How I Teach

She became a special education teacher by accident. Then she fell in love with her job.

PHOTO: Anna Vick
Special education teacher Anna Vick in her classroom at Highlands Ranch High School in Douglas 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.

Anna Vick, a special education teacher at Highlands Ranch High School in the Douglas County School District, has no shortage of tools to get students learning.

She uses art projects, YouTube videos, music, aromatherapy, brain breaks and more to reach her students, all of whom have serious emotional disabilities.

Vick 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.

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always loved working with children, but fell into the field of special education somewhat by accident. I was hired on as a teaching assistant, and my role ended up being allocated to special education. Although I wasn’t sure about the idea, I tried it and fell in love.

One of my biggest inspirations as an educator is my cousin, Katie, who is on the autism spectrum. As we are close in age, I grew up learning about Katie’s needs along with her incredible talents and strengths. We have always had a strong relationship, and knowing her has given me insight into creative ways that I can best support my students.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of student artwork. Specifically for students with emotional support needs, art can be very therapeutic and has been a positive outlet throughout the school year.

I love globes, so we have several of those around the room, too. On a sensory note, there are muted covers for our bright fluorescent lights in order to help students stay more regulated. The covers cast more of a yellow light, creating a soothing atmosphere. We are lucky to have big windows for natural light as well. Aromatherapy and mindfulness/relaxation music have also made a positive difference in the room.

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

I love using videos to supplement my teaching. Especially when students are heavily impacted in reading or communication, videos can bring out learning that might not have connected otherwise.

I’ve found some great instructional videos on YouTube for math concepts. I’ll often use these on the projector at the beginning of the period and then introduce a game or activity where students can apply the skill in collaboration with staff and peers. They learn without even realizing it, and this has been a great way to reach students with serious emotional disabilities who might not be able to engage in a lecture/textbook teaching format.

How do you plan your lessons?

I use online resources, talk with fellow teachers, and get creative about options and activities that can create differentiation for each student. Even if I don’t take the resource straight from a website, I often look online just to get ideas on effective ways to teach and reinforce concepts. I can modify these ideas to create a lesson more targeted to the needs of my students, but teaching blogs and websites give me great ideas regarding practical applications of skills and concepts. I also use backwards planning, which allows me to think about the bigger picture and identify the end goal before beginning the planning process.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?

An ideal lesson has something for all learners and is differentiated based on pace and need. I try to incorporate technology, reading, writing, independent work, activities, games, discussion, and some direct instruction in each unit (and ideally, each day). I am grateful for the opportunity to work in the center-based program, as having a smaller caseload allows me to truly teach to the student and avoid letting students get “lost in the crowd.”

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

I always encourage students engaging and collaborating, even if they are incorrect on the concept itself. I am always so thrilled to have students asking or answering questions. That, in and of itself, is a target for me before any actual content can be learned. Therefore, if a student expresses or shows that he or she is not understanding the content, I first positively reinforce the fact that engagement is happening in the first place. I then sit with the student in a small group or one-on-one, addressing the issue through multiple modes of instruction (e.g. technology/video learning, talking through concepts, showing visuals, etc.). One of the best feelings as a teacher is seeing the conceptual block clear so a student can move forward after mastering content.

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

I really enjoy brain breaks and physical activity during classes. Specifically with my student population, I have found taking walks to be very effective. It’s great when weather is warm enough to go outside, but even a walk around the building can help students refocus during long block days. If students are disengaging in the middle of instruction, I might also try changing my method; for instance, giving some independent work instead of direct instruction, allowing students to practice problems on the whiteboard, adding some background music, or giving a different kind of visual support.

How do you maintain communication with parents?

I send daily parent communication sheets as a “back and forth log” for student behavior, learning, and progress. Other than this, I make a point of asking parents what is the best method of communication for them. I am happy to text, email, call or meet in-person with parents to discuss issues or concerns as they arise. I also find it helpful to reach out to parents just to check in or report a positive for the day. On my daily sheets, I am sure to fill out the “celebration” space each time. Even on the most challenging of days, this helps me to think of a positive piece for the student. It impacts my perspective, and I hope it impacts the perspectives of students and parents reading the sheet each day.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?

Color, color, color! I find color-coding for errors, citation problems, spelling, sentence structure, etc. can help both my students and I to determine the areas in which further support is necessary. I typically grade online to keep the process streamlined, and often post my comments in the Google Drive or in the word processor that we’re using.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I read a great deal of non-fiction, but Dostoevsky is one of my all-time favorite authors. Crime and Punishment is the best.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

“If people knew better, they’d do better.” I was working in a school with a very high poverty rate and the staff faced many difficult situations each day. I had an administrator who always reminded us of this, helping us to take the blame off of others and to look at bigger systemic issues to support and educate for growth.

As an advocate for collaborative problem-solving, I have learned that students behave appropriately when they can. If a student is demonstrating problem behaviors, the function must be examined along with the lagging skills. Targeting interventions in these areas is the surest key to success. Work smarter, not harder!

How I Teach

Live, from Music City, an elementary school teacher presents life lessons with a beat

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Christopher Blackmon leads second-grade students in a song he wrote and composed as a music teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Nashville.

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.

Sixteen miles from Music Row, a bustling nexus of Nashville’s recording industry, second-grade students are hard at work perfecting a single at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School.

“Winners, winners don’t quit. They don’t quit!” they sing, reading lyrics and music on a screen. “If I can believe it, then I can achieve it! I must leave my doubts behind.”

Then come the dance moves. Students shake and wiggle with exuberance.

The songwriting credit goes to Christopher Blackmon, a music teacher at Edison Elementary and one of 31 educators nationwide named 2017 Music Teachers of Excellence by the Country Music Association. The CMA Foundation is honoring the group Wednesday at a Nashville event hosted by Little Big Town, the CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year.

The acknowledgement draws attention to music education at a time when such programs are being slashed from public schools nationwide. But at Edison Elementary, the pace for teaching and learning music is picking up. In addition to providing instruction twice a week during school, Blackmon and a colleague lead after-school activities that include piano lessons and video production. More than 100 students, or about a sixth of the student body, participate in extra musical enrichment.

Here’s how Blackmon inspires students to love music, and to extend their enthusiasm to other academic subjects. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was most impacted by my high school music experience. We had a great program. I was in the band. I played tuba and baritone, but I also played jazz piano for a jazz combo. My band teacher was somebody you just look up to.

I’m always trying to push kids toward having a strong, principled life that means something and contributes something positive to the culture. With music education, I felt like I could teach both music and those positive character principles that I think kids need.

What does your classroom look like?

There’s a big open space in the middle and toward the front because it’s versatile. I do a lot of things with instruments and I set the instruments out and I have students rotating so they can see the screen, where I have the music up. I like to use less paper because students are just going to throw it away anyway.

They also dance a lot. In fact, they dance every day they come here. Probably, if I hadn’t been a music teacher, I would’ve been in P.E. Exercise helps brain development. The coordinated movement, especially symmetrical movements, where you cross the meridians of your body, is very important to cross-hemispheric development. Music as a whole is. That’s why I am such an advocate for music education, especially at the elementary level. I do a lot of stuff with audio production, (and) I could teach that in high school, but I think this is where people’s foundations are. I want to impact the beginning. I want to impact those foundations and help them establish their lives.

I have keyboards along the back of my room. I inherited 10 and then I have begged, borrowed and stole to get a class set so I can teach kids piano. I actually designed these. It allows four kids to sit at a table and hear only their keyboard through headphones. I can have some kids moving faster working together, some kids moving slower working together.

There’s so much research that shows that kids who get early piano instruction — piano or guitar — their brains develop more gray matter. The research shows over and over that they score higher on tests, that they do better with certain types of problem-solving skills, and so it’s better for everybody, whether or not they’re going to stick with it in real life.

What can’t you teach without?

(Click to listen to this track.)


Every time they walk into the classroom, they don’t get a chance to ask me questions and talk, because I told them I want to hear music first.

This little track is really effective because it reminds them what they’re going to do every single day, and then they know what to expect, but it gets harder and harder each time. It starts my class out the same way, but it doesn’t take a long time, and by five minutes into the class, they have already grown musically.

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

I try to catch the ones doing right and then comment on it because people will look at them and they’ll pull it together. I’ll say, “I love how so-and-so is being a STAR.” My little STAR thing is just: stand up straight, track the speaker, actively participate, respectfully celebrate. I say it all the time.

If a kid is just totally not getting it together, sometimes I’ll say, “Can you go write down and say how you would fix this?” That usually helps them.

How does parental communicate fit into your teaching approach?

When I see kids with musical talent, I write a personal note or call that parent and let them know that I really recommend that they get some kind of lesson or connect that child to music in some other kind of way. A lot of time, that will be a hook to get students through school when it’s hard.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It sounds like common sense, but the best advice I ever received was about classroom management from Sue Hall, who was the last music teacher here. She said, “Whatever you say you’re going to do, do it.” If you don’t have the respect of the students, you cannot teach them. It doesn’t matter how much they like you — I mean, they can love you — but if they don’t respect you, they don’t behave. And if they don’t behave, they cannot learn.

What does it mean to be teaching music in Music City?

What I do wouldn’t be accepted by a lot of music programs. Sometimes they just want you to do stale old canned musicals they found somewhere, or they want you to teach in a traditional way. I teach in a very non-traditional way, because I’m exposing kids to the real music machine. These kids could make a living in a lot of different ways in music. Traditionally, it’s very classical-based instruction. But if they know how to produce music and they have a good idea, you can make a living. You don’t have to be a big label anymore.

Here’s a music video created and produced by Blackmon and students in an afterschool program:

How I Teach

Why this Memphis teacher asks her students to create a mixtape every year

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Natasha Wilkins is a history teacher at GRAD Academy Memphis, a charter school in the state-run Achievement School District.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

During her African-American history classes, Natasha Wilkins asks her high school students to answer this question in a “free writing” exercise: “Who is responsible for educating the public about injustice?”

The students type away while listening to R&B singer R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest,” which isn’t uncommon. Wilkins has made a point of integrating music into her classroom at GRAD Academy Memphis, a charter high school within Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Her class culminates with a “Hip Hot History” project, a mixtape produced by her students, who write the lyrics and record their songs in a studio to share their learning.

When asked how she answered the writing prompt, one student said that, thanks to Wilkins, she believes that she is responsible for educating the public about injustice. “I think understanding injustice has a lot to do with understanding history, real history,” the student said. “We can’t care about something we don’t know about.”

That’s the goal of Wilkins’ class:  To help her students, most of whom are black, understand the history of their ancestors and to have fun while doing it.

We asked Wilkins to explain more about her teaching style and how she helps her students “own” history.

Why did you become a teacher?

Of my friends from high school, none of my black male friends graduated from or even made it past their sophomore year of college. I was deeply frustrated by the realization that there was a system in place that left young black men feeling inadequate to pursue their educational goals, and I took the offense personally. I joined Teach For America with the desire to disrupt this cycle. 

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A mural hangs on the wall in Wilkins’ classroom.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a space designed to inspire and affirm. There is student work that lines the walls and quotes designed to push my students to think beyond what is in a textbook. I think a big part of my classroom is also what is not present.  I very intentionally did not put up many images of people from the past. I want my students to view history as not just acts and individuals from the past, but an ever-evolving story of which they are a part.

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

I tend to reframe it in terms of their lives. For example, I related the Civil War to gang warfare, and the division of the North and South leading up to the Civil War to a dating relationship gone bad. Putting the lesson in terms of things my students can relate to gives them confidence in the classroom and affirms that learning is for them, not just something that they do in a school, in a classroom.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

At the beginning of the year, I do a short unit exploring what history is and how what becomes defined as “history” is determined and recorded. My students explore their perceptions of history and then are given the opportunity to record a story from their lives (also available on SoundCloud) in a project called Our Stories, Our Voices.

I explain to my students that we are all a part of history and that each of us deserves the chance to tell our own stories in our own voices. In this project, I allow my students to tell their stories how they perceive them, in their dialect, in their reality. This is essential to building relationships because it gives my students the space to be themselves, but it also gives me insight into what makes them who they are and the joys and pains that they bring into the classroom.

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

In 2015, I was engaged in a heated discussion with my World History honors class about the inequalities in the education they were receiving versus what I received in my predominantly white high school in Illinois. I was explaining to them why I was giving them the assignments I did, and why I taught the way I did, because that’s what my teachers did and it worked for me.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Wilkins says the goal of her class is to apply history to daily, lived experiences.

It was during this conversation that one of my more reserved students yelled out in frustration, “But this ain’t Springfield, Ms. Wilkins, and all of that Springfield stuff don’t work for us out here in Memphis. We’re different.”

This was a pivotal moment of realization in my teaching. It was in that moment that I finally heard my students and their frustrations and I realized that I needed to step back and learn from them just as they learned from me.

Describe Hip Hot History. Where did the idea come from, how do you implement it in your classroom, and why has it been a success for your students?

The idea for this project actually started as a joke. In class I would often play instrumentals and rap about history or getting back on task, to the amusement of my students. The students started asking me if I was going to drop a mixtape soon and I told them I would. One day, one of my students asked if the class could be on my mixtape and from there Hip Hot History was born.

This project is the capstone project my students complete at the end of the year. They are given the choice of writing a song, spoken-word piece, or creating a documentary film telling the story of blacks in history. They are given full creative license to create their piece with guidelines on how to choose the topic and the length of the piece.