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

The 2017 National Teacher of the Year on the mom who changed how she talks to her toughest students

PHOTO: CCSSO
2017 National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee.

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.

Sydney Chaffee made headlines recently as the first charter school teacher to be named the national teacher of the year. Getting there, she says, was a continuous process of learning from others — including her students’ families.

A breakthrough moment: meeting with one of her more difficult students’ mothers.

“The way she spoke to her daughter — loving but firm, patient but expectant — was a model for me in how to communicate both love and high expectations at the same time,” Chaffee explained.

Chaffee has taught ninth grade humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. From introducing debate about the Puerto Rican debt crisis to comparing classrooms to colonies, she also relies heavily on storytelling in the classroom.

She talked to Chalkbeat about a few of her most memorable moments — and why hand gestures are key to her teaching.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Why did you become a teacher?

I wanted to inspire the same kind of curiosity and excitement about learning in other people that my own teachers had inspired in me. Plus, I loved school and figured becoming a teacher was the best way to never have to leave.

What’s something interesting about your physical classroom — something on the walls, for example?

I like for my classroom to be colorful and full of words. Right now, my favorite thing about my room is that my students and I have filled one window with colorful stars. On each star, a student wrote “kudos” for another student for their work in this year’s Poetry Out Loud recitation competition. Some of the kudos are for stellar performances or persevering through stage fright; others are for being supportive and empathetic peers. They’re posted as a reminder of what we can accomplish together.

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

Hands. I am a wild gesticulator. I don’t even notice I’m doing it most of the time, but whenever my students decide to impersonate me, their hands go crazy with big, dramatic gestures. So much of teaching is storytelling, and my hands help me tell the story.

Tell us a bit about a favorite lesson. How did you come up with the idea?

My favorite lesson, recently, was a simulation of the Puerto Rican debt crisis that my student teacher and I co-designed. We wanted to help students understand some of the basic economic concepts so they could write about the crisis in a more informed way, but the issue is complex and confusing. We worked together to brainstorm ideas, draft a plan, test-drive it, and revise it. The final lesson, which my student teacher facilitated, was hands-on, engaging, and gave students a solid grasp of tricky content. And it was fun to teach, too.

Collaboration is such an important ingredient in strengthening our practice as educators. I was happy to have the chance to learn from my student teacher’s creative ideas; what we came up with together was so much better than I would have come up with on my own.

What’s your go-to response when a student doesn’t understand something critical?

I like to draw an analogy between what we’re learning and something students can relate to or easily picture in their minds. For example, when we read, early in the year, texts that question whether historians should use the verb “discover” in relation to Christopher Columbus (“Columbus discovered America”), some students have trouble understanding why this is controversial. I ask them to imagine that someone who had never been to our neighborhood before suddenly walked into the school and pronounced that they had “discovered” it, even though we were all already sitting inside and learning.

Or, in learning about colonialism, I do a simulation with students asking them to reimagine the classrooms in our school as separate territories and brainstorm ways that we might be able to get our hands on the resources that another territory possesses. Taking time to describe these concepts and make them tangible for students helps ensure that they “stick.”

What’s something you do to build relationships with students?

I hold them to high expectations, but I also joke around with them and am not afraid to be a little goofy in class. Being silly disarms kids and helps them open up to me so I can get to know them better.

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

I had a student who acted very “tough.” She left class all the time, crumpled up tests, argued. When her mother came in for a meeting, she called this student by an endearing nickname and spoke to her with such gentleness and empathy. She told her that her behavior was not OK, but she also probed to find out what was really going on.

That was such an invaluable learning moment for me. The way she spoke to her daughter — loving but firm, patient but expectant — was a model for me in how to communicate both love and high expectations at the same time. It reminded me that families know and love our students — their children — best in the world, and we have so much to learn from them about who our students really are.

I try to channel that mother now when I’m talking with a student who is really struggling.

What is the hardest part of your job?

This job is incredible and rewarding, but the work is never done. There is never a day where, as a teacher, I will close my laptop at the end of the day, put my feet up, and think, “Well, that’s settled.” There is always more work to grade, more lessons to write, more students to think about: How will I get this one to write a thesis? How will I help that one with reading informational texts?

It’s hard, but I’m not complaining. It is work that I love to do, because it challenges me and allows me to keep learning all the time. I get to reinvent my class constantly.

What advice would you give a teacher starting out next year?

Don’t be afraid to have other people come into your classroom and observe you. The more you can collaborate with your colleagues and get feedback on what’s happening in your room, the more you’ll learn and the more you’ll help your students grow.

How I Teach

This Cherry Creek High School history teacher makes students think twice about how Nazis rose to power

Virginia Clark DeCesare, a history teacher at Cherry Creek High School, in her classroom.

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 Virginia Clark DeCesare, teaching history isn’t about getting students to memorize names and dates. It’s about telling stories.

“It is about heroes and villains, ideas, decisions and lucky breaks,” she said.

DeCesare, who teaches American history as well as an elective class on World War I and II at Cherry Creek High School, was named the 2017 Outstanding Teacher of American History by the Colorado State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She’s also a National Board Certified Teacher, an advanced credential that requires a rigorous application process.

DeCesare talked to Chalkbeat about how she fell in love with teaching, why she surveys students at the beginning of the year and how she helps them understand Hitler’s rise to power.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I always enjoyed learning about history (my degree is in history) but it was not my initial plan to become a teacher. However, after trying several other jobs after college none of them gave me very much enjoyment. I decided to take a course where I got to observe and teach a few lessons. I absolutely loved it. I love the storytelling aspect of it, the creative aspect of it — coming up with new ways to teach an idea — and that I can continue to learn about the things that I love for my job! After that experience, I went back to school to get my teaching license.

What does your classroom look like?
It is covered with World War I and II propaganda posters. I have a particular passion for this time period and I created an elective course at Cherry Creek High School on it.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ____________ Why?
Books. I have learned so much over the years from continually reading. Every new historical book that I read adds something to the lessons that I teach. My books have allowed me to create a fuller story to tell, and learning history is all about how the story is told.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
I teach a lesson in which I give several groups of students German political parties in the 1930s to represent. Then I give partners particular German citizens to represent. The German parties need to convince the German citizens to vote for them (with very real issues facing them in the early 1930s such as the worldwide economic depression and effects of the Treaty of Versailles).

The German parties are actual parties from the time period (Communists, Social Democrats and the National Socialist German Workers party (Nazi)), but I have changed the names to party A, B, and C and each group chooses their own party names since their actual names would sway the students too much.

After the parties have presented their platforms the students representing German citizens tell about their problems and each party tries to explain, using their platforms, why they should vote for them. We then hold an election in which the students representing German citizens vote for a particular party. Almost every year the Nazis get chosen by the students — of course they do not know until the true names are revealed that they have just voted the Nazis into power. This is an instructive way of demonstrating how the challenges of the times could make a population very susceptible to particular political messages.

How did you come up with the idea?
I came up with this idea after finding party platforms and different German citizens’ views summed up in a book about the roots of the Holocaust. I have found it to be a very effective way to help students understand how a highly educated country of people could allow the Nazis to come to power legally in a democracy. It also helps them to better understand how and why such a country would follow the leadership of Hitler and the Nazis throughout the war.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Right after the first test I meet with any students who are struggling. I offer to meet with them one on one before tests or sometimes several times a week to help them better understand the material. This process has helped many of my students.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I usually try to infuse my teaching with humor. Making kids laugh is usually a good way to refocus their attention.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
At the beginning of the year I ask students to tell me about themselves in a series of survey questions. Questions such as: “What do you do in your free time?” and “What is the most important thing to you?” help me learn about the kids. I also attach a sheet in which they can ask anything they want to about me. I respond to each of these questions with a personal written response. The kids ask me all kinds of things from what I do for fun, to where my favorite place in the world is. This connection between us early on helps build strong relationships throughout the year.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A few years ago I found out that a student of mine lived with his grandmother because his mother was a drug addict and his father had not been around for a long time. The student was acting out in class and not completing assignments outside of class. This experience helped show me that students often have a lot to deal with outside of my classroom and that I need to keep the importance of my assignments in their larger lives in perspective.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I enjoy reading fantasy novels. My favorite books I recently read were Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. I also read a lot of World War I and II history because I like to add to my knowledge about the period and add anecdotes about the time period to my lessons.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
It is not a failure to accept help.