BY JODI MAILE KIRK, DIRECTOR OF ACTIVE LEARNING
Many song lyrics from classic musicals that we perform with students in area classrooms have taken on powerful new meanings: “Where troubles melt like lemon drops” (The Wizard of Oz), “Just as long as I stay in my own little corner” (Cinderella), “Look for the bare necessities” (The Jungle Book), “It might be miles beyond the moon, or right there where you stand” (Peter Pan), and “Happiness is singing together when day is through” (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown).
Why? Because in mid-March, with the onslaught of Covid-19, the world came screeching to a halt. For those of us who deliver TMTP’s Kids Love Musicals! residencies to local schools, this was painful. Our in-school programs were canceled at 15 Northeast Ohio schools, the victim of necessary school closures in response to the pandemic.
The cancellation was especially difficult for students who don’t have home support systems or access to essential resources. For many students, school is a safe haven—one of the few places where they feel valued. TMTP’s teaching artists (TAs) amplify that environment by sharing amazing stories and characters from musicals, and inviting kids to enjoy and connect with them in deeply personal ways. How so? Our radiant TAs are ambassadors for all that TMTP does and believes in. As you can imagine, releasing them for the rest of the school year is a terrible loss for all of us in this organization—and for the community.
Right now, it hurts that we aren’t able to share classroom spaces and make real human connections. Our task: How to create something positive that could emerge from the setback.
Speaking personally, it can be difficult for me to balance work with the need to homeschool my twin boys. Both Xavier and Gabriel have learning challenges, and Gabriel is on the autism spectrum. The inequities for all students, but particularly for those with special needs, are more achingly apparent than ever: In addition to being mom, I am now thrust into the role of teaching multiple subjects while trying to provide the services of an intervention specialist, an aide and both a speech and occupational therapist.
In the best of times, a team of helpers is charged with closing a significant learning gap for my kids. Just as in Cinderella, it sometimes seems “impossible.” Yet our work at TMTP has always offered me incredible solace. I am reminded of the characters from the musicals we explore—like Cinderella, Peter, Mowgli, Dorothy and Charlie Brown. All of them are searching to belong and connect, and all of them succeed.
But these are not the best of times. That search—that need—has never been greater: for me, for my kids, for their helpers, for all of us. We at TMTP had to find a way to address that need without going into the schools this spring.
Well, the first thing we did was harder than it may seem. We resolved to embrace musical theater’s core conviction that even if we don’t know how a problem will turn out, everything is going to be OK.
Armed with that optimism, our suddenly-small team began brainstorming: What aspects of our lesson plans could we realistically deliver online? Students, their parents, their caregivers and teachers face enormous challenges. We wanted to support them, especially if they are in a
position like mine. Many are.
And we wondered—this became very exciting!—what we could develop online that doesn’t work in a classroom setting but could work well on a computer screen, with its potential for astonishing intimacy.
The result is our new “distance learning” curriculum that both reflects the values of our in-school programs and confronts the moment we’re living in right now. How can we communicate the disappointment of canceled activities, or when no one listens to our concerns? What does it feel like when we can’t get together with friends and family? How do we share the community’s burden for the benefit of the whole?
As teaching artists, we’re used to entering a classroom and reading the temperature of the group, assessing where individual kids are in the moment. We incorporate their ideas, validate student contributions to increase self-confidence, and facilitate discussion to help process and deepen a thought or feeling.
As you can imagine, the biggest thing we lose in online instruction is that kind of visceral and immediate feedback. We lose the power that comes with creating a group dynamic and fostering a sense of community. But when we return to normal (whenever that is, and however that looks), I believe our online activities and video skills will complement our inspirational, interactive, playful work in the classroom.
We can never replace the need to see faces and hear voices, to join hands and raise voices, to safely breathe the same air.
And yet, as we’re learning at TMTP, “online” is still a gift we have to offer, just as there is a gift to be found in solving any problem. My hope is that like Baloo in The Jungle Book, we’re all questioning what our “Bare Necessities” are and how they can fill and sustain our hearts.
This challenge has reaffirmed for me why we do what we do at The Musical Theater Project, which is all about building connection, even though for now it’s in a new and different way. We let kids know that they matter. We honor their feelings, ideas and voices. We empower them to know they are a big part of making everything OK. I am excited by the work we are creating, and I’m thankful that we are able to provide a vehicle for self-expression and pure joy during this time of uncertainty. I hope you’ll become part of our online classroom!
The Musical Theater Project's authors include Bill Rudman, Heather Meeker and Joanna May Cullinan - and guest writers from time to time!