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.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

How I Teach

What to do when your class loses focus? This teacher picks up a guitar

Joella DeLisi Melnikov

As a teenager in a sea of 4,000 students at Staten Island’s Tottenville High school, Joella DeLisi Melnikov found her niche in the music room.

“In the music room, you knew everybody,” recalls Melnikov, now 36. “There’s really nothing like sitting in the middle of an orchestra or band … and feeling the music and being surrounded by everyone around you.”

At age nine, Melnikov picked up the clarinet, setting off a love of music that led to two separate music degrees and a number of professional gigs. She often taught private lessons on the side to students who complained that there were few public music classes available to them.

That gave Melnikov a sense of mission when she began teaching music in the city’s public schools — a job she landed (part-time at first) through the city’s Arts Matter program, an effort to expand access to arts education.

Now, as a full-time teacher at P.S./I.S. 121 Nelson Rockefeller in Brooklyn, she is hoping to help her students feel connected to school through music, and inspire a few musicians in the process.

This interview has been lightly edited.

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

Energetic. I am always excited to try new things and take risks with the kids, and we feed off of each other’s energy and enthusiasm.

Why did you become a teacher?

Learning music in public school changed my life. I wanted to give that same opportunity to other children.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a completely hands-on room, where all of the instruments are laid out all around you. The students are able to pick up whichever instrument they’re currently working on and jump right into a rehearsal. Even the students as young as kindergarten are able to take out the rhythm instruments and share them with the class.

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

Smartboard.

Why?

The students are constantly asking to learn new songs or to try out new things. We can quickly pull up anything they are interested in and try it out right away.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?

Modern Rock Band. I took the Little Kids Rock workshop, [which helps teachers learn to use music students already listen to], and they introduced the Modern Rock Band curriculum. It is the easiest and quickest way to get students who don’t even know how to hold an instrument to begin playing songs that they recognize and can sing along to. The students sound like a real rock band within just a few lessons.

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

I first try to understand what it is they’re having trouble with. If I try explaining it a different way and they’re still struggling, I ask one of their classmates to help. They often have a way of explaining things from their own viewpoint that they understand much better from each other.

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

If the whole class needs to be brought back to attention, I’ll pick up a guitar and start playing a song. One or two more students might join in, and the rest of the class will enjoy the short performance. Then I remind them that this is what we’re working toward, and get them back to work. If I just have one or two students having trouble paying attention, I’ll put them in charge of helping another student. They really enjoy taking ownership of their skills and knowledge.

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 try to be very real with my students. They see that I’m a person too, and I make mistakes. We have a motto in our classroom: Respect yourself, each other, and the instruments. I treat them like young adults, and they give me the same respect. They also like to read the inspirational posters we have hanging in the room like: “It’s okay to make a mistake when you’ve tried. It’s a mistake not to try.”

We talk about how it’s inevitable that we’re going to make a mistake, because we’re trying new things. And we may even feel embarrassed now and then. But we’re all in this together. When someone is struggling, I can hear them calling out and quoting that poster to each other. The music room is a safe place for a lot of them. They stop by when they’re having a rough day, and they know they won’t be judged here.

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

I had a student who had a very different home life from what I had imagined. When he often forgot his instrument and lost his music, I assumed he just wasn’t that interested. I learned that he was often going to a different house each night, and he was doing his best to overcome his own obstacles. I invited him to come rehearse with me during lunch, and gave him a second set of instruments and music to keep at school. He became one of my best musicians that year.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Tomorrow is another day. Even if everything goes completely wrong, we can try it all again tomorrow. A bad dress rehearsal often precedes an amazing performance.