How I Teach

Why this teacher hopes her voice is still working by the end of the day

PHOTO: Courtesy Lisa Lee
Lisa Lee, center right, one of two gifted and talented teachers at Wheat Ridge High School, leads a discussion. Lee was a teacher of the year finalist.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

If Lisa Lee’s voice is gone by the end of the day, she believes she has failed her students.

It is the students, not the teacher, who should be doing more talking during class, Lee said.

Lee, a 29-year veteran who helps run the Gifted and Talented program at Wheat Ridge High School, was one of six finalists for Colorado’s Teacher of the Year 2017.

Read on to learn how she decorates her room each year, what website she uses to plan lessons and what she thinks makes a good lesson.

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style: From my students: Exuberant, spontaneous and different, with a focus on personal connections

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?
I come in at 7 a.m. to prepare for the day. I answer emails, get lesson materials ready, and meet with students/parents/teachers as needed. First period begins at 7:25 a.m. Second period is my only planning period of the day. While teachers in our school have two plans, our program is growing so much, we gave one period up this year to accommodate the numbers We have no regrets even though we never get everything done. I typically am here until 6 p.m. everyday.

What does your classroom look like?
It is entirely student focused and student driven. The walls and ceiling have quotes painted on them by students (an annual beginning of the year freshman project), we have a piano, three couches, and no student desks – only tables. We do not use overhead lighting – only lamps, which are all over the room. We have 10 desktops for student use, and the cutest bunny ever!

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?
I love my SmartBoard! We use it for so many things. I’m moving more and more away from paper lessons to shared documents and lessons on Google. I frequently use Power Point, Excel, Microsoft Publisher, and PowToon. Here are a few websites I frequently use because they offer a variety of different information. Our elective is focused on development of the whole student, so we plan our lessons with that in mind:

http://www.rinkworks.com/brainfood/p/latreal1.shtml
http://www.corsinet.com/braincandy/riddle1a.html
http://www.mensaforkids.org/
http://creativitygames.net/
http://www.cnn.com/studentnews
http://www.teachertube.com/
http://www.history.com/
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/teachers-resources/
http://mentalfloss.com/

How do you plan your lessons?
We are so fortunate because there is no prescribed curriculum for the program. We have been able to totally create it, based on the needs of our students. My co-teacher focuses lessons on juniors and seniors, and his emphasis is job shadowing, college preparation, and “adulting.” I focus lessons on freshmen and sophomores, with both grades being a project-based curriculum.

Freshmen work on student choice projects with facilitation from me as needed. Sophomores focus on service learning, and their projects are geared to meet that focus.

We open class with a thought-provoking, student-created and presented lesson, so the planning behind that involves a lot of front-loading and modeling at the beginning of the year. They come to us to discuss ideas for their openings as needed. We frequently use parents as experts, based on their fields of expertise (chefs, volunteer coordinators, architects, engineers, CPAs, artists, musicians, astronomers, engineers, etc).

What qualities make an ideal lesson?
Student engagement! In my opinion, the best lessons are the ones that do not involve me being the main source of knowledge. I find that if I get out of the way and let students explore and learn together through discussion, debate, Socratic Seminars, etc., the lessons are so much richer and have so much more value. If my voice is giving out at the end of the day, I haven’t been as effective a teacher as I want to be.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I conference with students on a daily basis, and am constantly checking for understanding and whether or not I need to clarify something. I also provide our lessons on Google Docs, so students are able to access information if I’m not right there with them. And of course, I address things as they come up in the moment.

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
Check in! There may be something totally unrelated to my class — it usually is — that is causing the issue. I usually do this one-on-one. Students are people with lives outside of my classroom, and if I don’t acknowledge the impact that life has when they come to my class, I am doing them a disservice.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?
Emails and phone calls are my most common communication choices. I also send home fliers with information as needed, and include important details on our website. We have two major events every year, and I rely heavily on parent volunteers to help, and I find that as time goes on they become friends as well as parents of my students.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?
So many times papers go home with me, and never make it out of my car! I am using Google Docs more and more. They give me the opportunity to peruse for work being turned in before I sit down to grade each item individually. I utilize mentors a lot — upperclassmen sit with those in lower grades and go over work before it is submitted so they can make corrections before it is turned in to me for a grade. I use same-grade peers in much the same way. After 29 years of teaching, I still haven’t found a way to keep grading papers from consuming me at various times throughout the school year. My philosophy is that if it’s important enough for them to take their time to complete, then it’s important enough for me to take my time to grade.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of thrillers involving lawyers. I’ve just completed the Scott Pratt series featuring Joe Dillard, the Robert Bailey McMurtrie series, and am currently reading a Robert Dugoni book. I drive 35 miles one way to get to work, so I listen to a lot of audio books as well. And if it has a ‘Harry’ and a ‘Potter’ in the title, it is devoured quickly! (Side note: I apply to Hogwarts every year, but am afraid that my Muggle blood has kept me from being considered. I won’t give up, though.)

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Embrace the glorious mess that you are.” Period.

How I Teach

Why this Memphis teacher asks her students to create a mixtape every year

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Natasha Wilkins is a history teacher at GRAD Academy Memphis, a charter school in the state-run Achievement School District.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

During her African-American history classes, Natasha Wilkins asks her high school students to answer this question in a “free writing” exercise: “Who is responsible for educating the public about injustice?”

The students type away while listening to R&B singer R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest,” which isn’t uncommon. Wilkins has made a point of integrating music into her classroom at GRAD Academy Memphis, a charter high school within Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Her class culminates with a “Hip Hot History” project, a mixtape produced by her students, who write the lyrics and record their songs in a studio to share their learning.

When asked how she answered the writing prompt, one student said that, thanks to Wilkins, she believes that she is responsible for educating the public about injustice. “I think understanding injustice has a lot to do with understanding history, real history,” the student said. “We can’t care about something we don’t know about.”

That’s the goal of Wilkins’ class:  To help her students, most of whom are black, understand the history of their ancestors and to have fun while doing it.

We asked Wilkins to explain more about her teaching style and how she helps her students “own” history.

Why did you become a teacher?

Of my friends from high school, none of my black male friends graduated from or even made it past their sophomore year of college. I was deeply frustrated by the realization that there was a system in place that left young black men feeling inadequate to pursue their educational goals, and I took the offense personally. I joined Teach For America with the desire to disrupt this cycle. 

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A mural hangs on the wall in Wilkins’ classroom.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a space designed to inspire and affirm. There is student work that lines the walls and quotes designed to push my students to think beyond what is in a textbook. I think a big part of my classroom is also what is not present.  I very intentionally did not put up many images of people from the past. I want my students to view history as not just acts and individuals from the past, but an ever-evolving story of which they are a part.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

I tend to reframe it in terms of their lives. For example, I related the Civil War to gang warfare, and the division of the North and South leading up to the Civil War to a dating relationship gone bad. Putting the lesson in terms of things my students can relate to gives them confidence in the classroom and affirms that learning is for them, not just something that they do in a school, in a classroom.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

At the beginning of the year, I do a short unit exploring what history is and how what becomes defined as “history” is determined and recorded. My students explore their perceptions of history and then are given the opportunity to record a story from their lives (also available on SoundCloud) in a project called Our Stories, Our Voices.

I explain to my students that we are all a part of history and that each of us deserves the chance to tell our own stories in our own voices. In this project, I allow my students to tell their stories how they perceive them, in their dialect, in their reality. This is essential to building relationships because it gives my students the space to be themselves, but it also gives me insight into what makes them who they are and the joys and pains that they bring into the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

In 2015, I was engaged in a heated discussion with my World History honors class about the inequalities in the education they were receiving versus what I received in my predominantly white high school in Illinois. I was explaining to them why I was giving them the assignments I did, and why I taught the way I did, because that’s what my teachers did and it worked for me.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Wilkins says the goal of her class is to apply history to daily, lived experiences.

It was during this conversation that one of my more reserved students yelled out in frustration, “But this ain’t Springfield, Ms. Wilkins, and all of that Springfield stuff don’t work for us out here in Memphis. We’re different.”

This was a pivotal moment of realization in my teaching. It was in that moment that I finally heard my students and their frustrations and I realized that I needed to step back and learn from them just as they learned from me.

Describe Hip Hot History. Where did the idea come from, how do you implement it in your classroom, and why has it been a success for your students?

The idea for this project actually started as a joke. In class I would often play instrumentals and rap about history or getting back on task, to the amusement of my students. The students started asking me if I was going to drop a mixtape soon and I told them I would. One day, one of my students asked if the class could be on my mixtape and from there Hip Hot History was born.

This project is the capstone project my students complete at the end of the year. They are given the choice of writing a song, spoken-word piece, or creating a documentary film telling the story of blacks in history. They are given full creative license to create their piece with guidelines on how to choose the topic and the length of the piece.

How I Teach

Harsh realities of growing up poor pushed this Colorado teacher to connect with her students

Teacher Natalie Mejia, right, with students from Atlas Preparatory School on "Nerds Rule the World" day last fall.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Natalie Mejia, a math teacher at Atlas Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, knows the challenges many of her students face. She grew up poor in Los Angeles, navigating an education system that didn’t reflect her culture or background.

It’s the reason she’s determined to show her seventh- and eighth-graders how much they matter.

“They won’t care what you know, until they know that you care,” she says.

Mejia is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I believe our kids deserve to be surrounded by people who love them and believe in their tenacity to succeed. Growing up low-income in Los Angeles exposed me to many harsh realities that motivated me to pursue higher education. Additionally, as a first-generation high school and college graduate, I can relate to the adversity my children face on their pursuit to learn and navigate within an institution that wasn’t built with their social or cultural identity in mind.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is split into three sections — pink, blue, and orange. In the pink section, eight students are receiving direct instruction. In the blue section, eight students are reviewing prerequisite skills for upcoming lessons and in the orange section 16 students are working on online lessons on the Khan Academy website. The students rotate every other day through the sections so that all 32 scholars are working directly with me, in pairs, or independently to master the content.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ____________. Why?
My smart board. I absolutely love the white board in the classroom because it makes it easier for students to follow along as I teach. Additionally, the colored pens allow me to differentiate or emphasize notes within the lesson.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I enjoy teaching my students our statistics unit because this is the place where they can be the most creative. My school takes a traditional approach to learning. However, in this unit students are encouraged to create their own statistical questions and gather data. This unit I believe allows them to personalize the learning and justify their thinking.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student shares that he/she doesn’t fully understand a concept or demonstrates gaps on the three-question assessment they turn in at the end of the day, I do any of the following:
– Provide one-on-one instruction before school, during lunch, or after school.
– Modify the upcoming lesson to provide better scaffolding and support.
– Pair the student with someone who’s mastered the concept and can serve as a peer tutor.
– Follow up with parents directly about how they can support the student at home.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My strategies vary from class to class and student to student. If one or two students are off task, I am more private in my approach to redirect their behavior.

If an entire section in my class is off-task, I walk over and provide a countdown to get their attention. Once I have their full attention I restate expectations and narrate positive behaviors.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
First and foremost, I approach my students and my work with the utmost humility and appreciation. I tell my students early on and often how much I love them and how their presence brings joy to my life.

I continue to demonstrate my commitment to them and their education by establishing academic and social goals for the year. I challenge them to be present in class and to own their learning environment by supporting one another. In addition to our time in class, I try to attend our students’ games and family events in the community. In doing this, I can foster deep relationships with my students and their families. Collectively we work throughout the year to be advocates for their students’ academic and socio-emotional success.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I met Mr. Senior in the summer of 2011 in Baltimore. He was a single father of two middle school-aged boys and attended our pre-school conference. This meeting was an opportunity for us to check-in as student, parent(s), and advisors prior to the start of the school year to establish academic and social goals for the year. Throughout the year, Mr. Senior demonstrated unwavering commitment and love for his children through his active participation and involvement in our school.

His persistence in advocating for his children challenged the unknown bias I had toward fathers being passive participants within education. We’ve stayed in touch over the last six years and it’s such a pleasure to see the joy and pride he has for his sons and their long-term success.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am currently reading “Drown” by Junot Diaz. It is a goal to immerse myself in more Latino/a literature.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
A few months ago, I was reading, “The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community is Inspiring the World” by Nadia Lopez. In her text she wrote, “This is not a Third World country. This is real life in the United States of America, and the qualities in these kids that frustrate teachers are the very same ones that help them survive every day.”

Her sentiments resonated with me because I love and respect my students’ ability to face the adversity with authenticity and courage. Approaching my work with this mindset inspires me to be the best mentor and educator for my students and their families.