How I Teach

How this Denver gifted and talented teacher brings fun and joy into her classroom

Teacher Karen Wagner with her third-graders at Denver's Polaris at Ebert Elementary 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.

Karen Wagner is a third-grade teacher at Denver’s Polaris at Ebert Elementary, a magnet school for highly gifted students. She likes to immerse students in lessons by bringing related artifacts into her classroom — say, an Indonesian kite or a Japanese curtain.

Wagner 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?

My morning prep time is essential! I turn on my computer and skim through my emails, replying to ones that need an immediate response. Next, I write our schedule for the day on the whiteboard so that my students know what to expect when they arrive. After a glance at my plan book, I mentally rehearse how I’m going to structure my morning lessons and take care of any last-minute preparation of materials. I update my notebook where I delegate tasks for my paraprofessional. Finally, I work on any grading or administrative tasks. I try to make every minute count in the morning.

What does your classroom look like?

I believe that children learn best through integrated thematic units, so my classroom is always filled with artifacts that reflect our current unit of study. For our Asia unit, I have a collection of items from my experience teaching in Japan and traveling abroad. Some of my favorites include a handmade dragon kite from Bali, a Japanese doorway curtain adorned with calligraphy, and a stuffed animal of the Japanese anime character Domo-kun, who is our de-facto class mascot. I want the children to feel immersed in our thematic unit.

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

I really believe that my greatest tools are the relationships I have with each individual student, and the learning community that we have created together. Those relationships help me motivate my students, work with them through challenges, and make them feel truly valued for their own uniqueness. That being said, my Promethean Board is a fantastic tool. I create flipcharts that the children can interact with, show videos, and do impromptu research during class discussions. When used in the right way, it can make a lesson truly come alive.

How do you plan your lessons?

For long-term planning, I plan with the other third-grade teacher and the specialists at our school to integrate lessons into art, music and library for a richer learning experience. For daily lesson planning, first and foremost, I review the work from the previous day to determine if the children have any misconceptions that need to be addressed.

I try to think of an interesting question or task that will engage children right away—either one that connects to a prior lesson or related to their current interests. For example, for a recent math lesson, our previous day’s work had been to estimate and measure objects in the classroom using meters and centimeters. To launch a lesson on metric conversion from centimeters to meters, I asked my children two questions to respond to on their whiteboards: 1. What would you estimate my height is in centimeters? (173 cm) 2. I’ve memorized this number. Why do you think that is? (I lived in Japan and was particularly tall, so I was often asked how tall I was and my friends didn’t understand feet/inches). I also plan my lessons to make sure the children are as actively engaged as possible, through “turn and talks,” class discussions and working on their whiteboards.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?

An ideal lesson is fun and joyful. When children are having a great time learning, they will remember the experience so much more deeply if there are positive emotions associated with it.

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

If a student doesn’t understand a lesson, I have the child first explain their thinking to me so I can gain some insights as to where his or her misconceptions may be. Then, I present the information in a different way and give the child the chance to try out the skill that we’re working on. Most importantly, I find a way for the child to achieve some immediate success as we work together. This helps motivate the child and change his or her trajectory.

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

I may move that child to a separate area to work to minimize distractions, or I may give that child a specific goal to achieve within a certain period of time. Many third-graders still crave their teacher’s approval, so I make a big deal of it when the child meets the goal to make them feel successful. Other times, I may partner a child with a classmate who is very engaged. Motivation can be contagious.

How do you maintain communication with parents?

I write weekly newsletters to update parents on what we have been learning in class, as well as upcoming events. Email is also a great tool. If there is a specific concern, I set up a meeting with the child’s parents.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?

For third-graders, I find that timely feedback is the most effective. I try to provide as much real-time feedback as I can within the structure of a lesson, so that students will be able to process and learn from the feedback they are getting. I choose carefully which assignments will be graded, because I know that if too much time passes between the assignment and when the child receives the feedback, it won’t have much meaning for the child any longer.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a historical fiction piece that takes place in Nigeria in the late 1960s during the country’s civil war. I love learning about the history of countries that were never covered in any of my high school or college classes. A few years ago I watched Adichie’s TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, and was so fascinated by her wisdom and unique perspective that I decided to read her books, too. I have not been disappointed.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

“Remember to enjoy your students. It’s why you became a teacher in the first place.” I’ve heard this mentioned to me from various colleagues throughout my teaching career. Teaching is incredibly challenging (and rewarding) work. If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I try to take a deep breath, look around at my students, and smile. They make everything worth it.

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.