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From Jazz To Art Murals: "Live, Learn, Play" Helps Students Finally Experience Activities COVID-19 Canceled

The Auburn High School Jazz Band is masked up, even the trombone player, whose mask has a mouth flap she flips up to play. This is the first time they’ve played together in a year.

Rockford Public Schools expanded their summer activities for students whose school year was completely derailed by COVID-19. “Live, Learn, Play” programs like the jazz band are trying to help students catch up -- both on the work they may have missed and with each other.

The sophomore piano player, Eveline Pham, says they’re still getting into a groove, but it feels great to have a band again.

“I remember sometimes in the past, like being able to play in a band was the only reason I went to school because it was just so much fun,” she said. “But last year, we didn't really get to do that properly, not till towards the end.

Many of them were fully remote until late in the school year, and the jazz program and all of their events were canceled last year anyway.

Their instructor, Paul Kafer, says making music is as communal an activity as possible, which was a major loss for his students.

“It's this wonderful collective, this very social, praxial experience,” he said. “But at the same time, it's a very individual, personal, almost private experience of how music affects each of us in special ways.”

It helped some students, like Sarah Calgaro, reorient their relationship with music. The singer-songwriter is even working on an album with some help from her teachers.

“I think COVID really, it sucked, but it made my songwriting ability so much better. I wasn't able to be with the group, which was unfortunate, but at the same time, I had a lot of personal time to work on music just for myself,” said Calgaro.

The summertime “Live, Learn, Play” doesn’t just mean playing music. For some students, it’s playing outside. “Beauty in the City” has middle schoolers walking downtown Rockford on a tour of the city’s murals and art installations.

Flowers are painted on a relic from an old bridge. A massive oriole adorns the side of a brick building. The students and their teacher, Sarah Devine, even discover a hidden gem on the back of a building only seen from alleyways.

“Oh, I see it!” said Devine. “It’s a handshake! The handshake is the white/black mixture, and other than that, it’s just a bunch of neat shapes and bright colors, arrows and stars. What do you guys think of this one? Kind of hard to take a picture of.”

Ilinca is headed into 7th grade in the fall. She didn’t have the best time remote learning but now has gone on several summer adventures with her school, like this one and one exploring the Kishwaukee River.

“I didn’t like doing it online because there were so many distractions and you just had to sit in a room,” she said.

The downtown art walk was also a literal breath of fresh air for educators like Devine, who teaches 6th grade at West Middle School.

“It’s really nice,” she said. “Get the kids out doing something that’s not in front of a computer. It was very tiring, I don’t feel like kids are meant to learn that way.”

During the week, the “Beauty in the City” students watched artist Eddaviel Montero work on a mural he’s painting with hundreds of Rockford kids. They also made art of their own -- little painted fish -- that will be part of an installation at the Rockford Public Library.

Other programs the school district offered include everything from pure academic prep and recovery to Dungeons & Dragons.

Students have missed out on countless academic and extracurricular activities because of COVID-19. They hope they can be back totally in-person in the fall, even with the pandemic still looming. For now, though, students are just happy to get some semi-normal social events back for the first time.