Lights, Camera … LEARNING!

Music specialist Chris Olson has turned his room at Ellen Hopkins Elementary School into a video studio, where he and Joan Degerness produce their video lessons. (Photo/Nancy Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

“It was so depressing,” elementary music specialist Chris Olson says, looking back on the early days of the pandemic when Moorhead’s elementary classrooms were cleared of students. “We all knew we had to keep our kids safe, but the feeling of community was taken away.

“We were afraid of losing our connection with the kids. They weren’t coming to us … so we had to find a way to go to them.”

And so they did, via video. Enter Doc Jumble and Mighty Music Woman … Nigel Pennywhistle and Penelopy … Godfather Drosselmeyer and the Sugar Plum Fairy … Spy Agents O and D … and a whole cast of characters expressly designed to accompany third-graders through the national online music curriculum called Quaver.

The unique educational superheroes are the creations of Chris, who teaches music at Ellen Hopkins Elementary, and Joan Degerness of Dorothy Dodds Elementary. So far, the dynamic duo has created 131 separate videos to introduce students and, not incidentally, their classroom teachers to the music essentials covered in the Quaver curriculum. From rhythm and melody to instruments, notes and tempo, each of the nationally certified units is introduced in kid-friendly style by the two teachers’ familiar faces, with a dollop of drama and a side of silliness.

Like all of their fellow teachers, music specialists from the four local schools collaborated on finding the best ways to reach their students. Chris and Joan chose third grade; other duos took on other levels. The same sharing occurred among the other PEMAH specialists (physical education, music, art and health), as it did among teachers in regular K-4 classrooms.

Chris and Joan, whose work is screened in all of the district’s 12 third-grade classrooms, have amped up the video aspect to the max. Along the way, Chris has turned his now-depopulated music classroom into a well-equipped video studio, complete with lights and a green-screen background. He and Joan, who creates all the characters and scripts their lines, appear on camera in low-budget costumes they put together from thrifty bargains.

The drama comes naturally to the two seasoned educators. Both are alumni of Trollwood Performing Arts Center. When the Moorhead district seized on video as a solution for communicating, they were naturals.

It began last fall when all eight music specialists put together a music video that has been shared far and wide. Set to “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, their version – spotlighting coronavirus-fighting tips like hand-washing, distancing and wearing masks – not only introduced pandemic precautions to the tune of the hit, but even featured a whistling solo by Superintendent Brandon Lunak. It was a hit not only among Moorhead families, but nationwide, when – to their amazement – it was featured on the syndicated news show “Inside Edition.” (You can watch it today on YouTube.)

“After that, we looked at each other and said, ‘We can do this,’” Chris says of the genesis of their productions.

Chris terms himself an eager learner. If he was going to make videos, there would be no halfway efforts. He started searching the internet for lighting and the green screen on which backgrounds could be projected, aided in part by a $100 gift from the Ellen Hopkins PTAC. He added a video-capable 50mm camera, then found a teleprompter on Facebook Garage Sale. He got some production tips from former student Devon Solwold, now a professional filmmaker. He also enrolled in an online video production course that explores every detail of professional video production.

Meanwhile, his colleague was adapting themes already familiar to students to wrap around Quaver’s serious instruction. From “The Magic School Bus” to “Mission Impossible,” Joan has drawn youngsters to their lessons with a dose of humor. Among the team’s most memorable productions was their own parody of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with themselves as broadcast anchors and the other six music specialists as reporters on the scene, all encouraging students to sing out, safe in their distanced classrooms. Coming up: Star Wars.

Along the way, Chris has fallen in love with video as a communication tool. Not only does he intend to carry on next fall, as he and Hopkins colleague Axel Xiong have planned. He’s also laying the groundwork for an after-school club sharing what he has learned with third- and fourth-graders. “They’re the perfect age,” he comments, “curious but not all squirrelly.”

The forced move to teaching with video has had its bright side, he concludes, for at least some of the faculty. “Some people are super-excited to be done with it,” he concedes. “They just want their kids back in the classroom and to be able to get out there and teach.”

He empathizes: “Video strips us of that spirit of community. But it’s a way to extend anything we’re teaching in new directions.” One benefit, he says, has been able to expose students to guests like his friend Matt Gasper, who told them about ballet; he hopes to bring them together with more artists next year. Too, he and Joan have created an archive of kid-friendly videos that can be used for years to come.

In the meantime, Chris Olson has become a believer in the power of teaching with video. “When we started out, I was a little dubious. I hadn’t done anything like this,” he says. “Now, I’m in it for the long haul.

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