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

Harsh realities of growing up poor pushed this Colorado teacher to connect with her students

Teacher Natalie Mejia, right, with students from Atlas Preparatory School on "Nerds Rule the World" day last fall.

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.

Natalie Mejia, a math teacher at Atlas Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, knows the challenges many of her students face. She grew up poor in Los Angeles, navigating an education system that didn’t reflect her culture or background.

It’s the reason she’s determined to show her seventh- and eighth-graders how much they matter.

“They won’t care what you know, until they know that you care,” she says.

Mejia is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I believe our kids deserve to be surrounded by people who love them and believe in their tenacity to succeed. Growing up low-income in Los Angeles exposed me to many harsh realities that motivated me to pursue higher education. Additionally, as a first-generation high school and college graduate, I can relate to the adversity my children face on their pursuit to learn and navigate within an institution that wasn’t built with their social or cultural identity in mind.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is split into three sections — pink, blue, and orange. In the pink section, eight students are receiving direct instruction. In the blue section, eight students are reviewing prerequisite skills for upcoming lessons and in the orange section 16 students are working on online lessons on the Khan Academy website. The students rotate every other day through the sections so that all 32 scholars are working directly with me, in pairs, or independently to master the content.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ____________. Why?
My smart board. I absolutely love the white board in the classroom because it makes it easier for students to follow along as I teach. Additionally, the colored pens allow me to differentiate or emphasize notes within the lesson.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I enjoy teaching my students our statistics unit because this is the place where they can be the most creative. My school takes a traditional approach to learning. However, in this unit students are encouraged to create their own statistical questions and gather data. This unit I believe allows them to personalize the learning and justify their thinking.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student shares that he/she doesn’t fully understand a concept or demonstrates gaps on the three-question assessment they turn in at the end of the day, I do any of the following:
– Provide one-on-one instruction before school, during lunch, or after school.
– Modify the upcoming lesson to provide better scaffolding and support.
– Pair the student with someone who’s mastered the concept and can serve as a peer tutor.
– Follow up with parents directly about how they can support the student at home.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My strategies vary from class to class and student to student. If one or two students are off task, I am more private in my approach to redirect their behavior.

If an entire section in my class is off-task, I walk over and provide a countdown to get their attention. Once I have their full attention I restate expectations and narrate positive behaviors.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
First and foremost, I approach my students and my work with the utmost humility and appreciation. I tell my students early on and often how much I love them and how their presence brings joy to my life.

I continue to demonstrate my commitment to them and their education by establishing academic and social goals for the year. I challenge them to be present in class and to own their learning environment by supporting one another. In addition to our time in class, I try to attend our students’ games and family events in the community. In doing this, I can foster deep relationships with my students and their families. Collectively we work throughout the year to be advocates for their students’ academic and socio-emotional success.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I met Mr. Senior in the summer of 2011 in Baltimore. He was a single father of two middle school-aged boys and attended our pre-school conference. This meeting was an opportunity for us to check-in as student, parent(s), and advisors prior to the start of the school year to establish academic and social goals for the year. Throughout the year, Mr. Senior demonstrated unwavering commitment and love for his children through his active participation and involvement in our school.

His persistence in advocating for his children challenged the unknown bias I had toward fathers being passive participants within education. We’ve stayed in touch over the last six years and it’s such a pleasure to see the joy and pride he has for his sons and their long-term success.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am currently reading “Drown” by Junot Diaz. It is a goal to immerse myself in more Latino/a literature.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
A few months ago, I was reading, “The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community is Inspiring the World” by Nadia Lopez. In her text she wrote, “This is not a Third World country. This is real life in the United States of America, and the qualities in these kids that frustrate teachers are the very same ones that help them survive every day.”

Her sentiments resonated with me because I love and respect my students’ ability to face the adversity with authenticity and courage. Approaching my work with this mindset inspires me to be the best mentor and educator for my students and their families.

How I Teach

An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain

PHOTO: File Photo

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.

Cheryl Mosier’s favorite lesson about the properties of light waves is one that her students enjoy, too. Some spend all day Snapchatting about it.

But the lesson also brings up painful memories for the Columbine High School earth science teacher because she was teaching it the day of the deadly shooting there in 1999.

Mosier stopped teaching the lesson for a few years, but ultimately brought it back into the mix. In fact, a video of that lesson was part of the package that earned her the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching in 2007.

Mosier shared her thoughts on how she builds relationships with students, why she’s always nice to custodians and secretaries, and what she reads for fun.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I first taught when I volunteered at my local swimming pool during swim lessons. I knew then that teaching fit my personality as I had the ability to have fun and teach content. During high school, I was inspired by my math and science teachers (Ms. Finnegan and Ms. Chaloupka) as they were able to make math and science accessible for all students.

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

My husband. He teaches literally next door to me, and teaches earth science. We collaborate on everything and help each other solve problems as they arise. We are each other’s sounding boards and he keeps me sane and I keep him thinking outside the box. He hates it when I attend a conference or meeting because I make him change something else.

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

Fingerprints of Light — on spectroscopy — is honestly my favorite, but also my most dreaded. I was teaching that lesson on April 20, 1999, so it took me a couple of years to do it again with students.

During the 2007 school year, I applied for the Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, and this lesson was the one my husband filmed for the application. I found out a year later that I was the awardee, so this lesson holds a special place in my heart.

Another reason I love this lesson is seeing the excitement of my students. We use the diffraction grating in “Rainbow Peepholes” — small disks with the grating in the middle to look through — which act as tiny prisms splitting the light into the basic wavelengths. This is the one lesson that is Snapchatted all day long – they love taking pictures of the different lights and make some amazing stories.

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

Students typically collaborate in class and have the opportunity to retake quizzes and tests in an effort to help them learn the content rather than just do the work. When they don’t understand they ask someone – a friend or me to help them figure it out.

My students have to adjust to my style, though, as I make them tell me where in their work their understanding broke down. They have to be able to specifically state where they are stuck, rather than just saying “I don’t get it” because I will ask them “What don’t you get? Show me where you got stuck.” Larger issues of learning styles are managed on an individual basis as I know that not every student can learn from watching videos. So those get addressed as needed and as students recognize what does and doesn’t work for them.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task? To a casual observer, my students are constantly off task in my room, because they are working collaboratively. Freshmen are very social creatures, and need to be able to interact with each other. At the beginning of the year, I train them in the major tasks for each class, so they know what to expect each block.

If I need to, I’ll put a phone in “phone jail” if they are being distracted by it, but this isn’t very often. One trick I use at the beginning to refocus them is to raise my hand, as they raise their hand, they close their mouth and pass the message to others. Sounds cheesy, but it’s super effective as they are learning how to manage my class.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Every fall, students fill out a Who Am I form that I stole from Pinterest. They get to see my responses and ask me questions, allowing them to get to know me as a human being.

I also have them write down anything I might need to know as a teacher about them, past what is in their school records, similar to the #Iwishmyteacherknew campaign. This opportunity gives me perspective on their individual needs and helps me understand what they might get overwhelmed by each year, or what they might need differently for science learning. As each class is mostly work time, this allows me to interact with my students answering questions, clarifying directions and listening to their conversations.

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

One of the main reasons I do my own version of #Iwishmyteacherknew is because of an interaction I had with a family in May last year. I had struggled with a particular student all year long, his behavior was obnoxious daily and he constantly was off task, pulling others off task with him and generally working towards being removed from his peers every block as he just couldn’t handle being in the room.

In May, the family requested a meeting with teachers and the counselor, where we found out that this student has Aspergers. Had I known that, our interactions would have been different because I would have known more about him and his needs as a learner and human in society. Once I heard this, we were able to work with each other each day, instead of constantly playing tug-of-war.

What are you reading for enjoyment? I tend to read teen dystopian novels, because they are fun and fast reads with a bit of science fiction mixed in. I also like to read books that my son might enjoy, even if it takes him months to try one, only to realize Mom was right and the book is lots of fun to read!

What’s the best advice you ever received? In my first teaching job, I was told to never make the custodian or secretary mad at you as they can make your life miserable. This has stayed with me, because it’s so amazingly true. My room is typically cleaner than others because I smile and talk with the custodian. I can talk my way into “favors” with the office staff because I know our school would quickly fall apart without them. Schools wouldn’t and couldn’t run day to day without our educational support colleagues!