By MARTY LEVINE
Maria Sassani, K-8 music teacher at Falk School, Pitt’s laboratory school, was able to teach her young charges in person until Thanksgiving this year, but it was a different world inside their classrooms, she says.
Thanks to the quick work of Falk administrators, colleagues and staff, she says, each grade was divided into four pods so that all kids — if the parents desired — could attend school in person. Falk’s elementary students remained in the building under Sassani, while the Rodef Shalom synagogue, half a dozen blocks up Fifth Avenue, lent space for the middle-school kids in pods of their own, under Falk’s other music teacher, Joe Scheller.
Still, Sassani says, “our music instruction has changed drastically.”
“Instead of the children coming to me in our music wing, I travel on a cart and go to their classrooms” — one grade level each week. Singing and playing wind instruments are well-known vectors for spreading the virus, so those activities weren’t possible in person, and the children were masked and socially distanced in any case. “This made it necessary to create a whole new music curriculum, which was rather challenging,” she says.
“Before COVID-19, the halls of Falk were filled with music and excitement,” Sassani recalls. “In our multi-purpose room, you would see large groups of students singing, dancing and playing instruments as part of our general music, band and chorus classes. In our small music rooms, you would hear our instrument lessons given by Pitt marching band students.”
There were assemblies and evening concerts in the school and at Bellefield Hall. “It was always the highlight of the year,” she says. Each spring semester brought the annual third- and sixth-grade Shakespeare performances and the seventh and eighth-grade musical. The students made their own lighting, sets and costumes for their productions, collaborating with the school’s humanities teachers.
All those stage productions had to go online this spring. “They were so great,” she says of the students, “but they all had to send me videos of themselves singing,” which she edited together to stream on Zoom. “I never thought in a million years I would be editing film and music, but it is well worth it, so they get some sort of community singing together.”
While the classrooms were still occupied, Falk received a donation of world drums, so that each child had their own percussion instrument: the Indian tabla, African djembe, Japanese taiko and others.
“My in-school teaching has turned into somewhat of a social studies/world culture unit,” she says. In fact, “there are many positives that have come out of this new way of teaching. My favorite is the smaller class sizes, less physical transitioning during a class period, and getting to know the children in a much more personal way.”
But with COVID-19 infection rates accelerating as the fall progressed, Falk went from in-person to all-remote classes right after Thanksgiving.
“My last memory before we went to distance learning,” she says, “was a collaboration between myself and our PE teacher, Laura Hunt. … We created a folk dance unit that included all second graders at the same time. It was joyful and fun and such a glorious reminder of how music and dance bring us together. They were loving it so much.”
The kids still can’t sing together — computer bandwidth differences get in the way — but remote music learning does have some advantages, she says: “It has been nice seeing the kids without masks. ... I didn’t realize how much I missed their smiles. As for my kindergarten students, this is the first time that I have ever seen them without masks.”
Some of her fifth graders, who are learning to play musical instruments, are not comfortable practicing within earshot of classmates — even electronic earshot. So she sends them to breakout rooms and goes from room to room. They also record themselves for her to hear.
Sassani, in her tenth year at Falk, was hired after working at schools in Las Vegas and New York City. She first visited Falk to present at the International Association of Laboratory Schools conference here. “The rest is history,” she says.
And what a strange history it will be when the saga of 2020 is written.
“All these kids are bringing their little siblings to class” now that it is remote, Sassani says. “They even bring their parents.” And that’s fine with her. “Music’s meant for everyone to share. It’s the one thing we all have in common.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
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