Professor Stephanie ReichStephanie Solomonoff Reich is a professor of Liberal Arts who teaches in the music and society and social sciences concentrations. Her specialties/interests are in the research of diverse cultures that inspire and reflect musical creativity, with a teaching focus on urban studies and American southern cultures. Prior to teaching, Reich worked in government and public policy. At Berklee, she has returned to her roots in music (violin and voice) and as a Berklee Fellowship recipient, is presently documenting the works and life of the great jazz artist, Paul Nero.

Ah, New England winter, you have clobbered us with monumental drifts, ice dams, frozen pipes, wrecked transit, and space saver wars. At Berklee, these past weeks have wreaked havoc on both faculty and students. Trying to hold class online or at the very least communicate with students has been challenging, but I was grateful to have the technology available.

My classes, Blues and Southern Culture, and City Blues are in the music and society and social science domains of the Liberal Arts Department. I don’t teach from a text and our time in the classroom is mostly interactive discussion with visual media and music. I employ “conversational teaching” instead of straight lecture, so that had to be changed for the online format. My goal was to be on my students’ radar screen (or computer screen) as much as possible.

I used the Faculty Announcement link daily to let students know about Topics and Discussion Forum sections I had set up on my course website. That was easy enough. Keeping the attention and the conversation going was harder. It is difficult to sense online when students are “with you” when you aren’t reading their facial expressions. Google images and Youtube for music were useful tools to present examples and set the stage for a follow up discussion online and then a recap in the classroom. Some humor also helped to set the interaction/conversational tone for my online lessons.

City Blues Class: Learning in Real Time

In 1945, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia took to the airwaves during a news delivery strike and read the comics to New Yorkers. He knew that reading the newspaper was a vital part of the urban life routine and it was the gesture, more than the words that assured city residents that disruptions were surmountable with the help of some creativity and tech support—in this instance, the radio.

City Blues is my social science course and online media such as the New York Times, is a required text. During these stormy weeks we encountered a blizzard of important and tragic news: Boston “Snowmaggedon,” global real estate scandals, MBTA crises, and the loss of the talented David Carr of the New York Times. My posting of online media stories on our course site’s forum with specific discussions sites helped us stay in pace with latest developments. Students who responded shared their own transit experiences that paralleled news reports.

Rising to the Challenges of Teaching Online at Short Notice

It was a pleasure to reunite with the students again in person. They candidly shared with me that while they felt “out of the rhythm,” they had, in fact, gotten some extra sleep. Which made me entertain this alternative perspective: What if school had been in session during the week? We probably would have experienced a large absentee rate with emails of transit woes, strep throat symptoms, stomach bugs, and personal stress issues. We know that our students can “hit the wall” in winter and this winter’s enforced down-time just might have given them more time to reboot. And just maybe that will help their productivity later.

Boston will always have winter and transit breakdowns are part of its reality. This winter was atypical and so we can’t pretend to operate as normal even with the best of technology. But I do suggest we look to next February now and design a Berklee Emergency Online Teaching Protocol that is uniform in workload limits with reasonable deadlines that our students can meet. The first step is to have a brainstorming session with key decision makers, staff, faculty, and also invite the students to this table. Because, they do want to connect.

Justin Poon