Remote learning has necessitated new ways of teaching. These kindergartners in Tracy Padavan’s class at St. Aidan’s, Williston Park, recently had a virtual pajama party with their favorite bedtime stories using the Zoom meeting platform. Facebook photo.

By Tina Dennelly

As the coronavirus pandemic forced school buildings to close across Long Island in mid-March, teachers were left scrambling to move their classes entirely online and plan curricula from their homes. Elementary schools in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, however, found a unique way to support and strengthen remote learning.

Proposed by the Morning Star Initiative in partnership with the diocese’s Department of Education, the Curriculum Leads program offers shared resources among the more than 1,000 diocesan schoolteachers to make planning for remote learning more manageable in the short term and to strengthen academics overall.

“The Curriculum Leads initiative is a brilliant idea that has strengthened an already robust online learning program in Catholic elementary schools,” said Brother Thomas Cleary, S.M., chief revitalization officer for the Morning Star Initiative. “Moving forward, the Curriculum Leads initiative will continue to enhance and strengthen the academic programs across the board in our Catholic elementary schools.”

Since February, as the Morning Star Initiative team visited schools as part of its revitalization effort for the diocese’s elementary schools (see morningstarinitiative.org), it recognized that diocesan teachers could benefit from shared expertise. As the transition to remote learning began, the team worked quickly to establish a program to empower strong teachers and build a community of support for teachers at every grade level and subject.

“We saw the strength of web-based curriculum initiatives developing naturally at our schools and said ‘This is an investment we want to make in current teachers,’” said Abigail Snyder of Alvarez & Marsal, the consulting firm working with the Morning Star Initiative. “We wanted to create a supportive community so teachers didn’t feel like they were on an island anymore.”

Three days after the March 16 transition to remote learning, the Morning Star team and Department of Education leaders met with diocesan principals to roll out the program. It asked the principals to identify the teachers who have demonstrated success in online learning to lead the effort. “You know your teachers best,” the team told the principals.

Thirty-four principals responded by nominating more than 60 potential Curriculum Leaders, the number of which was finalized to about 30 before the start of Easter break on April 9. The break came at an opportune time — it gave the leaders time to organize their resources.

There are one to two lead teachers per grade (or per subject area for middle-school grades) who work with the Department of Education to create plans and materials that will be shared across the diocese for the remainder of the school year. The Google classroom model used for students was adapted for teachers, with a “classroom” for each grade or subject area. Teachers share their own lesson plans and post resources, tips and pointers for online teaching with 50 to 80 teachers from across the diocese in each of their Google classrooms. They also host weekly Zoom meetings to discuss best practices.

“As we all moved to a remote learning platform in a very short amount of time, the creation of this program gave our talented teachers the space to collaborate and succeed as remote learning educators,” said Julie O’Connell, principal of St. Aidan School in Williston Park, whose teachers are all participating in the program. The school’s art teacher, Carolyn Gustafson, is leading the art teachers’ Google classroom for the diocese.

“The greatest benefit is that teachers of the same grade levels and/or subject areas are able to share lessons and enhance their curriculum,” O’Connell said. “The improvement can be seen across the board.”

The program has the potential to support teachers regardless of their comfort levels with technology. All teachers — especially those with less experience — are benefitting from the program, said Kerry Kahn, principal of Long Beach Catholic Regional School, whose math and kindergarten teachers are Curriculum Leaders.

“This is a great venue for teachers looking for different ideas and extra support,” Kahn said. “Our math teacher has been teaching for years, and she’s providing [other teachers] a lot of options and suggestions. Both my Curriculum Lead teachers have gotten positive feedback from teachers in other schools.”

“The diocese’s Catholic schools have done a phenomenal job transitioning to remote learning,” said Snyder, who noted that smaller class sizes in Catholic schools have helped the easy accommodation. “It’s been a very quick turnaround. The ability for the Curriculum Leads [teachers] to take on this role and then turn around and provide support to peers has been remarkable.”

Those involved said they hope the program will continue after the current school year.

“By and large I think the foundation behind it is solid, and it has a great potential for our schools moving forward,” Kahn said.

“[The program’s] exchange is not only helpful to address our current remote learning platform,” O’Connell noted, “but is something that can remain and develop when we move back into our respective buildings.”

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