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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.

Donna Griebel, early childhood education teacher, Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School in Brooklyn

Screenshot of a Zoom Conference Call featuring students in costumes

Keeping our youngest students engaged is a challenge for any teacher. But Donna Griebel, an early childhood education teacher at the Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School, was able to find creative ways to keep her four and five-year-old students interested and learning at home.

“Maintaining that level of engagement remotely is… a challenge because you are not able to give that gentle touch or sit a child closer to you, as needed. There is also the added distraction of things going on in the house.”

Donna found that overcoming these obstacles required a flexible approach and a willingness to explore by trial and error what techniques worked and which didn’t. Ultimately, Donna found that the introduction of “Mr. Cuddles,” a ventriloquist puppet funded through a Donors Choose Remote Learning grant, helped capture and keep her students’ attention. Mr. Cuddles joined the class daily during morning meetings and even left messages for students in their virtual classroom.

In addition to introducing this new student to the mix, Donna also encouraged her young students in leading their own small group activities called “expert workshops” in which they taught their peers “how to do origami, play instruments, or various other crafts. It shows the confidence they built and the connection they have with each other to feel comfortable both in person and virtually to share in that way.”

“…Remote learning actually made us more connected to our students and families. We have literally been invited into our students’ homes through platforms like Zoom and Google Meet, which helped us create an intimate relationship we may not have otherwise been able to have under normal circumstances.”

Another challenge Donna faced was ensuring every child had access to an internet-ready device and that children and families understood how to log in to the different online platforms the class was using (Zoom, Google Meet, and Google Classroom). Some families also had internet and connectivity issues. Donna credits their shared success in navigating these obstacles to the strong relationships she had with families prior to the transition to remote learning.

“Although there were a lot of challenges in the transition, because of the strong partnerships we had already created as a school, we were able to be responsive to families and maintain that level of open communication.”

Surprisingly, the remote learning platform actually opened up new opportunities for family connection for Donna and her team. Families have joined daily live meetings, “dressed up with us on ‘Fancy Friday,’ and were vulnerable with us as they have shared their concerns. Over the last few months, they have laughed with us, cried with us, and we have persevered together.” The class even came up with a new name for themselves: “The Mulberries” (so named for the tree right outside their usual classroom window). Family members of students are proud to call themselves “Mulberries” as well.

Portrait photo of Donna Griebel

This year, Donna Griebel was honored with a 2020 Big Apple Award in recognition for her outstanding work at Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School.

During the last few months of school, with the active support of the administration, the staff members at the Brooklyn Arbor Elementary School put a specific focus on sharing resources about racism and social justice across all grade levels.

“Teachers identified important children’s literature choices to facilitate these conversations, recored them virtually, and even shared them amongst other staff (members).”

One of the kindergarten teachers at Brooklyn Arbor, Vera Ahiyya (@thetututeacher), created a video explaining racism to students and families, exploring how they could counter it within their school community and beyond. Thanks to its powerful message, the video was shared far and wide well outside the Brooklyn Arbor community.

Among staff members, Donna notes that she and her colleagues, “held each other accountable… to collectively build and maintain language around topics like racism, equity, and social justice.” Staff members participated and continue to participate in professional development courses to further explore these topics and share what they learned with others. The goal was to make sure that all staff members become completely proficient in these topics in order to better facilitate these conversations with students. “We have made a pledge as a school to continue this learning and put these topics at the forefront of our curriculum for the upcoming school year and beyond.”

A screenshot of Donna Griebel's Virtual "Mulberry" Classroom

Every morning, Donna has her students, who call themselves, “Mulberries,” check in for “morning meetings” on Google Classroom.

This year, Donna was honored with a Big Apple Award for her outstanding work as a New York City public school teacher, and her efforts to go above and beyond for her students clearly don’t stop at the classroom door! Whether in person or online, thanks to Donna and her colleagues, Brooklyn Arbor’s “Mulberries” stayed connected and learned together.

Donna Griebel 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.

Want to learn more about the Big Apple Awards? Stop by the DOE’s main Big Apple Awards page, and check out this year’s list of inspiring honorees!

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