How I Teach

He wasn’t much of a cook, but this French teacher has a winning recipe for teaching his native tongue

PHOTO: Simon Pearson/Creative Commons

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.

Arnaud Garcia, a French teacher at Loveland High School in the Thompson School District, never thought he’d go into teaching. He tried law school, then a restaurant job. Neither stuck.

He came around to education after discovering the joy of teaching French to his own child. He’s a fan of costumes, props and colorful decorations — anything to liven up the learning experience.

His teaching mantra is, “If it isn’t engaging, why do it?”

Garcia won the Colorado Congress of Foreign Language 2017 New Educator award, which recognizes educators in their first five years of teaching.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

When I was younger, I wasn’t a very good student (C at best) and I used to think that you had to be crazy to become a teacher. I came to the U.S. in 2003. I studied law earlier in France, and I really didn’t like it. But being the first of my family to ever go to college, I felt like I had to choose a career that would make my parents proud.

In the U.S., I started to work in a restaurant because people assumed that, as a native of France, I knew how to cook (which couldn’t be further from the truth in my case). Also, I wanted to practice speaking in English. When I had my first child, I started to teach him French. It was great to hear him saying words in French. It was like we were talking in a private code that only we could understand. I liked it so much I decided I could teach other children.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is colorful. I have posters that I change each time we start a new unit: words, verbs, numbers, gargoyles, stuffed animals, and Eiffel Towers everywhere. I also have a huge bin of clothes and props that we use daily for stories. I want it to be a safe place for my students where they feel comfortable. I want them to feel that it is THEIR classroom. It may look unorganized for some, but I (kind of) know where everything is when I need it.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
My ink stamps! Each time students participate, they get a a stamp (and I have a ton of different ones) and my students really want to get their stamps. I better not forget it, otherwise I’m in trouble! At the end of a week when I collect their papers with all the stamps, I know who participated and who may need some more help.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my favorite lessons to teach is during the daily life and chores unit. We look at a series of pictures of kids’ bedrooms from all over the world, and for a lot of my students, it is an eye-opener. I feel like it is very important to design lessons that encourage language use as well as expand the worldview of a learner. For me it is important that they become better citizens of the world, so it is necessary for them to realize that the world is vast, diverse and different from what they know.

On a lighter note, I love when it is time to bring my breakout boxes! I love designing puzzles in order to open the locks and open the box. Sometimes there are boxes inside of boxes and other times I hide different boxes in my classroom. For example, a breakout game that I have seen done was about Marie-Antoinette and Versailles. Students had to decipher clues in French in order to to discover “her last secret.” Not only does it promote deeper thinking, but it also uses all four levels of depth of knowledge. It prepares students for teamwork and collaboration, and they learn to work under pressure, challenging them to persevere.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
At the beginning of the semester, we come up all together with a silent sign or gesture if a student does not understand. Since I teach in French, it is crucial that they understand what is going on. I stop, and I explain again, we go over it again, we practice, we use our whiteboard and we play with the words or the grammatical structure until they get it.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I am hilarious (or most likely, students are making fun of my English, and my accent in general), so I don’t have that problem (too often). I also have several huge boxes of props and clothes and I love using them to tell a story in order to implement the vocabulary or grammar structure that I want them to know. I include the students so they feel like they are part of the story, and that it is their story. Usually, if the students see that I am having fun teaching, they are with 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?
I think building relationships is primordial in our job. I have a great sense of pride when students staying in my class, even if they don’t need it to graduate. You see them grow as a student and a person, and it is one of my favorite parts of the job. I don’t have to know everything about their life, but they have to know that I care about them. We have an activity: the star of the week, where we learn about one student’s life. It is a great way to learn that one of your student is an artist or has a secret talent.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
During my first couple of years teaching, one parent seemed to not understand a word I said, finally telling me: “Thank God you’re teaching French and not English!” I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.

Another time, I had a single mom who didn’t speak much English coming for a parent-teacher conference. Her daughter was one of the best students in my class, so I praised her in Spanglish and French. The mother started to cry, thanking me for my kind words. Again, I wasn’t sure what to say.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Comic books! I love Marvel comic books! They helped me learn English and I still read them every week.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Our job is a service, not servitude — from my mentor, Toni Theisen, the district’s World Languages curriculum representative. It is very important to balance our professional and private lives. Teaching asks so much of us, that it’s easy to constantly work. I have five classes to prepare for — at all levels — so it would be easy for me to not have a social life and be completely burned out. But I need to have “me” time when I go home and I disconnect completely from school.

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.”