As educators, we often talk about differentiating instruction to meet students’ needs. We dip into our toolbox of tricks to achieve that “aha!” moment. But the pandemic took differentiating learning to a new level. We found ourselves in new territory, and beyond the technical difficulties we often encountered, learning to connect with students who were attending school from their kitchen table, their parent’s workplace, or a babysitter’s home required true innovation and collaboration. We dug deep and leaned on our colleagues to understand what was working for them. In the Vail School District in Vail, AZ, many teachers gained a renewed appreciation for Beyond Textbooks, a treasure trove of differentiated instruction built on teacher-contributed lessons, allowing us to enhance our go-to practices.

Collaborative Resources

Beyond Textbooks (BT) is a digital platform designed to allow teachers to collaborate with other educators across Arizona. It originated in 2008 and was built upon four components: digital resources for teachers, tools for the digital resources (projectors, document cameras, and audio enhancement systems), the ability to change the traditional method of delivering instruction, and partnering with other districts. The BT framework continues to be all of these. The Vail School District has since partnered with over 150 school districts across the United States. As of 2020, more than 50,000 resources have been submitted to BT. The program’s mission is to collaborate with schools to improve student achievement through the implementation of the Vail School District’s proven teaching and learning frameworks. This framework relies heavily on the research of Rick DuFour, an American educational researcher noted for developing strategies to create collaborative teaching environments in K–12 schools, and his four guiding questions:

  1. Exactly what is it that we want all students to learn?
  2. How will we know when each student has acquired the essential knowledge and skills?
  3. What happens in our school when a student does not learn?
  4. What happens in our school when a student meets proficiency?

One of the goals of BT is to help partners get their “arrows aligned” while preserving teacher autonomy, creativity, and expertise. BT offers mapping calendars, lesson plans, supplemental materials, and teacher-created formative and summative assessments to help maximize instruction and ensure that every minute counts. The most important part of BT is that it maintains the creativity of each individual using the resources. BT helps teachers with the “what” and “when,” but doesn’t lose the essence of the teacher determining “how.”

The history and culture of sharing through Beyond Textbooks date back over a decade and started with a campfire conversation during a district leadership retreat between Vail’s deputy superintendent of teaching and learning Debbie Penn and chief information officer Matt Federoff. As the two collaborated to solve the need for transition to digital resources, the conversation birthed what would later become the innovation of Beyond Textbooks. During the early years, the first set of Arizona-based partnerships was created and led to a systematic way of training teachers and instructional leaders beyond Arizona. I believe in BT because I used it as a teacher; I relied upon it as an instructional leader during a pandemic and will continue to use it moving forward.

Filling in the Framework

As an optimist, I have been mindful of identifying the silver linings of the pandemic. I’m grateful for the BT team and the framework provided when we needed it most. We took inventory of what our teachers had available and what they could use to deliver virtual instruction. At Vail Academy and High School, our principal, Dennis Barger, and I wanted to keep it simple for our teachers during remote learning. We leaned on the BT resources to provide structure for teachers who needed help. Upon reflection, the BT digital resources proved to be the bedrock of our instructional foundation. Along with the learning management platform Schoology, our teachers delivered instruction in remote, hybrid, and in-person models all within the same school year in a K–12 setting. It was no easy task for even our most skilled teachers, and it took critical thinking to make it work.

When schools shut down in the spring of 2020, I felt vulnerable working with our staff because of the technical difficulties and sudden necessity to shift entirely to virtual learning. We, as educational leaders, were facing some of the same barriers that teachers faced with students. I could not guide them through proximity or by clicking on their trackpad to help them troubleshoot an issue. I was learning Zoom features myself, and we didn’t want to overcomplicate the process. I appreciated that plenty of big-name companies opened their vaults for educator-friendly resources, but just giving teachers a list of free websites did not feel like help. Instead, it added to the frustration and confusion of figuring out how to keep students engaged. Teachers were candid with me about not wanting to establish new user accounts, memorize passwords, or teach themselves how to incorporate new technology. Teachers were stressed and wanted to do what was best for their students and be responsive to their needs. BT continued to be the lighthouse for our teachers as they navigated uncharted waters.

We felt confident in our ability to navigate BT and modify lessons in a virtual environment. We also felt confident in our teachers’ training and knew that they would be able to use the tools they already have to create adaptations to lessons on BT. The BT team continued to refine its methods of training educators and made adjustments during COVID. We offered Virtual Zoom training, provided a BT parent portal, and implemented principal Zoom interviews to stay connected, accommodate social distancing, and minimize the need for travel. Near the end of the school year, I was fortunate to be invited to participate in a virtual BT roundtable with leaders and superintendents in Arizona to discuss how to confront the learning challenges that students would face in the years ahead. The group was pragmatic about the realities that we all shared.

Justin Chesebrough, the director of BT, has traveled thousands of miles across Arizona and to other states to provide intentional training sessions about the framework. He explains that Vail has a selective process for working with superintendents and helping to decide if BT would be right for their school district. It’s not for those who are looking for a silver bullet to raise student achievement. It’s a systemic approach that takes time and buy-in from the teachers using the BT framework.

Primed for Success

This past school year, Arizona’s Department of Education (ADE) withheld publishing standardized test scores and issuing school labels. According to the data provided by ADE, Vail Academy and High School and the entire Vail School District continued to outperform the state averages in English language arts and math by a significant margin. We’re proud of the grit demonstrated by our teachers and the resiliency of our students. Parental support was key in helping our teachers adjust to the ambiguity of the school year. There were tears, frustration, and anxiety along the way, but as the year ended, it was evident that our students were loved, challenged, and provided with an adequate level of structure to learn and grow.

Our district leadership had a lot of foresight through the development of BT. Years of strategic planning went into the attention invested into the infrastructure of technology in our schools. Our Chief Information Officer Matt Federoff, who played a vital role in bringing BT to fruition, retired this year after 20 years of service. Mark Breen will now carry the torch of innovation into a new era. In the Vail School District, we believe that “education is a community effort.” We, as a school district, are poised to continue doing great things with the support of our community and partnerships.

Mario Balderrama is the assistant principal of Vail High School in Vail, AZ. He is also Arizona’s 2021 Assistant Principal of the Year.