Adjusting to new social and educational realities
Educator Perspective
By | Yuzo Nieto

Photo By Bryant Jefferson: I chose to take this picture because no matter who you are or where you live, COVID-19 has greatly impacted everyone’s way of life and how they interact with others.

In response to the intriguing set of ideas presented in this article, my humble perspective as an educator, educational leader, graduate student and parent of two elementary-aged children is to agree with much of what has been discussed here. It is obviously very natural for us as humans to focus on the cornucopia of problems that arise while living through a time of a global pandemic, climate change and long overdue nationwide civil unrest surrounding structural oppression from institutional apparatuses. In fact, historical analyses of human thought surrounding the idea of apocalypse indicate a certain “obsession with the end of the world” (Aveni, 2016), which has been echoed in film, media, music and art countless times (e.g. with songs by artists such as R.E.M, Johnny Cash. Wilco, 2MX2, etc.). Especially when daily routines become so radically transformed by events such as massive nationwide quarantines in conjunction with an unrelenting spread of forest fires that transform our skyscape into an afternoon on Mars, one’s ability to remain positive and hopeful during such drastic shifts in day-to-day life becomes fleeting at best. But as many of the voices represented in the main article have seen and articulated, opportunities can arise even in the most difficult times, like “the rose that grew from concrete” (Shakur, 2000), and I believe it is vastly important for our collective mental wellness to retain focus on these opportunities, as challenging as that might be.

When the onset of the initial COVID-19 quarantine was first announced, I was in the midst of completing part one of my comprehensive doctoral exam in music theory, filming a music video for a new release with my 10-piece afrobeat music ensemble, and wrapping up the first half of a semester teaching a methods class to music education undergraduates whose primary instruments were not flute, saxophone and/or clarinet focusing on preservice preparation for a career that entails directing wind ensembles. And despite the obvious quixotic nature of putting oneself in such a trifecta of obligation, the pandemic definitely threw a major wrench into this already demanding time for me. It was no surprise that I felt terribly compromised, especially at first; however, in order to remain steadfast in the face of this adversity, my mind quickly began searching for any possible opportunities that could come out of this – especially in terms of my students and the class I was teaching. Given that spring break had just begun, the university initially decided to take all classes online for the two weeks following the break: creating a situation in which teachers needed to use the break to plan. Halfway through that week (and subsequently halfway through my initial curricular changes) it was announced that we would be online for the rest of the semester. This would prove to especially difficult because of the intrinsic in-person nature of teaching instrumental methods to beginners – hand positioning, tone production, physicality in relation to instrument – but also because most students had rented instruments from the university which was now demanding that all rentals be returned immediately (which in hindsight did not make much sense considering it would create a situation in which a bunch of spitty instruments from a gamut of various people/places were all condensed in one small room). In short, I was to develop curriculum for and teach music to beginners not only online, but without instruments.

But as challenging as this task was, the only thing I could do to navigate it was to use it as a catalyst and opportunity to essentially “reimagine education” (as echoed in the main article in this issue). Since I had already begun this reimagining by implementing constructivist learning theory and culturally/community responsive pedagogy (CRP) as the template for the class itself (when it was in-person), this became the common thread between the previous learning environment and the new one. I quickly realized that in the spirit of constructivism and CRP, instead of just telling my students what was going to happen, I asked them. For some, this request was off-putting because it made them feel as though this grad student was making them do all of his work for him; however, the majority of students saw it as an opportunity to create the education that they wanted; to see themselves in their own curriculum. Consequently, their responses were much more dynamic and compelling than what I would have had them do – we decided that the rest of the semester would involve focused independent studies that ranged from composition and part-writing exercises for those specific instruments and voicings as an exercise in teaching songwriting; creating curriculum around teaching these instruments to specific grade levels; researching the instruments they were not able to play because of the pandemic, using narrative inquiry with students in class who had played that instrument; and so forth. And despite the challenges and a continuous state of building the plane while flying it, much of the work both informed and exceeded my expectations for what could be accomplished both in this class and as a function of the PK-12 curricula and learning environments and that my undergraduate students, and me as an administrator/founder, would be entering into shortly.

Subsequently, as I assume most of us have experienced to some degree or another, this experiment in malleability created opportunities that would inform my career at large. It pushed me to jump headfirst into my dreams of founding/launching my own K-8 (and beyond) charter school, Radical Arts Academy of Denver (RAAD), serving students in the far northeast Denver who have an immense wealth of talent but limited access to the arts by providing a place to get one’s soul filled; a place where one’s identities and passions are their guides. Furthermore, as a result of and means for continued research, these findings from my university experience last semester largely informed RAAD’s spring pilot which will explore creative ways of delivering arts education by using co-created learning models to address the combined needs of teachers, students and community in relation to current/future realities of COVID-19 by pairing preservice arts educators of dance, music, theater, creative writing, visual art with artistically-inclined students in far northeast Denver.

And in light of everything, as I sit in my living room gazing at the stillness of a fall snow on the sill of my window, I cannot help but fear the cold months ahead and yearn for the lovely weather and freedom to enjoy it on my own terms as someone who has worked from home now for the majority of 2020, but am hopeful for the opportunities that will inevitably come.

Aveni, A. F. (2016). Apocalyptic anxiety: Religion, science and America’s obsession with the end of the world.
Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Shakur, 2Pac. (2000). The rose that grew from concrete [Album]. Interscope Records.

Yuzo Nieto: Chief Executive Arts
Officer – Radical Arts Academy of Denver (RAAD); Doctoral Student /
Graduate Student Professor of Music Education – University of Northern Colorado.

Yuzo Nieto is a doctoral candidate in the music education department at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) with a focus in educational leadership and policy studies, and co-founder of Radical Arts Academy of Denver (RAAD). He has also served the far-northeast area of Denver as both a full-time public school music director and as a general elementary teacher for 10+ years. In addition to his research and coursework at UNC, Nieto teaches culturally/community responsive educational models in music pedagogy for current music education majors at UNC. Additionally, he is a father of two elementary aged children and leader of an original 10-piece Afrobeat / Chicano hip-hop / Soul music ensemble called Pink Hawks. With the combined experiences of being a parent, student, teacher and artist in the Denver/Colorado community, he aims to launch Radical Arts Academy of Denver in 2023: a K-8 charter school with an arts-integrated curriculum that aims to close opportunity gaps for students who have limited access to legitimate arts education.