Q&A with an educator: Finding a new beat

  • Jennifer Keaton teaches music at Loudon Elementary School. Photos courtesy of Jennifer Keaton

  • Due to COVID-19 protocols, music teacher Jennifer Keaton has moved her music room to a wheeled cart that she pushes between classrooms. She has decorated the cart with lights that blink in time to the music. Jennifer Keaton—Courtesy photo

  • Due to COVID-19 protocols, music teacher Jennifer Keaton has moved her music room to a wheeled cart that she pushes between classrooms. She has decorated the cart with lights that blink in time to the music. Jennifer Keaton—Courtesy photo

  • Due to COVID-19 protocols, music teacher Jennifer Keaton has been using plastic instruments in her classes that can easily be wiped down, like bucket drums and Boomwhackers. Jennifer Keaton—Courtesy photo

  • Jennifer Keaton teaches music at Loudon Elementary Jennifer Keaton—Courtesy photo

Monitor staff
Published: 1/11/2021 5:20:24 PM
Modified: 1/11/2021 5:20:03 PM

Jennifer Keaton wants students’ biggest takeaway from music class to be an understanding of the value music and the arts have on their lives.

Keaton has been teaching music in the Merrimack Valley School District for 14 years, at Loudon, Boscawen, Salisbury and Webster Elementary Schools. This year, due to COVID-19 protocols, Keaton is teaching solely at Loudon Elementary School, where she teaches general music classes, band, and instrumental lessons.

In a normal year Keaton also teaches chorus, but due to COVID restrictions, singing isn’t happening this year. Fourth-grade recorder lessons have also been canceled, and there are none of the usual concerts to showcase student learning. Instead of students gathering in her music room, Keaton goes classroom to classroom, with the help of a wheeled cart that she has decorated with lights and filled with instruments and teaching materials.

“Music is a performance-based subject, and right now the performance-based part is not happening,” Keaton said. “We usually teach about music through performance, so now we’re just teaching about music and trying to keep it fun and educational.”

Keaton lives with her husband in Wolfeboro. She sat down with the Monitor recently, to discuss her work and the way COVID-19 has changed music education. The following transcript has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

How has teaching music changed this year due to COVID-19?

There aren’t performances scheduled for this year and it’s hard because that’s when they shine. Letting the audience, their parents, their friends, family, neighbors, see what they’ve been doing. One thing I have been doing is taking videos of students and what they do in class. I want to try to do more of that.

Right now I am trying to use instruments that are easily able to wipe down, instruments I can clean. I received a donation from Home Depot of five-gallon buckets, so we are bucket drumming which has been really fun. We are using Boomwhackers ... various classroom instruments like drums, triangles, tambourines, shaker-eggs, anything that’s plastic that can be easily wiped down. We’re still getting them excited about music, it’s just different this year.

I am so proud of our district for being able to offer the instrument lessons. That’s something that I think a lot of school districts said “no, you’re not doing lessons, it’s too much of a risk.” But our school district said, “okay, tell us how you’re going to do it safely.” So we’ve been very lucky to have administrators who trust us and are working with us.

Tell me about your mobile cart classroom

Another thing that has changed is that we [music, art and world language teachers] are going into classrooms this year, the students are not coming to us. We are on a cart. We joke that “we didn’t choose the cart life, the cart life chose us.” We try to make it fun – I put LED lights on my cart, and the lights will go with the rhythm of whatever we are doing. You are limited to what you can put on a cart. It’s a tool cart. There are all these drawers, instruments can be kept in there. Somebody had the idea of taking a paper towel holder, and we turned it upside down so I put my wires on there, I have my Bose speaker. At the beginning of the year, somebody was like “you’re like an ice cream truck, going from room to room,” so I started playing ice cream truck music when I was entering classrooms as a joke.

What has been the biggest challenge of teaching music during COVID-19?

I feel like a first-year teacher all over again because I’m constantly rethinking how I taught something, because it either involves singing – which we can’t do – or it involved them working in groups which is hard to do, or I just don’t have the time for it. Really, you need to really evaluate what you’re doing and how to make it better for the situation you are currently in. Because our remote classes are made up of students from other buildings, some of these remote students are from buildings I don’t even teach in normally, so I don’t know them. That’s a big challenge as well, when you’re teaching students you don’t really know and you only see their work on a computer.

How did you get your start in music?

My primary instrument was flute. Ever since I was little, I always felt like I was raised to be a teacher. My mom was a teacher, my aunt was a teacher, my sister was a math specialist. When I was old enough to start a band instrument, my mom kind of selected it because it was small enough to fit in my backpack. But as I got older I wanted to start more, so I started taking private oboe lessons, clarinet and piano and I got involved in several community orchestras, I was so immersed in music when I was in high school that’s how I got into the music education piece.

What inspires you in your job?

When a student is so self-motivated to learn an instrument, or when I put on a piece of classical music and they’re like “wow,” and they love it, and it might be because they had never been exposed to that. This week we are doing the Nutcracker, and they have seen movies on TV but they have never seen the ballet and studied the music. I love it when they are excited to learn and I love it when I can bring something to them that they have not had previous exposure to.

I always tell them, you don’t have to be a music teacher. That’s not why you learn music. I want you to appreciate music and the value that the arts have on our lives. So they can sing “Happy Birthday” to their child and it’s in tune, and they can dance and they are keeping a steady beat. It’s not all about being a music teacher or being a professional musician or being a sound engineer for a music company, it’s about realizing that the music and the arts has such an impact on our lives.

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