Already Ready: Maine’s Outer Island Schools and the Pandemic

Yvonne Thomas
Posted 2020-04-06

“I can help” is a phrase that the students and teachers of Maine’s smallest and most remote island schools have been saying a lot lately. They are coming to the aid of frustrated parents and teachers as they sit in front of their computers feeling overwhelmed, maybe even in tears, trying to figure out Zoom or Google Classroom for the first time. These island helpers are experts in learning online, thanks in part to the Outer Islands Teaching and Learning Collaborative* (or TLC). That expertise has allowed them to more smoothly shift to the new educational reality that all schools and families are finding themselves in, and to provide assistance and reassurance to their mainland colleagues and family members.

The TLC is a 10-year-old, teacher-created, academic and social collaboration that provides a lifeline of support, buffering against the extreme isolation that these school communities experience. Innovative and engaging use of the internet is a big part of how the TLC does it. As most of our country’s teachers, students, and parents have had to abruptly shift to online learning in a matter of days, the TLC schools have already embraced learning and collaborating virtually for the long haul. Little did the visionary group of founding teachers know that the same urgent need that they felt to use internet era technology for virtual connection would be felt by millions of school communities worldwide in 2020. The TLC schools are lasting proof that online learning can be done, and done well!

The TLC is built on teacher collaboration, which gives rise to academic and social collaboration for students. This looks like book groups with students from Downeast to Casco Bay coming together weekly, lively holiday parties with gifts and cards, costumes, and games—all done on Zoom. In-person, multi-school field trips and strong community support are also core aspects of the TLC. The underpinning of all this connection is an ongoing commitment to the effective use of technology—both in terms of the hard/software and best practices for virtual teaching/learning. And while the teachers, students, and families will always be the heart of the TLC, without the internet and without the sustained investment that the TLC communities and the Island Institute have made, the TLC would not be possible. Credit must also go to  the Maine Learning and Technology Initiative (MLTI) that then Governor Angus King established  back in the early 2000s. The student laptop program that came out of that effort changed education in Maine and helped give rise to the TLC.

Today, there is an even more urgent technology need: broadband for all. The inadequate internet access of many isolated rural students has been laid bare as a result of the current crisis. Even within the tiny TLC and other island communities, we see that some families have relatively easy and affordable access to high speed internet, while it is completely out of reach for others.

Reading with TLC grandma Gaga and therapy dog Lulu.

One positive result of the current mass shift to online education is the increased interest in the TLC and the expansion of some of our offerings. The TLC’s weekly morning exercise session has added a session and become popular with students from other schools and communities as well. At a recent session, I loved seeing the joy on the faces of the students when they saw their friends online after not being together for several days. Those morning exercise sessions are good for the body and the soul.

As for the  TLC teachers, they meet weekly to support each other and share resources, tips, and tricks with the group and the broader education community. And while the school closures are disruptive for everyone, these teachers and students are managing quite well and making it better for others. Jenny Baum, the teacher on Cliff Island speaks for many of the TLC teachers when she says, “Thanks to the TLC, I already knew all about Zoom and how to run lessons virtually, and I was able to show other teachers how to use it.” The TLC is already ready.

To learn more about the TLC through the experience of the Monhegan School, please join us for an in-depth conversation with veteran TLC teacher Mandy Metrano. listen to our webinar, “What The World Can Learn From Maine’s One-Room Island Schools.”

*This year’s TLC Maine island school communities include: Cliff, Monhegan, Isle au Haut, the Cranberry Isles, Frenchboro, and Cuttyhunk (in Massachusetts).