Amid Coronavirus Challenges, Courtney Powers Finds New Ways to Inspire Students
Thirteen years after graduating from Berklee, Courtney Powers B.M. ’07 is exactly where she wants to be: teaching music to young people. Now, during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, the music education graduate has found a new way to engage her students at South Philadelphia High School.
Her new approach began before the school's closure, when Powers received permission to deliver instruments from her classroom to her students’ homes. She drove around Philadelphia for several hours, passing out instruments such as drum sets, guitars, as well as voice recording equipment. Initially, she believed the school would be closed for a limited time and wanted to ensure that “her kids” would have the necessary equipment to continue with their education.
Prior to the shutdown, Powers had one student in her class who didn’t participate very much. After the shutdown, that same student sent a video of herself playing with her sister at home. The student said, “Having an instrument during the quarantine is cool because I have something to learn at home and not be bored.” Hearing this statement validated Powers’ belief that "music citizenship is about reaching out and helping." She said, "It's an indescribable feeling to give a student an outlet, an escape, something that is theirs, and no one can take that from them.”
Today, Powers spends her days at home engaging her students in multiple ways through Instagram Live. She has also created an online curriculum to interact with students musically and socially, and to establish a forum for discussions. She teaches an experimental music class twice a week to approximately 200–250 students.
South Philadelphia High School is comprised primarily of students of color, students representing the LGBTQ community, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The public community school provides a safe haven for high schoolers to learn, and an opportunity to connect through their shared love of hip-hop and Latin music.
Once a week, Powers collaborates with history teacher Kathleen Gillian on a "movie night," when they livestream a film for the students to watch together and discuss the musical and historical elements of the movie. Powers also works with Suzanne Spencer, a teacher at nearby Benjamin Rush High School, who instructs students in vocal arrangements. Fridays are designated for lunches, where Powers and her students are “seated together” in class for 30-minute increments during which they can talk, play a game, and interact with one another.
A 2020 Give a Note grantee, Powers also works as a VH1 Save the Music facilitator and a Grammy Music Education Coalition YouTube Live panelist. She was a top 25 semifinalist for the 2020 Grammy Music Educator Award, and she recently received her second nomination for the 2021 Music Educator Award.