By Sharon Kebschull Barrett, June 12, 2020
In Gentry, Arkansas, Opportunity Culture is just getting started, but educators aren’t waiting around.
The district’s first nine multi-classroom leaders (MCLs) were told of their new titles in March and officially appointed at the April school board meeting, expecting to begin their roles this fall. But when the COVID-19 crisis demanded a 48-hour turnaround from in-school to at-home learning, the MCLs stepped up to lead immediately.
“They did everything,” Assistant Superintendent Christie Toland said. “They made videos to put together a video library, and they were so good, and we got such a response that was positive from parents and from students, that they are going to hang on to those, and we’re going to build on it moving into the future.”
Along with those instructional videos, some teachers needed help with the shift to online learning, because the district began using Google Classroom in the elementary grades only when the buildings closed. So an MCL worked with a tech-savvy teacher to make video tutorials for other teachers to address the mechanics of teaching online, and short tutorial videos for parents as well. Another MCL created an organizational tool that was adopted by the whole district. “Our MCLs have been invaluable to us,” Toland said.
Organizing for the Future
“What an interesting time to be an MCL!” said first-grade teacher and new MCL Andrea Folger, who will lead a team of six teachers at Gentry Primary School.
As soon as the shutdown was announced, Folger created a spreadsheet planning tool for first grade to document all the learning that needed to happen for the final nine weeks. “From there it kind of snowballed, and spread to the whole district because [district administrators] kept sharing it,” Folger said.
Then, she guided the team in determining how to best use everyone’ strengths, leading to her videotaping (from a distance) many teachers’ lessons and her own, editing them , and sharing them, so that all teachers had the start of a video library to pull from. New MCL Kari Cantrell likewise created videos, such as one for English teachers on how to create an engaging project for students to do from home.
“I gathered some materials to use this summer, too, to make some teaching videos, to create a whole different library I can use next year,” Folger said, anticipating times when a reach associate (RA) will supervise her class while she works with other teachers on her team or when other teachers need to be out of the classroom—or if school buildings must close again. “I can control the learning and put RAs at ease about what things will be like next year. So something good came out of this terrible situation.”
The district also received positive feedback for the MCL-created parent tutorial videos, along with a hotline for tech troubles, Toland said.
The shift to at-home learning opened up significantly more communication from high school parents, said Cantrell, who will begin leading the high school’s three-teacher English team as a partial-release MCL who still teaches three periods a day. “I have students Zoom with me, but I have a lot of parents email me and ask me for details on their children’s progress—usually I don’t have that.”
Folger has plans to do more for parents, creating some sort of preview sheet that parents would get monthly showing expected assignments, possibly with a quick assignment parents can do as well, to help them get or stay comfortable with the online tools.
And she wants to create more simple videos for teachers, demonstrating the steps of producing online resources, and what the resources look like to students. “That shows everyone what the kids see, since it’s different from what the teachers see—so everyone understands what parents and students are seeing,” she said.
None of that comes quickly: Each video takes up to four hours to create, she estimates, if she takes the time to make them visually appealing and then creates assignments to go with them.
Folger eagerly anticipates her full MCL role this fall. “I’ve had teachers come in in past years to observe my teaching,” she said. “I’m looking forward now to sharing my practices with a whole team, and to the collaboration. I am so excited for what the next school year brings—I still feel that way even with the uncertainty. It just adds another layer to the problem-solving.”
She acknowledges, though, how many challenges they face, including helping students heal from the stress. “I had a little girl who, every time she Zoomed, was OK at the beginning, but at the end she would just cry. It broke my heart—she was missing all her friends, and she kept saying ‘can’t we just go back? I miss you, too, and I miss our classroom,’” Folger said.
As district leaders plan for fall, digital tools will be a given, Toland said.
“There are several things that we’re planning for, including the continuation of digital learning,” she said. “Even if we are in school, Google Classroom is now a part of our daily way that we do things. The MCLs will continue to create those videos—that will be what they do from here on out, preparing for [a sudden closure] so that we have all of those things ready to go on a moment’s notice. We just go to that library, pull what we need for that week, put it in Google Classroom, and it’s business as usual.”
Even before she officially begins as an MCL this fall, Cantrell has found herself becoming a bridge between teachers and administrators, getting answers when they feel uncertain about district expectations. As she, the district, and her new team all work together, she said, “I’ve been focusing on, ‘how can we get through this right now, and what can we learn from this to use next year?’”
Regardless of what comes next, Toland said, “we are just so thankful that we are an Opportunity Culture district, having everything in place already to move forward, and I’m so glad that we hired early.”