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.

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.”