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Staying Connected During COVID-19 [Teacher Spotlight]: Will Cooke

A high school choir director shares his outlook on remote learning and the knowledge that one day, school will resume in person

In partnership with eSchool News, Illuminate Education is spotlighting teachers in a series recognizing educators, the way they have moved instruction online during COVID-19, and how they have prioritized the needs of their students.

Will Cooke
High School Choir Director
Charlottesville High School
Charlottesville City Schools, VA

“Right now, connecting is absolutely the most important thing we can do.”

How have the school closures impacted your day-to-day work with students?

The biggest impact is of course that we can no longer hold classes as we used to. The only way we can all get together is via Zoom. When we started remote learning, I was getting hit with an avalanche of suggestions using virtual choirs as an example of a way to keep our classes going. Those virtual choirs are more of a technological creation rather than the creation of a musical community found in an actual choir classroom. Virtual choirs are best created by advanced or professional singers who are comfortable singing alone. They aren’t great for actual choral instruction.

Related content: How a middle school science teacher tackles remote learning

How are you moving to a remote learning model?

Like most districts, we are making it up as we go because no one really was prepared for this. For the past two weeks, we’ve been using a review format—going over what we’ve already covered. Moving forward, we are going to take this opportunity to work on individual practice exercises that we haven’t had the time to work on before. So, shifting away from the ensemble work that we usually would focus on.

First, all students will start learning the all-district audition piece for next year. Our state posts the audition piece with a backup track and I’m going to make audio recordings to help them learn their parts.

We’re also working on sight reading. There is a sight reading company, Sight Reading Factory, which is providing free services during this time. It allows each student to start at his or her skill level and progress from there. I can check in the platform to see which exercises they’re working on and how long they’ve been working on them. If I see someone is lingering in a level too long, I can make suggestions for moving past that level based on where I see them struggling.

I am also going to move to a one-on-one instruction format, which will start after spring break. Classes will still meet once a week as a whole. Then I will schedule individual voice coachings in 15 to 20 minute increments for the remainder of the week. So when we are able to be back together again, everyone will be improved as an individual singer. and a stronger ensemble member.

What have been the biggest challenges?

I’d say the hardest part about all of this is the actual separation from my students. I think you’ll hear that from anyone in the performing arts because so much of what we do is collaborative. Sometimes you’re the star. Other times, you’re not. But no matter which one you are, you can always help and support each other. It’s really hard to do that when you’re not together in person and have that interpersonal dialogue.

As a district, we’re also seeking to ensure that everyone has an equitable learning experience. All of our students have access to a laptop, but connectivity is an issue. We’re in the process of distributing hot spots to ensure all students are able to participate and continue learning.

How are you continuing to connect with students during the closures?

Right now, connecting is absolutely the most important thing we can do. Even if we are all only able to see each other on Zoom in that “Brady Bunch” format, it’s so important. And to see their faces when they get to see each other and when we are all together, it’s pretty special and makes my heart happy. In any of the messages I send to students, whether email, texts, reminder messages, or voicemails, I always remind my students that I love them and miss them.

How are you working to support and engage families, too?

Yes, we definitely have to recognize that families are now all together and we need to find ways to bring them together. I actually gave an assignment where students had to learn the song “We Shall Overcome” by Charles Albert Tindley and record their whole family singing the song. Some families got really into it! One family had their eight-year-old beatboxing along, and some have a family member playing the piano. You can tell that others families were really reluctant, but they did it anyway. It was just so cool to see those families give it a whirl. I hope to do more of that as a way to really inspire the families to be creative together.












Have you run into any unexpected “positives” in the past few weeks?

As an educator, it’s given me the opportunity to learn how to teach and connect with students in a remote format. I have always been opposed to doing voice lessons virtually because there is so much you visually miss when you’re not there in person. But here we are anyway! My grandmother always said, “Be careful what you say you’re not going to do, ‘cause you’ll wind up doing it.”

As far as our students, I think they’re being forced to grow up a little quicker than normal, but in a positive way. For instance, they are having to learn how to manage a schedule. No one is going to remind them to show up for their 2:30 meeting—they’re going to just have to remember on their own to attend. Our students know how to adapt, and how to do so very quickly.

What advice would you share with other educators?

What really works for me is knowing that we will all be together again one day. I tell my students to be at peace with our current situation, because this is how our lives will be for a while. I suggest just making sure our students continue to hear that message so they will understand this way of learning isn’t permanent–we will be together again soon. I told my students that after this is all done, the minute the governor says that more than ten of us can get together in one spot, we’re going to stand in the middle of a field like Maria Von Trapp and sing whatever song we all remember.

Would you like to share a message to your students?

I love you, I love you, I love you! I love you and I miss you every single day. It may not happen as soon as we want, but we will all be together again.

Share your remote learning story

Our education community is facing unprecedented challenges around teaching and learning. In these times, more than ever, we are each other’s best resources. We invite you to reach out and share how you or a colleague, friend, or family member is approaching remote learning.
Looking for more resources around supporting remote learners? Check out Illuminate’s Remote Learning Community Page for free resources for your team, including webinars, professional learning activities, articles, product tips, and more.

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