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After a year hiatus, Maine students are singing in school again. It may be critical to healing

Kate Smith begins her second grade music class with a game she calls "juicy juice." Holding up both of her hands, she makes a bunch of strange noises, pretending they are talking to each other.

It's a silly way to help her students warm up their voices using different pitches and tones. But it’s not just a voice exercise — it also helps the children learn to identify emotions.

“We can’t always articulate it with words, certainly our little ones can’t always articulate it with words,” says Smith, who teaches at Central School in South Berwick. “But we can often allow those emotions to travel through us through music.”

Smith says giving kids opportunities to identify how they are feeling and process their emotions is more important than ever right now.

“We've got kids who were in remote last year, we've got kids who were homeschooled. We've got kids who were here last year, but couldn't sing,” Smith says. “So helping them to realize how we can recognize emotions and other people and emotions in ourselves is pretty critical for self-regulation.”

The last year of pandemic interruptions impacted schools in nearly every way – and music classes were no exception. Students couldn’t play certain instruments, like the recorder, or sing at all in class due to safety concerns over the aerosol spread of the coronavirus.

Kate Smith leads second graders in a song at Central School in South Berwick, Maine. This year, students can sing in class again while masked, after not being able to last school year.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
Maine Public
Kate Smith leads second graders in a song at Central School in South Berwick, Maine. This year, students can sing in class again while masked, after not being able to last school year.

But now, with updated research and guidance, Maine students can sing again in school while wearing masks. And many kids are really happy about it, like third grader Hudson Brobish.

“I feel good because now I can sing songs in music class, instead of just listening to the songs we can now sing them,” Brobish says. “It feels good because now we can hear what everyone’s voice sounds like.”

Second grader Kaya Parisi also likes hearing all of her classmates’ voices together. “It’s nice having everyone else do it with you,” Parisi says. “It just feels and sounds different – like a lot louder and like more instruments are playing.”

And for second grader Rowan Gardiner, singing just makes her feel good. “I just love singing,” Gardiner says. “It feels very happy, loving and kind.”

And educators say the benefits of singing in school again go beyond music class – it’s a critical component of how elementary school kids learn.

“Being able to learn in multiple modalities, including singing is critical for their age,” Smith says. “So knowing that we're meeting those needs, because we can sing again, is just the best. It's wonderful.”

For kindergarten teacher Erica Clark, not being able to sing in her classroom last year was a real challenge.

“When I couldn't use music in the classroom, the children weren't holding on to the information as easily. Because the music really helps it stick into their mind with emotions,” Clark says. “And so last year, we did a lot of chanting and poetry, but we didn't do the songs that went with it to make it more accessible to the children.”

This year, Clark says she already sees a big difference in her students.

“[They are] much more excited, much more sparkly, engaged. Their attention is definitely much more on me…they're captive. They're much more active participants, active listeners,” Clark says.

It’s a piece of normalcy in a school year that’s still not quite back to normal. Like one day last week, when the third graders were supposed to start their recorder unit in music class, but Smith had to delay it because nearly half the students were out because they were close contacts.

Kate Smith's second grade music class sit outside for a drum circle.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
Maine Public
Kate Smith's second grade music class sit outside for a drum circle.

These interruptions, principal Nina D’Aran says, are part of the new normal and have shaped how the school is approaching this year. Their goal as a district and school community is to simply meet kids where they’re at.

“Kids have experienced kind of a collective trauma in many ways,” D’Aran says. “You'll never be able to learn to read if you don't feel safe, and you don't know classroom routine… so our whole theme is connection over content and we're just reminding parents reminding ourselves that our goal is connection. So content is important, of course, but for right now, it's about building relationships, it's about making people feel safe, it's about making kids feel welcomed.”

For Smith, that makes her job that much more important. And she says despite the challenges, having her students all together, singing in class again is the best way to help them navigate this time, build connections, and begin to heal.

For third grader Kellan Ward, being able to sing in school this year has made him excited to come to school again. He describes it as, “happiness and joy, and everything good.”

“Every student should have the opportunity to engage with music in that way so that they can be more resilient as they go through this era we call a pandemic,” Smith says.