A New COVID Passion

The COVID pandemic created new opportunities for many of us. With more time on our hands (especially with no clients available for me), what could we do that we didn’t think possible or take our lives in a new direction? For me it was the opportunity to be more creative and to delve into an art form I thought I had no interest in – opera. What does this have to do with my days at Dickinson? That’s the start of the story. 

I grew up in a middle class neighborhood with middle class parents who were not interested in the “fine arts.” We watched television, went to movies, and would enjoy an evening of song or comedy at a nightclub. I even had a chance to see “Camelot” on Broadway (but that’s another story). My parents had a small record collection, mainly Jewish humor from the Catskills. I never heard a classical tune in the house until I was about to enter Dickinson. And it was not my parents, but an inheritance that fueled my interest in classical music. 

My cousin, Lois, died in a car crash with her newly married husband. I inherited her record collection. There were albums from Broadway and Stravinsky’s Firebird. I was mesmerized by this strange, stirring music. I also found Night on Bald Mountain and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. 

My senior year of high school I accepted an invitation for a matinee date at the Symphony. It was incredible to see the music performed live. I thought that would be my last opportunity to enjoy the stirring sounds of classical music, but my freshman year at Dickinson opened a floodgate of new possibilities. Almost every week there was a concert on campus or in town thanks to the guidance of the faculty sponsor for the Cultural Arts Series, Larry Warner. I made sure I had my evenings free. I don’t remember all of the artists or the music, but I do remember the excitement of discovering a wide range of music, dance, and theater. 

In addition, I decided to get involved in the Mermaid Players. I had taken a high school class in Drama and I really wanted to be part of a group of people where I felt connected. I loved working on building sets or setting up the lighting for a Mermaid Players production. I even auditioned for several plays and had small bit roles in “The Good Woman of Setzuan” and “Richard III.” I “starred” in one of the freshman plays and then had a wonderful opportunity to join an audio production of “Under Milkwood.” 

In high school I wanted to write for the newspaper, but you needed a sponsor, another student to recommend you. I had no one who would recommend me, so I didn’t have an opportunity to write. At Dickinson I walked into the office of the Dickinsonian and immediately was given an assignment. Before I knew it, I was a features writer. I wrote film reviews, book reviews, and even had an amazing opportunity to interview John Cage. 

I also had a chance to submit a story for Belles Lettres, the Dickinson literary magazine. I was a published author by my senior year. 

At Dickinson my interest in the arts went beyond extra-curricular opportunities. I started to think about ways to incorporate art and theater into class assignments. Instead of just writing traditional essays for class assignments I started to experiment with plays and poems. This was the late 1960s and early 1970s. I’m not sure if today professors would be as open to my feeble attempts, but it was wonderful to try out my skills. 

I always had a love for movies. My family owned a small, neighborhood movie theater in Pittsburgh. Every weekend I helped my uncle by selling tickets, taking charge of crowd control, or just watching the projectionist. I also had a chance to go to special screenings of films with my uncle. 

In addition to writing reviews for the Dickinsonian I joined the Film Society to develop the film series for the college. I, even, talked my way into the NY Film Festival as a critic. I had a press badge from Dickinson. “What do you mean there’s no pass for Norton Gusky? Here are my press credentials.” Believe it not that worked. I had a chance to sample a Bertolucci classic, “The Conformist,” and some other films I can’t remember.

Over the years I had many more opportunities to build on my Dickinsonian arts experience. I went to the University of Pittsburgh for my Master’s Degree in Education. I noticed classes advertised for pantomime. The year I went to Switzerland Vince Patterson had created a mime troupe on the Dickinson campus. I always missed that opportunity to explore this form of communication. So I enrolled in the Pittsburgh class taught by the artist,  Dan Kamin. 

A few years later while teaching in West Virginia I noticed that some of the Mime Students from my Pittsburgh class were going to be instructors for the School for Movement Theater (SMT), a new project created by Michael Pedretti, the head of the theater department at Davis & Elkins College. I had an idea: what if I took photos for SMT and in exchange I could take classes. Mike added, “You can also market your photos to the students and instructors as long as the SMT has the right to use the photos at no charge.” So for three years I was an official theater photographer. (And 40 years later my photos will be published in a book by Michael Pedretti, Delighting the Senses, Vol 1.) 

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

While in West Virginia I discovered the folk music and dance traditions of the Appalachian region. Every year I arranged to have an Artist in Residence work with my fifth and grade students. After eight years at Pickens Elementary I moved to Elkins, West Virginia for a new position working with Gifted and Talented students.  I discovered that the Creative Arts Council was about to die. I couldn’t let that happen. What would life be without the arts? So I volunteered and soon I was in charge of the Randolph County Creative Arts Council creating year-long programming with our community partner,  Davis & Elkins College. For four years I coordinated the programming, marketing, and evaluation of the county-wide program in addition to my work as a teacher. 

I returned to Pittsburgh as a computer teacher and joined the Board for a local folk music society.  Soon I was producing a summer folk music festival, creating a concert series, and producing a radio show about folk music. The arts filled my life with joy and opportunities that really started in earnest in my days at Dickinson. 

The one art form that I never really experienced at Dickinson was an opera. I’m not sure why, but there was never an opportunity to see or hear a production. That happened when I spent my junior year studying in Switzerland. I traveled to Vienna with my student group to explore the Baroque world of Vienna. One night my roommate and I went to see “Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman).” We had standing seats on the balcony. I can remember being fascinated by the spectacle of the production, but then something strange happened – I fell asleep. Yes, I literally fell asleep standing up.

While in Basel I had a chance to go to see Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” This time the stirring music combined with the Ode to Joy kept me awake, but over the years I fell asleep in two more operas while remaining awake for Bizet’s “Carmen.” I just didn’t have a real understanding of the world of opera. At that time there were not large screens with the lyrics translated into English. That certainly made the experience rather difficult, but I think what was really missing was a social connection. 

That’s what changed during the pandemic. My high school friend, Randy, who lived in Seattle now, had tried to convince me about the greatness of opera. She had even sent me a book, Opera 101. However, I just couldn’t motivate myself to watch an opera on my own. Then during the early days of Covid Randy said, “Why don’t we watch a streaming HD opera from the NY MET? We can text each other while we watch the production.” That was the key – we could “talk” online and ask questions as well as share insights. Soon, Randy said, “Why don’t we invite my sister, Judy, to join us.” Forty operas later we’re still watching operas together. We have added another cultural colleague, Lillian, and we even go to the movie theater to see the MET HD productions Live on Screen. 

Would this have happened without my days at Dickinson? Probably, but the love for the arts would have taken many more years to develop. Dickinson gave me personal experiences not just to study the arts but to live them, opportunities to create plays, act on stage, explore classical music, and to decompose films and literature as a critic. The arts are wonderful on their own, but when you combine that with a social connection, it makes an amazing thing happen – even things that used to put you to sleep standing up are now mesmerizing experiences that you share with other people who share your passion.

What’s Working During COVID

While many people have been concerned about the lack of learning during the COVID period, there have been a number of successful strategies and approaches.  Through a dialog with regional educators, my contributions to the work for the Consortium of Schools Networked (CoSN), and listening to personal stories from 2020 HundrED Virtual Innovation Summit, I’ve compiled a list of successes. In this posting, I’ll share some of the ideas I’ve discovered. We’ll look at how at one school in Pennsylvania has students working together in teams and collaborating even with remote learning and social distancing. We’ll hear from an online trainer how the pandemic has opened new learning doors for active learning for students, parents, and educators. We’ll hear from one edtech company that has made robotics a remote hands-on experience for all learners. We’ll discover a school district in California that has found ways to continue to expand the expertise for their professional learning community. Finally, we’ll discover how an African non-profit has had to be pivot to continue to deliver its entrepreneurial program for learners.

Collaboration and Working as a Team

Melissa Unger, the K-2 STEAM Teacher for the South Fayette School District, has been an educational leader for the past decade. The pandemic forced her to rethink how she designs learning experiences, especially to promote collaboration and team-building. According to Melissa, “Being in a Hybrid setting and social distancing has caused us to rethink what it means for students to work together and collaborate. One of the best tools I have used for this is FlipGrid–students are able to share their work, thoughts, or ideas via short videos, and others can comment. In each homeroom, students have only met half of their classmates in person this year, so FlipGrid has allowed for a greater sense of community building and information sharing. I have watched students use others’ videos as a way to add on to their own ideas and form connections. 

“I also think that now more than ever open-ended projects and STEAM tasks are really important for our students. These projects and tasks address an uncertainty that students need to understand – an uncertainty about the virus, school closures, and just what’s going to happen each day. With open-ended projects, I think students start to see that having all the information is not always necessary before moving forward. This new learning situation builds confidence and resilience during this time of uncertainty.”

Active Learning

Active learning is always an important goal. In order to achieve learning engagement it’s critical to think about instruction design. According to Kelesy Derringer, the Co-founder of CodeJoy LLC, ” The job of an educator is not to simply transmit information, but to design educational experiences. Even in online learning, this is still the job, though our delivery method has radically changed. In our classes at CodeJoy, we continue to ask, “What are the students DOING?” We offer opportunities to do more than listen – students can code and control robots, build their own catapults at home with craft supplies, engage in the Engineering Design Process together, talk to a live puppet, ask a florist to cut a rose in half to see what it looks like, strap a phone camera to a horse and go for a ride, or have a dance party with children all over the world! Engagement looks different online, but it should still be the cornerstone around which educators design their learning experiences.”

Lock downs and social distancing requirements have created serious challenges to hands-on robotics education, but also inspired creative solutions, such as 1:1 robotics and remote robots. According to Tom Lauwers, the CEO and Founder of Birdbrain Technologies, “With 1:1 robotics, all students have a robotics kit at home, and use remote collaboration tools like the newly released micro:bit classroom along with teacher-led video instruction to learn coding and robotics. Remote Robots is a new technology that we’ve developed to allow kids to code a robot in a beginner-friendly environment that is not located in the same location as them. We quickly created five 24/7 live-streamed robots in April that anyone can code, and have also created a tutorial for educators to set up their own remote robots. Together, 1:1 robotics and remote robots provide educators with a toolbox to continue physical computing and robotics education in these pandemic times.”

Creating a Professional Community

CoSN for the past three years has assembled a global team of advisors to look at Innovation in Education. I’ve been part of the CoSN Driving K-12 Innovation advisory team. This year in addition to the normal Hurdles, Accelerators, and Tech Enablers, we began to look at examples of innovation due to the COVID situation. Phillip Neufield, the Executive Officer for the Fresno Unified School District in California shared his insights with the CoSN community. According to Phillip, “Over the past five years, our district has moved to more experiential, actionable professional learning where teachers experiencing their learning as we intend teacher practices to land as learning experiences for their students (albeit with adult learning wisdom applied).”

“So in spring we delivered over 100 webinars to prepare teachers for the shift to distance learning with over 1,700 educators participating, some up to 3-5 times in different webinars.  Educators could access recorded sessions.  And we offered competency-based on-demand web training resources with over 10,000 unique visits.”

“We repeated this approach in summer to prepare educators for fall.
We found educators were bringing these new teaching practices back to their grade-level or department-level professional learning communities (teaching practices included the know-why, know-how, and tech mediated activities).”

Creative Pivoting

The problems learners, parents, and educators face in the United States due to the pandemic are truly global. During the Virtual HundrED Innovation 2020 Summit I listened to an African educator, Frank Omana, outline how his non-profit, EDUCATE!, pivoted.

Educate! tackles youth unemployment by partnering with youth, schools, and governments to design and deliver education solutions that equip young people in Africa with the skills to attain further education, overcome gender inequities, start businesses, get jobs, and drive development in their communities. With the appearance of COVID this skill-based model for entrepreneurial studies had to find a distance learning option

Frank and his team created “The Experience on Air.” They began to broadcast on national radio and available via text messaging. They kept the core components – practical experience with mentorships, skills, and assessments. Remarkably the pivot opened new doors for the African learners using the distance learning model.

In each of the cases I’ve outlined new doors opened, while old gateways were no longer available. In today’s world, that’s the lesson we all need to understand. We need to be nimble and pivot so we can maintain our educational goals like Birdbrain, CodeJoy, Frenso, or the South Fayette School District. The real test is how well are we meeting the needs of our learning community.