Here at CMCB (and many other places), we find ourselves in a moment of transition quite unlike any other. As more and more people receive the COVID-19 vaccine, the restrictions we have known for 15+ long months begin to lift, and we start to see the ways in which life can return to normal. In addition, Boston Public Schools closed their 2020-21 school year on June 18th, and students, educators, and families alike look toward the summer with a renewed sense of freedom. We’re hopeful that when we come back to school in September, things will be relatively normal (or whatever normal is now).
I get the sense that as a community, we’re all trying really hard to be upbeat and positive. It finally seems reasonable to be optimistic about the future. But at the same time, looking back on the past 15+ months doesn’t feel rosy. For many people, myself included, looking back is honestly terrifying and painful. This pandemic has cost us a lot – our safety, our physical and mental health, our livelihoods, our loved ones, and so much more. In the past year alone, our country has experienced countless acts of sociopolitical violence and oppression. The fact is, we are all hurt. We are all traumatized. Whatever your pandemic experience has been, there’s guaranteed to be some level of healing that needs to occur within yourself and your community.
Now that I’ve stated that hard truth, how do we even begin to effectively reflect on the last year without re-traumatizing ourselves? How can we be positive about our accomplishments when the dark cloud of this year still hangs over our heads? Sometimes it feels hard for me to even name my successes because my brain feels completely overwhelmed. The other week when I was discussing this with CEP Community Engagement Manager Holly Dyer, I started to feel like I couldn’t verbalize what the point of all my efforts this year had been for. Holly, brilliant woman that she is, suggested that I write my thoughts down to be published here in Vibrations. So I’m going to do my best to tell you part of my pandemic story, specifically my experience teaching music virtually in Boston Public Schools with Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) aligned curricula. I doubt I’ll be able to clear up all of my confusion, but if you stick with me, hopefully you’ll get to learn a little bit more about SEL and how it has played a central role in my personal healing and in healing the communities in which I find myself teaching.
What is SEL? What is the training and implementation process like?
You can read the full definition of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) on the CASEL website, but for music education purposes, my job is to utilize exploration of music as a vehicle to help kids develop confidence and leadership skills, build community and sense of belonging, and learn what it means to be a caring, empathetic person. This involves delving deep into antiracist and anti-ableist norms, equity and accessibility, cultural inclusivity and intersectionality, student centered learning, etc.
The typical SEL-aligned lesson breaks down into 3 parts: Welcoming Inclusion Activities, Engaging Strategies (this is where specific musical content comes into play), and Optimistic Closure and Reflection.
I had the privilege of having monthly individual SEL coachings with Nicole “K4” Kfoury from Partnerships in Education and Resilience (PEAR), with support from members of staff from Boston After School and Beyond. I worked with K4 to develop a growth plan to track my progress and was able to reflect on my work and bounce ideas off of her in a space that felt safe and supportive.
I attended as many CMCB sponsored professional development sessions as I could this year, particularly those that had a clear connection to SEL. My favorite was the ABLE Assembly (Art Betters the Lives of Everyone) hosted by the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs, where I learned a lot about the intersection of critical race theory and disability rights.
What were the challenges of implementing an SEL focused music curriculum in a virtual setting?
I had some trouble implementing the “optimistic closure” part of SEL aligned practices consistently. It took me a few months to really figure out what was meant by optimistic closure, and once I did, I didn’t always make the time to ensure that we completed the activity. More often than not, students came up with closure questions themselves, which is amazing, but I wish I could have taken more ownership of this aspect of my teaching. It’s very easy to say “bye, see you next week!” and end a Zoom call. It’s much harder to be intentional about how you end each class, but it’s a good challenge that I’m going to keep working on.
If you ask any educator what their biggest challenge was this year, I’d bet a large sum of money that they’d answer that question with “battling fatigue.” Teaching on Zoom for hours on end is exhausting. Not being able to just pop into someone’s office for a chat and instead having to spend extra time crafting emails wears you down pretty quick. The constantly changing schedules, the shifting regulations, and changes in setting (FYI, it is super weird Zooming into in-person classrooms) fry your brain. Having to craft lesson plans and having no idea if they’ll translate well to a Zoom classroom just makes you feel powerless. I was tired a lot, and some days it was so hard to muster up the energy my students needed from me. To be honest, the fatigue sometimes tricked me into feeling like a failure, even though I know objectively that I’m anything but.
Akela Franklin is a classical soprano, music educator, arts administrator, and animal fanatic. She is a member of CMCB’s Voice and Early Childhood faculty and was recently named as the ECH voice specialist, which involves teaching private voice to beginning students ages 5-7. Akela also serves as a CEP Teaching Artist and instructs Chorus and General Music at O’Donnell Elementary School and Adams Elementary School, respectively. Read more.