How I Teach

On snow days, this Colorado teacher uses YouTube to keep his class moving forward

PHOTO: Courtesy Jeremy Beckman
Teacher Jeremy Beckman leads a math lesson at his Colorado Springs school.

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.

Jeremy Beckman uses a combination of high-tech gadgets and old-school face-to-face communication to connect with his students and their families.

A high school math teacher at Discovery Canyon Campus High School, a Pre-K-12 International Baccalaureate school in Colorado Springs, one of Beckman’s tried-and-true methods for connecting with parents is to attend their kids’ basketball games and band concerts. On snow days, he teaches his AP Calculus class from home via YouTube so the students don’t miss any lessons.

Beckman was a finalist for Colorado Teacher of the Year. We asked him to share his wisdom about lesson planning, paper grading and re-engaging students who’ve lost focus.

 

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style: Engaging.

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?
I’m fortunate that my kindergarten son attends school on the same campus where I teach, so when I get to school, we usually review his vocab lists and get him ready to go for the day before he walks down to his end of campus. After that, I usually do a quick game plan and rundown of what lies ahead for the day and what challenges my students will have with the content we are going to discuss. After that, I check my email just to make sure there are not any changes to the schedule for the day.

What does your classroom look like?
I have 36 desks arranged in pairs, hundreds of senior pictures of former students on the walls, a large drafting table in the front, and numbers on the back board for students to check problems they need help with. I have a plethora of posters from IB, speech and debate, and ones students have made over the years that cover the wall and make the room somewhere kids will want to learn. I use a document cameras on the drafting table to project the lesson while still looking at the students so I can see their reactions and facial expressions while they are going through each lesson.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?
YouTube Live: I record and broadcast class every day on the internet. It has dramatically changed what happens when students miss class or there is a weather day. Students can watch class live, even ask questions, just like they were present. When class is over, it automatically uploads the lesson to YouTube seamlessly. They can watch examples again with explanations at home. For snow days in AP Calculus BC, we have class live from my house to their screen at home, and we don’t lose a precious day before the exam.

How do you plan your lessons?
In reverse. I plan what objective I want students to be able to do by the end of the lesson and make examples and questions to match that objective.tudents have a small quiz every day in class, with work on previous skills embedded in daily activities.

I try to anticipate what the students will struggle with during each lesson and create questions to help them run into more challenging parts before they are working on practice. Lastly, I try to find different levels to help students who already have the concept go deeper, and help students who are struggling break the content down into smaller pieces.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?
Students ask really detailed and engaging questions. I can always tell how the lesson is going based on the quality of questions the students ask. If they are really detailed and make me think, I know the students are engaged and learning. If they are really basic questions, I need to go back and work through the material again.

Other qualities are that student data exceeds my expectations! I give a small, daily assessments about yesterday’s material. It’s always good when every student shows they got it.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Questions, questions, questions. Just like a doctor ask questions until they understand what is wrong, I work to diagnose exactly where the misunderstanding started. It takes time, but once we understand where things went awry, it’s more likely that strategies like different explanations and working another example will be more successful.

The key to this is establishing right from the start of the year that they feel comfortable and safe asking questions. For most of them, asking a question is a risk-taking adventure, and we need them to be responsible risk-takers. I not only encourage students to ask questions, but I expect them to ask questions. I tell them I am in the business of asking questions, and smart people get smarter when they ask what they need help with.

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
I use questions as the key to this one also. Instead of asking the class in general for questions, if I see a student losing focus, I will ask them, “What questions do you have?” It gives lesson feedback and also re-engages them to the learning process.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?
Two ways, in particular. The first is using remind.com. Parents don’t like surprises and love to know what is coming up in a class, and remind.com allows me to send information to their phones without having to give out my personal number. I can send worksheets, test answer keys, test reminders, and let parents know general class announcements.

I also started using the calendar sync feature of smart phones to sync my classroom website calendars with parents’ phones. Most parents use their calendar to keep track of their work lives and this speaks to their language.

The second way is being present at a variety of school functions. I have found that meeting parents at informal situations like basketball games, band concerts and plays is a great way to develop relationships that make communicating with them easier and more productive.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?
Gradecam. It’s an amazing website that turns a document camera into a multiple-choice and numeric grading device. I don’t love multiple-choice questions, but we live in a multiple-choice world, and this allows the students to bring their answer sheet up to my document camera and get instant feedback on how they did. It’s especially useful in the formative feedback setting because it allows students to see which ones they got wrong and go back and correct them instantly. There is no moment kids are more excited to learn how they did on an assessment then the second they turn it in, and this allows me to take advantage of that excitement in the classroom. Students can be more self-servicing using Gradecam and I can work more on helping them than managing paperwork.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Tom Clancy’s Full Force and Effect. I love the Jack Ryan novel series and love how he weaves in history into his fictional accounts of a U.S. secret agent. The whole series is a real page-turner, and I really look forward to new ones coming out.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I was coaching my first basketball game ever and I was sitting on the bench frantically writing out my lineups and plays to call because I was nervous and didn’t want to forget anything. This big guy came up behind the bench and put both hands on my shoulders and said, “Coach, from what I’ve seen in warmups, you want to know the key to your team winning today?” Of course, I nodded. He replied, “Score more points than the other team!” Turned out he was my AD’s dad!

While I laughed it off at the time, during that game I realized I put so much effort into perfecting little details, I had forgotten the big picture goal. This applies daily to teaching. We have so many little details to take care of: grading, entering grades, emails, absent students, meetings, lesson plans. It’s so easy to get caught up in the details that you forget the big picture of why you got into the profession. Teaching can be exhausting, but we can’t forget why we chose it. I chose it to inspire kids to accomplish goals they didn’t even know they could. And it’s great to be reminded on days when the stakes are higher and time is short of what the big picture in education is: our students’ success.

How I Teach

Live, from Music City, an elementary school teacher presents life lessons with a beat

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Christopher Blackmon leads second-grade students in a song he wrote and composed as a music teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Nashville.

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.

Sixteen miles from Music Row, a bustling nexus of Nashville’s recording industry, second-grade students are hard at work perfecting a single at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School.

“Winners, winners don’t quit. They don’t quit!” they sing, reading lyrics and music on a screen. “If I can believe it, then I can achieve it! I must leave my doubts behind.”

Then come the dance moves. Students shake and wiggle with exuberance.

The songwriting credit goes to Christopher Blackmon, a music teacher at Edison Elementary and one of 31 educators nationwide named 2017 Music Teachers of Excellence by the Country Music Association. The CMA Foundation is honoring the group Wednesday at a Nashville event hosted by Little Big Town, the CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year.

The acknowledgement draws attention to music education at a time when such programs are being slashed from public schools nationwide. But at Edison Elementary, the pace for teaching and learning music is picking up. In addition to providing instruction twice a week during school, Blackmon and a colleague lead after-school activities that include piano lessons and video production. More than 100 students, or about a sixth of the student body, participate in extra musical enrichment.

Here’s how Blackmon inspires students to love music, and to extend their enthusiasm to other academic subjects. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was most impacted by my high school music experience. We had a great program. I was in the band. I played tuba and baritone, but I also played jazz piano for a jazz combo. My band teacher was somebody you just look up to.

I’m always trying to push kids toward having a strong, principled life that means something and contributes something positive to the culture. With music education, I felt like I could teach both music and those positive character principles that I think kids need.

What does your classroom look like?

There’s a big open space in the middle and toward the front because it’s versatile. I do a lot of things with instruments and I set the instruments out and I have students rotating so they can see the screen, where I have the music up. I like to use less paper because students are just going to throw it away anyway.

They also dance a lot. In fact, they dance every day they come here. Probably, if I hadn’t been a music teacher, I would’ve been in P.E. Exercise helps brain development. The coordinated movement, especially symmetrical movements, where you cross the meridians of your body, is very important to cross-hemispheric development. Music as a whole is. That’s why I am such an advocate for music education, especially at the elementary level. I do a lot of stuff with audio production, (and) I could teach that in high school, but I think this is where people’s foundations are. I want to impact the beginning. I want to impact those foundations and help them establish their lives.

I have keyboards along the back of my room. I inherited 10 and then I have begged, borrowed and stole to get a class set so I can teach kids piano. I actually designed these. It allows four kids to sit at a table and hear only their keyboard through headphones. I can have some kids moving faster working together, some kids moving slower working together.

There’s so much research that shows that kids who get early piano instruction — piano or guitar — their brains develop more gray matter. The research shows over and over that they score higher on tests, that they do better with certain types of problem-solving skills, and so it’s better for everybody, whether or not they’re going to stick with it in real life.

What can’t you teach without?

(Click to listen to this track.)


Every time they walk into the classroom, they don’t get a chance to ask me questions and talk, because I told them I want to hear music first.

This little track is really effective because it reminds them what they’re going to do every single day, and then they know what to expect, but it gets harder and harder each time. It starts my class out the same way, but it doesn’t take a long time, and by five minutes into the class, they have already grown musically.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I try to catch the ones doing right and then comment on it because people will look at them and they’ll pull it together. I’ll say, “I love how so-and-so is being a STAR.” My little STAR thing is just: stand up straight, track the speaker, actively participate, respectfully celebrate. I say it all the time.

If a kid is just totally not getting it together, sometimes I’ll say, “Can you go write down and say how you would fix this?” That usually helps them.

How does parental communicate fit into your teaching approach?

When I see kids with musical talent, I write a personal note or call that parent and let them know that I really recommend that they get some kind of lesson or connect that child to music in some other kind of way. A lot of time, that will be a hook to get students through school when it’s hard.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It sounds like common sense, but the best advice I ever received was about classroom management from Sue Hall, who was the last music teacher here. She said, “Whatever you say you’re going to do, do it.” If you don’t have the respect of the students, you cannot teach them. It doesn’t matter how much they like you — I mean, they can love you — but if they don’t respect you, they don’t behave. And if they don’t behave, they cannot learn.

What does it mean to be teaching music in Music City?

What I do wouldn’t be accepted by a lot of music programs. Sometimes they just want you to do stale old canned musicals they found somewhere, or they want you to teach in a traditional way. I teach in a very non-traditional way, because I’m exposing kids to the real music machine. These kids could make a living in a lot of different ways in music. Traditionally, it’s very classical-based instruction. But if they know how to produce music and they have a good idea, you can make a living. You don’t have to be a big label anymore.

Here’s a music video created and produced by Blackmon and students in an afterschool program:

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.