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

As a first-year teacher, he wanted to quit. Watching ‘the greats’ helped him stick it out.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

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.

A few months after Kevin Vaughn took his first teaching job in a third grade classroom in Arizona, he decided to quit.

“Teaching was way beyond me,” he said.

Vaughn went to his principal and apologized profusely for his imminent resignation. But then things went off-track. His principal told him to calm down and suggested he visit other classrooms in the building to see what good teaching looked like.

Vaughn, now an art teacher at Dolores Elementary School in southwest Colorado, agreed and ultimately stuck with the job. He talked with Chalkbeat about his habit of “stealing” ideas from other teachers, the challenge of getting to know students he sees once a week and his love of fidgeting.

Vaughn is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
At the age of 30, I gave up a career in the food and beverage industry when I realized after 10 successful years I was just feeding people. It might have been a wonderful dining experience for them with some great food, but it was no longer something I could hang my hat on. I wanted something more. I wanted to make a difference in somebody’s life.

What does your classroom look like?
I like to run an organized classroom, so even though there is a great deal of creativity and energy in the room, I’d say the students are rather focused on their work while music from the era we are studying plays in the background.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Fidget. Yes, believe it or not, I’ve always had a fidget — even before it was a fad. For the 20 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve played with clay, rubbed a rock, squished a sponge, rubbed a piece of cloth all the while providing instruction or walking around assisting students as they work. It keeps me calm and collected. It is great to be able to model for students how fidgeting should really look. It doesn’t need to take away one’s focus from the teacher or cause distraction to other students.

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

I’d have to say my current favorite lesson since becoming an art teacher is one in which I teach the kindergarteners about Wassily Kandinsky. We look at some of his work, discuss his style and his use of color, and then create our own using shaving cream and food coloring. The work is so individual, and almost instantaneous as it is revealed, that the kids just beam about the art they have produced. As with so many other lessons, I found this one online and just tweaked it to fit my personality and teaching style. There really are a plethora of high quality teachers out there willing to share their ideas.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When a student doesn’t understand a lesson, I’ve always just taught it again, and again, and again — with different examples and from different perspectives. With art, it is usually the technique that troubles the students as it is often the first time some students have used a particular medium. So, sitting down with students and breaking it down into smaller steps usually works well.

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

Rarely is the whole class off task, but usually when a student is off task I slowly walk by and refocus attention with a soft comment. However, if I need the attention of the whole class I’ll call out the first name of the artist we are currently studying, and have them call back — in chorus — the last name of that artist. Me: “Leonardo,” Students: “DaVinci.” They know that is the time to put down their tools and put their eyes on me.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It was so much easier when I was a classroom teacher to build relationships with the students. I saw the same students on a daily basis and could slowly develop that relationship as I learned more about their personalities and academic needs. Now, as an art teacher, I only see my students once every six days, so I have to make an effort to engage them outside the classroom as often as possible as well as in the studio. The cafeteria, in the hallway, at recess are all good times to just get to know the students.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I started my teaching career on the Navajo reservation and later moved to a small migrant community in Oregon. In both of these areas I was working with students of very different cultural backgrounds than the one I came from. I wouldn’t necessarily say that meeting the families of my students changed my perspective or approach, but it certainly gave me insight into my students lives that I could use to help me be a better teacher for them.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
The first book this summer I picked up was “The Generals: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, and the Winning of World War II” by Winston Groom.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My first principal and mentor, Ron Mansfield, told me to, “Watch the great teachers and learn.” Everything I know and do as a teacher I stole from someone else. I have my own personality and ways of doing things for sure, but being a good teacher has come by seeing how it is done by the best. Over 20 years I’ve had the opportunity to work with some tremendous people, and I’m so thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to learn the art of education from each and every one of them.

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.