McNary teachers earn honor from district

Salem-Keizer Public Schools

Even though they haven’t seen their students in person for almost a year, McNary teachers Ashley Gruber, Andy Thomas and Josh Rist have rallied together over the last 11 months to collaborate their classes (media production, choir and audio production).

“In the arts, we always had a collaborative mindset, but we had to move to the next level for distance learning,” Thomas said.

The virtual collaboration effort started in March 2020 when an individual suggested to Rist that the McNary choir put together a socially distanced performance.

“I knew how much work would go into it. I wasn’t going to even try and do it by myself, which is why I reached out to Ashley and Andy asking for help,” Rist said.

Rist instructed his students to film themselves singing to the melody of “Smile” by Nat “King” Cole and then send their finished product to Gruber and Thomas, who had their kids’ work on the editing and audio production.

The final product was released on YouTube in May and has received nearly 5,000 views. The performance was also featured on

“It was definitely a ton of work, but because there were many hands and minds involved, it actually was a lot better together than it would have been apart. That kind of made us realize that our programs sync together super well,” Rist said.

The three teachers have continued to have their students collaborate on projects over the last several months, including a project in which kids virtually created scenes of The Princess Bride, as well as a performance of Happy Christmas by John Lennon.

“It just made sense because it gave the kids stuff to do to get that hands-on experience of working with others… When you’re doing stuff with other people and for other people, it gives you a little more pride and a little more responsibility,” Gruber said “I have seen kids grow a ton in their skill because they want to show that they care.”

Most recently, the crew created a video during the holidays featuring numerous students partaking in activities at their house while the McNary choir gives a virtual performance of Home by Phillip Phillips.

The collaborations didn’t go unnoticed by the Salem-Keizer School District. On Jan. 12, during a Salem-Keizer school board meeting, the three teachers were given the Spotlight on Success honor for their efforts during comprehensive distance learning.

“This partnership between classes provides unique and collaborative opportunities that have been both therapeutic and helpful during this pandemic, while simultaneously preparing (students) to a pathway for future success,” McNary principal Erik Jespersen said during the board meeting. “We’re so proud of our educators and students. Working together is what we’re all about here at McNary, and it’s inspiring to see the caliber of work of these students and teachers that have been created in their living rooms.”

After giving virtual instruction for nearly a year, Gruber, Thomas and Rist are preparing for limited in-person instruction later this month. Now that all three of their classrooms are connected thanks to the renovations from the McNary bond project, the opportunity for many more collaborations between the departments could increase dramatically.

“I think you’re going to see, once we get kids in the building and once we get down to our routines, that this will become a part of the normal culture at McNary, between these departments.” Rist said.

“The fun is just beginning,” Thomas added.