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

Prayers, precision and push-ups: A special ed teacher puts his unusual background to work in the classroom

Caleb Asomugha embraces his students while on a field trip.

Caleb Asomugha’s professional life has taken many turns. He spent time exploring his faith in seminary, is a member of the Army Reserve and ran his own fitness business as a personal trainer.

Asomugha’s latest venture: Teaching special education at Academy for Young Writers in East New York, where he is halfway through his first year. Now, he uses prayerful patience and military precision to execute classroom lessons — and he isn’t afraid to hit the floor for push-ups with students who need to get their energy out.

“That just helps them refocus,” Asomugha said. “Kids like to move. They get bored sitting in one place.”

Asomugha made his way to the classroom through New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification pathway for new graduates and career-changers, and has been mentored through NYC Men Teach, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to draw more men of color into the education profession. Asomugha and a fellow teacher recently landed a grant through NYC Men Teach to create an honors program that will expose students to different career options and link them with young professionals for mentoring.

Asomugha co-teaches math, science and band, along with an “enrichment” class designed to help students work on reading and math skills — all in an integrated sixth-grade classroom.

Here’s how he works with his teaching partners to meet the needs of his students with disabilities, and how Asomugha draws on his varied life experiences while in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was a personal trainer doing pretty well, and I just felt that I was not doing enough in life to give back and to leave an impact. So I decided to get into teaching in order to fulfill those inner desires to inspire kids, specifically from low-income communities, to be able to achieve greater in life.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

We put a stack of 50 note cards on different students’ desks. We told them they had 10 minutes to build a structure that reaches 16 inches high, and they were only able to use a certain amount of tape. [The structure had to] support the weight of a teddy bear for 10 seconds.

The students, they quickly were doing their thing. And a lot of their structures, when we went around and tested it, were not able to maintain the weight. So after that, we had the students investigate. We had websites pre-loaded for them to research different structures and what contributes to their strength.

After their investigations, they had an opportunity to refine their design. We retested it and I would say about 90 percent of their structures supported the object for the time limit. Afterwards, we had the students reflect on what they did and we reviewed vocabulary.

I got that idea from a professional development seminar from Urban Advantage, a program that helps teachers strengthen their science instruction.

You have to collaborate with four different teachers to plan your lessons. What’s that like?

I have the opportunity to share a trusted relationship with each of these teachers that gives me the liberty to either offer insight on their teaching practice or have them offer suggestions to mine. However, this does not come without its challenges, [such as] making the time to meet with four different teachers throughout an already busy week.

My role specifically is to modify content for students with learning disabilities or who need information broken down a little more. In these instances, I sometimes prepare a breakout location within the classroom or in a separate classroom where students who need further assistance (not just students with specific learning disabilities) can come and receive a slower paced, more detailed lesson that may include visual cues, manipulatives [like blocks or other props] and activities. Also, because I am a traveling teacher, which means I travel to most classes with my students, I have a better sense of what lessons will engage the students best.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

From my experience, students usually lose focus with the lesson when they are either fidgety, tired or bored. In these cases, my go-to trick to re-engage that student is to take them outside and give them an opportunity to get their blood flowing. Sometimes it’s a water break and other times I’ll do a light exercise with them if they choose — push-ups, jumping jacks.

However, if it is the rare case that the entire class is off, then I will give them a quick brain break. In this 3-5 minute period, I will have them either do a fun class activity, a breathing exercise or a quick game. This time is also really critical for me to take a mental assessment of why the students are disengaged. Sometimes, I will have to add quick tweaks to the lesson or modify the length of the student work. In most cases, each of these strategies work.

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

One way that I am able to build relationships with them is with my boxing club. A lot of my male students are in that boxing club. We have forged a great relationship and obviously that carries into the classroom.

In any after-school club, a lot of teachers and facilitators will find the students are a little more relaxed and a little more able to be open with their coaches … I have some of the richest conversations with kids after school, just because it’s their time to be competitive, their time to engage in teamwork — and they look to me for advice as a coach, and not just a teacher. It just opens up the levels of trust.

I also take advantage during lunch, as much as possible, to go down with the kids and talk about how they’re doing. I’ll ask a student, “What’s going on? How was school today? What’s on your mind?” A student will tell me either they’re good, or this-or-that is bothering them, and what should they do about it. That’s such a vital opportunity for me, because that can be a time where I can add an intervention right on the spot, before it escalates into something more serious.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

My cell phone, because I’m always in contact with parents. I have a lot of my parents’ cell phone numbers programmed in my phone — and vice versa, they have mine. Much of my success thus far has been because of parent engagement. I try as much as possible to stay in contact with my students’ parents.

Can you think of a time when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach?

I have tons of those, but there is one from recently. There was one student who we had been having a lot of trouble with. This student not only was being very disruptive in class, but the student would often come to class late. We tried a lot of times to get in touch with the parents, but it turned out that both parents worked a ton and they weren’t able to come up to the school for a parent conference.

Me and another teacher decided to go on a home visit, and that was a really great time because we were able to sit with the parents and the student, and get down to the root of why the student’s behavior is the way it is. We were able to, all together, set goals for the student — goals for which the student was able to add input.

After that meeting, that student’s behavior has become a ton better.

Most of the success I’ve experienced as a first-year teacher is because of parent engagement. That has been my go-to as a teacher.

How I Teach

When the class is off-task, this fourth-grade teacher knows it’s probably time for Justin Timberlake

PHOTO: Cynthia Rimmer
Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, works with students.

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.

For Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth-grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary in Granby, building relationships with students is one of the best parts of the job. She eats lunch with them, reads to them, asks about their hobbies and attends their out-of-school events when possible.

Rimmer 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 became a teacher because I love helping kids: to learn, to reach their goals, to realize their dreams, to help them to develop into the people they are capable of becoming.

I had several teachers growing up that made a big impact on my life, but none was more influential than my third grade teacher, Ms. Deanna Masciantonio. She not only taught me about space and fractions, but more importantly, she taught me how to communicate and resolve conflict, and how treat friends. She made us feel special and valued. I still carry her lessons with me today.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a warm and organized space where everyone can feel comfortable learning and working together. Student writing and artwork is displayed on the walls and there are a variety of seating options where students can go to work independently or collaboratively in partners or in groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Sense of humor. Teaching children can be overwhelming at times. It is important to be able to take a step back, remember what is important, and enjoy the moments we have with these incredible young students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Last year, my teaching partner and I worked with our physical education teacher to create a project where students researched topics related to the Coordinated School Health Standards. While the students created their projects, I was able to address a variety of English Language Arts standards, as well as working on the students’ technology and presentation skills.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I have tried to create an environment where students are encouraged to take academic risks and mistakes are celebrated. When someone doesn’t grasp a concept, we work together to understand things in new and different ways, making sure to address the student’s variety of learning styles.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
When individual students are talking or off task, often times they simply need a quick pat on the shoulder or a friendly reminder to refocus. Some students may need a quick brain break or a few laps on the exercise bike to get back on track.

When the entire class is off task, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Often times the directions were unclear, or the students were being pushed too hard, and we all need to make time for a brain boost. But sometimes, we just need to stop and dance. Our favorite class dance break this year is Justin Timberlake’s, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” After a few minutes of singing and dancing, the students are ready to tackle the most challenging math problems.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Building relationships with students is one of the most important and one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. Talking to the students, having lunch together, telling them about myself, reading to them, getting to know about their interests and hobbies, and letting them see that I am a real person all help build healthy relationships. I also try to attend the students’ outside events whenever possible, which I’ve found goes a long way in creating a trusting and long-lasting relationship.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In one memorable meeting, a parent requested that I move her son into a more challenging reading group. Although test scores and classroom observations didn’t dictate this switch, the parent shared some struggles that the family had recently dealt with that she felt were holding her son back from doing his best.

After I changed her child’s grouping on a trial basis, the student began to flourish. He developed more confidence and began to work harder, quickly becoming a role model and a positive leader. Parents love their children and want what’s best for them. When we take the time to partner with parents and understand where they are coming from, great things can happen.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullay Hunt. I enjoy reading the books my students are reading so that we can discuss our excitement for the stories together. I recently started My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I enjoyed his book A Man Called Ove and I hope this book will just as charming.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
About 20 years ago I was considering pursuing another career. A trusted friend and mentor advised me to re-enter the teaching profession. I can’t thank her enough for that wise counsel.