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During this extraordinary time when New York City’s educators are working closely with students and families from the confines of their homes, we are publishing a series of posts describing their experiences in their own words. We are now #DOEconnected!

Follow our hashtag, #DOEconnected, join the conversation, and connect online with your neighbors across the City. Share stories of how you, your child, a teacher, or a school community member has become your hero. Remember, not all heroes wear capes.

Marissa Thornton-Samih, special education elementary school teacher, Riverdale Avenue Community School in Brooklyn

Teacher typing on her laptop

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Marissa Thornton-Samih was a busy teacher. She taught courses at Bank Street College, and she was known to go shopping with her students’ families for glasses. She also took the time to mentor new teachers at Riverdale Avenue Community School (RACS), and she offered her colleagues opportunities to visit her classroom and to collaborate in lesson planning.

But once her school transitioned to remote learning in March, Marissa found that she and her colleagues were busier than ever, as everyone dove in feet first and did their part to help with the transition. Like many teachers across the City, Marissa and her fellow educators had to build new instructional practices on top of digital platforms they had yet to use before the citywide switch to remote instruction. “We were not using Google Classroom, Zoom, Google Meets, etc., to get our students to complete work,” recalls Marissa, so staff members had to learn these platforms quickly.

Thankfully, both RACS’ technology teacher and student support coordinator stepped up to offer teachers and families technical support. Both staffers were available to set up individualized appointments, and they even held weekly professional development to walk staff members through the “ins and outs” of the various platforms.

“Switching into remote learning could have been isolating… but the team of teachers that I worked with on my grade band stayed in constant communication. We celebrated each other’s successes, whether from getting all of our students signed up for Google Classroom, to teaching an amazing small group lesson.”

Collaboration between RACS staff members was key to the support and learning process. “Switching into remote learning could have been isolating… but the team of teachers that I worked with on my grade band stayed in constant communication. We celebrated each other’s successes, whether from getting all of our students signed up for Google Classroom, to teaching an amazing small group lesson.” Marissa and other teachers also shared best practices and ideas with one another such as weekly grade team meetings, meeting informally to make cohesive assignments and sharing resources and technology.

This camaraderie was also essential in helping staff members deal with what was going on “outside of the classroom.” The staff members met daily via Zoom for brief morning meetings, and on occassion, would share about the loss of family members. Open conversations were held with students during weekly Zoom or Google Meets to share concerns or questions about COVID. These daily check-ins were a “safe space to share our feelings about what was going on with the quarantine, remote learning, loss, etc.”

Staff members had also been having “Race and Equity” professional development sessions once a month since September 2019 where they could have candid and even sometimes uncomfortable conversations around race—continuing them into June was particularly relevant. This dialogue gave staff members the ability to “inform and impact our students at the school,” many of whom are students of color.

With the death of George Floyd, the Race and Equity conversation was reignited with a renewed focus on what the RACS community could do to implement systemic change. Staff members also hosted a town hall for families to share in the work the school was doing around race, equity, and social justice, and biweekly meetings were held for staff members to meet and make plans for how social justice work could be implemented in classrooms in the upcoming school year. For her students, Marissa looked for read alouds that could better foster meaningful conversations with students around race and prejudice. She also gave her students writing prompts that helped them react and respond to the stories they heard in class, and she encouraged her students to share videos with her that they had made in response to the moment.

Sideview of a teacher typing on their laptop during a remote lesson

Marissa regularly made herself available to students, families, and fellow teachers online throughout the spring term, which helped to foster a sense of “community,” in a digital learning environment.

Marissa was also creative in how she engaged with students’ families. She says that the communication she had with families in the classroom was seamless during remote learning partially due to the strong relationships they’d built with each other before the shift. “I always strive to communicate frequently and believe in sharing successes as much as challenges.” Marissa tried to figure out early on which mode of communication worked best for each family. “Some families preferred texting or emailing due to work schedules, while other preferred daily phone call check-ins.” Because families had varying schedules due to work and other obligations, she made herself available after usual working hours to answer questions and even host individualized learning sessions. Marissa found that this type of flexibility made families feel more comfortable to share what challenges and needs they had. In addition, Marissa “set up individualized schedules for students to aid families (to understand) their child’s learning style and needs” and created individualized assignments to help certain students grapple with new content, such as one-on-one sessions to help understand a new math concept. One student even wrote to her as a penpal to help sharpen their writing skills!

Earlier this year, Marissa was honored with a Big Apple Award for her extraordinary work as a New York City public school teacher. While Marissa expressed concern that the months or even years that she had spent developing bonds with her students (in some cases this was the second or third time she was teaching some), she felt that, following this remote learning experience, the classroom community felt “stronger than ever.” Families, too, were resilient and show how they were “champions of their child’s education.” The whole team at RACS has shown how grit and openness with one other can help schools overcome the kinds of challenges we all faced last spring and will continue to face in the months to come.

Marissa Thornton-Samih is emblematic of how New York City’s educators are adapting to these unprecedented times on behalf of our students and families. We thank all of our staff members for helping all of us stay #DOEconnected.

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