Communities are rich in experienced adults who have knowledge and expertise but lack the instructional skills of professional teachers. Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College is developing new nanocourses for community educators who can complement professional educators in both physical and remote settings.
Through short, focused and free online courses, adults gain knowledge and skills to support both teachers and students. Each course was developed in collaboration with subject matter experts at MLFTC, local school districts and teachers.
“These courses are designed to empower all individuals to participate in childrens’ education,” says Stuart Rice, director of digital initiatives in MLFTC’s Office of Digital Learning.
While the courses were developed for community members, parents and paraprofessionals, Rice says, “we’re launching with a focus on parents because they’re the ones who need training and support the most right now. We hope that parents of children who are attending school remotely or in a mix of remote and in-person formats will find these resources valuable. We also hope that parents gain a fuller appreciation of how much they can help their kids just by acquiring a few instructional skills.”
Initial offerings: Reading and school basics
Initial offerings include two sets of nanocourses called backpacks. Each backpack consists of four to six content or skill-focused courses.
Community educators who wish to work in a school setting will begin with a School Basics backpack that includes content on mandatory reporting, modeling and redirecting, supporting positive behavior, assessing students and more. MLFTC has also launched a Reading Accelerator backpack, which includes courses on applying word-solving strategies, reading aloud to children, reading comprehension and supporting multilingual students.
“We started here because one of the most critical outcomes for children is having literacy by third grade,” Rice says. “We were very lucky to work with Dr. Lindsey Moses, the chair of our literacy program. She has a real sense of how to take something very theoretically heavy and translate it to actionable steps. Most people will be able to invest two hours and gain a broad spectrum of practical strategies.”
The courses, Rice says, are designed to be short and to provide skills that can quickly be applied. “Each nanocourse shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes to complete, but community educators are incentivized to come back and revisit the strategies after applying them.”
The content and format are the result of focus groups with volunteers and community educators already working in schools, as well as the professional educators they support.
“We surveyed teachers in our partner school districts, including Mesa Public Schools and Dysart Unified School District, to better understand their needs,” says Sarah Rabbani, of MLFTC’s Office of Digital Learning. “It’s not just about meeting the needs of community educators. It’s also about giving teachers the support they need to better serve learners. That’s part of the Next Education Workforce model these trainings are based on. When we develop community educators, we’re supporting professional educators and students.”
The nanocourses are part of MLFTC Educator Pathways, which aim to develop a workforce with a wider array of educational skills and areas of expertise in order to attract educators to the profession, increase retention and drive better learning outcomes. Community Pathways, in particular, create accessible on-ramps to paid or volunteer work in schools and other learning environments.
The roles of community educators can vary, depending on their interests, school needs and the training they undertake, Rice says. “They’re partners with professional educators in physical and virtual settings. When they’re trained to take on specific roles and responsibilities, those educators are able to provide deeper and personalized learning to their students.”
For more on the role of community educators, read Building a Network of Community Educators, a whitepaper released by MLFTC this summer. The report captures perspectives from teachers, as well as school and district leaders, and describes how community educators can bring additional capacity, insight and expertise to classrooms.
Future nanocourses: Math, social and emotional learning, and more
MLFTC is already developing additional nanocourses in new content areas such as math, social and emotional learning, physical education and mindfulness.
“We’re not only creating a product for right now; we’re creating a product for always,” says Rabbani. “That means the training is adaptable and changes with the times. Learning has become a lot more dynamic and so have the students. We’re coming from an incredible institution, backed by subject matter experts who can create content that is both timely and evergreen.”
The School Basics backpack, for instance, contains information about how to adapt knowledge and practice to a virtual classroom. “We also have physical education courses that are tailored to taking breaks from screens. We have a pretty robust set of mindfulness courses that we’re developing as well. One thing that has come up throughout the pandemic is how to be mindful; how to pay attention to our surroundings; how isolation affects human beings, and so we keep that context in mind as we develop our courses,” Rabbani says. “We’re constantly asking: What can we do to support a learner not just with traditional content — math, science reading — but as a whole child?”
The response so far has been promising, she says.
“We’ve tested these courses with MLFTC faculty, participants from ASU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and local school district partners. They enjoyed working with the material and seeing that, wow, there’s a product for people like us who aren’t teachers or formally educated as teachers but are still interested in investing in classrooms. It’s really gratifying to hear,” Rabbani says. “One of my favorite pieces of feedback came just last week from a community educator we’ve been working with from Osher LLI since June. She said, ‘I’ve been following everything you guys have been creating and I can’t wait until you launch. I just want to spend my retirement working with kids and this is the thing that will help prepare me for that.’”
To view or register for a community educator course, visit the course catalog.