Program Highlights

Berkeley Unified Music Teachers Use Collaborative Inquiry To Explore Joy

Program Highlights

Berkeley Unified Music Teachers Use Collaborative Inquiry To Explore Joy

At the start of the 2020-21 school year, the Berkeley Unified Music Department made a radical decision. At that point, Berkeley schools, like most public schools in the nation, had been operating virtually for four months. With many more months of remote learning ahead, the usual priorities of the Music Department were called into question. Preparing students for group performances would not be possible; improving the quality of ensemble playing was also off the table given the limitations of virtual classrooms, which can uplift only one voice (or player) at a time. Meanwhile, teachers were still learning how best to teach virtually, and many students were struggling to engage — and some were simply not engaging — in remote learning. Attendance across the district was dropping. 

In response, the BUSD Music teachers, guided by Department Head Pete Gidlund and teacher leaders Johnine Hansen, Aimee Lubalin, and Georgia Martin decided to dedicate collaboration time to exploring together how their musical instruction could be a source of joy. For students to want to engage in remote learning, the teachers hypothesized, they needed to feel joyfully connected to their learning experiences. Music learning, they decided, could and should be a source of joy that would inspire students to stay engaged in a uniquely challenging and depressing year.

But what does it look like to prioritize joy in remote learning? What does joy look like, sound like, and feel like in a virtual environment? What data allows us to see the student experience through a lens of joy, especially when many of our customary data sources no longer apply? How can joy lead to learning? These were the questions that the Music teachers decided to grapple with in their monthly collaborative inquiry sessions supported by Lead by Learning.

Over the course of a year of remote learning together, led by their teacher leaders, the Music teachers came to some important conclusions.

  1. It is possible to gather meaningful student learning data in a remote environment.
  2. A focus on students’ joy leads to teachers experiencing more joy too.
  3. Producing a high quality end product, like a musical performance, is not everything. When we let the end product take a backseat, opportunities emerge to uplift other elements of the learning experience such as relationship building, student voice, enjoyment of subject matter, and individual differentiation based on students’ personalities, interests, and needs.

Discovering meaningful sources of student learning data

Part of the teachers’ own learning curve in adapting to virtual instruction included understanding how to gather information on students’ learning experiences when many of their usual minute-to-minute sources of information were inaccessible in the remote environment. Tech tools abounded as the teachers supported each other to quickly gain new skills with Flipgrid, Soundcloud, Zoom chat, Kahoot, and Google Forms as ways to get real-time insight into how students were experiencing virtual learning.

Music teacher Jan Davis shared with her colleagues that at the start of the remote year she was terrified to use technology. Despite her fear, she embraced the challenge, leaning on her colleagues for support and going to PD’s offered by the district. An unexpected source of joy in her remote classroom was allowing students to be tech teachers as well. She explained, “I let the students who knew a lot about it teach the other students and me. Students can explain it even better than I can.” Now, anticipating the transition back into in-person learning in the fall, Jan plans to continue using tools like Flipgrid as a way to gather data on students’ learning experiences. She also plans to continue to listen deeply to students as experts on their own learning.

Teachers experience joy too

Joy in the classroom does not always look like laughter, fun, or games. As they analyzed their data throughout the year, the Music teachers also identified these characteristics of joyful remote learning:

  • Building relationships and community; feeling togetherness; being human together
  • Students’ gaining mastery over familiar or new skills
  • Creative use of tech tools to increase participation and engagement 
  • Small-group instruction that helps students feel heard and seen
  • Individualized instruction that meets students where they are
  • Increasing student choice and autonomy
  • Dancing
  • Tapping into a visceral love of music, e.g., asking students “How does this piece make you feel?”

The teachers noticed again and again that these strategies helped not only their students but they, themselves, experience joy in their remote classrooms. As teacher leader Georgia Martin reflected back on her learning at the end of the year and shared her key takeaways with her colleagues, she could not stop smiling. To illustrate one of the moments that brought her joy, she shared a Zoom recording of a fourth grade student playing a song for her on his violin. She explained,

This is one of my fourth graders, who literally couldn’t get his bow on his strings at the beginning of the school year. He was able to play Go Tell Aunt Rhody by the end of the year. That was one of the moments where I realized: We had fun; we laughed; we built relationships. And that means it was a good year.

Process over product

Not having ensemble performances as an end goal meant that many Music teachers felt released from pressure around the final product that they had placed on themselves prior to the pandemic. This allowed some to relax into a new spaciousness as educators that they intend to carry forward into in-person schooling in the coming year. Music teacher Shannon Houston shared with his fellow teachers,

I’m a fairly strict and businesslike person in the classroom. I like to get stuff done. In my teacher credential program I worked with a teacher who was exactly like that but way worse than I, and he had an amazing orchestra program for a high school level. My attitude was I wanted to recreate that [high quality program]. I still want to, but the way that I taught, I didn’t bring out a lot of joy within myself.

Coming into this year, one thing that changed was instead of focusing on continuously building and growing, it turned into a recovery effort for me, making sure we could bring students along and not have them just quit because of the dire circumstances. What ended up happening is through my inquiry I tried to find ways to be more joyful with students to get them to enjoy class more. It just came out naturally. As the year went on, I started to notice that students weren’t just enjoying class but wanting to be there. A lot. And coming as often as they could. Emailing me, even fifth graders from their own email accounts: “I’m sorry I can’t come today. I wish I could be there.” I started to realize that feeling joy in my teaching, and expressing that joy, is a fairly important part of what I need to do as a teacher. Not just currently, in a recovery effort, but as I am trying to build up a program. What this year has done for me is helped me remember that I do need to be as joyful as I can. I don’t always need to be as strict as I normally am. I can find ways with students to enjoy the music-making process and get them to want to continue on, which will help me to build the orchestra programs I want to build.

Deepening through letting go

At their final collaborative inquiry session of the year, the Music teachers reflected on what changed for the better — in their approach to teaching, their priorities in the classroom, or their technique — due to their collective focus on joy this year. One teacher summed it up this way: “I’m really appreciating how others found that their practice deepened through letting go…me too.”