The MRA Board welcomes members who have volunteered for various open positions this year. In this series of blog posts, we provide short interviews from some of these literacy educators.
Dionna Roberts is a fourth grade teacher, former literacy coach and part-time instructor in Literacy Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. She serves on the Board of Directors for Read and Write Kalamazoo. She finished her Bachelor’s in Elementary Education and a Masters in The Art of Teaching from WMU. She is currently completing an internship for her second Master’s in K-12 Educational Leadership and Administration and is looking forward to graduation in April of 2021. This is her eighteenth year of teaching.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up on the eastside of Detroit with my mom and two brothers. The first neighborhood community I ever belonged to had many Sesame Street like qualities. Each neighbor was a unique character who played an integral part in my story. My mother instilled a love for learning for me early on. She taught me to read before I entered kindergarten and was intentional about sharing stories with me any chance she got!
I was observant, quiet, and extremely shy with people I didn’t know, but well-liked by those who knew me well. I had three best friends (James, Eboni, and Naushi). During the summer, we spent time riding bikes, running through the garden sprinkler, drinking from the water hose, chasing the ice cream truck, and running relay races under the street lights.
I had to move away from this beloved neighborhood in the middle of 4th grade, and I was devastated! 4th grade was the year I had my first male teacher, Mr. Hayes, who made everything we learned cooler than COOL.
Name some of your favorite books while growing up.
Early on, I enjoyed anything written by Dr. Suess because instead of reading the words, I rapped them! These were the first books I remember reading on my own. A few of my favorite read-alouds that my mom shared were The Stories of Brer Rabbitt and The Tar Baby, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and The Little Red Hen.
The New Kid on the Block by Jack Prelutsky inspired me to be a 2nd-grade poet. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou hooked me in Middle School.
In high school, I enjoyed The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Native Son by Richard Wright.
Which person most influenced you to choose to teach?
My 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Elaine Rainey, was the primary influence in my choosing education as a career. She was the teacher who saved my teenage life by teaching me how to connect with characters in stories and encouraging me to write my own. Mrs. Rainey built a trusting relationship that extended beyond the classroom. The safe space to learn and express myself that she provided me with as a 15-year-old, I wanted to provide for kids much sooner.
What are some of your more memorable teaching experiences?
My most memorable teaching moments have been those when my students took the lead in their own learning, were allowed to experience school outside the box, or were able to share their understanding and creativity with others.
This year, my most memorable moments surrounded the work students were doing as we read the Creativity Project: An Awesometastic Story Collection, edited by Colby Sharp, as an entire grade-level.
During my work at Western Michigan University, each night of practicum was memorable when I could see my undergraduate students putting the lectures, discussions, and class demonstrations into action with students in the McGinnis Reading Clinic.
Tell us about Read and Write Kalamazoo.
Read and Write Kalamazoo (RAWK) is a non-profit organization that exists in our community to provide space and opportunities for youth to amplify their voices. This is done through thematic workshops, summer camps, after-school tutoring services, and in-school support. I have served and supported this organization since it was founded by Anne Hensley and Emily Kastner in 2012 and a proud member of the Board of Directors for 5 years now.
Why would you choose to give up your summers to teach creative writing at a summer camp?
My summers don’t feel quite right if I don’t spend a portion of it writing alongside young people. Creative writing is where I found courage and safety as a kid and throughout my many years in the classroom, I would this has been true for many of my students. Our imaginations and wild ideas are what make the world better, and unfortunately, strict curriculum pacing guides and lack of time within the school day don’t always allow room for them to shine.
In the summers, I make time to work with young writers focusing on being creative, sharing their stories, and having fun with words. As a Third Coast Writing Project Fellow of Western Michigan University, I co-lead the Camp For Young Writers with English Teacher Extraordinaire, Stephanie Hampton, for two weeks in summer.
I also work with the New Genesis Success Academy Summer Camp as the creative writing facilitator for youth entering grades 1-8. I look forward to compiling the student anthologies of work for both of these camps each year.
Our young people have so much to say, and when they are given the opportunity to use their words, I am constantly amazed by what is produced.