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

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.”