By Kathryn Coulibaly
Alyssa Cop’s classroom at Bankbridge Elementary School in Sewell doesn’t have any desks. There is a smartboard, but it displays music and lyrics, not equations. There is a piano, several guitars, and an African drum collection that is nearly irresistible to children’s hands. Posters of past musical shows line the walls, and a colorful carpet dominates the center of the room.
Cop is a music therapist at Bankbridge, which is part of the Gloucester County Special Services School District. The district serves students from preschool to age 21 who are dealing with a range of challenges, from multiple disabilities to behavior issues.
Cop has been with the district for 16 years, and she sees 17 classrooms weekly for 30-minute sessions. In addition, she works one-on-one or in small groups with students who are referred to her by the school social worker, Cindy Fornes, other teachers such as frequent collaborator Jennifer Hansbury, or through her own observation of students.
“I have been a musician my entire life,” Cop says. She began piano lessons at age 3 and cello lessons at age 6. Today, she is a classically trained pianist who sings and plays the cello, the guitar, and drums.
Cop knew from an early age that she wanted to work with special education students.
“My mother was a special education teacher in Southampton and, beginning in middle school, I would visit her classroom to sing or play the piano,” Cop says. “I loved it!”
A friend of Cop’s mother suggested that Cop consider a career as a music therapist in the public schools. She shadowed a music therapist in an area school and knew she had found the right fit.
“By my junior year of high school, I knew what I wanted to do,” Cop recalls. “I applied to Immaculata University early in my senior year and had to audition for the music school. The school wants to make sure the people in the music therapy program are serious musicians; you can’t just decide that you like music and think that you will be successful working with students in this way.”
Cop has seen a profound impact on her students. She has students with ADHD who struggle to sit still in a traditional classroom environment but who will happily sit and participate in a traditional drum circle for 45 minutes. She has students with language delays who sing beautifully in her class. Students on the autism spectrum with communication difficulties are able to use music to express themselves.
Andrew, a student of Cop’s, echoes her support for music therapy programs. “I like music therapy because it calms me when I need to relax, and I love music. I like to sing, and it inspires me to be a better person and inspires others to be a better person.”
Cop’s classes are very hands-on. Students are encouraged to play a variety of instruments, under Cop’s watchful eye. They learn to sing their favorite pop song, follow a beat with their classmates on the African drums, and even dance when the spirit moves them.
It stands to reason that the move to remote instruction—necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent mandatory school closings—has been challenging. Students do not necessarily have access to musical instruments at home, and certainly do not have the diversity of instruments Cop has in her classroom.
“Right now, we’re focused on connection for the students,” Cop says. “I’m making videos to supplement what we are able to do in real time.”
Cop is asking her colleagues to send her videos of themselves working from home, reading, playing music, and other activities to help her students continue to feel connected to their teachers.
She is also working on a rainbow project so students, their families, and staff can produce rainbow pictures, take a picture of them and share them with Cop who will make a schoolwide video sharing the art.
Cop is focused on bridging the gap between school and home for her students. She knows that her students need to see that their teachers and staff are safe and to find ways to interact with them.
At the same time, families are struggling to provide the support, education and security that Bankbridge’s students need—and that is a tall order in any time, but certainly true in a crisis.
“I’ve been sharing a song a day with our students and staff,” Cop says, “And I’ve heard that people are sharing those videos out beyond our district, which is fine by me.”
“I’ve seen other districts sharing videos of their staff singing along to a popular song from their home workspaces, and I think that is such a positive activity,” Cop says. “It reassures and entertains the students and reminds us that, even though we cannot be together physically right now, we are always connected.”
“I think music is so healing and inspirational and I really believe that it will help us get through this.”
“Every night, I’m watching a live performance in my living room,” Cop says. “If I can bring a piece of that to our students and our families, that would be tremendously healing.”
• Research supports connections between speech and singing, rhythm and motor behavior, memory for song and memory for academic material, and overall ability of preferred music to enhance mood, attention and behavior to optimize the student’s ability to learn and interact.
• Rhythmic movement helps develop gross motor skills (mobility, agility, balance, coordination) as well as respiration patterns and muscular relaxation. Because music is reinforcing, it can be used to motivate movements or structure exercises that are prescribed in physical rehabilitation.
• Involvement in music may provide a distraction from the pain, discomfort and anxiety often associated with some physical disabilities.
In addition, because people use a different part of their brain to process music, students may be able to absorb information and skills more easily when it is conveyed through music. Think of the Alphabet song as one nearly universal example of information mastered through music.
Cop and her colleague Jennifer Hansbury, who works with deaf and hard of hearing students have been collaborating for the past four years to make music/signing videos.
In the spring of 2018, they selected the song, “This is Me,” after listening to the message, reading the words, and starting to visualize the signs and messages the students could express. Hansbury and the interpreters in the class took the lyrics and did a gloss, which means they used ASL signs to express the message of the lyrics. Then the group discussed the mood and message they wanted to share with their elementary school students. They wanted to be sure the message wouldn’t be beyond their level. The interpreters and Hansbury then did another gloss that took the students’ level, age, and experiences in mind.
In early 2019, they started working with the students on the song. They showed the students the original video, examples of others who had signed it, and they held a class discussion on bullying, empowerment, feelings about Deafness, knowing yourself and being proud, and what positive traits and abilities they felt connected to.
After this, they began working on teaching the students the signs and reviewing their meanings to connect with the lyrics and the song.
By March 2019, they were ready to schedule the videographer to capture their efforts. After all the parents signed off, Cop and Hansbury began to think of how they wanted to showcase their students’ accomplishments in learning the song. They contacted neighboring Gloucester Institute of Technology, a high school district on the same campus, and arranged to have the Bankbridge students walk through a crowd of supportive high schoolers.
After a lot of practice, they were ready to film—but with one more important element.
Cop and Hansbury asked each of the students to choose a word they felt best described them. They then made a T-shirt for all of the Bankbridge students and staff participating in the video.
A few weeks later, the video was ready, and Cop and Hansbury worked with the district to share it. The outpouring of interest was overwhelming and affirming for everyone who participated in the project. All four local Philadelphia stations did stories on the video and two stations sent reporters out for more extensive coverage. Reporters from New Jersey-based media outlets also conducted interviews.
“This process was long, but fulfilling,” Cop and Hansbury said. “We are amazed, honored, humbled, and excited for all the attention the video has received. This is always a fun project; the last two videos we did were exciting and our students were awesome. This video, its message, and the relatability to so many, is an anthem for all those who ever felt, or were made to feel, less than others. We believe this is why our ‘This is Me’ video has received so much positive attention.”