Until eight months ago, many arts educators would’ve scoffed at the idea of teaching art, music, dance, or theatre online. Now, virtual learning is a lifeline for arts education. With so many youth enrolled in virtual schooling, the need to design authentic and engaging online artistic experiences is ever more pressing.

This challenge is coupled with the reality that so many young people are reeling from trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC reminds us that stark changes in routine, breaks in the continuity of learning, the cancelation of milestone life events, and the perceived loss of safety and security can be very damaging to a child’s social, emotional, and mental well-being.[1] Furthermore, moving arts education online has interrupted social interactions and created limits on self-expression. Can virtual arts experiences still foster the social and emotional needs of young people during this difficult time in their lives?

If you ask Maria Ellis and Morgan Luttig, the answer is yes. This dynamic duo created Her Story: Creative Expression Virtual Summer Camps, a 3-week series of online music experiences catered to K-12 girls.

“We wanted to create a platform for girls to be empowered and find their own voice through musical composition,” said Luttig, a PhD student in music education and choral conducting at Florida State University. Together with Ellis, the community engagement manager for the St. Louis Children’s Choirs, they meticulously planned 90-120 minutes of daily activities aimed at enabling their 68 participants to come out of their shells and use music as a vehicle to express themselves and connect with one another.

Maria Ellis and Morgan Luttig

“We had to run it like it was a TV show,” said Ellis. A self-proclaimed “wing it” person, Ellis acknowledged that planning for every second was a challenge. Luckily for her, Luttig was a meticulous planner. “Because she was such stickler for time, everything was so smooth,” said Ellis. “We never had a moment when we questioned what we were doing.”

Weeks were packed with a varied line up of interactive, fun-filled, and sometimes even silly activities. Each day was built around a certain compositional element, such as melody or form. Using singing, active listening, and movement, participants were able to explore and understand these elements to create their own musical compositions by the end of the week.

Many of these activities morphed into impactful lessons on social and emotional well-being. “When we were learning about melody, we talked about the concept of earworms,” said Luttig, referring to how a song can get stuck in one’s head. She and Ellis turned this conversation toward the notion of branding, a hot topic for young people on social media who seek to gain followers, become influencers, or develop a certain online image. Said Ellis, “The question we posed to them was ‘how do you want to be remembered?’” which unfolded into conversations about image, social behavior, and even videoconferencing etiquette.

Ellis and Luttig agree that one of the greatest outcomes of the camp was how the girls bonded with each other. “We didn’t know if they would just engage with us or if they would get to know each other and want to interact outside of camp,” said Luttig. “They came out of their shells. They were so positive and supportive of one another, and they did it because we set up that environment.”

“And it was so much fun,” added Ellis.

The success of the Her Story camps shines as a model of how to create authentic and engaging online learning experiences that leverage arts education to address the social and emotional well-being of today’s youth. As teachers and community leaders around the country seek to design impactful and engaging online experiences, Ellis and Luttig offered many best-practices which helped them succeed:

  • Preparation is key. Plan for each minute of your online class, and have other activities ready if you need to quickly pivot due to a technical difficulty or lack of student interest/engagement.
  • Practice your lesson plan. Before students arrive, run through your plan to iron out any kinks and learn where challenges or technical difficulties may occur. This knowledge can help keep your transitions seamless and keep students engaged.
  • Understand the technology inside and out. If you are uncomfortable with the videoconferencing platform you’re using, take the time to learn all of its features. Make sure you understand the inner workings of computer and videoconferencing audio. This knowledge can tighten up transitions and reduce the likelihood of dead time, both of which are key for classroom management and student engagement. (If you aren’t a technology wizard, ask your students for help!)
  • Utilize brain breaks. Repetitious online learning can cause fatigue. Have an arsenal of short activities (related or unrelated to learning) that are fun and easy. Examples used by Ellis and Luttig included dance parties, wardrobe changes, household scavenger hunts, and talent shows.
  • Learn what technology your students are using. Ask them the make and model of their computer, smart phone, or tablet. If you’re utilizing apps, make sure those you select are accessible by all your students.
  • Teach your students how to appropriately behave in an online learning environment. Talk about what is appropriate behavior for use in a chat feature. If using video, discuss how one should dress and act in a manner which exudes engagement, confidence, and respect. Ask your students about the best ways to interact with one another in a virtual environment.
  • Give yourself grace. This year, most everyone is a first-year teacher. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but don’t be discouraged if you don’t thrive the first time. And ask your colleagues for help. We are all in this together.

Neither Luttig nor Ellis were online teaching experts before Her Story. “We started fearful and ended fierce,” explained Luttig. “We went from having no idea what we were doing and ended up saying ‘so what, let’s try it anyway.’

“Remember, these kids are going through this pandemic just like we are,” Luttig continued. “They need the same love and support we do. And if you keep your kids in your heart, anyone can do this.”

And for 68 young women across the country—who likely never would have met each other before the pandemic—Luttig and Ellis did just that.

For music teachers looking for practical online teaching lessons, both Ellis and Luttig explained many strategies and best practices learned from Her Story in an online webinar, which is free to access.

Maria A. Ellis is the owner of Girl Conductor, a music education consulting service which intentionally celebrates and empowers female conductors. She can be reached on social media or through her website at http://www.girlconductor.com.

Morgan Luttig is an affiliate of the Girl Conductor brand and serves in leadership roles within the southern region of the American Choral Directors Association.