From time to time, we feature stories about Changemakers, as we call them, educators who are making a difference in the lives of students around the world. Today’s post was written by Nancy Zuckerbrod, a Washington D.C. mom and education blogger, honoring Rolando Sanz, Producing Artistic Director of Young Artists of America.

My son, Jonah, was crushed when he got the news that the performance of “Beauty and the Beast,” that he’s been working toward for months, would be postponed since we moved to social distancing. And, he wouldn’t be able to see his theater friends until who knows when. He’s part of Young Artists of America (YAA), a musical theater group in the Washington D.C. area. Broadway composer Alan Menken had even been planning to attend the group’s performance and be part of a post-show discussion and celebration with the kids and their families.

I had trouble conveying a bright side on this one, but Jonah’s mood lifted when he got an encouraging email from Rolando Sanz, producing artistic director of the theater group. Rolando asked the students to take part in virtual rehearsals. “Just because we can’t be together doesn’t mean we can’t make music together!” he wrote.

The idea was to use Flipgrid, a free social learning platform that allows students and teachers to record videos, comment, and share safely with each other all within the app.

As a mom, I’ve seen the power of this terrific learning tool in ordinary times, such as when Jonah’s language teacher created a grid, which is like a message board, and asked students to record themselves responding in Spanish to questions she posted. However, Rolando’s request to use this student voice tool to keep musical theater going during these tough times is honestly something I couldn’t have imagined.

This is what the students were told in an email:

  • Go to a YouTube video link with a backing track.
  • Record yourself using Flipgrid, either singing thesong or playing your instrumental part.
  • Submit your video via Flipgrid and congratulate eachother!
  • We will see if we can combine the videos into onecombined performance.
  • That’s it! Have fun and support each other! Go TeamYAA!

That all turned out to be pretty easy, and I loved hearing Jonah sing and enjoyed watching his friends’ videos. Many of the kids said at the start or end of their recordings that being able to express themselves musically made them feel happy and hopeful during this unusual time.

“We are currently attempting to use Flipgridto build part of our YAA virtual community,” Rolando explained after sending that initial email. He collected the students’ submissions and turned their asynchronous recordings into something of a virtual synchronous performance.

Rolando said he also planned to have the kids record the harmony parts to some of the larger numbers and submit those using Flipgrid too so that the teachers could stitch the videos together to create a digital reproduction of what it would sound like if the students were all together.

“It’s obviously a lot of work for us as teachers, but a totally worthwhile cause if we can keep our kids feeling connected to YAA and each other,” Rolando said. “We all need to work together to be creative in these strange times. We just want the kids to know that what they do and love about the arts is still relevant and important.”

While I’m disappointed not to be seeing Jonah and the entire cast perform live this spring as planned, I’m excited to see how this takes shape. My own parents, who are in their 80s and devoted grandparents, never miss Jonah’s performances. I’m glad that Flipgrid has made it so they might not have to in this case, too. And I’m relieved they’ll be watching it from the comfort and safety of home.