Sarah Powell (Education) knows something about the energising, exhilarating, and exhausting experience of teaching others about how to teach children. Here, she articulates some of the challenges that can’t be overcome when teaching online – issues that are not necessarily discipline-specific but ones that are particularly amplified when teaching, as Sarah does, music, singing, and dance to preservice teachers. Here Sarah reflects on what’s working online, what’s not yet working, and what she thinks we might be missing without the in-person learning and teaching experience. As told to Kylie Coaldrake and Karina Luzia.
I think it’s part of that innate kind of humanness that is missed – just that shared experience of that moment in that particular place… and it doesn’t quite replicate online, because even though we’re sort of all together, we’re not.
Teaching how to teach creative arts to children
Q Sarah, what are you teaching right now, and who are your students?
I teach in all the Creative Arts units in the School of Education, teaching post graduate Master of Teaching (Birth to Five) students, Master of Teaching (Primary) students and undergraduate Birth to 12 preservice teachers (first year, 3rd year and 4th year students). So pretty much in every Education course.
The Masters’ students have done some kind of study already – they might have done an undergraduate degree and come straight from that. A lot of the Master of Teaching (Primary) students are mature age students who want a career change to become a primary school teacher. The undergraduate students tend to be more school leavers, but there’s quite a range of people there as well because some track for a really long time, so you might get somebody who’s in 3rd year but has been studying for 10 years.
I teach these students how to teach Creative Arts to children. I teach the music and dance components in each of our Creative Arts units, but the units also cover Visual Arts and Drama. Each unit is split up across those four art forms, so I don’t get to see my students for very long, just a few weeks with each of them, and then they go to drama and then visual arts. I’m trying to teach them what I would get them to teach their own students, across all ages, when they get out in the world.
Teaching online can be exhausting
Q What have been some of the challenges for you and your students in moving units with practical performance requirements, usually done in groups in the physical classroom, online?
The practical element is really difficult. I’ve battled from the word go with how to do it best, because for me, music teaching and learning is very embodied, so I always get the students to move. Music begins in the body – that’s how I teach music – so you’re going to be walking around to the beat, you’re going to be clapping your hands to the beat – it’s all this kind of internalisation of music and having a physical experience of it – and of course, Dance is the same.
In a big classroom like the music room at university, it’s fantastic because everyone can wander around and take their own pathway. But on Zoom, we’ve got this little square, and I can’t see if they are beating their feet for example – they might be doing it or they might not. Luckily there will be some bright spark who jumps up and really gets into it, which is always nice.
But also, I can’t hear any of it! I might be able to see it, but it’s completely out of time with what I’m doing because on Zoom, sound never syncs together. So you can’t actually perform together, which is what we would constantly do in the classroom; we would do activity after activity after activity, singing songs etc, all together – and I’d be listening to and seeing all of it.
And even just the spontaneity, those little looks, you know, for that person who’s a bit shy, and you just have that little eye contact, there’s nothing said but then they’re okay, they’re fine. When we’re all together you can see those people who are shy and really struggling to participate because they don’t want other people to hear them. I think online has been better in some ways for those students. Other students will just participate anyway.
Interestingly, we find, particularly with international students, that often they haven’t done this kind of thing before – they haven’t learned in the way I teach, for example. So they start off a bit shell-shocked! But they really get into it and then there’s real enjoyment in letting go. I’m thinking of one student in a class a couple of weeks ago and she just threw her chair back and she was going for her life, I mean, everything, like full-on body and legs going everywhere, it was fantastic!
I put a lot of emphasis on singing – we constantly sing so they don’t really have a chance not to, except that on Zoom, I can’t hear them. When we’re finished singing, I’ll sometimes say ‘you sound absolutely wonderful.’ They think it’s funny every time I say it – it never gets old for some reason.
It’s quite hard to be on screen hour after hour and be prominent and on show where you know you can be seen. Every time a student yawns I can see them yawn, whereas in the classroom I might not notice that, so for them it’s exhausting too. Interaction is so much harder to do on Zoom – you lose all sense of spontaneity because everyone is ‘on mute’.
I encourage students to interrupt me at any time but in order to do that on Zoom, they have to find their mouse, find where the mute button is, and by the time they have unmuted themself, I’ve moved on, so that moment has gone.
For me it becomes exhausting because I feel like it’s just me performing for two hours in every class: Me on screen, singing all the songs. The other day I lost my voice because I’d been at it for three days.
So I can’t talk about being an excellent online teacher, but I can talk about it being really difficult. And exhausting. I find it totally exhausting. That’s a personal thing.
But I have to hand it to the students, they’ve been absolutely amazing. They are actually participating, I can see them singing, I can see them moving, and I can see them getting their pens pretending they’ve got tapping sticks.
And sometimes, some of them will unmute themselves, so if I’ve asked them to give a demonstration, they’ll do it and they’ll even sing on screen to everybody. They’ve been really good sports – they have been fantastic and I’m very happy with them.
Gate crashing the breakout room
Q Do you still do group work?
Yes, I do. In a classroom I would normally give students a little composition task. For example, I might teach them a rhyme and then I get them to do something else with it, such as adding clapping patterns. I can still do that, I can send them off into breakout rooms and say, ‘here do this two-minute task’, they come back, and then they demonstrate what they’ve done. But we can’t put all the clapping patterns together online because they can’t clap together over Zoom. So, each person has to demonstrate just one at a time.
Online, you never get the sense of what those different rhythms on top of each other would sound like.
When I do groupwork on campus, I can go around and check on how they are going. I can stand back and not interrupt at all and I just watch and if I think they’ve really missed the point I can go over quietly and say, ‘Hey, tell me what you’re doing’. Whereas, if we’re doing group work in breakout rooms, I’ve basically got to gate-crash their breakout room. I can’t just surreptitiously walk in, instead I interrupt them abruptly, and the moment is lost.
Those glances, those quiet moments, those looks, the ability of the teacher to go in and gently intervene, as opposed to barging into an online breakout room.
I’ve got this little rhyme that can be done in parts: “She fell into the bathtub, she fell into the sink, she fell into the raspberry jam and came out pink”. I teach them the different parts and we all do the rhyme, but I can’t hear what they’re doing. They can hear me saying the rhyme while they’re trying to do the other parts underneath. So that’s how we do it online – but again, I can’t hear them. I don’t know whether they’re getting it right or not – but they seem to be enjoying themselves.
Hear Sarah talk about the rhyme in this 44 second audio snippet.
When I asked them ‘how did you go’, some will say ‘I can’t do it in time’ or ‘I tried really hard’. It’s the lag on Zoom as well, it’s just impossible, it never, ever works.
You know when you see those people who’ve done those magnificent virtual choirs and everything’s just perfect? Well, the amount of effort that has gone into that and the equipment that everybody’s got to have, the same wavelength, the same Internet etc – It’s massive, it doesn’t happen very easily.
Peer feedback – it’s not about ‘liking‘ something
Q Your students regularly provide peer feedback on group assessment tasks. What do you think are the key considerations in making this work effectively?
The group task requires the students to create a 5-minute performance. When we are on campus, we all watch this group performance or drama with music and singing and dance, and part of the process, while people are watching, is to give peer feedback.
And in terms of the peer feedback itself, I think the key is that it’s not just what somebody thinks of your performance, ‘Did you like it? Why did you like it?’ It’s not that kind of wishy-washy stuff, it’s more about what the task is about. The students know what the task is because they have all done it themselves. So the peer feedback is about the elements of music, it’s about the elements of dance, the elements of drama. The group has to demonstrate their understanding of all of those aspects through their performance. Then the peer feedback is about how well did they do that, where were the elements of music, how were they demonstrated. It’s really specific to the task and it’s really targeted, so it gets away from that, ‘I really thought Sam was fantastic.’ That’s not what it’s about. It’s important for the feedback to be specific and very much connected to the purpose of the task and working from a rubric.
View the rubric for the group performance assessment task and the template used by Sarah’s students when providing peer feedback.
Adapting a performance task for online
We actually changed the performance task because obviously they can’t get together and perform online. We changed it to writing a script where they essentially do the same task, but instead of performing, they write it up as a dramatic script, and then record all the singing that they did, all the sound effects and the instruments they played. audio snippets. They give me a link to photos and props they used, they get dressed up in their costumes and take photos of each character, and they embed all that in a PowerPoint presentation.
See how a group of students adapted the performance assessment task for online. In this example, students created a dramatic play to explain the life cycle of frogs to children.
When I read the script to mark it, I go to all those resources they’ve created, and I get this mental picture of what they’ve done. But this time, some of the groups actually managed to record their play on Zoom and it was amazing! I gave a couple of groups 100% because they were so fabulous. The students really enjoyed it. And what it managed to do was take all the performance anxiety out of the process. Usually in that five-minute performance in person, people just melt, they fall apart because they don’t want to perform to an audience.
It was really interesting to see how well this assessment task was taken up in the script format, even though they did everything that they would normally do – but the performance anxiety was gone because they didn’t have to perform it.
So, I decided I’m actually going to stick with this format, because the task is not about assessing the performance itself in terms of their ability to perform, it’s all the creative work that went on and all the preparation. So that was interesting, I didn’t expect that.
An element of choice makes assessments accessible
Q How do you go about designing online assessments so they’re accessible?
As much as possible, I try and make sure there’s an element of choice in an assessment task so that whatever their interest or need is, if there’s something that limits what they can do, then students can choose something that suits them better.
The group task works out well because different group members have different strengths and that makes up for something that somebody else might not be able to do, for whatever reason. We’ve also got a resource evaluation task and that might involve visiting an online museum or art gallery, or going to a music education company like Musica Viva, and having a look at the audio, videos and resources that are there for children and then answering some questions around that. The students can choose what they want to do.
Blurring the teacher student boundaries
Q Your colleagues say that your teaching is very energetic and engaging. How do you bring those same qualities to your online teaching, what’s your secret (because everyone wants to know!)?
It’s hard to know! I always want to make sure that people are comfortable around me. I teach the same way in person as I teach online – I don’t change what I do. I try to break down the idea that you have to be a brilliant singer, or you have to be brilliant at something else, and we just get on with it. I guess I just try to be myself and do my thing, and students seem to engage with that – they seem to feel quite comfortable so they’re much more inclined to get involved. And I can make a fool of myself. I don’t care if I don’t know something or if I started on the wrong note or sang the wrong tune, you know, I don’t care! I think I just try to blur the boundaries a little bit between me and them.
Again, I always feel for the students, being on screen, because I know how I feel! When we start off, I say ‘Alright guys, you ready, set, let’s go. Let’s start. OK, we’ve got 2 hours.’ Then I’m exhausted and I need to get a drink. So then I say, “Everyone, let’s get a drink and have a break”.
Spontaneously asynchronous in the moment!
Q Have you found any new ways of teaching or things that you’ve discovered in the move to online that you’ll keep for the future? You’ve already mentioned keeping the script assessment task, so anything else?
Obviously the biggest one was having to rethink how to do those performances and teach songs, things I’ve already talked about. And in the end, the decision I made was, you know what, I’m just going to do them as if I was in the classroom, but I’m not going to try to insist that students join in or worry that I can’t hear them – so I let that one go completely.
I’ve found that while it’s slightly exhausting doing a whole performance for that period of time, I do think it has worked quite well and I can see students actually participating. And ultimately, if they are not, there’s not a lot I can do about it anyway.
I’ve had to take a bit of a deep breath and say ‘Ok, it’s not what I want it to be but you know what, this is the best I can manage and it’s the closest I can get to them doing this’ – so I’ve taken that on board.
In terms of what I might change, sometimes I read the mood of the room and notice they’re getting tired, even exhausted. So I might say, ‘You know what, I’m going to give you a task, we’re getting off screen, go and do this, and pop your responses up on a forum’, that sort of thing. I’ve done a bit more of those things that I wouldn’t normally have done in person in class – so spontaneously asynchronous in the moment.
Sometimes I’ll say come back in 10 minutes, and sometimes it might be that I know the task is going take half an hour, so we’ll finish half an hour earlier. I’ll tell them to go and do that task now in this class time – don’t leave it till later when you’ve got to catch up.
In person, I would always make a call to change things a bit if I think I’m losing people and those times, I’ve often stopped and said, ‘Okay everyone, you need a five-minute break, go to the toilet, go and get a drink, go outside, come back at such and such a time. So, I do that already if I think that needs to happen. And sometimes, I will just stop, we’ll sit down, and revise what we’ve done and why we’ve done it. We just have a chat and it gives them a bit of a break, so they can recuperate.
It’s so important when you’re in a class for two hours, especially where you’re leaping around and singing – remembering that’s exhausting for some people if they’re not used to it, even emotionally exhausting in terms of confidence – so you have to be kind.
Q Do you think you have the advantage over those units where students basically sit down and just discuss, watch, write, listen and observe – because even though you are online, in your classes people are moving?
I think it’s probably a welcome change, even if it terrifies them.
I actually had this lovely student the other day – we got towards the end of class, and I noticed she was laughing. I mean everyone’s happy, we’re all having a great time, but I thought it was weird and wondered, what’s she was laughing at? So, I said, what are you laughing at? She unmuted herself and said:
So that was very nice feedback. Here’s me thinking she was laughing at me – do I look that stupid? What’s my hair doing?
I wrote an email to my Head of School, Mary Ryan, because I wanted her to know how amazing the students are. Week after week they’ve turned up, some of them in really awful home circumstances, exacerbated when we were in lock down, but yet they’re here, they’re joining in, they’re smiling, sometimes they’re crying, but they keep coming, they’ve been spectacular. I’ve got to hand it to them, they’re such good sports.
Reflecting on teaching
Q What issues or aspects of your teaching do you find yourself thinking about or reflecting on most at the moment?
There’s an ongoing issue for me because I don’t see my students for very long. My first-year students do four weeks of Music and Dance with me and then I’ll get a new group and do the same four weeks with them and then the next group. It’s the same sort of thing for my masters’ students but I see them for only three weeks – so you’re talking six to eight hours only that I get to see them.
I’m constantly thinking about what is the best, most efficient thing to do in the space of time I have to make students feel like they have enough competence, or confidence, or both, to actually go and implement this in their own practice.
And for me it’s also about giving them an experience of their own creativity, their own musicality, and their own ability to move in order to be able to then do that with children – you need to be able to feel like you can do that yourself in order to go and do it with somebody else and have that sort of confidence. So in a short space of time, it’s kind of a big ask, which is a challenge. That’s what I’m normally thinking about.
An activity to get to know the students
Q It’s a really condensed couple of weeks then with your students and you’ve got to get to know them in a short time – how do you do that?
Yeah, it’s pretty tricky. Luckily, I’ve got quite a good memory! I tend to start with an activity where we actually end up having to remember everybody’s names. On campus we do a little hello song, “let’s say hello to everyone,” but then we put each other’s names in and we’ll go all the way around the circle, and everyone has to remember that, so by the time you’ve finished you’ve heard it so many times you remember their names.
Listen to Sarah explaining the ‘hello’ welcome activity in this 1 minute audio snippet.
On Zoom, I can cheat because they’ve got their name on the screen so I don’t even have to remember. But it can be hard to really get to know them, which is why trying to build that sense of rapport really quickly and breaking down those barriers helps. It helps me and it looks like it helps the students.
Q How big are your classes?
On campus we normally have about 24 in a class and that’s a really nice size to work with and that’s partly because the art room can only sit 24 people. Obviously on Zoom you can have as many as you like. My Creative Arts units were all scheduled to be on campus (in S2) because they were deemed practical, and it was necessary to be on campus so we had an exemption, and I was really excited because I wouldn’t have to do any online teaching. I thought ‘this is fantastic’. And then of course the Vice Chancellor said, No, sorry everybody’s got to go online now. So we ended up with the same kind of class numbers because they were originally going to be on campus. In the end, we didn’t have any choice but it turned out better than I expected.
The future of teaching
Q Any other challenges that you see for the future of teaching generally but also for your discipline as well that are yet to be addressed, or not yet resolved that you’d like to see more discussion about across Macquarie?
I think my biggest concern is that just because we can do this online, doesn’t mean we should.
We’ve talked already about what is lost by being online – the human connections, the physical presence. I think these are really important aspects that should be taken into consideration. I think they play a lot more of a role than people are aware, and I think we’re in danger of losing that if we try to do it all online.
Have a bit of fun – you’re allowed!
Q From everything we’ve talked about today, what do you see as being most relevant for other teaching staff to think about in relation to their own teaching, and do you have any advice to pass on?
Such a hard question. I can’t imagine teaching maths the way I teach music. When I was at school, I was the bad kid, the naughty kid, always in trouble. I really hated teachers – I’m not meant to say that, but I really hated teachers.
So, I think my thing with teachers is often they think they know everything. They think they should know everything, and they think that students absolutely require them completely and utterly and rely on them to get them through. And that sounds really terrible, I don’t mean it like that, but I think we just need to take a step back and say, ‘you know what, I’ve got this, I can do this, I don’t need to know everything, I don’t need to bombard them with a zillion different things and stress them out.’
If I do my thing with integrity and do it well, it will be okay.
I don’t have to tell them everything I know, because they’re not going to retain it anyway, sorry. I do think we get a little bit worried. For me, with having such a short space of time with the students, I certainly worry about that.
So my advice is to take a deep breath and say, ‘I can only do this much, and that’s fine’. And just have a bit of fun. It’s okay, you’re allowed!
Sarah Powell is Lecturer in Creative Arts (Music/Movement) in the Macquarie School of Education and is a Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy (FHEA). She studied Music and Education at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney, and has taught for over 15 years in preschool, primary, secondary and tertiary education settings. Her research is in the areas of singing, movement, and music with children; developing teacher and preservice teacher skill and confidence in Arts pedagogy; and effective practice in the online delivery of Creative Arts teaching and learning.
Read Sarah’s Research Profile
Banner Image: Created by Fidel Fernando using background photo by Marko Heinrich on Pixabay.
All other images provided by Sarah Powell.