With a homespun backdrop of kitchen tables spilling over with books and crafts, and curious younger siblings peeking from behind the screen, Chester Children’s Chorus forged ahead with its first-ever virtual summer camp during these past two months.
The pandemic shuttered chances for the on-campus tradition, which had always included in-person tutoring with Swarthmore staff and chorus members, as well as the summer joys of swimming and field trips. But CCC staff were unwavering in their determination to keep the children together over the long, hot summer — even if it meant that that connection was limited to Zoom.
“The center of the CCC has always been community,” says John Alston H’15, CCC’s founder and artistic director. “While the children like to sing, and some love to sing, they come to rehearsals because they love each other and know that the staff really sees and appreciates them.”
In addition to virtual instruction in voice and instruments, students this summer enjoyed classes in math, science, reading, chess, coding and web design, photography, and Italian, among other courses.
“We've done our best to create a CCC virtual community,” says Alston, who founded the organization in 1994 when he was an associate professor of music at Swarthmore. “One-on-one and small-group learning have been most successful. Large-group game time has been noisy and fun.”
And though the staff is grateful to have achieved such an enormous feat, it hasn’t been without its challenges, says Alston.
“Group rehearsals have been frustrating, and we have been unable to work on any complex music,” he says. Assistant Music Director Sean Tripline, who led this summer's Junior Choir rehearsals, worked with the younger students. Alston directed the Senior Choir members. Chorus members range from third-graders to high school seniors.
“In the fall, we will expand our one-on-one academic offerings, and I hope we'll be able to provide that for every student who wants to study any subject with our academic coaches,” says Alston. “While choral music will have to wait until next spring, CCC community remains strong.”
“Our team collaborated to find a way to stay connected with our CCC family through the summer since we couldn’t get together in person,” adds Kim Downs, the Lower School Head who leads small-group reading instruction for Junior Choir and Transformers. “Virtual camp has its challenges,” she says, “but we are still learning and having fun together in new ways.”
While reading aloud together, Downs says, students incorporated reading strategies and made real-world connections. Book club selections included Matilda by Roald Dahl and Flying Solo by Ralph Fletcher.
“We worked on questioning, summarizing, comparing and contrasting, retelling and making predictions,” says Downs. “It was amazing to hear the discussions our children were having about these books. They truly understood the themes of the stories and were able to analyze the characters and get a real feel of what each character was going through. It was a true pleasure reading and working with them this summer.” Swarthmore students Hannah Holt ’22 and Maya Plotnick ’22, who are Chester Community Fellows as part of Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility, also led one-on-one coaching sessions via Zoom and created class and individual rosters for each child.
In addition to the academic and music instruction, the CCC staff knew that summer also means a focus on fun, says Dana Semos, managing and education director.
Staff held Zoom cupcake-decorating parties and Bingo nights, and even took on the role of delivering pizzas from Papp's Pizza in Chester. Wearing masks and maintaining social distance, CCC’s van drivers delivered pizza as well as CCC drawstring bags and reusable water bottles to the homes of each of the students. Even snacks for virtual movie and game nights and grocery gift cards were part of the contactless delivery. Elisa DeNofio, program coordinator, managed communications with and between families and staff, ordered supplies and organized home deliveries.
The priority for the staff, says Semos, was to maintain a positive presence with the children and families in a tangible way despite the challenges of the pandemic. Now in its final week of summer camp, the staff agree that the students willingness to adjust to the historic circumstances was inspiring.
“The students showed a patience and a willingness to learn well beyond their years,” says Kevin Downs, lead math teacher. More than 20 of the CCC's middle and high school students virtually met with a qualified math coach on a regular basis, and the rising fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders worked on key concepts in small groups over Zoom. “I admire the improvements made in just a short amount of time.”