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'21 Strong: Cleveland teacher Ebony Donley instills love of literacy and learning

Donley didn't let the pandemic derail her mission to promote a love of reading in her students.

CLEVELAND — For Ebony Donley, literacy isn't just another lesson she teaches in her classroom. It's a mission.

"I love teaching reading," Donley said, "but I noticed a lot of kids were struggling, and sometimes they were so far behind that we could not do the intensive work that we needed to do within the school day."

So six years ago, she started an afterschool program called Literacy Innovations in the Collinwood section of Cleveland, where she not only teaches, but also lives.

"My number one goal is to make reading cool again," Donley said, with a smile. "When I was a kid, reading was cool. We had the 'BOOK IT!' Program. We loved it. We read for a personal pan pizza."

For Donley, success is not just about meeting assignment goals; it’s also about fostering that true love of reading. She decided to make it as fun as possible for her students.

Credit: Ebony Donley
Literacy Innovations students Charles and Chamyla Coleman.

"I was doing something every month," she remembered. "I would call it family game night. We would all get together, I would buy dinner for us and we would all play educational games."

But the pandemic derailed those plans as schools were closed and everyone was forced to shift to virtual learning.

"When you're at school, everything is pretty level," Donley said. "We have supplies for students. What about when they’re home and they’re expected to access information? We had to rethink how we did everything."

So, instead of getting discouraged, Donley innovated.

"[I thought,] 'We can do something over Zoom,' so I started making some videos to keep them engaged."

But that’s when she noticed that some of her students didn’t have even the most basic supplies like a printer or a pair of headphones. So, to no one's surprise, she took action.

"I bought games and I would mail the families and I would drop them off at their houses," she said. "I donated printers to a lot of families."

Credit: Ebony Donley
Items purchased by Ebony Donley for her students.

How much did Donley spend just to make sure her kids were engaged?

"I don’t know, thousands for sure," she said. "I paid for it with my salary as a teacher."

That's right – she paid for almost all of it out of her own pocket, devoting her own time and resources to make sure her students would succeed. It's a lesson in generosity her students will always remember, and Donley will never regret.

"I just would like to develop life long learners, always learning and striving to do something else and never just being comfortable," she said. "It was very important to let the kids know learning doesn’t stop just because the school isn't open."

Credit: Ebony Donley
Literacy Innovations students Sean Jones and his dad, Lanelle Butler, who has also volunteered at Ebony's family game nights.

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