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‘Even though it is extra work, I don’t mind the changes’

From avoiding movement to moving as much as they can, specialty teachers are maximizing learning despite safety restrictions

Sparta — Core curriculum studies have changed in many ways since the start of the 2020 pandemic. But adjustments to specialty classes such as art, gym and music have been particularly challenging, given the new health and safety protocols. School News Network checked in with Appleview Elementary School to see how specialty teachers there are tackling the unique year. 

Music teacher Molly Friederichs brings the music to every classroom (courtesy)

Lean on Me — the Song, Not the Action 

Music teacher Molly Frienderichs describes her new classroom as “a cart with all of my instruments and items for instruction, as I wheel into my colleagues’ homerooms to teach my students.” 

Her biggest challenge was figuring out how to comply with health department guidelines for safety. For example, the use of some instruments, such as recorders, had to be put on hold.

“This has brought about a reward, though, in that I can take the time to really focus on other learning targets that will help us be prepared to read more music and rhythm, so that we can really rock when we can play them again,” she said.  

Another change for Frienderichs and her students is not being able to perform. 

“My students are so talented,” she said. “I love getting to show our families and our community what they can share through their musical gifts.”

Highlights of this unusual fall for Frienderichs include hearing student voices together again — even though they are behind masks — and seeing the students’ reactions. Despite the challenges, she said music education is as important now as ever before.

“One focus for us has been how to use music to help us through different or difficult times. Our current song for welcome and launch is Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” and we have been talking about how we may not be able to physically lean on each other right now, but being there for one another is essential right now to stay safe, healthy and connected.

“We’ve talked about how they have experienced the message of this song in their own lives, and I am moved every day at the kindness and love they have to give to this world.” 

Art teacher Sandy Davis brings her lessons to students in homeroom classrooms (courtesy)

Art on a Cart

Art is another class that now takes place in regular classrooms. Like Friederichs, art teacher Sandy Davis fills a cart with art supplies and moves from classroom to classroom. When she arrives, she needs to hook up her laptop and put up anchor charts, posters and displays needed for the day’s lesson.

Her students were quick to point out the problems of not meeting in the art room.

“We can’t just get up and use the room materials,” said one student. 

“We miss using stencils, rubbings and how to draw books,” another added. 

They also miss painting, said Davis. Since the classrooms are carpeted, she is waiting on projects that require using paint, oil pastels or anything that can get into the carpet. She is also concerned about students getting up to fill cups of water for brushes. 

“I’m avoiding any project that requires a lot of movement around the room,” she said.

An additional challenge is keeping supplies sanitized. While most students have their own pencils, scissors, crayons and markers, some need to be shared. Davis provides a separate container for materials that will be reused and sanitized. 

Davis said she is concerned about what projects she can save for a time when school may need to go virtual again. 

“Students are limited to what materials they have access to at home so I’m creating virtual lessons that require few materials and let them have a choice of what materials they use,” she said. 

Still, there have been memorable projects this semester, such as creating folk art for a fundraiser project for the company Art To Remember. Third-grader Laurel Burch fashioned jewelry, clothing and accessories with pictures of her beloved cats and sold them, according to Davis.

Other recent projects have included drawing from a YouTube “How to Draw” segment, fiber arts and weaving, creating patterns with color and making collages.

“The students love being back at school,” said Davis. “Even though it is extra work, I don’t mind the changes because I know it is what I have to do to keep our students safe.”

When physical education class goes inside, social distance is the new norm (courtesy)

Stay Fit at a Distance

Group activities and competitive games were derailed by the need for social distancing, but the lengthy and pleasant fall weather has eased some of the challenges for physical education teacher Kevin Shuneson.

“My classroom space has moved from inside the gym to outside on our school’s tennis courts,” he said. “We have had a beautiful fall so the kids have really enjoyed being outside.”

When asked what they missed about gym class during the school shutdown in the spring, students listed a variety of games and activities, said Shuneson. But nearly all said they missed doing those activities with their friends.

Shuneson shares that sentiment. “It was a wonderful day when I was able to interact with the students again. It was good seeing them during the shutdown on Zoom and Google Meet, but there is nothing that compares to being face to face,” he said.

Changes for the physical education teacher have been less intense than those for music and art. Shuneson said he has adjusted his curriculum sequence and is working on skills “that require unique equipment that not every student may have if we aren’t able to meet face to face.”

Other minor changes include cleaning equipment between classes, not playing tag games and working on keeping socially distanced whether class is held inside or outside.

Physical exercise is important all the time, but especially now, he said. “Kids have probably been spending more time on screens due to the shutdown, so when they have a chance to move and play it becomes even more vital.”

Shuneson said that these changes have been both challenging and rewarding for teachers. 

“The challenges of new protocols made the first weeks a bit more demanding, but the reward of meeting daily with students and colleagues far outweighs any challenges that I may face.”

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst
Janice Holst is a reporter covering Kent City and Sparta. She has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and enjoys spending some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio or email Janice.

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