How I Teach

Harsh realities of growing up poor pushed this Colorado teacher to connect with her students

Teacher Natalie Mejia, right, with students from Atlas Preparatory School on "Nerds Rule the World" day last fall.

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.

Natalie Mejia, a math teacher at Atlas Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, knows the challenges many of her students face. She grew up poor in Los Angeles, navigating an education system that didn’t reflect her culture or background.

It’s the reason she’s determined to show her seventh- and eighth-graders how much they matter.

“They won’t care what you know, until they know that you care,” she says.

Mejia is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I believe our kids deserve to be surrounded by people who love them and believe in their tenacity to succeed. Growing up low-income in Los Angeles exposed me to many harsh realities that motivated me to pursue higher education. Additionally, as a first-generation high school and college graduate, I can relate to the adversity my children face on their pursuit to learn and navigate within an institution that wasn’t built with their social or cultural identity in mind.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is split into three sections — pink, blue, and orange. In the pink section, eight students are receiving direct instruction. In the blue section, eight students are reviewing prerequisite skills for upcoming lessons and in the orange section 16 students are working on online lessons on the Khan Academy website. The students rotate every other day through the sections so that all 32 scholars are working directly with me, in pairs, or independently to master the content.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ____________. Why?
My smart board. I absolutely love the white board in the classroom because it makes it easier for students to follow along as I teach. Additionally, the colored pens allow me to differentiate or emphasize notes within the lesson.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I enjoy teaching my students our statistics unit because this is the place where they can be the most creative. My school takes a traditional approach to learning. However, in this unit students are encouraged to create their own statistical questions and gather data. This unit I believe allows them to personalize the learning and justify their thinking.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student shares that he/she doesn’t fully understand a concept or demonstrates gaps on the three-question assessment they turn in at the end of the day, I do any of the following:
– Provide one-on-one instruction before school, during lunch, or after school.
– Modify the upcoming lesson to provide better scaffolding and support.
– Pair the student with someone who’s mastered the concept and can serve as a peer tutor.
– Follow up with parents directly about how they can support the student at home.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My strategies vary from class to class and student to student. If one or two students are off task, I am more private in my approach to redirect their behavior.

If an entire section in my class is off-task, I walk over and provide a countdown to get their attention. Once I have their full attention I restate expectations and narrate positive behaviors.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
First and foremost, I approach my students and my work with the utmost humility and appreciation. I tell my students early on and often how much I love them and how their presence brings joy to my life.

I continue to demonstrate my commitment to them and their education by establishing academic and social goals for the year. I challenge them to be present in class and to own their learning environment by supporting one another. In addition to our time in class, I try to attend our students’ games and family events in the community. In doing this, I can foster deep relationships with my students and their families. Collectively we work throughout the year to be advocates for their students’ academic and socio-emotional success.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I met Mr. Senior in the summer of 2011 in Baltimore. He was a single father of two middle school-aged boys and attended our pre-school conference. This meeting was an opportunity for us to check-in as student, parent(s), and advisors prior to the start of the school year to establish academic and social goals for the year. Throughout the year, Mr. Senior demonstrated unwavering commitment and love for his children through his active participation and involvement in our school.

His persistence in advocating for his children challenged the unknown bias I had toward fathers being passive participants within education. We’ve stayed in touch over the last six years and it’s such a pleasure to see the joy and pride he has for his sons and their long-term success.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am currently reading “Drown” by Junot Diaz. It is a goal to immerse myself in more Latino/a literature.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
A few months ago, I was reading, “The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community is Inspiring the World” by Nadia Lopez. In her text she wrote, “This is not a Third World country. This is real life in the United States of America, and the qualities in these kids that frustrate teachers are the very same ones that help them survive every day.”

Her sentiments resonated with me because I love and respect my students’ ability to face the adversity with authenticity and courage. Approaching my work with this mindset inspires me to be the best mentor and educator for my students and their families.

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.