How I Teach

This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect.

PHOTO: Liz Fitzgerald
Liz Fitzgerald teaches fourth grade at Sagebrush Elementary School in the Cherry Creek district.

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.

Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary in the Cherry Creek School District, used to hang flags and posters to represent all the different cultures represented by her students. Then she decided that wasn’t enough.

She wanted her students to know they were in a safe place regardless of their background or opinions. She worked with them to create a classroom built on acceptance and civility — even when viewpoints diverge.

Fitzgerald 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 always wanted to do something important and that made the world a better place. I see education as one of the very few universal human experiences, and so it has always struck me as a place where we, as a society, can make the most impact. If we can guarantee that every person has access to an excellent educational experience with highly effective teachers, I think we can create a lot of change in our country and our world. I wanted to be part of that!

What does your classroom look like?

I spent the first four years of my career in a school where most of my students rarely ventured outside of their neighborhood. My students lived five miles from downtown, yet many of them had never been there. I wanted to find a way to bring the world to them and introduce my students to life beyond their neighborhood. I started decorating my library with travel posters, I hung up flags from countries that represented my students’ backgrounds, and I started incorporating ideas, traditions, and stories from all around the world into my curriculum.

As I grew past my second year of teaching, I realized that hanging up flags and posters of students’ cultures was only one piece of celebrating who they are and encouraging them to explore new ways of thinking. I wanted the classroom to be more than superficially welcoming but emotionally safe as well. So today, my classroom still has many of these artifacts, but we also write and hang agreements of how we will treat one another. We refer back to these agreements on our rough days and celebrate them on our good days. We have words and phrases on the walls that help us share our truths but also consider the perspective of others. I hope that this creates a safe and welcoming space yet also stretches all of us to grow.

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

One aspect of my master’s program was learning and utilizing the Seven Norms of Collaboration. As I practiced these norms in working with adults, I realized that my students were capable of using them too. Instead of a classroom management system that takes away points, recess, or stamps, I decided to approach this year differently. I adapted the Seven Norms of Collaboration to meet the needs of my students, and then I spent the first weeks of school teaching my students our norms and expectations of working together.

Today, if you walk into my classroom, you see students setting social and academic goals for themselves, collaborating in groups, and monitoring progress toward their goals. Our discipline problems have been minimal — the occasional spat at recess — and I feel like our classroom community is built on deep respect. My students are comfortable living in a state of cognitive dissonance, and we have guidelines for how we disagree respectfully with one another. I cannot imagine teaching any other way, and most importantly, I hope that these are skills that stick with them for the rest of their lives.

How do you plan your lessons?

Every lesson begins with the evaluation of my students’ current level of understanding. Sometimes this is a formal process of pre-assessment, while other times it consists of analyzing patterns of student performance. Either way, I try to be very thoughtful in the objective that I am trying to teach, how to adjust for students who may struggle, and how to extend the lesson for students who quickly master the material. I work with my grade-level team and my English Language co-teacher to determine where each lesson fits into our curriculum maps as well as best practices for teaching.

I use the workshop model in every subject, so I try to keep my mini-lesson at approximately 15-20 minutes and allow for 30-50 minutes of student work time. This large chunk of time allows me to conference with students one-on-one or in small groups and really modify or extend the lesson as needed. Similarly, it allows students to spend the majority of time doing what they need the most — practicing and engaging in their own learning!

What qualities make an ideal lesson?

The words of my first principal echo in my head — “Intro, model, check, release” — and I still think those are the four most important parts: engage students in a lesson, model the skill, check student progress on the skill, and release students to work. But my favorite lessons are the ones where students take the lead, make connections to a previous concept, or take over the conversation. I LOVE watching my students engage in respectful disagreements among themselves and arrive at new learning in a natural way.

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

I love the workshop model because it allows me to meet the needs of all my students. During that large period of student work time, I can meet one-on-one with students, modify or provide support as necessary, and ultimately help that child reach the objective. I try to stay very calm and patient, validate the student’s hard work, and hold the same high expectation. I want students to feel comfortable asking for help and empowered that they can achieve.

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

I think it is so important to remember that no one can have their best day every day. When a student has lost focus, I try to keep this in mind. Part of our classroom is the expectation to “Pay Attention to Yourself,” monitor your emotions, and make deliberate choices when you notice something is off.

When students are having a rough day, I remind them of this expectation and work with them to determine appropriate next steps. Knowing my students really helps with this. I know that some of them need to be coached into a minute of physical activity, others need one minute to doodle, while others may need to take a quick lap around our school.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?

I send an email every Monday with classroom celebrations, a detailed schedule of our week (special events, homework…etc), upcoming notes or events, and questions for families to discuss with their students at home. These questions include everything from probes about our classroom content to reflections about what was challenging for students. My hope is that by including specific questions, parents feel more connected to what happens in our classroom and can have meaningful conversations about our classroom at home!

I also complete rounds of family check-ins every few weeks. During these check-ins, I call every parent in my classroom and share student progress, anecdotes, and any concerns I have. This time also allows me to hear what is on the minds of parents and make sure that no frustration, concern, or question goes unheard. I have found that these check-ins help develop my relationship with each parent and our trust in each other.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I’ve always loved historical fiction, and I have been enjoying a few new titles thanks to our school staff’s book club. Recently we read When the Moon Was Low, which is the story of a family fleeing Afghanistan, which gave us a lot of perspective on the experiences of many of our families and community members. We also have read Yellow Crocus about a white woman growing up with a black wet nurse and their very different searches for freedom.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The summer before my first year of teaching, I read a book titled Teaching with Love and Logic. The authors wrote that a student “will do anything for a teacher that they love, even things they wouldn’t do for themselves.” I believe so much in the power of building a positive, meaningful relationship with every student, and that it can be the difference-maker in a classroom. Even on my frustrated days, I remind students that in this classroom they are loved, they are believed in, and they matter, and if nothing else, I hope they take that with them at the end of the day.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

How I Teach

What to do when your class loses focus? This teacher picks up a guitar

Joella DeLisi Melnikov

As a teenager in a sea of 4,000 students at Staten Island’s Tottenville High school, Joella DeLisi Melnikov found her niche in the music room.

“In the music room, you knew everybody,” recalls Melnikov, now 36. “There’s really nothing like sitting in the middle of an orchestra or band … and feeling the music and being surrounded by everyone around you.”

At age nine, Melnikov picked up the clarinet, setting off a love of music that led to two separate music degrees and a number of professional gigs. She often taught private lessons on the side to students who complained that there were few public music classes available to them.

That gave Melnikov a sense of mission when she began teaching music in the city’s public schools — a job she landed (part-time at first) through the city’s Arts Matter program, an effort to expand access to arts education.

Now, as a full-time teacher at P.S./I.S. 121 Nelson Rockefeller in Brooklyn, she is hoping to help her students feel connected to school through music, and inspire a few musicians in the process.

This interview has been lightly edited.

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style:

Energetic. I am always excited to try new things and take risks with the kids, and we feed off of each other’s energy and enthusiasm.

Why did you become a teacher?

Learning music in public school changed my life. I wanted to give that same opportunity to other children.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a completely hands-on room, where all of the instruments are laid out all around you. The students are able to pick up whichever instrument they’re currently working on and jump right into a rehearsal. Even the students as young as kindergarten are able to take out the rhythm instruments and share them with the class.

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

Smartboard.

Why?

The students are constantly asking to learn new songs or to try out new things. We can quickly pull up anything they are interested in and try it out right away.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?

Modern Rock Band. I took the Little Kids Rock workshop, [which helps teachers learn to use music students already listen to], and they introduced the Modern Rock Band curriculum. It is the easiest and quickest way to get students who don’t even know how to hold an instrument to begin playing songs that they recognize and can sing along to. The students sound like a real rock band within just a few lessons.

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

I first try to understand what it is they’re having trouble with. If I try explaining it a different way and they’re still struggling, I ask one of their classmates to help. They often have a way of explaining things from their own viewpoint that they understand much better from each other.

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

If the whole class needs to be brought back to attention, I’ll pick up a guitar and start playing a song. One or two more students might join in, and the rest of the class will enjoy the short performance. Then I remind them that this is what we’re working toward, and get them back to work. If I just have one or two students having trouble paying attention, I’ll put them in charge of helping another student. They really enjoy taking ownership of their skills and knowledge.

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 try to be very real with my students. They see that I’m a person too, and I make mistakes. We have a motto in our classroom: Respect yourself, each other, and the instruments. I treat them like young adults, and they give me the same respect. They also like to read the inspirational posters we have hanging in the room like: “It’s okay to make a mistake when you’ve tried. It’s a mistake not to try.”

We talk about how it’s inevitable that we’re going to make a mistake, because we’re trying new things. And we may even feel embarrassed now and then. But we’re all in this together. When someone is struggling, I can hear them calling out and quoting that poster to each other. The music room is a safe place for a lot of them. They stop by when they’re having a rough day, and they know they won’t be judged here.

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 had a very different home life from what I had imagined. When he often forgot his instrument and lost his music, I assumed he just wasn’t that interested. I learned that he was often going to a different house each night, and he was doing his best to overcome his own obstacles. I invited him to come rehearse with me during lunch, and gave him a second set of instruments and music to keep at school. He became one of my best musicians that year.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Tomorrow is another day. Even if everything goes completely wrong, we can try it all again tomorrow. A bad dress rehearsal often precedes an amazing performance.