The Nicest Place in Montana: Ronan

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"Teachers Are YouTube Stars"

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Teachers in this small village won’t let a little thing like a pandemic get in the way of their offbeat sense of humor.

Shawn Kenelty says she’s blessed to live in Ronan during the pandemic. The green pastures backed by snowcapped mountains surrounding the tiny hamlet of 2,000 an hour north of Missoula provides a lovely distraction. Her teenage children, Brooklyn, 17, and James, 14, are focusing their attention in a different direction.

The teachers at Ronan School District took a cue from their students’ favorite social media site to keep them engaged, energized and secure in the knowledge that they are cared for and supported during a difficult time.

Jessica Davis, who has taught middle and high school theater arts for the past six years, led the rest of the faculty in the creation of a ten-minute YouTube video where they each filmed themselves lip-synching the words to uplifting songs, like Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing,” “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees, and a take on “My Sharona” by the Knack. The operative words are replaced with something more topical: “I need toilet paper, toilet paper, toilet paper. I’m out of toilet paper—m-m-m-my corona.”

“I’m a ‘let’s do something about it’ kind of person,” says Davis. “I began by asking other teachers, ‘What do you think about doing a video of silly songs with a quarantine theme?’ I put the question out on a Facebook group chat, and there were so many replies from teachers and administration.”

Davis created the mix of songs and told each teacher to find a spot in the song to add in their section. Some teachers added their own original tunes and Davis edited it all together. So far, it’s been viewed nearly 3,000 times, more than the population of the whole town.

“I recognized a need for our students to see that we were still working, we hadn’t taken a vacation, and that we were still thinking of them during a scary time,” Davis says. “For our student demographic, we really are a lifeline in a lot of situations.”

According to Kenelty, the students of Ronan School District receive free and reduced lunch, and many are underprivileged.

“She’s always been very good at making people smile,” says Kenelty of Davis. “At a time when no one is allowed to be near one another, she reached out to staff across the district asking them to contribute their time and talents to a fun lip-synch video for the kids. We all did our small part, but it was her vision and editing talents that made it all come together. The kids are excited to see their teachers on YouTube in a whole new light.”

The video encouraged Kenelty to spur her kids to try to make a difference on their own.

“They were missing their friends, so I gave them three options to try that would help others and give back,” she says. “They chose to lead an online story time.” For over seven weeks the freshman and senior students read to younger children every day, and the fruits of the labor were sweet for all. “It really turned into their sweet time together encouraging others. So many of the kids tuned in a couple times a week, and then we got feedback from parents saying how much they appreciated what they were doing. It meant a lot to my kids.”

The Nomination

Our drama teacher in the high school has always been very good at making people smile. She puts together fun videos and flash mobs that include so many students and staff that you can’t help but love it. During these tough times, why would we expect anything else? At a time when no one is allowed to be near one another, Jessica Davis reached out to staff across the district asking them to contribute their time and talents to a fun lip-sync video for the kids. We all did our small part but it was her vision and editing talents that made it all come together. The kids are excited to see their teachers on YouTube in a whole new light.

We are all in a shelter in place order, as is much of the country. Teachers are trying so hard to make lesson plans that are relevant to students and to meet them where they are. Our principal had every teacher call their kids just to touch in. My son’s math teacher is doing her lessons on her living room window, using it as a makeshift white board. The kids’ music teacher puts on a one-song “porch concert” every night and encourages them to do the same. They are reaching out and trying to make this as easy as possible on everyone.

I would say that our community was very nice a year ago. Whenever tragedy strikes, you can count on people from so many facets to come together to help the ones in need. I don’t think there is ever a shortage of food or people in attendance when times are tough! I think that with this pandemic we are starting to see even more of those giving ways and we don’t take the smallest of kindnesses for granted. You can see things happening from a distance around the community ~ sidewalks being chalked with heartfelt sayings near the hospital, hearts and teddy bears being put in windows to bring smiles to all who see them, birthday parades happening for young children who can’t begin to understand the gravity of what is happening around them. It just makes your heart feel so good every time you see one of these events playing out!

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