MEA member Rachel Niewiada already knew her Grandville Middle School choral music students were wonderful singers, but after she appeared on the ABC television program The View the seven-year teacher now knows they’re incredible actors as well.
Niewiada says she had no idea several of her students would appear in taped interviews to talk movingly about her impact on their lives during a segment honoring her on the daytime talk show in December. “They were such great secret keepers!” she said in an interview afterward.
In the segment, after talking with The View hosts Sara Haines and Sunny Hostin about how she has adjusted to teaching during the pandemic, Niewiada was surprised with a video montage of her students sharing touching reflections spliced with images of her at work.
“She’s just been so impactful on my life, and I don’t know what I would do without being in her class,” said one boy identified as Aaron, 13. “You always make people feel happy and positive about themselves. You’re just amazing.”
Like band, art, theater, and physical education, choir class provides an outlet for students when the global pandemic is exacerbating mental health issues for many people, Niewiada said.
“Kids are looking for something that they can cling to, something they can use to express themselves. Getting kids up and moving for stretches and vocalizing and focusing on our breathing helps put everything else at bay, so they kind of forget what they’re worried about.”
Niewiada was distraught last summer when her principal said in-person students might not be allowed to sing because the virus spreads through aerosols. She used a University of Colorado study on performing arts and the coronavirus which said how to mitigate risk—by ensuring adequate air flow and replacement, spacing students more than six feet apart, singing for 30 minutes or less at a time, and masking.
Class moved from the choir room to the auditorium. “I checked with my school’s maintenance department, who put me in touch with the engineer of our middle school auditorium and he was able to check the ACH—which is the air change rate per hour—to make sure it fit with the recommendation from the University of Colorado study.”
Students adapted to the changes although masking requires greater voice projection and more distancing creates a larger “bubble” of space to fill between each of them and the other singers.
Some students found the bigger bubble allowed them to more distinctly hear their own voices— and correct pitch problems—which increased their confidence. Others found it made them more self-conscious and reticent about performing, Niewiada said.
She spends extra class time on sharing good news and fostering conversation among students so they feel less isolated. As in many districts, the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases forced her suburban Grand Rapids district to go virtual for several weeks in November and December.
“The kids and I are super resilient and flexible, so we make it work either way,” Niewiada said.
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