I see kids kind of exploring what resonates with them through this storytelling as a group. And that to me has been really, really powerful.
DAWN: Thank you so much, Megan. And thank you Mari, and Caroline, and Will, and Alex. I know this is just scratching the surface of your expertise, and I so look forward to ongoing discussions about all of this. I so appreciate you and this conversation.
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