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.

How I Teach

As a first-year teacher, he wanted to quit. Watching ‘the greats’ helped him stick it out.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

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.

A few months after Kevin Vaughn took his first teaching job in a third grade classroom in Arizona, he decided to quit.

“Teaching was way beyond me,” he said.

Vaughn went to his principal and apologized profusely for his imminent resignation. But then things went off-track. His principal told him to calm down and suggested he visit other classrooms in the building to see what good teaching looked like.

Vaughn, now an art teacher at Dolores Elementary School in southwest Colorado, agreed and ultimately stuck with the job. He talked with Chalkbeat about his habit of “stealing” ideas from other teachers, the challenge of getting to know students he sees once a week and his love of fidgeting.

Vaughn is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
At the age of 30, I gave up a career in the food and beverage industry when I realized after 10 successful years I was just feeding people. It might have been a wonderful dining experience for them with some great food, but it was no longer something I could hang my hat on. I wanted something more. I wanted to make a difference in somebody’s life.

What does your classroom look like?
I like to run an organized classroom, so even though there is a great deal of creativity and energy in the room, I’d say the students are rather focused on their work while music from the era we are studying plays in the background.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Fidget. Yes, believe it or not, I’ve always had a fidget — even before it was a fad. For the 20 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve played with clay, rubbed a rock, squished a sponge, rubbed a piece of cloth all the while providing instruction or walking around assisting students as they work. It keeps me calm and collected. It is great to be able to model for students how fidgeting should really look. It doesn’t need to take away one’s focus from the teacher or cause distraction to other students.

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

I’d have to say my current favorite lesson since becoming an art teacher is one in which I teach the kindergarteners about Wassily Kandinsky. We look at some of his work, discuss his style and his use of color, and then create our own using shaving cream and food coloring. The work is so individual, and almost instantaneous as it is revealed, that the kids just beam about the art they have produced. As with so many other lessons, I found this one online and just tweaked it to fit my personality and teaching style. There really are a plethora of high quality teachers out there willing to share their ideas.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When a student doesn’t understand a lesson, I’ve always just taught it again, and again, and again — with different examples and from different perspectives. With art, it is usually the technique that troubles the students as it is often the first time some students have used a particular medium. So, sitting down with students and breaking it down into smaller steps usually works well.

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

Rarely is the whole class off task, but usually when a student is off task I slowly walk by and refocus attention with a soft comment. However, if I need the attention of the whole class I’ll call out the first name of the artist we are currently studying, and have them call back — in chorus — the last name of that artist. Me: “Leonardo,” Students: “DaVinci.” They know that is the time to put down their tools and put their eyes on me.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It was so much easier when I was a classroom teacher to build relationships with the students. I saw the same students on a daily basis and could slowly develop that relationship as I learned more about their personalities and academic needs. Now, as an art teacher, I only see my students once every six days, so I have to make an effort to engage them outside the classroom as often as possible as well as in the studio. The cafeteria, in the hallway, at recess are all good times to just get to know the students.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I started my teaching career on the Navajo reservation and later moved to a small migrant community in Oregon. In both of these areas I was working with students of very different cultural backgrounds than the one I came from. I wouldn’t necessarily say that meeting the families of my students changed my perspective or approach, but it certainly gave me insight into my students lives that I could use to help me be a better teacher for them.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
The first book this summer I picked up was “The Generals: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, and the Winning of World War II” by Winston Groom.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My first principal and mentor, Ron Mansfield, told me to, “Watch the great teachers and learn.” Everything I know and do as a teacher I stole from someone else. I have my own personality and ways of doing things for sure, but being a good teacher has come by seeing how it is done by the best. Over 20 years I’ve had the opportunity to work with some tremendous people, and I’m so thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to learn the art of education from each and every one of them.

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.