Shawnee Mission Faces: Anna Cook, SM North orchestra teacher taking students on virtual field trips

Teaching music to her young students comes second nature for Anna Cook, orchestra director at Shawnee Mission North and Hocker Grove Middle. Now with six years in this teaching role, this school year is unlike any school year before.

Like many teachers facing a difficult situation with going remote during the global COVID-19 pandemic, Cook found ways to pivot. Every Friday, she takes her students on virtual field trips around the Kansas City metro area, introducing them to the wide-ranging musical opportunities and experiences the community has to offer. 

A Lawrence native, Cook earned her bachelor’s degree in cello performance and music education from Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. This spring, she completed her master’s program in educational leadership from Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas — one week later, she gave birth to twins. Her music education career started in Wilson, Kansas.

Cook lives in Merriam with her husband, Ryan McCall, and their two 5-month-old twin boys, Anderson and Halden.

When this pandemic hit, I think all of my students felt a little gut-punched — like, this has never happened, why is this happening, and how to cope with it.

At the beginning of the school year, we touched base on what did you do this summer? A lot of them said I listened to new kinds of music, I picked up a guitar, I read, I played my instrument, I ended up trying to teach myself on YouTube.

These kids were hungry for things to do, number one, but also, that was kind of my moment when I realized: If you’re stuck in this Kansas City metro, there are so many things to explore. In a traditional orchestra model, we are rehearsing, preparing for concerts, various performances; it’s busy as is. We don’t often get to go on field trips and get to show how amazing Kansas City music landmarks are.

Kansas City has a crazy amazing history for music. The birthplace of jazz, some of our venues have mind-boggling civil rights history with them; talking about the role of music with that is really incredible.

Monday through Thursday, I teach orchestra through a computer. But on Fridays, the students have to log on, and they never know where I’m going to be. I always keep it a surprise.

I wanted to start with a tangential lesson. We play orchestra instruments, let’s see how they’re made. We never get the time to do that, or the money to go on these field trips.

Our first virtual field trip, Jonathan Wiebe, the Shawnee Mission South orchestra director, and I went to a local luthier, K.C. Strings. We worked with Anton Krutz, he was fabulous. We set up our computer, and the kids logged onto their regular classes, and he gave a presentation seven times in a row to our seven classes.

The students got to hear and see, literally, the panes of wood that their instruments come from. This is what we sketch out the back in, this is what we look for with the wood, this is what makes a good piece of wood.

I think the kids were kind of processing everything at first, but every single class asked truly amazing questions. It was neat to see over the course of his demonstration, their curiosity grew. They realized how little they knew about their instrument.

Jon and I have been teaching for a long time, and we learned a bunch that day. I would say between the two of us, on that day, 400 students got to view a presentation with this luthier.

I got a lot of comments going to the jazz museum. People were like why is an orchestra teacher going to the jazz museum? I realize there’s a lot of compartmentalizing.

I grew up in a jazz band playing cello. Jazz strings is a totally thriving genre, but my students would never think that they could play jazz. They just need to be exposed to it. And the amount of feedback I’ve gotten from kids excited to explore jazz on their instruments is tremendous.

How many times have the kids driven on the highway past the World I Museum, and they know what it is, but how many of them have really been inside? Do you know how World War I significantly impacted the music world? European composers were tremendously affected by the war, and I want to show them that. I would never get to cover that in a regular class period.

I can’t re-create a performance-based class of 60 kids virtually. If I tried and had everybody un-mute and play at the same time, it would be a hot mess. So the inspiration really did come from my principals and district saying if we’re trying new things, we’re asking our kids to try new things, why don’t you try something new and connect with them on a deeper level?

This has been a really difficult time for everyone. When I see my kids over the screen, it’s incredibly heartbreaking to not be there in person with them, but when I do these field trips, we can learn things together, and that’s a different kind of bonding.

The kids, they still make me laugh till I’m almost in tears over a screen. They are still the same kids, and they so desperately want that classroom atmosphere that we treasure.

The kids have been so mature about this whole pandemic. When I ask them how they’re doing, we have really honest conversations. This isn’t ideal, but they absolutely understand the risk, they understand why Shawnee Mission is taking the actions they are, and I have never had one conversation where a kid is resentful or bitter. In fact, I think we all will have a new appreciation for making music together in person after this.