Amid coronavirus challenges, SDP music teacher finds new ways to inspire students

South Philadelphia High School music director Courtney Powers, left, with her students outside the school building earlier this school year. (Courtesy of Courtney Powers)

South Philadelphia High School music director Courtney Powers, left, with her students outside the school building earlier this school year. (Courtesy of Courtney Powers)

This story originally appeared on The Philadelphia Tribune.

When the School District of Philadelphia suspended classes in March in hopes of containing the spread of COVID-19, South Philadelphia High School music director Courtney Powers still wanted her students to have access to their music and instruments.

“During that time, everything was so new with the coronavirus,” Powers said. “I initially thought the school was only going to be closed for a limited time. I wanted to make sure that my kids had the necessary equipment to continue their education. I asked the kids if anyone wanted any instruments and they replied back.”

Powers, a Berklee College of Music alumna, received permission from the school’s principal, Kimlime Chek-Taylor, to deliver instruments from her classroom to her students’ homes.

Wearing masks and gloves, Powers along with the school’s building manager sanitized all of the instruments before loading them into her car. She drove around Philadelphia for several hours, passing out 33 instruments such as drum sets, piano and midi keyboards, guitars, and voice recording and DJ-ing equipment.

Senior Nasir Collins was among the students who received instruments at home from Powers. He received a keyboard and ukulele.

“Ms. Powers has helped us all 100%,” Collins said. “She lets us use the music studio and we can also use it after school with adult supervision. She brought instruments and equipment to our homes. We all appreciate Ms. Powers.”

A 2020 Give a Note grantee, Powers works as a VH1 Save the Music facilitator and a Grammy Music Education Coalition YouTube Live panelist. She was a top 25 semifinalist for the 2020 Grammy Music Educator Award, and she recently received her second nomination for the 2021 Music Educator Award.

Entering her first year as the music director at South Philadelphia High School, Powers has quickly formed bonds with her students.

“Ms. Powers is a great teacher who has done a lot of new things in the music department this year,” said freshman and pianist Nickai Funchez. “She has helped me improve my confidence. She pushes me each day to attend events and participate in activities that may help me connect with people and learn new things. I also admire her work ethic. This year has been amazing and fun due to her persistence.”

During the pandemic, Powers spends her days at home engaging her students through Instagram Live. She has created an online curriculum to interact with students musically and socially, and has established a forum for discussions. She teaches an experimental music class twice a week to between 200 and 250 students.

Once a week, Powers collaborates with history teacher Kathleen Gillian on a “movie night,” when they live stream a film for the students to watch together and discuss the musical and historical elements of the movie.

She also works with Suzanne Spencer, a teacher at Benjamin Rush High School, who instructs students in vocal arrangements. Fridays are designated for lunches, where Powers and her students are “seated together” in class for 30-minute increments during which they can talk, play a game, and interact with one another.

“I use a variety of different platforms to engage my students,” Powers said. “We have music videos Mondays where the students submit music videos to me. On Technology Tuesdays we’re doing the music tech project and they’re able to finish up the Roland Zenbeats or Soundtrap projects.

“On Wednesdays we have master classes. We have 100 free masterclass subscriptions to give to kids and they get to go on during the class period. They really like the Timbaland beat-making one. Thursday is the day that I have someone coming in live every week and they talk about being a musician.

“I want to make sure the kids are there and locked in,” she added. “A lot of the kids connect more with me on Instagram, which is great. I just try to let them know that I’m always available and there for them if they need me.”

Powers said that even the students who don’t play instruments are welcomed into her classes.

“Some of the kids I have don’t play an instrument, but I will find something musical for them to do in my class,” Powers said. “Whether that includes them being the interviewer or videographer, they’re so many different elements of music.

“When we create that culture and that climate, we can do great things,” she added. “It definitely hasn’t been easy and at times this pandemic has been challenging for the kids. Despite everything that is going on right now and around them, the kids are still engaged, reaching out to me, having fun, and making music.”

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