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My 50 Cents on Online Teaching

By Nancy Xu

I had never imagined that I would be teaching an online class for middle school students before being asked (peer pressured?) to do so by my childhood friend, Hilary, one of the current directors of Spark. It has been more than a year since my last in-person class in high school, and a long-term version of Zoom fatigue has started to kick in. I found myself getting more and more easily distracted by the objects in my peripheral vision—my phone that constantly buzzes with incoming messages, the bright red New York Presbyterian stress ball, a large box of unopened Pocky, to name a few—so when I decided to teach a course on Introduction to Music Theory with Hilary for Spark, I realized that one of the most important aspects of designing the class will be to find ways to engage the students. Most of my considerations are minor, but nonetheless I hope they have somewhat made the course more interesting.

Since Spark classes run on MIT time, where it starts five minutes after the hour, the first five minutes in the Zoom room can feel awkward, especially if the students do not already know each other before class. To alleviate some of the awkwardness, I decided to play a five minute clip of Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet while students are entering the Zoom room to set the stage for a discourse in classical music. 

An understanding of music theory comes with experience, so I sporadically inserted short questions at the end of selected slides and asked students to answer them in the chat. For instance, I would ask students to name the interval of two notes by separating the steps into identifying the note names, finding the interval number, and determining the interval quality so that the question becomes partitioned into manageable chunks. I was also hoping that this would create some sense of community in the students as they see the answers piling in for each question, which may help bolster the students’ enthusiasm to see that others are engaged. 

There were other challenges, however, that were more difficult to overcome. For example, the students in the course had a wide range of music background: some have been playing piano for more than eight years, while others barely have experience with reading sheet music, which made designing the content of the course quite an obstacle. Our solution to this was to create a fast-paced course consisting of multiple mutually unrelated sub-topics with a wide range in difficulty, ranging from reading in the treble and bass clef to progressions and cadences, so that students without a lot of experience can follow at least some of the mini-topics and the more advanced students won’t feel bored. This design, however, seemed not to have benefited either group of students, as for the former, much of the class went over their heads, and for the latter, the mini-topics still felt like a review. Perhaps a better approach would have been to provide a list of topics in the course description during registration so students have a better sense of what to expect.

I believe that I have benefited from this experience as well, since I now understand the sense of excitement when one more student turns their camera on and when the Zoom chat becomes flooded with responses as students answer the questions, because human interactions are exciting. Hopefully for the next time around, human interactions will be in person, which will be even more exciting.

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