How I Teach

Why this middle school teacher starts the year with blank classroom walls

Jessica Moore teaches language arts at South Valley Middle School in Weld County.

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.

Collaborating with students is important to Jessica Moore, a language arts teacher at South Valley Middle School in northern Colorado’s Weld County RE-1 district. It’s why she uses Google docs to help teach writing. It’s also why she starts the year with blank classroom walls.

Moore is one of 15 teachers who were 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 education policy discussions, including how the state responds to the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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

I work best early in the morning, so I generally arrive at school between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m., always with my coffee in-hand! I spend my time before the bell rings either creating lessons, refining lessons that I have previously taught or those in progress, and preparing instructional materials for my students.

In order to make learning interactive, I often use manipulatives, such as word or evidence cards. Many mornings, I am furiously cutting away on the paper cutter in order to have these materials ready to go for kids before class starts.

What does your classroom look like?

I have seven large, circular tables in my room where students work, as well as a table in the back that I use for small group intervention and individual conferencing with students.

I always start the year with my walls entirely blank. I believe that anything that goes up on my walls needs to be created collaboratively with my students. The posters are created together through instruction and discussion, which ensures that they are more than just colorful decorations.

I have a teacher station at the front of my room, which is really just my document camera on top of my computer cart, but I use this area for direct instruction where I can project any text that we are working with on the board for all of my students to see.

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

Although it is not fancy, the use of Google Docs has been a powerful tool in my work with students on their writing. Whenever we start a new writing assignment, students share their doc with me. As they are writing, I check in with them in real time and provide comments and suggestions. They love the text message feel and respond with questions, comments or ideas for changes. Not only does this give me a record of our conversations, but also helps me to guide them in the writing process in a more timely and authentic way.

How do you plan your lessons?

As a language arts teacher, one of the core components of my lesson planning is text selection. College- and career-ready standards prioritize the use of richly layered, complex text for all students. I have found that locating quality, engaging text is paramount to my ability to design thought-provoking, text-dependent questions and tasks that guide students to think critically and carefully about the text.

Complex text also lends itself so well to teaching the nine other reading standards because there is depth to the material on the page. Once I have picked my text and aligned it with the standards, I take into consideration how I will support struggling readers to access the material that they might not otherwise be able to read on their own.

I have found that using manipulatives, such as cutting apart the text to draw their attention to an important passage, or giving word cards to help them see patterns in author’s word choice, can be helpful as well as strategies like framed paragraphs to help students write more sophisticated responses. I also think about how I can meet the needs of my gifted students, which may include incorporating additional texts or research.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?

The best lessons are ones where the students are clearly and intentionally asking and answering questions that not only address the content of the lesson, but also connect to other content areas as well. I love when we have to pull ourselves away from our lesson because class is over!

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

Generally speaking, students will understand at least some part of the material, so it is my job to figure out where the breakdown happened. I usually will sit down with a student one-on-one and start back at the beginning of the lesson. Sometimes, this includes having them tell me what the directions were. Sometimes I ask them to tell me about what they just read, while other times, I have them walk me through their thinking about a particular question. Out of these conversations, it usually becomes clear quickly what the misconception or gap in thinking was and I can work directly with the student to make adjustments and corrections.

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

Middle school is an interesting age because there can be literally a million reasons why a student has lost engagement. But I have started to notice that when one has lost focus, others are likely to follow.

I usually respond in a couple of ways. First, I try proximity. I might stand near the student, or ask a question to get a sense of where his or her mind is. Sometimes this works, and other times it’s an indicator that I may need to change things up for everyone.

Recently, I have found that taking a minute or two to break and talk about life has been surprisingly powerful! Sometimes they just want to tell me something that has happened, or share a silly joke, but I try to be flexible and willing to meet them where they are because the relationship aspect of teaching is so powerful. Also, when I am willing to share in their world for a few minutes each day, I can ask them to share in mine (the learning) for the other 50-plus minutes and they are far more willing. The most important thing that I have learned about engagement though is that relevancy is key — if they connect to the material, they will work to learn it.

How do you maintain communication with parents?

Phone calls, text messages, emails, Friday Folders and the classroom webpage.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?

In writing, for example, I don’t wait until the final product is turned into grade it. Instead, I give regular feedback to my students and watch to see how they integrate my comments and suggestions into what they are doing.

If I asked them to write a paper and then just graded what they turned in, I would likely have a lot of Fs. But I am interested in the learning process as much as the final product. I also really love to use rubrics, and find that developing the rubric together as a class as part of the instructional process gives my student buy-in and an awareness of the expectations that we collectively have for our work.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have always been really interested in the criminal justice system. Recently, I started reading the book “Chasing the Scream,” which is a fascinating look at the War on Drugs. I haven’t been able to put it down! It is giving me a lot to think about in terms of the future of our country and gives me even more conviction about the importance and role of education in our country.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My mother-in-law once told me: “They won’t always remember what you taught them, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” I think about this every single day (seriously!) I know that they might not all remember what assonance is, but I do hope they will remember that I honestly and truly cared about them as unique individuals.

How I Teach

She became a special education teacher by accident. Then she fell in love with her job.

PHOTO: Anna Vick
Special education teacher Anna Vick in her classroom at Highlands Ranch High School in Douglas County.

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.

Anna Vick, a special education teacher at Highlands Ranch High School in the Douglas County School District, has no shortage of tools to get students learning.

She uses art projects, YouTube videos, music, aromatherapy, brain breaks and more to reach her students, all of whom have serious emotional disabilities.

Vick is one of 15 teachers who were 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 how the state responds to the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always loved working with children, but fell into the field of special education somewhat by accident. I was hired on as a teaching assistant, and my role ended up being allocated to special education. Although I wasn’t sure about the idea, I tried it and fell in love.

One of my biggest inspirations as an educator is my cousin, Katie, who is on the autism spectrum. As we are close in age, I grew up learning about Katie’s needs along with her incredible talents and strengths. We have always had a strong relationship, and knowing her has given me insight into creative ways that I can best support my students.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of student artwork. Specifically for students with emotional support needs, art can be very therapeutic and has been a positive outlet throughout the school year.

I love globes, so we have several of those around the room, too. On a sensory note, there are muted covers for our bright fluorescent lights in order to help students stay more regulated. The covers cast more of a yellow light, creating a soothing atmosphere. We are lucky to have big windows for natural light as well. Aromatherapy and mindfulness/relaxation music have also made a positive difference in the room.

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

I love using videos to supplement my teaching. Especially when students are heavily impacted in reading or communication, videos can bring out learning that might not have connected otherwise.

I’ve found some great instructional videos on YouTube for math concepts. I’ll often use these on the projector at the beginning of the period and then introduce a game or activity where students can apply the skill in collaboration with staff and peers. They learn without even realizing it, and this has been a great way to reach students with serious emotional disabilities who might not be able to engage in a lecture/textbook teaching format.

How do you plan your lessons?

I use online resources, talk with fellow teachers, and get creative about options and activities that can create differentiation for each student. Even if I don’t take the resource straight from a website, I often look online just to get ideas on effective ways to teach and reinforce concepts. I can modify these ideas to create a lesson more targeted to the needs of my students, but teaching blogs and websites give me great ideas regarding practical applications of skills and concepts. I also use backwards planning, which allows me to think about the bigger picture and identify the end goal before beginning the planning process.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?

An ideal lesson has something for all learners and is differentiated based on pace and need. I try to incorporate technology, reading, writing, independent work, activities, games, discussion, and some direct instruction in each unit (and ideally, each day). I am grateful for the opportunity to work in the center-based program, as having a smaller caseload allows me to truly teach to the student and avoid letting students get “lost in the crowd.”

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

I always encourage students engaging and collaborating, even if they are incorrect on the concept itself. I am always so thrilled to have students asking or answering questions. That, in and of itself, is a target for me before any actual content can be learned. Therefore, if a student expresses or shows that he or she is not understanding the content, I first positively reinforce the fact that engagement is happening in the first place. I then sit with the student in a small group or one-on-one, addressing the issue through multiple modes of instruction (e.g. technology/video learning, talking through concepts, showing visuals, etc.). One of the best feelings as a teacher is seeing the conceptual block clear so a student can move forward after mastering content.

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

I really enjoy brain breaks and physical activity during classes. Specifically with my student population, I have found taking walks to be very effective. It’s great when weather is warm enough to go outside, but even a walk around the building can help students refocus during long block days. If students are disengaging in the middle of instruction, I might also try changing my method; for instance, giving some independent work instead of direct instruction, allowing students to practice problems on the whiteboard, adding some background music, or giving a different kind of visual support.

How do you maintain communication with parents?

I send daily parent communication sheets as a “back and forth log” for student behavior, learning, and progress. Other than this, I make a point of asking parents what is the best method of communication for them. I am happy to text, email, call or meet in-person with parents to discuss issues or concerns as they arise. I also find it helpful to reach out to parents just to check in or report a positive for the day. On my daily sheets, I am sure to fill out the “celebration” space each time. Even on the most challenging of days, this helps me to think of a positive piece for the student. It impacts my perspective, and I hope it impacts the perspectives of students and parents reading the sheet each day.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?

Color, color, color! I find color-coding for errors, citation problems, spelling, sentence structure, etc. can help both my students and I to determine the areas in which further support is necessary. I typically grade online to keep the process streamlined, and often post my comments in the Google Drive or in the word processor that we’re using.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I read a great deal of non-fiction, but Dostoevsky is one of my all-time favorite authors. Crime and Punishment is the best.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

“If people knew better, they’d do better.” I was working in a school with a very high poverty rate and the staff faced many difficult situations each day. I had an administrator who always reminded us of this, helping us to take the blame off of others and to look at bigger systemic issues to support and educate for growth.

As an advocate for collaborative problem-solving, I have learned that students behave appropriately when they can. If a student is demonstrating problem behaviors, the function must be examined along with the lagging skills. Targeting interventions in these areas is the surest key to success. Work smarter, not harder!

How I Teach

Special education teacher — and Sherlock Holmes fan — on why he encourages students to be inquisitive

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

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 Sherlock Holmes buff, it’s fitting that special education teacher Derrick Belanger considers inquisitiveness a critical trait in his seventh-graders at Century Middle School in the Adams 12 Five Star school district. He says students should always be asking the question, “Why?”

Belanger is one of 15 teachers who were 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 how the state responds to the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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

Teacher Derrick Belanger dresses as Sherlock Holmes for an author talk.

When I arrive at school, my first step is always to check my email to see if I have any messages from parents or students. Being in the field of special education, I make an extra effort to be in constant communication with my parents so that they understand how their students are progressing both in the classroom and on their Individualized Education Program goals.

I also review my lessons for the day, check my progress through my district’s standards-based curriculum, and reflect upon how the learning we are doing in the classroom that day will impact each of my student’s lives. In many ways, I have ten different classrooms going on in each of my periods because I have to tailor my lessons to meet each individual student’s needs. That’s one of the biggest challenges of being a learning specialist; however, I find that when I see the level of student growth, it is also one of the most rewarding.

What does your classroom look like?

Being a traveling teacher, I have to “rent” space from others. Fortunately, the teachers whose classrooms I borrow are very helpful and supportive. When you do enter my classroom, what you will see are questions and collaboration. I always have students working together whether it is co-reading a book, practicing a Kagan strategy such as “Sage and Scribe” or peer editing through Google Docs.

I also always have students ask the question, “Why?” because it is, to me, the most important question for effective learning. If students don’t question why they know or don’t know something, or the importance of what they are learning in the classroom, then they really are not engaging with the material. If my students are self-reflecting inquirers then I know they are learning.

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

I think this is a better question for my students than for me. Personally, I love Google Classroom, Google Docs, and pretty much all of Google’s tools. I share with my students my own professional writing and editorial comments I receive on Google Docs so they can see both the hard work of writing but also the collaboration between a writer and an editor and how that collaboration leads to much better writing. Writing is hard work, even for the professionals! And no one ever writes alone. That’s why it is important for students to get feedback on all their writing from multiple readers.

The reason I think that your question is better suited to students is that often I will give my students an assignment, and on their own, they find the best technological pathway to complete the assignment. For some of my students, a multi paragraph essay is overwhelming, so they write the essay in Google Slides, making a paragraph for each slide. That makes the assignment manageable and gives them the opportunity to complete the assignment at their highest level of writing.

How do you plan your lessons?

I start with my district’s standards-based units, unravel the standards with fellow educators, check where my students have deficiencies and how they can tackle them during the unit, co-create the unit assessment, and then work backwards designing my lessons. As I teach the unit, I then adjust the day-to-day lessons to meet the needs of my students.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?

An ideal lesson has to be engaging and thought-provoking. If students are disconnected from the lesson then it is a failure.

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

When a student does not understand my lesson, I try a different approach to see if I can make a connection. Sometimes with math, students do not understand the abstract aspect of the teaching, so I bring in a hands-on approach. Sometimes rearranging counting chips in a pattern is enough to make the abstract concrete and therefore understandable. With writing, if a student doesn’t understand my lesson, I bring in other exemplars and models. Sometimes seeing the approach from a different author helps.

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

For me, when a student loses focus, I take the personal approach of sitting down with the student, saying I believe they have lost focus, and then listening to their reason. Often, their lack of focus has nothing to do with school. I also check in with the student’s core teachers and counselors, and possibly also the “Response to Intervention” team. I want to ensure that the student is receiving all the support and assistance necessary for success.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?

I am in constant communication with parents through various means. Some parents I contact daily with updates on how their child is performing in class. Others prefer weekly updates. Sometimes this is through phone calls, other times through email or docs. It really depends on what the easiest communication tool is for the parents.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?

The beauty of standards-based grading is that there is always time for improvement. If students want to submit a revision after a work has been graded, they are always welcome to do so. This gives students the freedom to take risks with their learning without fearing the final mark.

Throughout the drafting of a piece of writing, I meet with my students on a daily basis and we discuss the progress of their work. Sometimes this involves editing, sometimes brainstorming, sometimes skill practice, sometimes revision, and sometimes reflection. By the time the actual grading of the paper comes around, the student has a good understanding of their score. This cuts down on the amount of comments I need to type on an assignment. There’s no surprise with the final score, and there is always another opportunity for improvement.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am a major Sherlock Holmes fan. I love the character, the way he solves mysteries, and the way we experience the story through the eyes of Dr. Watson. I always have at least one Sherlock Holmes book I am reading in addition to something else. Currently I am reading “Holmes Away from Home: Tales of the Great Hiatus,” volumes 1 and 2. I am proud to say I have a story in the second collection.

I also always read the New York Times and the Denver Post to stay current with the news at a national and local level. Although with the world today, that has been much less enjoyable.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

I think the best advice I ever received is, “Every student is a unique individual. Treat them as such.” That advice came from my mentor teacher Stephen Ingraham who I worked under at NOBLE High School in Berwick, Maine. I think this is the key to the success of every student in the classroom. When we connect to each student as a unique individual then we know them, know how they learn, know about their families, friends and interests, know their strengths and weaknesses, know what they care about. When you have that connection to a student then you can work with them and they will grow both inside and outside of the classroom.