SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – As an elementary music teacher and choral director, Taylor Kurilew's classroom focuses greatly on objects and sounds rather than paper and pen. When the pandemic hit, the South Plainfield native set up shop in her parents' basement, transforming a small space into a makeshift music room.
"Virtual learning was a struggle for so many teachers and, for me, there was the challenge to find my own ways to get my students up and moving at home," Kurilew, who has, for the past three years, taught music to kindergarten through fifth graders at Cedar Hill Elementary School in Basking Ridge, said. "My hope through it all was to help ensure that specials like music remained a positive outlet for them amidst their class assignments and homework."
Looking to inspire her students – all 600 of them – Kurilew made due with the limited supplies she was able to take out of her classroom and, together with her team, which included the three other elementary music teachers in the district, worked to create grade appropriate music assignments. Those assignments would be uploaded to Google Docs for the students to access through the district's distance learning sites.
"I am very blessed to work in a district with amazing colleagues and administrators that support the arts…Our music team met every day, compiling lessons that we felt could not only benefit our students, but help them grow in an organic way," she said, adding, "We knew it wouldn’t be the same as being in the classroom, but it would be ideal for an at-home learning style."
One of the biggest challenges, said Kurilew, was to find ways to keep students engaged and encourage them to 'use their imagination in different ways.' "I was in such a great place with all my kids at the time COVID-19 hit and my goal was to try to continue that with online learning as much as I could," she said.
For fun, she created a virtual cartoon slide of her classroom so her students could feel a tiny sense of 'home' when logging on and seeing the picture of their music room. She recorded read-alouds and music activity videos and used Flipgrid, a platform where the students can record responses to certain topics, garnering 'an astounding' amount of interest and participation.
"I had students that would never sing or participate in my music classroom recording themselves singing and dancing to their own hand-washing jingle, showing a side of themselves I never knew existed," Kurilew stated in an article published earlier this month in Art Pride New Jersey. "I got to know my students so much better, and I am forever grateful. It made me realize that in many ways, technology can be a blessing and help students blossom in a faster time than they might have in the actual classroom."
A lifelong resident and 2008 graduate of South Plainfield High School, Kurilew went on to earn a bachelor's degree in music education from Montclair State. A year into pursuing a masters, however, she dropped out and shortly after took on a short-term medical leave position, filling in for Sharon Perez at Roosevelt Elementary School.
"Those kids inspired me to finish my masters," Kurilew said, telling TAPinto that she re-enrolled at Rutgers University's Mason Gross School of the Arts the following year and went on to earn a masters degree in vocal performance. At the same time, she also filled a full-time maternity leave position in Basking Ridge and, the following year, was hired for her current position at Cedar Hill. "It led to a permanent position and it got me to where I am today," she said.
In addition to being a music teacher, Kurilew also offers private voice lessons and actively trains as a singer. With in-person contact limited over the last four months and auditions for operas and musicals on hold, she herself turned to online platforms to keep busy. Since March, Kurilew has taken part in virtual piano and voice lessons and reached out to friends to record and work on music together. Additionally, she joined over 17,000 people in a virtual choir organized by Grammy-winning composer Eric Whitacre and, most recently, completed an intensive six-day opera program via Zoom.
"Even though it's just me in my basement I am so happy that I am making music. As an artist, my brain goes a mile a minute and the worst thing to do is sit here and mope," she said, adding, "I want to be fresh and ready to inspire when we come out of this. Working on my skills and use of technology will help me help my students even more if we have to continue virtual learning again."