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We hope that you’ve been enjoying our “Educator Spotlight” themed Coffee Break Chats posts! We are back with another one today featuring Kirk Schjodt, a current choir teacher in Nebraska who was teaching at Arapahoe High School in Colorado at the start of the pandemic.

We asked Mr. Schjodt if he would be willing to discuss his journey with and navigation of remote learning with us, and he was happy to share what he learned throughout the process.

Mr. Schjodt is now in his thirteenth year of teaching, with experience teaching a variety of age groups anywhere from kindergarteners to undergraduate students. However, he has found his niche with sharing his love of music and choir with teenagers at the high school level specifically.

Kirk recalled that at the onset of the pandemic the greatest detail that sticks with him is the uncertainty and the burden of having to figure out how to teach students in this new way for an unknown amount of time in unknown circumstances. When he heard that airline traffic was closing, his gut told him that this wasn’t just going to be a temporary shift—instead, he prepared by designing a virtual syllabus through the rest of the school year right away. To combat the uncertainty and huge learning curve, he also joined groups of educators in similar positions to see what everyone else was doing and to collaborate with ideas.

As COVID continued into the summer, Kirk researched some of the best practices for virtual learning and took on his newest challenge—moving to Nebraska to teach at a completely new school in a new state. He remarked that the change was a bit unnerving since he was unsure what the school’s expectations would be and what the experience would be like until right before he started, so it was a bit difficult to prepare.

He proceeded to take everything one day at a time, and did everything he could to give students an impactful choir experience amidst the circumstances. He adapted to new regulations and coordinated singing outdoors in small pods and around the hallways of the school, never even knowing if they would be able to perform for a live audience.

When asked what the greatest challenge is for remote learning, Kirk immediately replied with how the struggle to form interpersonal relationships with students hits him the hardest. It’s difficult to get to know the students who are always remote and don’t come in-person, and he is working to find ways to remedy that difficulty. Masks also pose a challenge since it is hard to tell if students are singing as well as to decipher their facial expressions; Kirk commented on how one of the most important things of his job is to learn how to read the room and respond to the energy, but the face coverings take away that easy method of being able to tell which kids are struggling and which are having a good day.

Mr. Schjodt frequently uses “Sight Reading Factory” as a resource which allows him to give students individual feedback and tell which students are struggling with hitting the notes and which are succeeding. He also uses iMovie to integrate the recordings of every student singing their part. At one point he even used a GoPro to catch a video of students singing all together while spread out to create a virtual concert. Finally, he heavily relies on Garage Band to layer audio together and get good microphone quality. Above all, he emphasized how the best practice for remote choir is to do everything you can to maintain that connective piece of singing as one voice—kids join choir to sing with their friends and work toward a common goal, and everyone loves the magical ending of hitting that ending note all together.

If Kirk could give advice to his pre-pandemic self, he wishes that he had known how everything that used to take five minutes would now take double that time (due to the use of new technology) so that he could have planned for that on the front end. If he is trying to help eighty kids learn their parts for an eight minute song, he has to factor in all the time on the back end that it will take to produce it and integrate all the moving parts together. “Less is more” is an important mantra to remember, and he encourages educators to give themselves grace and not be chained to the “use absolutely every minute” idea that used to guide teaching. There are going to be lost minutes due to transitions with technology, and that’s okay.

His best experience with hybrid learning was a couple weeks ago when his school received permission to host an in-person choir concert for a 40% full auditorium of parents. The magic and beauty of the kids getting to sing again in front of their loved ones for the first time in so long combined with the reward of applause was absolutely huge for them. He says that the impact of a live performance just can not be understated.

If Mr. Schjodt could give encouragement to all educators, he would urge them to keep perspective. There is not a single human who is not struggling in some way right now, and it can be easy to get swept up in our own issues and lose track of what’s going on in the lives of those around us. If kids aren’t engaged and are having a bad day, he comments on how it can feel like a reflection on him or his class, but in reality you as a teacher have no idea how your class or your smiling face could be the best moment of a kid’s day, whether virtual or in-person. Kirk talks about how he as an educator is here to serve kids and to share as much joy and light with them as possible, which in turn makes his day even better.

We spoke with one of Kirk’s former students who testified to his compassion and care as a teacher and person. Here is a quote:

“He is by far one of the teachers that had the biggest impact on my life, and I really think that my life would be completely different if it wasn’t for him. All the students loved him, he is funny and kind, yet he can be strict and push you out of your comfort zone…I have never had a teacher push me to be a better singer.”

We are thankful that Kirk decided to speak with us, and we hope that you feel inspired by his story! See you tomorrow for another Coffee Break Chat.

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