Seated on slices of tree trunks and five gallon buckets and wielding drumsticks, first graders listen to their teacher’s instructions.
They ignore the breeze that lifts the tree branches over their heads and the sunlight that illuminates the pine needles beneath their feet.
Lora Jilg plays a rhythm for the first graders to imitate. They follow her lead, counting to eight, beating the rhythm on buckets and xylophones.
As a music teacher at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Seward, Jilg has had to find creative ways to teach her class since the coronavirus canceled in-person instruction last March.
After the challenges with online instruction, Jilg had an idea. Why not move music outside?
“After the first day, we got messages – students were on Cloud 9,” Jilg said.
The first task was to determine if the treeline on the north side of the school was part of the church and school property. It is.
Jilg found a clearing near the playground that works as a classroom space.
“We try to be outside as much as possible,” she said. “It allows them to take off their masks.”
Each student has their own bag for drumsticks and other class equipment.
Originally, Jilg said, they weren’t allowed to sing since singing could spread the virus even further.
“We do sing outside,” Jilg said, adding that when classes move inside because of weather, students will wear masks.
Parents also begged to do away with recorders, a traditional first instrument.
“I finally gave in,” Jilg said, laughing. “There was a universal cheer.”
This year, her fourth-grade students will build dulcimers during class. Third graders will play ukuleles, while kindergarten through second grade students play a variety of pitched and unpitched instruments.
Students sit under the trees on what Jilg called wooden chargers, which were donated by arborist Morgan Neeley. Davisson Furniture donated carpet squares for the class, and Ace Hardware gave the school five-gallon buckets that are used as seating and as drums.
“The kids love it,” Jilg said. After the first day of school, “they said it was the best day in music class ever.”
She said students have brought their parents to see the classroom after Mass.
As a musician, Jilg said one of the challenge is being able to hear the students in a wide-open space. She created boundaries for the classroom and has allowed the students to explore the area.
“The first day, I had everyone go get pinecones,” she said.
Class has been disrupted by squirrels and monarch butterflies, she said. Sweat bees and other bugs have distracted the students, too.
“It’s a whole new classroom experience,” she said. “Nature happens in nature. It requires a lot of awareness and flexibility.”
Jilg uses wagons to transport her equipment from the indoor classroom to the outdoor. Some, like the chargers, can stay outside. Others, like the xylophones, guitars and music books, need to go indoors after school.
She uses puppets to teach basics of music and has a portable hot spot to be able to bring recorded music and other information to the outdoor space.
Jilg has taught for 10 years, five of them at St. Vincent. The last year has challenged her creativity in meeting students’ needs.
“We try to focus on their needs and meet them,” she said. “Our primary focus is to love and serve Jesus.”