Partners for Youth with Disabilities (PYD) didn’t just pivot to remote learning during the pandemic. The program pirouetted into all-new creative territory, revamping its career readiness lessons into playful mini-dramas and travelogues. Some instant classics:

So how did PYD do it? We sat down for a (virtual) chat with the creative mastermind behind these videos – career readiness program coordinator Darryl Sanchez (a.k.a. “Mr. D”) – to learn what it takes to dream up and execute engaging virtual lessons.

Darryl Sanchez, aka “Mr. D”

Hi, Darryl. This is like meeting a celebrity. I’m such a fan of your work.

[Laughing] I appreciate that. It’s funny because right now, I’m showing the videos to students in our summer program and they’re like, “You should be a YouTuber!”

See? It’s not just me. How validating! Well, to get started, can you describe what you do?

Sure, I work in the school-based part of our Career Readiness Program. I teach PYD’s curriculum to 14-22-year-olds with disabilities, in three to four schools in the Boston area. We cover topics like how to write a resume, how to behave professionally, and how to prepare for an interview. Before the pandemic, I’d bring in guests from different industries to talk about their jobs or take students on field trips to partner organizations.

When the pandemic hit, educators had to quickly switch to remote learning. Was that scary for you or did you embrace it?

I’ll be very frank with you: I was excited. My co-workers and I spent a week planning how to adapt. I thought, this is a gateway to discover other ways to be creative, a time to discover what we can do online and what we can bring back in person in a hybrid model.

What kinds of ideas came up that first week?

The main issue was: How are we going to get kids to show up in an online classroom? Within a week we had teachers and students logging in to our online platform to watch the “Live with Mr. D” show. That’s what we called it. We sent a career readiness newsletter and a reminder each week. The link was always the same. That consistency allowed students to get used to the schedule.

How did you come up with the ideas for the virtual site visits and characters in your videos? Did they appear in “Live with Mr. D”?

Mr. D as a gumshoe hot on the case of a good job.

No, “Live with Mr. D” was just me giving PowerPoint teaching presentations online. The ideas for the skits and job shadow videos came last summer in 2020. We’d finished the school year online and I didn’t have much to do except paperwork. I was watching a lot of travel videos on YouTube to feel that sense of wonder again in the pandemic. And I thought, “OK, we can keep doing guest lectures online, but I wonder if there are employers who are willing to have me come record their workplace and do a short interview.”

When I was watching comedy videos on YouTube, I thought, “You know, students think I’m funny even when I’m not trying to be. I can make a skit just like these videos and see if the students like it.” In the in-person setting I found that students, regardless of their disability, focus more on the subject when it’s funny. They retain the information much better.

OK, so you’re watching YouTube, you come up with these ideas, but there’s still the tech hurdle, right?

In the classroom, the only technology I’d used was a PowerPoint. I’d never made videos, either. So I just started experimenting. I started by writing down the script and the setting. Then I’d record myself saying each line. On the site visits, I just used my phone and a selfie stick. To put it all together, I used iMovie. It’s a free program on my MacBook I’d never used before. I just plunked all my recorded video in there and started tinkering around – What kind of music is available here? What kind of special effects? You can do a lot.

Do you think learning to create videos is doable for teachers who don’t have the same luxury of time?

For teachers, I understand their time is very limited. It does take some time, especially the planning phase. For me, I can probably knock out 1-2 videos a week when I’m really diligent about it. But a video doesn’t have to be ten minutes long. Something as short as 1-2 minutes can be enough. Simple and engaging. It’s doable. The simple ones take maybe five hours to make.

The nice thing, at least, is the videos have a shelf life. Once they’re recorded, you can use them over and over again.

Yes, absolutely. I already had in mind that if these videos were a hit, we would build a media library of skits and job shadow videos for students and teachers to use. We can use them not only online, but in person as well if we return to a hybrid classroom.

So what was the critical reception when you started debuting these videos?

Mr. D as a cowboy networking at the card table

The first responses I got were: “Mr. D, do you have a twin?” They didn’t know I could do that. Everyone thinks it’s funny, which is good, because it keeps me going. When I plan and record videos, it doesn’t feel like work, because I know my students will enjoy it.

Is there anything about your background – working with the Marines, Peace Corps, NGOs around the world – that taught you the adaptability you needed in this job?

In the Marines, I learned how to adapt in interacting with different people and cultures, and being open-minded. I did an internship in Thailand working with farmers, where I learned basic Thai. The Peace Corps taught me how to work with various groups of young people. One thing I learned is that humor can be a great teaching tool and a way to connect with people regardless of culture, age or ability.

Is there anything else you’d want other instructors to know who might be struggling with moving programming online?

My advice for other organizations is that it’s not just a one-man show. A lot of this I couldn’t have done without my coworkers at PYD. I coordinated with my colleagues on the ideas for the videos and they gave me their feedback. We work together as a team.

Also, even if you don’t know how to make a video, explore! Watch YouTube to get ideas. Try something new. The worst that can happen is it doesn’t work. The first video I made, I thought, “The students are going to think I’m some kind of goofball.” But I showed it and they ended up loving it.

About Partners for Youth with Disabilities Career Readiness Program:
The Partners for Youth with Disabilities Career Readiness Program is an inclusive job readiness program aimed to address barriers to employment for youth/young adults with disabilities involving academic learning, real world experiences, and mentoring. Career Readiness consists of several delivery models within it – National Replication, Career Immersion (1-1 support), Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS), and the School-Based Program.

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