This award-winning NYC music teacher had her students making podcasts during the pandemic

Sanford Teacher Award winner Melissa Morris with young musicians. (Courtesy photo)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Melissa Morris worked hard to keep her students at Brooklyn’s James Madison High School engaged when New York City schools went remote due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A music teacher, she leaned into live lessons whenever possible. 

“I couldn’t have done it any other way,” Morris said. “I need those kids! They inspire me, and a day without inspiration is too hard for me.” 

She also found ways to accommodate students who weren’t able to attend in real time. 

“Musicians are really good at solving problems on the fly,” Morris said. 

Morris has taught music for 24 years, but she almost didn’t become a teacher. Only after a positive interaction with a young boy with autism did the classical guitarist decide she was a music educator at heart. 

She recently won a Sanford Teacher Award, which comes with a $10,000 prize. The honor goes to one teacher in each state and in Washington, D.C. Morris stood out for her dynamic lessons, which have included virtual concerts featuring musicians in China and Sweden. 

Morris spoke recently with Chalkbeat about her unit on podcasting, what music education could look like this fall, class conversations about racism following George Floyd’s killing, and what she has planned for the summer. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What has music instruction looked like since school buildings closed in March? 

I am part of a large music department at my school so we assembled a planning committee and went to work finding resources, hashing out potential issues, and attempting to solve problems before they arose. We got it wrong so many times! 

When we started, I found that I had no real understanding of the kinds of inequalities that exist within our school community. We knew most of our students did not have instruments at home. We knew that live instruction wouldn’t be widely attended due to the fact that many of our students didn’t have computers at home and if they did have a computer, it was likely one for the whole family. But when we began planning as a department for this crisis we didn’t talk much about kids who lived in shelters or kids who did not have Wi-Fi of any kind. 

In the end, I believe my classes ended up with something much more important than I had originally planned. They ended up with a teacher who made phone calls, who provided Snapchat videos with crazy filters to make them chuckle each day. They ended up with a teacher who found performing artists who would help us get through this crisis one social media concert at a time, who was willing to meet them where they were. This crisis highlighted the true role of the teacher all over again. 

Melissa Morris (Courtesy photo)

What was your favorite lesson to teach online, and what about it worked well? 

The students and I got really hooked on This platform enabled us to create music and tell our stories working collaboratively online. My favorite collaboration was our podcast project “How is music helping you through this pandemic?” Here, they had to create their own podcasts by asking questions, formulating answers, interviewing each other, and adding music to their podcast shows in multiple ways. The kids were really adorable, and the projects came out amazing. 

What initially drew you to a career in music education? 

I was a classical guitar performance major attending a music conservatory. My roommate in my sophomore year was a music education major. She was my best friend, and she got to learn to play all of the instruments and I was restricted to my guitar. I masterminded a plan — I would double major, take all of the “cool” instrumental methods classes and then drop the major. One day, I was sent to a neighborhood school to do a short demo lesson for first-graders. There I met a little boy with autism who had a paraprofessional with him. I brought with me some rhythm instruments. The lesson went really well, and I admit I truly enjoyed myself. At the end of that lesson, the teacher and the paraprofessional grabbed me and informed me that her young boy was not usually as engaged as he was with me, and he really loved my lesson. They thought I was going to make a “wonderful music teacher.” That little boy has never left my heart! From that day forward, dropping the music ed major was no longer an option for me. 

In recent months, what best practices for distance learning have you discovered? 

It’s true we have been learning remotely, but in my perspective we have not really been “distance learning.” We have been “crisis learning,” and there is a true distinction. We don’t all have the technology we need to learn or teach remotely. Some don’t have food or stable home lives. Some families live in one room and have no place to get away to concentrate fully with online learning. The “best practice” in this crisis learning environment is just being flexible and available to as many kids as you can, as often as you can, for as long as you can, with as much compassion and patience as you can. 

This past semester, did you discuss the protests against racism and police brutality with your students? 

Musicians typically have a strong appreciation for individual differences, so while we did address the racially charged climate in the world, my students engaged in the conversation briefly but they moved in the direction of music-making consistently. In written responses, kids shared their thoughts and fears. One young man is particularly worried about his father who is a police officer and had not been home for days working riot patrol. Another young boy talked about his mother’s fear of losing her children because of the color of their skin. Our school communities will need to be ready to deal with this in full force as in summer sessions and into the fall semester.   

What do you hope music instruction will look like in the fall? 

I hope music education is regarded as fundamental and essential to help our school communities cope and recover from this history-making time period.  

When students go back to school, what hurdles do you foresee teaching music amid the coronavirus pandemic?

If music, art and PE are 100% remote in the fall, it will pose a giant hurdle in my perspective. Kids need to play! They need to collaborate, communicate, think critically and creatively. They need to express themselves, they need to grow socially and emotionally since they are coming out of social isolation. 

What are you most looking forward to this summer? 

I am looking forward to not sitting behind a computer for 16-18 hour days. My Apple Health app is screaming at me for having days where I have only taken 378 steps. Truthfully, I am looking forward to getting up and moving!

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and how have you put it into action? 

My dad passed away a few ago after losing his battle with cancer. He was probably my greatest teacher. He would say, “You have gifts that people admire you for, own those!” I once believed my gift was that of a classical guitarist, but I know better now. I am a teacher! It is who I feel I was born to be.







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