On this episode of What Will We Take With Us?, a series featuring our conversations with education leaders across the United States on how they grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic in K-12 education, we chat with David Quinn, the Director of Technology Innovation at Mendon-Upton Regional School District in Massachusetts about how, in spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic, the district was able to leverage opportunities that remote learning had to offer to design innovative practices, facilitate flexible learning for educators, integrate strategic scheduling, and offer career-oriented learning for students.
As the pandemic forced schools to close and move to remote learning, Mendon Upton Regional School District wasted no time shifting their model to support their students and teachers in innovative ways. Throughout the last year, they have implemented a number of key strategies around professional learning, family engagement and community partnerships. In spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic, Mendon Upton was able to leverage the opportunities that remote learning had to offer to design more innovative practices, facilitate flexible learning for educators, integrate strategic scheduling for students and offer career oriented learning. In this episode of The Learning Accelerator's, "What Will We Take With US?" leadership podcast series? We're going to hear from a district leader at Mendon Upton about what they tried, what they learned and what they're taking forward as they head further into 2021. My name is David Quinn. I am the director of technology integration for the Mendon Upton Regional School District. My primary role is to manage the logistics of our one to one learning program. Our district is now pre-K to 12, one to one with iPads. And so when I'm not managing those logistics, I am working actively with teachers on practices to leverage technology to make learning more connected, meaningful and relevant. Mendon Upton Regional School District, is a fairly affluent district located around the central region of Massachusetts, bordering Connecticut and Rhode Island. The district serves over 20 one hundred students. Roughly 89 percent of students identify as white, five percent Latine, three percent Asian, two percent multiracial non-Hispanic and less than one percent African-American. Their mission as a district in partnership with their community is to deliver a progressive educational experience focused on the unique needs of each child, providing them a competitive advantage in the 21st century through exemplary teaching and a high quality curriculum. They aim to equip their students with the skills to create solutions for a rapidly changing, technologically rich and culturally diverse world. As schools from across the globe moved to remote teaching and learning almost overnight and in-person opportunities for instruction were put on hold. Teachers and leaders at Mendon Upton were encouraged to try new innovative practices that would allow for the quickest return to in-person teaching and learning. This rapid shift was made possible because of educators urgency and willingness to innovate, iterate and dove headfirst into a new approach to learning and technology. Despite their prior experiences or levels of expertise. Yeah. So I think the one big takeaway that I've had is that we talk a lot in change management. I think it's carders. Eight factors is the first thing a lot of the leadership literature points to is creating a sense of urgency, right? And I think that's one thing that we have done pre-pandemic all the time trying to create this sense of urgency within schools. And I think to a certain extent, teachers are kind of tuned to it like what is really urgent? But in an actual sense of urgency, when we are facing down a pandemic in our district, our teachers rose to the occasion and saw the actual urgency and made monumental changes in terms of their approach to learning. I feel like the biggest change that I've seen is that the teachers who were very comfortable in their practice, even if it was a good practice, opened their minds to different practices and particularly around areas of technology, not just tools, but people who were now willing to step out of the comfort zones for the benefits of their kids. Just to see so many more veteran teachers who were, you know, use the technology resources available to them, but not always, you know, to the extent that some of their other colleagues do jumping now on Zoom video calls and juggling a instructional lesson where they've got an iPad. On one hand, they've got kids in front of them. We move to concurrent teaching it at one point and towards, I think, the late winter, early spring and to be able to try to bridge the needs of both the children in front of them and the children at home fostering dialog while you know, doing something fairly complex, given their initial skill level was just really impressive. Rethinking the use of video as an instructional tool, I think that's another big silver lining that, you know, while it's been part of the flip model for forever. I think sometimes teachers were reluctant to like record videos and put it out because they didn't feel like that was active teaching. They didn't feel like that was part of their delivery. I think what we've seen is like a more open minded approach to recording those videos and allowing students have access to the video when they're at home so they can serve as a refresher or a secondary tutorial. I think that's a big benefit as well, and they feel more comfortable doing these videos now, whereas they may not have known how easy was to do a screen recording prior, so the students are going to feel the benefit from that as well. So I think that there is a shift in terms of teachers learner that has been monumental. I think they see themselves as co learning with students and some of that guard that comes out as I deliver you listen has been broken down a little bit where everybody learns from everybody. One particular innovation that came out of this shift was career oriented learning with technology, opening the doors and offering opportunities for partnerships with organizations outside of education. Students were given the ability to collaborate in meaningful ways on a variety of projects. This type of authentic learning, alongside content area experts would not. Have been possible without educators newfound ability to just try new things. The opportunity that we had here was to try things because the gains could be monumental. You could try things that you didn't feel comfortable with, like I couldn't do this because of the curriculum or everything like the model was broken in such a way that you had the latitude to be able to try things that under normal circumstances, under normal pacing, you might not be able to try. I think the biggest opportunity right now is that we have an opportunity to leave as much residue behind that will carry over into the fall and beyond. This is your best chance to be able to shift attitudes towards different topics, and I'll just give you an example. One. So we, the middle school level, are trying to do more work with career oriented learning. So how do we link the what students are learning in school with potential projects or collaborating with entities outside of the school? So we're working with the Boston Museum of Science on a project about museum exhibit design that's related to a science unit. I think the authenticity piece is kind of like that first step onto the on ramp where for kids, when you're actually working with an external partner, I feel it gives a layer of authenticity that even when a teacher does it, it's like it's a can sometimes feel contrived. And the other piece that's helping is that we've got a partner. We partner with American student assistants, and we've been using the net platform to connect with industry professionals. So we're not just limited to our community. And so we're better able to try to connect students with the areas that they're interested in exploring. It was hard to get people to think about interacting with external entities or redesigning their projects for more authenticity. Prior to COVID, because they didn't, you know, they didn't see Zoom as a way of having this type of conversation. They weren't thinking necessarily as flexible with their project because they had they had, you know, their metaphorical binder. They had what they were doing to them. And I think this kind of answer your question, their self-perception of their work in their project because they were a competent teacher. Right. You take away the stuff that made them have the self-perception that their competent teacher. Right. They can't do those same things. Now I have that sense of urgency. It's like Dan Pink's drive, which draws upon, you know, self determination to have autonomy related and competence like those are the three factors that people need. So in order to bridge that potential competency gap, there was that learning that I think people willingly engaged in my kind of advice for district leaders at this point and probably come after all of this is published. But your time is now like, this is the time to start planting the seeds for the next fall. Because I do think you may have a little bit of time because I don't think that we're going to be fully back to normal and fall as much as I'd love to. But like, this is your time to change and to break the paradigms. Another way Mendon Upton was able to change and break those paradigms was by reexamining student schedules in order to design ways to use their class time, whether that was in-person or remote to better support students needs, including what I need or win block. At the high school, which is really great, is that they changed the schedule. They went through a five by seven, so five classes a day, seven rotating down to a four by four. So they it takes four classes in the fall semester, four classes in the spring semester that really shrinks down the student to teacher ratio, right? So you really get to know your kids a lot better helps students to focus because they have a lot less of that cognitive switching for different disciplines. And the high school, also with the return, is adding something called the wind block, which is what I need to. Students can be able to identify if they need to do some sort of make up work extra help. And then also the time for clubs to meet because of the limitations after school. They always had seven blocks. So it's a through G and then some someone we smash or classes like your class or your phys-ed class. But now they're all semester long and there's an eight total that they'll take one of the challengeslike, you know, some AP classes ran the first half of the year, so they've been working to supplement the instruction for the lead up to the AP test. I think there was also more opportunities for students to be able to check in with their teachers via Zoom. The kids took more advantage of the project box that we had at the middle school. There were morning meetings with even the kids who were at home had opportunities to connect with their teachers so that we were intentional about providing that opportunity. Early on in the pandemic, we had regular Zoom meetings with tutorials on different tools or practices they could use to connect with their families. We had enormous participation from our teachers looking for follow up, even if they had some sort of scheduling conflict. One of the highlights here is that two way parental communication due to the town halls that are building leaders and our superintendents have hosted. I've been very well attended, all using the chat and both the Zoom feature and then the, you know, allow to speak in the webinar feature has yielded increased participation for families. So there's much more dialog than there used to be. I think there's a lot of surveying, you know, almost to the point of survey fatigue. We got to make sure that you don't cross that threshold. But, you know, surveying parents and teachers about how they're feeling about returns and under what conditions would they return? So to have that data, we've also been doing partner with Panorama to do some school surveys for our students. The three to 12 students all took the survey catered to teachers, provided their perceptions. And then we've got the district team looking at what that data means and how do we act on it? And the other thing we've been thinking about, too, is, you know, how might we get more frequent sampling because that's just a one shot, right? So you're catching that student in the moment. But you know, all these things are not things that we were doing prior to COVID that just help us get a better picture of what's going on from the different stakeholders in our community. Mendon Upton also saw an increase in teacher collaboration and a shift to an approach that emphasized the value of learning from each other. Leveraging the additional flexibility offered by Zoom, teachers could connect and learn from each other at any time, from anywhere without having to factor in travel time and costs needed to be in the same physical space. What's been really also amazing to see is the professional collaboration in staff and team meetings, just sharing knowledge and practices among each other, so one person didn't know what was the topic they were talking about the other day. It was to math teachers on opposite teams. And this again, another teacher was not necessarily the most avid speaker or technology user under regular conditions were just was sharing with another colleague how to walk through a multi-step process for instructional practice, but also sharing that he learned part of it from students and he was open to go. I don't know. I don't know how to do this, and one student piped up that, you know, this is how you do it. And I think that the everybody learns from everybody approach really decreases some of that anxiety. You know, it's one thing it's coming for me. I'm the tech guy I serve my entire life, you know, working intact like I seem, you know, and I'm not trying to put myself on the back. But for some people, it seems like I'm a wizard, right? Like, but that's all just contextual knowledge that's built up for thousands of hours doing this work. And so I think that that's the code learning and the collaboration across teams has been another bright spot among many. We had Wednesday set, particularly for team and departmental collaboration that was their time to plan to connect to discuss challenges with students reaching out in case they were becoming disengaged. We have two elementary schools that was also the opportunity that those grade level teams could co-plan with each other or at least connect and see what's going on. I think one of the concerns is that as we move to a full time schedule, we lose that. I think one of the challenges that we run into, particularly on PD days, is because we're in different physical spaces with lunches and travel time like the ready at sets of that afternoon that you had was really cut down to maybe 90 minutes. I think the benefit now is that because people are more comfortable with Zoom, they don't have to leave those physical spaces. So that is one benefit. You know, we're also seeing that even with colleagues planning from home now, they collaboratively. So I jumped on using one of these Wednesdays to plan project that we're doing more, more career oriented stuff. You know, the three of us were all at home at the end during the afternoon. So I think one of the benefits here is that it actually, as I think about what I'm thinking about the calendars that I know that teachers are now engaging in synchronous planning over the weekends, not in physical spaces or even like asynchronously through Google Docs or just over the phone. I think Zoom has made it easier to have both a face to face conversations which are beneficial, but alsobeing able to share screens and being able to see each other seeing. I noticed just because of shared calendars that teachers are doing that on Sunday nights. I don't recall seeing this prior to COVID. I think at least at the grade level, at the elementary level, you're seeing more of that, that planning together, less so. I would say it like the secondary departmental piece. I think in part because we're so small. So there's only like two math teachers per grade. And then with your typical high school structure, you may be the only person teaching us history, right? So there's nobody necessarily to collaborate with, but at least at the elementary level, there's more opportunities for that 24-7 planning potential, not 24-7 planning, but the flexibility to be able to plan 24-7. To further support educators in personalized ways, the technology department at Mendon Upton designed multiple pathways to help all educators conveniently access the support they needed. One approach was an on demand model through which educators would receive access to focus expertize via one to one sessions. Educators were also able to participate in open spaces for conversation alongside consistent weekly sessions on specific strategies or tools shared by the tech department and other teacher leaders from around the district. I have a weekly technology update just about weekly that goes in with a curriculum update. And I just kind of put items and these documents in the technology or resources are there, but also like the you can book me sessions so we can go over and focus just on what are your particular problems of practice. It was a huge uptick in participation. I would offer sessions and I might get two or three people there, and it's candidly a little deflating, right? Like, you put that time and energy and you're just trying to figure out, you know, what is it that that works? What is it that they need? So I try to customize it based on what's going on in their classroom, and I feel like I feel like a booking system works better in that regard because a lot of times you'll also get people who have commitments after school or before school. The other way that it's structured is town halls and allow people just to bring their their questions and their topics up. I ask in advance if there's stuff that they want me to touch upon. I'm more than happy to research it and be prepared to come talk, but sometimes things that are merged. I think the town hall approach is helpful. And I also think it's it's hugely critical for somebody in my role. The best sessions that I've had are the ones where I'm co-presenting with a colleague. I think it just comes across very differently. They they can speak to different things that I can't just naturally. But I think the more that leaders are co-presenting with their faculty members on these topics, the bigger the impact. It's funny how some teachers are really shy about like showcasing themselves and seeing themselves or presenting themselves as teacher leaders. But I think it's always good when you can highlight expertize within the, you know, your collegial community. So at least in my district, I don't know. You know, I think the smaller district probably has more leverage because people know each other. That's the other interesting thing about my role is that because I'm district wide, I know everybody, but I'm always kind of surprised when the middle school teacher doesn't know the high school teacher or doesn't like, Oh, hi, you know, I'm married. Like I thought, everybody knows everybody. Addressing the acute challenges of the pandemic, the technology department also mapped out a way to streamline their support through a help desk icon that enabled educators, leaders and families alike to reach out for assistance in an easy and accessible way. This process also allowed the department to take their support on the road, paving the way for additional customized support with hardware, software and everything in between. We set up a help desk icon on every device so that if a family had an issue, they could just tap the icon and send us a ticket that would go off to our entire team. I think that was helpful. I think the biggest chance for success is when you can file all of that stuff into one singular portal. Where it gets tricky is when you are managing emails, you're managing the ticketing system, you're managing the walk ins and then you're managing the Oh hey, it's good to see you type stuff because you want to be responsive to all those constituencies. And I think it's not to this level, but I would imagine it's similar to a first year resident who's got a continual pager going off right. And we want to help everybody immediately. But you've got to have that order and that can be challenging because when you get pulled in the hall, that means some of those tickets are piling up. I think the new constituency that we had with COVID is that we now have families at home and I've got a great iPad fleet engineers named Sam O'Neill, who was literally doing drive by drop offs and swap outs, right? So we, you know, we did that customize. And that's hard, you know, because that means that he's not in the tech office. And so that Genius Bar is aware where is is he's off helping somewhere else. We're now to the point where it's slowed down a bit, so it's a little bit better. I think the biggest thing for tech directors is to automate as much of this as you can. So like the new account creation, clever has been a godsend. Trying to get all of that data into a singular, secure portal and then researching the tools that come in are the requests that come in for the student data privacy. It's hard. It's really it's really hard. The privacy piece is the real sticky wicket because of the ease, the ease and the general approach to not necessarily think of this on a regular. So I don't think people think of their online footprint in the same way and as their credit card number, their Social Security numbers like they guard that privacy piece of it. But there's just a lot of free use of technology in your regular practice that I think that companies are aware that there's a little bit of a laissez faire approach and also in the education sector, like we're less on the education sector, but I don't think it's on a lot of people's radar, just in general. Like it's almost like a media literacy, a digital literacy education of just being aware of it. So that's where, like a group like, you know, Bill Fitzgerald and common sense media, like having people that you trust, that you can talk to about it and just reviewing the privacy policies have a better understanding with this. As we closed out our conversation with David Quinn. We asked him what he's excited about for the future. So I am excited about so we've got a summer academy that we're trying to put together that is not focused on like a deficit mindset, but really a blend of essential skills and also like enrichment. So I'm excited to put our maker spaces to good use and have students learn by doing, you know, by getting hands on and designing and making creating. So I'm super excited about that. Excited about building off of the career oriented learning that we're doing, hopefully expanding that from the middle school both upwards and downwards. I'm excited by the growth in terms of the openness to technology and the teacher personality about that. They are more capable, technology wise, and they probably thought they were. I'm looking forward to that as a springboard for moving forward. Looking forward to hopefully continuing the work with the outside community so that we can we continue. We're also really excited about the launch of our Equity Diversity inclusion team that we started the spring, started with a small team and then had a PD day this past March 12th, focused with sessions from Dr. Police Warnam and we're excited to build off of the work from the spring through the summer and then into the fall, the return and just getting kids back on a regular basis. Because I know from talking to families that the social aspect of it has been really hard and school is that common place where interactions happen that become the conduit for conversation. And I know that with some families during the pandemic, I was speaking to one colleague who their child was having trouble connecting with peers they were really friendly with in school. And one of the big factors is like things that happen in school and that would become the fodder for what they were discussing. But because there was no like sort of interaction, some of the commonality pieces that they would use to facilitate and they're still developing their social skills, right? Like they're still developing that sense of comfort with their friends just wasn't there. And I'm excited for that to come back. I'm excited for us to figure out how does progressive education look in a COVID constraint? And I'm hoping that the residue of things that we were willing to try last well beyond 2022. So those are all some things that I'm really excited about. Due to the COVID 19 pandemic. Nearly every school across the country had to quickly pivot to new models for teaching and learning to reach students in remote settings. Dealing with circumstances never before experienced, Mendon Upton was able to leverage technology to build more personalized and collaborative support for educators and families, while also innovating on their approach to learning as a whole. Thank you for listening to this episode of The Learning Accelerator's "What Will We Take With Us?" leadership podcast seriesFor more resources and leadership stories, visit HopSkipLeapfrog.org.