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  • Dionna Roberts

Back-to-School Reflections for the 2020-2021 School Year


I believe the saying is true: "It is possible to have too much of a good thing." During the past five months, I have found time to learn from a number of experts in the field of education from the comfort of home. I have always looked forward to attending conferences and learning from the best, but would honestly feel a slight bit of guilt spending extended time away from home and family. Since large gatherings such as conferences and seminars are out of the question, (because, well...you know...GLOBAL PANDEMIC!) interacting through a screen has been the next best thing. From reading articles, taking online courses, to attending virtual workshops, I've added a nice number of keys (knowledge nuggets) and tools (strategies/learning platforms) to my teaching toolbelt.


However, with all this new learning and 1 week before returning to work, I am finding it necessary to begin prioritizing and compartmentalizing all these good things as they can quickly begin to feel like too much as I attempt to plan. My district made the decision to start the 2020-2021 school year completely virtual. I respect and appreciate this decision to keep families, students, and teachers safe. With this decision, just like many teachers across the country, we are looking for ways to best provide engaging instruction for our students through a virtual platform. In many ways, this pivot in pedagogical thinking is long overdue, and I am as the young people say, here for it. But as teachers, I think it is important that we don't take on too much of this good thing. It is important that we don't allow ourselves to be so inundated with the possibilities via the latest and greatest tech tools and platforms, that we lose sight of our reason for doing this work: to make connections with students that connect them to content and opportunities to grow.


My priorities and goals for this school year are rooted in the aforementioned reason for this work. When designing my online learning space, I am looking to:

  • build relationships amongst the students and with myself

  • connect them to academic and social-emotional learning opportunities through independent reading, read-alouds, and writing

  • cultivate and support an excitement for and culture of reading for ALL READERS

  • instruct in ways that are responsive and relevant to the students in front of me

With these goals in mind, I have carefully selected the tools that I will use to deliver content and facilitate learning with my 4th graders.


The Tools


Picture Book Read Alouds: Picture books are not just for the younger grades. In fact, they are beneficial for all ages. There's power in short texts. Picture books will serve as instructional tools that I use as we establish routines and expectations for listening and responding to texts throughout the year. Picture book read-alouds will also be an invitation to explore feelings and emotions through characters. Lastly, Priority instructional content standards can be introduced and modeled through the use of read-aloud texts, giving access to grade-level/above-grade-level texts to all students. For a few ideas on read-alouds, I will revisit Colby Sharp's 2019 Read Alouds for the First 10 Days of 5th Grade. I encourage you to visit as well.

Flipgrid (www.flipgrid.com) is a social learning platform that provides teachers spaces called “grid topics” that facilitates student engagement through learning, speaking, and listening. This is achieved through teachers and students sharing and responding to short video responses in the grid. In the Spring, I used it as a way for students to share book recommendations, pitch their creative ideas for solutions to real-world problems we read about, and report on new learning they’d acquired through research. Flipgrid also allows the teacher to provide feedback to students via video or email quickly and easily. Most students found Flipgrid to be fun and a way to connect with classmates. Best of all, Flipgrid is secure and FREE to use. There have been a number of updates and improvements made since Spring that I’m excited to try out this Fall. 

Pear Deck (https://www.peardeck.com/) I LOVE PEAR DECK! In my opinion, Pear Deck is a game-changer not only with online instruction but instruction PERIOD. Pear Deck is a Google add-on that enables and adds an interactive component to your presentation slides. Through this platform, students are given multiple opportunities to respond throughout the teacher presentations in real-time. This provides immediate feedback to the teacher and serves as informal checks for understanding as well as socio-emotional “temperature checks”. Lessons uploaded to Pear Deck can also be set to a student-paced mode, or an asynchronous format, that has the option for teachers to voice record on each slide. 

Virtual Notebooks This is a new thing that I’d like to try to incorporate this school year that was shared on Twitter from Engageducate that you can check out here. Typically in my classroom students keep an ELA notebook used for note-taking, vocabulary, and guided practice with ELA skills and strategies. With this virtual notebook, my goal is to make this tool more personal for the students and interactive between them and myself. The virtual notebook will also be where they record creative writing and writing in response to reading.

Hyperlinked Lesson Plans will be another new tool that I’m adding to virtual teaching in efforts to help me to stay organized and not have to remember all the tabs that need to be opened for each lesson. You can find a template that was shared in a teach Facebook group for teachers here.


Google Sites Just this week after watching an Instagram TV tutorial by @sweetandpetiteteacher, I am inspired and convinced to add one more virtual tool to my 2020-2021 Toolbelt. I'd utilized Google Classroom even before it was a thing and will continue to. I see the benefits of it and appreciate the ease of use, but when embedded inside a Google Site functionality and content organization opportunities increase exponentially! I plan to spend my last, last-days-of-summer building a Classroom Google Site to help streamline online learning components for families and students. Here is a list of benefits of Google Sites for you to consider:

  1. Free

  2. Fast and easy to edit

  3. Integrated with Google apps

  4. Creator can access tools anywhere

  5. Creator has full control on page access and permission


The Keys


No toolbelt is complete with a large ring of noisy keys. These keys, or knowledge nuggets, are reminders that unlock internal truths and understandings that will hopefully make enough noise in my heart to keep me grounded and good to myself this academic year. There was one virtual conference that I attended this summer that was particularly revelatory and necessary for me as a human and teacher. Dr. Shaun Woodly's Teach, Hustle, Inspire Super Teacher Summit was all of that and then some. The summit was a power-packed two days of learning from teachers around the country who have a passion and niche for providing culturally responsive instruction to students in all content areas.


On Day 1, the following keys resonated with me:

  • "As an educator, you must know your audience and understand how they make sense of the world. THIS is what responsive teaching does." -Dr. Shaun Woodly, 2020

  • "Students want to feel safe, comfortable and accepted. They are looking for a connection. Is your classroom an avenue to connect students to each other, yourself, and learning?" -Dr. Shaun Woodly, 2020

  • "Relationships are the keys to education and life period." -Dr. Daryl Crosby, 2020

  • "Give parents an invitation to the learning process." -Dr. Daryl Crosby, 2020

  • "The teacher is the bridge between students and content." -Dr. Stephanie Boyce, 2020

  • "Ask yourself, how do I hold space with intention in my classroom for ALL of my students?" -Dr. Stephanie Boyce, 2020

Day 2 was kicked off with keynote speaker, Dr. Christopher Emdin, author of For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood... (2016). Saying that his talk was powerful isn't quite enough. His words were real, raw, and passionate. There was one idea that served me a nice gut-punch complete with tears stinging my eyes. It was the idea that this year, "there will be no more imposter syndrome." This is the year that I say Enough with doubting myself and wondering if I'm truly qualified to be in the room where it happens. (Nod to Hamilton and Mr. Aaron Burr, Sir.) During this new academic year, I will not and should not operate in fear, guilt, shame, grief, lies, illusion, and attachment. Teaching is physical, spiritual, and intellectual. I am a teacher who teaches with her head and heart. I don't know how not to do so. It isn't always comfortable, but I wouldn't want to experience teaching any other way. Dr. Emdin also left me with these keys:

  1. "Teaching is an ancestral work." - Dr. Christopher Emdin, 2020. I stand on the shoulders of giants and aspire to make them proud.

  2. "You (I) have the right to be here and occupy space." - Dr. Christopher Emdin, 2020

  3. "You (I) have the right to feel." -Dr. Christopher Emdin, 2020

  4. "You (I) have the right to act." -Dr. Christopher Emdin, 2020

  5. "You (I) have the right to love and be loved." -Dr. Christopher Emdin, 2020

  6. "You (I) have the right to speak truth to power." - Dr. Christopher Emdin, 2020

  7. "You (I) have the right to seek and see." - Dr. Christopher Emdin, 2020

  8. "You (I) have the right to know." - Dr. Christopher Emdin, 2020

  9. "These rights are for me as a teacher and for me to extend to my students."-- Dr. Christopher Emdin, 2020

I have decided to reframe what we could call an overwhelming school year as one where I choose to grow. (Thank you, Mrs. Hampton, www.writingmindset.org) This blog post was for me to reflect on my thoughts, learning, and process my goals for the year. It is my hope that as we all embark on this adventure known as the 2020-2021 School Year that we remember to be patient, kind, and gracious to others and ourselves. The article titled Back-to-School Self-Care: Putting Your Oxygen Mask on First is one that I plan to return to throughout the year. I hope that you are able to find useful keys and tools from my post. Stay safe and take good care.

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