How I Teach

For this Colorado reading teacher, veering off the lesson plan sometimes makes sense

PHOTO: Adams 12 Five Star Schools
Rachel Harrison works with students at North Mor Elementary School in Northglenn.

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.

As a reading intervention teacher at North Mor Elementary School in the Adams 12 Five Star School district, Rachel Harrison sometimes scraps her lesson plans mid-way through if students aren’t getting it. Such deviations, she says, can feel risky but are critical in heading off achievement gaps. It’s all part of her responsive teaching style.

Harrison is one of 15 teachers selected for the inaugural Colorado Teaching Policy Fellowship operated by the national nonprofit Teach Plus. The nine-month program aims to involve teacher leaders in state-level education policy discussions, including the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What’s your routine like when you arrive at school?

I usually begin my day by re-reading my lesson plans. I rehearse what I am going to say, predict possible misconceptions or errors, plan how I am going to respond and choose which scaffolding techniques I will use. Then, I head out into the second or third grade hallway for breakfast duty and begin the school day by greeting all the students by name and wishing them a good day.

What does your classroom look like?

I am located in a small and cozy kitchenette on the backside of the building. It is filled with varying levels of books, sentence stems, vowel and reading strategy posters. You will often find small groups of four to five students around a small half circle-shaped table. You will hear lots of chaos — reading, feedback exchanged between the student and myself, laughter and, at times, even some tears.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?

I simply cannot live without my student goals graphs. I’ve been using them for years and it’s the biggest motivator for all my students. They absolutely love keeping track of their progress in reading by setting goals, graphing results and planning for the next month.

We have lots of in-depth discussions on how to achieve our goals, what went well in achieving the goal and what we need to do next. The graphs help teach them how to be accountable for their own learning.

How do you plan your lessons?

I always plan with end goal in mind. I start there and then plan backwards. During our lesson, I take a few notes on each student, reflect on what went well and perhaps what needs to be re-taught or we need to work on the next day. I plan from day to day, really keeping in mind what students need, what they must master, how to create a complete picture of where we are going and why.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?

You have to specifically target your lesson for each day, while keeping the short- and long-term goals of the standards in mind. You must plan for possible errors that students may make and how to respond when they occur. Planning for these has changed my teaching and really helped me to be responsive with all my students.

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

I ask questions until I understand what the student needs. I’ve completely scrapped a lesson when the feedback from students tells me we may need to go back or I have started a new lesson when students demonstrate that they “got it.” Recently, I was observed by my principal doing this very thing. She told me she appreciated how responsive I was to the needs of students by quickly adapting instead of continuing with the lesson when it was clear they were completely lost.

Sometimes, as teachers, we continue with the curriculum because we are supposed to. However, I believe that this is how gaps in achievement occur. It is vital that we allow ourselves to deviate if necessary, so that we don’t continue to create holes which lead to gaps in learning.

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

I believe in building a strong relationship with each student. I like to know what excites and motivates them. It is different for each student, but often if I understand what motivates them, I can motivate them to re-engage and successfully achieve their goals. My “go-to” strategy is to have them teach their fellow students whatever it is we are working on.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?

I like to call parents when their children are successful — for example, when they achieve their personal reading goals, get ready to exit intervention, or help other students. It’s not always welcome news to hear that a child needs reading support, so I make an effort to contact parents when there is something positive to relay.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Currently, I am reading two books, “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr and “Overcoming Dyslexia” by Sally E. Shay. I enjoy reading historical fiction and nonfiction books about World War II when I am running on the elliptical machine during my early morning workouts before work. At night, I love to read books that help improve my teaching before I fall asleep.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The best advice I received was from another teacher before I began teaching. She simply said, “Love your students. Get to know them. They will in return want to do their best for you.” Her advice has never failed me.

How I Teach

Why this Memphis Spanish teacher loves to teach about the evolution of the piñata

PHOTO: Kylie Cucalon
Students show off their homemade piñatas in Kylie Cucalon's Spanish class at Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary, a charter school operated by Memphis Scholars.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a series we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Kylie Cucalon, or Señorita Cucalon as she’s known to her students, grew up in the United States, but was content to teach English in Spain until she began hearing concerns about political changes happening in her homeland.

“(I) was heartbroken by everything I was seeing in the news about my country, so I applied to Teach For America in attempt to do my part,” Cucalon recalls of her return to America last year.

Teacher Kylie Cucalon poses with several students.

She wound up teaching Spanish at Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary, a charter school operated by Memphis Scholars. The opportunity is unique in Memphis, where foreign languages typically aren’t taught at the elementary level and most of her students come from low-income backgrounds.

In this installment of How I Teach, Cucalon talks about how she’s using language to introduce students to a world beyond Memphis, why “uno, dos, tres” are the magic words in her classroom, and how piñatas can be a tool to encourage good behavior.

Why did you become a teacher?

In 2014, I had been working a desk job as a Spanish-English translator and realized that was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I picked up and moved to Madrid to work as a native English-speaking classroom assistant.

I fell in love with the country and did a bit of traveling. After a trip to Barcelona, I moved there and worked as a private English tutor. During that time, people from all over Europe enjoyed engaging with me and other American friends on issues such as politics and current events. Whenever we would discuss the difficult topics about the faults in some of the systems of our country … my friends would say, “That is why I am never going back to the U.S.”

It broke my heart that people I was surrounded by were ready to run away from the issues that our country faced instead of being a part of the solution. I had one really good friend who had just been accepted to Teach For America Memphis and he encouraged me to apply. I was also accepted and placed in the same region as him. It seemed like fate, and I never once looked back.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom, aka Señorita Cucalon’s Zoo, is decked out in an animal theme. Every day I have a “Zookeeper” who wears the safari hat and binoculars and helps me with tasks such as passing out and collecting all papers and pencils.

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

Administrators and other teachers. They say it takes a village to raise a child, so what does it take to raise a village?

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

I teach a weekly culture day, and my favorite lesson is the week we make our own piñatas.

A lot of people believe that the piñata is solely a Mexican tradition, but the first known piñata was found in China. Through the travels of many explorers, it was brought to Spain and then Mexico, where it became a fun party game that we even play today in the U.S. I like my children to see that different cultures can learn from one another and even share similar traditions.

As part of the lesson, we make our own piñatas out of toilet paper rolls, streamers and string. It is a fun hands-on activity that I use as an incentive for my students for good behavior. Every day that they come to class and follow all of the rules that week, they get a check mark. On Friday, I hand back the piñatas filled with one candy for every check they got. Students with great behavior go home with a piñata full of treats. As many teachers do, I got my inspiration on Pinterest.

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

If the students hear me say “uno, dos, tres,” they stop what they are doing and say “las manos y los pies,” which means “my hands and my feet.” I follow up with “uno, dos” and they respond “los ojos” (their eyes). This gives them time to check where their hands and feet are and then are reminded to track the speaker.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

I begin every class by personally greeting every student with a handshake and asking them in Spanish how they are doing. I have a sheet of emotions in Spanish on the door for them to pick from. This gives them the opportunity to practice using the target language, and if they say they are sad or upset, it gives me the opportunity to follow up with them about what’s going on in their lives.

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

I called a mother because her daughter was refusing to complete her work. To me, her reluctance to finish the sentences I had on the board was defiant and frustrating.

Her mom informed me that her daughter had left her glasses at home and could not see the board without them. My student must have been too embarrassed to tell me and instead acted out. From that point on, I have taken my time to really dig in and figure out the issues behind the reasons my students are acting out so that I can better accommodate them.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

A coach of mine once said, “If you do not have a plan for the students, they will have a plan for you.” Boy, was he right! You would not imagine the things that can happen in your classroom during the 10 seconds you turn your back to write on the whiteboard.

How I Teach

This Harlem 10th-grade teacher uses ‘Facebook Live’ to coax his students to participate

Kelly Downing in his classroom at A. Philip Randolph Campus High School.

Kelly Downing had a problem: student jitters.

A 10th-grade humanities teacher at Harlem’s A. Philip Randolph Campus High School, he struggled to persuade his students to present their work in front of the class.

So Downing tapped into his students’ interest in social media, inventing a game he calls “Facebook Live.” Now, when he asks students to write and present paragraphs on specific ideas — complete with topic sentences and supporting evidence — he calls out, “Who is ready to go live?” and invites a student to present in front of an imaginary camera.

“They lose sight of the traditional sense of presenting and let their guard down,” Downing says. When they present, students are required to read their work without stumbling or repeating words. The friendly competition that emerges “allows students to make mistakes in a way that doesn’t cause them to shut down and be embarrassed.”

In this installment of “How I Teach,” we asked Downing, himself a product of New York City public schools, to explain his tips for getting students’ attention and why he thinks more men of color should be in the classroom.

Why did you become a teacher?

I became a teacher due to the underrepresentation of African-American males in education. As a teacher, I am able to draw from my life experiences to impact lives.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a reflection of my students and myself. There are walls that are adorned with student work that not only reflects the highest grade, but the hardest effort as well.

There is a string of college banners that hang across the lockers in the back of the room like eyelashes as a reminder to students to think big. At the very front of the room, a sign I made reads, “I AM A SCHOLAR; ALL DAY … EVERY DAY!” because I expect students to put forth their best effort and apply themselves wholeheartedly. A student’s artwork hangs over the entrance to our room. It reads, “SQUAD 313.” Aside from the fact that we are located in Room 313, it reminds us that we are on this journey together.

Fill in the blank: I couldn’t teach without my ________.

Assorted Chisel Tip Expo Dry Erase Markers. Apparently, I can only write straight and legibly on the dry erase board using a chisel tip marker.

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

I enjoy using social media to teach students the importance of public speaking, proofreading, editing and revising. The lesson is called “FB Live.” Students are asked to construct a well-written paragraph (one that is grammatically correct and includes a topic sentence, supporting sentences and a concluding sentence) in response to a question or quote.

After students have had the chance to write and review their paragraph, they can raise their hand and request to “Go Live.” Once the class counts down, students must read their response as if they are on Facebook going live or being recorded on camera. If the student messes up or trips over a sentence, he or she must start over and “Go Live!” again. Students love social media; they appreciate lessons that connect and resonate with them.

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

I assess where the breakdown is occurring. I will often attempt to use metaphors from pop culture, music, television and media to reinforce concepts and ideas. I try to provide multiple points of entry.

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

Depending on the situation, I might use the “cat’s-got-my-tongue” technique whereby I just stop talking until I have the attention of the class, or I might have to use the “laser beam” whereby I lock eyes with the culprits and gesture to cut the inappropriate behavior.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

I talk with students and pay attention to their verbal and nonverbal cues. I ask students how they are feeling. I constantly tell them that I believe in them; they were born to fulfill a specific purpose in life. After-school tutoring and mentoring has definitely helped to build stronger relationships with my students.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The best advice I received was given to me by my mom, who told me, “While taking care of others, be sure to take care of yourself.”