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

The 2017 National Teacher of the Year on the mom who changed how she talks to her toughest students

PHOTO: CCSSO
2017 National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee.

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.

Sydney Chaffee made headlines recently as the first charter school teacher to be named the national teacher of the year. Getting there, she says, was a continuous process of learning from others — including her students’ families.

A breakthrough moment: meeting with one of her more difficult students’ mothers.

“The way she spoke to her daughter — loving but firm, patient but expectant — was a model for me in how to communicate both love and high expectations at the same time,” Chaffee explained.

Chaffee has taught ninth grade humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. From introducing debate about the Puerto Rican debt crisis to comparing classrooms to colonies, she also relies heavily on storytelling in the classroom.

She talked to Chalkbeat about a few of her most memorable moments — and why hand gestures are key to her teaching.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Why did you become a teacher?

I wanted to inspire the same kind of curiosity and excitement about learning in other people that my own teachers had inspired in me. Plus, I loved school and figured becoming a teacher was the best way to never have to leave.

What’s something interesting about your physical classroom — something on the walls, for example?

I like for my classroom to be colorful and full of words. Right now, my favorite thing about my room is that my students and I have filled one window with colorful stars. On each star, a student wrote “kudos” for another student for their work in this year’s Poetry Out Loud recitation competition. Some of the kudos are for stellar performances or persevering through stage fright; others are for being supportive and empathetic peers. They’re posted as a reminder of what we can accomplish together.

Fill in the blank: I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

Hands. I am a wild gesticulator. I don’t even notice I’m doing it most of the time, but whenever my students decide to impersonate me, their hands go crazy with big, dramatic gestures. So much of teaching is storytelling, and my hands help me tell the story.

Tell us a bit about a favorite lesson. How did you come up with the idea?

My favorite lesson, recently, was a simulation of the Puerto Rican debt crisis that my student teacher and I co-designed. We wanted to help students understand some of the basic economic concepts so they could write about the crisis in a more informed way, but the issue is complex and confusing. We worked together to brainstorm ideas, draft a plan, test-drive it, and revise it. The final lesson, which my student teacher facilitated, was hands-on, engaging, and gave students a solid grasp of tricky content. And it was fun to teach, too.

Collaboration is such an important ingredient in strengthening our practice as educators. I was happy to have the chance to learn from my student teacher’s creative ideas; what we came up with together was so much better than I would have come up with on my own.

What’s your go-to response when a student doesn’t understand something critical?

I like to draw an analogy between what we’re learning and something students can relate to or easily picture in their minds. For example, when we read, early in the year, texts that question whether historians should use the verb “discover” in relation to Christopher Columbus (“Columbus discovered America”), some students have trouble understanding why this is controversial. I ask them to imagine that someone who had never been to our neighborhood before suddenly walked into the school and pronounced that they had “discovered” it, even though we were all already sitting inside and learning.

Or, in learning about colonialism, I do a simulation with students asking them to reimagine the classrooms in our school as separate territories and brainstorm ways that we might be able to get our hands on the resources that another territory possesses. Taking time to describe these concepts and make them tangible for students helps ensure that they “stick.”

What’s something you do to build relationships with students?

I hold them to high expectations, but I also joke around with them and am not afraid to be a little goofy in class. Being silly disarms kids and helps them open up to me so I can get to know them better.

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 acted very “tough.” She left class all the time, crumpled up tests, argued. When her mother came in for a meeting, she called this student by an endearing nickname and spoke to her with such gentleness and empathy. She told her that her behavior was not OK, but she also probed to find out what was really going on.

That was such an invaluable learning moment for me. The way she spoke to her daughter — loving but firm, patient but expectant — was a model for me in how to communicate both love and high expectations at the same time. It reminded me that families know and love our students — their children — best in the world, and we have so much to learn from them about who our students really are.

I try to channel that mother now when I’m talking with a student who is really struggling.

What is the hardest part of your job?

This job is incredible and rewarding, but the work is never done. There is never a day where, as a teacher, I will close my laptop at the end of the day, put my feet up, and think, “Well, that’s settled.” There is always more work to grade, more lessons to write, more students to think about: How will I get this one to write a thesis? How will I help that one with reading informational texts?

It’s hard, but I’m not complaining. It is work that I love to do, because it challenges me and allows me to keep learning all the time. I get to reinvent my class constantly.

What advice would you give a teacher starting out next year?

Don’t be afraid to have other people come into your classroom and observe you. The more you can collaborate with your colleagues and get feedback on what’s happening in your room, the more you’ll learn and the more you’ll help your students grow.

How I Teach

This Cherry Creek High School history teacher makes students think twice about how Nazis rose to power

Virginia Clark DeCesare, a history teacher at Cherry Creek High School, in her classroom.

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.

For Virginia Clark DeCesare, teaching history isn’t about getting students to memorize names and dates. It’s about telling stories.

“It is about heroes and villains, ideas, decisions and lucky breaks,” she said.

DeCesare, who teaches American history as well as an elective class on World War I and II at Cherry Creek High School, was named the 2017 Outstanding Teacher of American History by the Colorado State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She’s also a National Board Certified Teacher, an advanced credential that requires a rigorous application process.

DeCesare talked to Chalkbeat about how she fell in love with teaching, why she surveys students at the beginning of the year and how she helps them understand Hitler’s rise to power.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I always enjoyed learning about history (my degree is in history) but it was not my initial plan to become a teacher. However, after trying several other jobs after college none of them gave me very much enjoyment. I decided to take a course where I got to observe and teach a few lessons. I absolutely loved it. I love the storytelling aspect of it, the creative aspect of it — coming up with new ways to teach an idea — and that I can continue to learn about the things that I love for my job! After that experience, I went back to school to get my teaching license.

What does your classroom look like?
It is covered with World War I and II propaganda posters. I have a particular passion for this time period and I created an elective course at Cherry Creek High School on it.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ____________ Why?
Books. I have learned so much over the years from continually reading. Every new historical book that I read adds something to the lessons that I teach. My books have allowed me to create a fuller story to tell, and learning history is all about how the story is told.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
I teach a lesson in which I give several groups of students German political parties in the 1930s to represent. Then I give partners particular German citizens to represent. The German parties need to convince the German citizens to vote for them (with very real issues facing them in the early 1930s such as the worldwide economic depression and effects of the Treaty of Versailles).

The German parties are actual parties from the time period (Communists, Social Democrats and the National Socialist German Workers party (Nazi)), but I have changed the names to party A, B, and C and each group chooses their own party names since their actual names would sway the students too much.

After the parties have presented their platforms the students representing German citizens tell about their problems and each party tries to explain, using their platforms, why they should vote for them. We then hold an election in which the students representing German citizens vote for a particular party. Almost every year the Nazis get chosen by the students — of course they do not know until the true names are revealed that they have just voted the Nazis into power. This is an instructive way of demonstrating how the challenges of the times could make a population very susceptible to particular political messages.

How did you come up with the idea?
I came up with this idea after finding party platforms and different German citizens’ views summed up in a book about the roots of the Holocaust. I have found it to be a very effective way to help students understand how a highly educated country of people could allow the Nazis to come to power legally in a democracy. It also helps them to better understand how and why such a country would follow the leadership of Hitler and the Nazis throughout the war.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Right after the first test I meet with any students who are struggling. I offer to meet with them one on one before tests or sometimes several times a week to help them better understand the material. This process has helped many of my students.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I usually try to infuse my teaching with humor. Making kids laugh is usually a good way to refocus their attention.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
At the beginning of the year I ask students to tell me about themselves in a series of survey questions. Questions such as: “What do you do in your free time?” and “What is the most important thing to you?” help me learn about the kids. I also attach a sheet in which they can ask anything they want to about me. I respond to each of these questions with a personal written response. The kids ask me all kinds of things from what I do for fun, to where my favorite place in the world is. This connection between us early on helps build strong relationships throughout the year.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A few years ago I found out that a student of mine lived with his grandmother because his mother was a drug addict and his father had not been around for a long time. The student was acting out in class and not completing assignments outside of class. This experience helped show me that students often have a lot to deal with outside of my classroom and that I need to keep the importance of my assignments in their larger lives in perspective.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I enjoy reading fantasy novels. My favorite books I recently read were Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. I also read a lot of World War I and II history because I like to add to my knowledge about the period and add anecdotes about the time period to my lessons.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
It is not a failure to accept help.