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Music Gives Students a Break from Learning Loss Stress

Penny Swift • CommentarySeptember 2021 • September 6, 2021

After a year of remote schooling, the K-12 education sector is focused on reversing learning loss, seen in New York City’s recently announced $635 million academic recovery plan for the coming school year. But beyond learning loss, the pandemic had devastating mental, emotional and physical effects on students, particularly those who were in stressful circumstances before the pandemic. 

Students will need a creative outlet and safe space to express their emotions of the past year while managing the stress of going back to school in person and the pressure to catch up from learning loss. As the executive director of New York City nonprofit Education Through Music (ETM), I believe music class — and the arts as a whole – is an excellent way to incorporate creative camaraderie, reflection and optimism at a time when students need it most. Here are three critical ways to create constructive breaks for children in the upcoming school year: 

Gather to Connect 

In music, “ensemble” describes a group of musicians. The word itself means “togetherness”, apt for the feeling of gathering to perform together. This concept of ensemble can be applied in every classroom — but students lost it last year. 

Last year, ETM teacher Amanda Keil quickly recognized that her students were overloaded by individual screen time during the pandemic and needed collaboration and joy in their lives. Deciding that this was “not the year to teach these kids about sonatas,” she focused on combining music and dance to get her students connected and moving outdoors. 

The arts have a powerful impact on students’ engagement, mental health and life direction. Our research shows that music can help students stay engaged across subjects. Nearly 60% of our middle-school students in ensembles considered skipping school but went anyway, because they wanted to go to the ensemble. And an ETM partner school in The Bronx found that students were more likely to attend school when they moved music class to the first period. 

With the emphasis on the loss of academic progress this past year, the upcoming semester could be one marked by heavy workload and intense assessment. Students may be overwhelmed after a year of virtual school from home. Therefore, schools must equally prioritize creative breaks throughout the day. These can increase students’ productivity and provide them with opportunities to develop creativity and social skills.

Reflect on Emotion 

To move into a new school year, we must reflect on the barriers our students faced in the past year. As well as online learning, students witnessed a devastating public health crisis and racial injustice. 

In New York City public schools, a majority of students identify as Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). These communities were disproportionately affected not only by COVID-19 but also by limited access to educational and mental health resources. One in 10 NYC students lacked adequate tech needed for remote schooling, and students of color had an increased likelihood of experiencing mental health challenges during the pandemic. 

Virtual learning impeded emotional connection and engagement, which are vital to education and development. An instructor can teach content through a screen, but supporting, motivating, and inspiring students is best-done face to face. Likewise, a student can attend class, but will not truly absorb the material if there are physical or emotional barriers to overcome. This disengagement begins in primary school and can contribute to mental illness and antisocial behavior in adulthood. 

After the intense presidential election cycle, one of our music teachers, Taylor Smith, tasked students with building musical playlists inspired by Vice President Harris’ acceptance speech at the January 2021 inauguration. This project gave students the opportunity to engage creatively and reflect on the world around them, specifically on the significance of having a woman of color in that office. 

We cannot ignore these challenges when we are evaluating students’ academic progress in the upcoming school year. Assessments and curriculum must be culturally responsive and incorporate moments for reflection and creativity. 

Look Forward

We must refrain from looking at the past year exclusively in the lens of learning loss. School systems should take steps to ensure next year is one of collaborative inspiration by reconnecting all students to creativity, education, resources, emotional support and each other. 

We have an obligation as educators to create safe, encouraging spaces where students can process and express their emotions. I challenge you to find moments for creative, collaborative celebration with your students, whether in person or online. By recognizing their collective persistence during the past difficult year, teachers and students can move forward with optimism. 

Penny Swift is the executive director of Education Through Music. 

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