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.

How I Teach

After teen’s suicide attempt, this Colorado teacher wrote letters to each student. Now, she’ll share her story on a bigger stage.

Teacher Brittni Darras is lifted by graduating seniors from Rampart High School's varsity cheerleading squad, which Darras coaches.

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.

Brittni Darras, an English teacher at Rampart High School in the Colorado Springs-based Academy School District, was shocked by what she learned about one of her students in a parent-teacher conference. The outgoing teen had recently attempted suicide, the girl’s mother told Darras.

The news made Darras realize that other students were probably suffering in silence, too. She decided to write personalized cards to her more than 100 students telling them how much they mattered.

“It changed the way I see my role as a teacher,” she said.

Last fall, Darras’ efforts earned her the 2016 Hero of Mental Health award from AspenPointe, a nonprofit mental health provider in Colorado Springs. In July, she’ll speak at the TEDxMileHigh 2017 event at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver.

Darras talked to Chalkbeat about her card-writing campaign, what motivates her to wake up at 5:45 a.m. and why she doesn’t mind if students talk in class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I have known I wanted to be a teacher since I was in third grade. When I was in elementary school, during summer breaks, I would teach my little brother “lessons” and make him practice school-related work. He was a real trooper!

At the time, I thought I wanted to teach elementary school, but when I entered college, I started tutoring at my former high school through the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) program. I left every day inspired by how hard my students worked. I enjoyed having conversations with them about college and their future plans. By the end of that semester, I switched my major from elementary education to secondary education.

What does your classroom look like?
I like to think of my classroom as a place that is both interactive and caring. My students are frequently up and moving around. For example, one of my favorite interactive activities includes me posing a statement relevant to the unit I am teaching. My students have to stand against the “agree” or “disagree” wall and be prepared to defend their position in regard to the statement. We have had phenomenal discussions about heroes and what it means to be a hero as a result of this activity. It serves as a great introduction to our tragic hero unit.

I consider my classroom caring, because I always reiterate the need for my students to use positive self-talk and to use encouraging words with each other. I also make it a point to ask my students each Friday what their plans are for the weekend, and I always follow up on Monday to ask how their weekends were. It gives me an opportunity to learn what else my students do outside of school, and it provides me with very valuable information about each of my students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _______. Why?
My students. They are the reason I wake up and go to work every day. It’s like I always tell them, “If you love your job, you never work a day in your life.” I love what I do because of my students, so if it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t be worth waking up every morning at 5:45 a.m.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my favorite lessons is a scene interpretation assignment where students have to pick some kind of alternate reality and apply it to a chapter in a novel or a scene in a play we have read in class. They then have to alter the dialogue or script to match their alternate reality. Finally, they perform the new version in class.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If one student doesn’t understand my lesson, I like to pair that student up with another student who understands the topic a little better. It helps develop leadership, and it allows my students to share their knowledge and understanding. It helps the students realize they ARE smart!

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I don’t mind if students are talking. Many times, I ask them to talk. I believe having conversations allows my students to make more sense of the material, and it also allows my students to help and support each other through the learning process.

If students are off task, 99 percent of the time, a conversation with that student one-on-one solves the problem. Most of the time, if a student is off task, it is not intentional. Instead, it is usually because something else is going on at home or with their friends that is causing inner turmoil and making it hard for them to focus. These conversations allow me to assist and support my students as well as show them that I care about more than just their grade on their report card.

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 get to know my students by learning about what they do outside of school. As mentioned before, every week, I ask them how their weekend was, which gives me valuable information about their sports, hobbies and passions. Last year, I created an “Events” section on my board where students could write the date and time of upcoming events, such as their sporting events or school plays. It allowed me to show up to a variety of these events, and I was also able to follow up with my students to ask how the event was if I wasn’t able to attend.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A memorable time that had the most impact on me was when I had contact with a student’s mom at parent-teacher conferences. Her mom told me she had been absent from my class because she almost committed suicide. While this was tragic and devastating, it made me realize that this beautiful, outgoing, friendly girl can’t be my only student who is struggling.

As a result, I took action and wrote personalized cards to each of my students to let them know how much I care about them and why they make a difference in my class and on this planet. It changed the way I see my role as a teacher; teacher’s often see students more hours in a day than the students’ own parents do, so it is important for teachers to support students emotionally instead of just academically.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Right now, I am reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. Part of it is for enjoyment, and part of it is to prepare to teach AP Literature next year!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I ever received is to live each day like it’s my last. I am grateful each day for the opportunities and experiences that I have, and I try to encourage my students to embrace each day and each moment also. I strongly believe that when you start to examine the positive aspects of life, you live a happier, more fulfilling life.

How I Teach

Interested in classroom technology? This first grade teacher has a wealth of ideas.

PHOTO: Bretta Loeffler

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.

Teacher Bretta Loeffler loves mixing technology into her lessons. You might find her first-graders at Hulstrom K-8, a school for gifted and advanced students in the Adams 12 school district north of Denver, producing a newscast about the Liberty Bell or creating an online quiz about dolphins. Soon, she’ll add a 3D printer to the mix.

Loeffler was one of 52 educators nationwide — the only one from Colorado — selected as a 2017 PBS Digital Innovator in April. Winners were picked for integrating digital media and resources into their classrooms.

Loeffler talked to Chalkbeat about her favorite technologies, why she loves the zoo animal unit and how she uses the voice-activated Echo Dot device to get her students’ attention.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I have always wanted to be a teacher because I’ve always had a need to help others. I knew that I loved learning so I wanted to pass on this passion to my students.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a fun, inviting place to learn. I have a mixture of innovative new technology like iPads, interactive whiteboards, QR codes and soon a 3D printer, and also traditional items like a wonderful classroom library with lots of books, posters and items made by the students to support their learning.

PHOTO: Bretta Loeffler
The QR codes attached to each picture allow students to watch the videos their classmates have made.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
My students’ energy. It is what drives me to work hard each and every day. They fuel what I do.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
I love teaching the students about researching animals. We take virtual and real field trips to zoos. We love watching the animal cams of the different animals. We take our information and write a traditional animal report. Then we mix in new technology. The students find a background that represents their animals’ habitat and make a mask of the animal. Then we greenscreen the report and make a QR code to share our information with the world. We also use the quiz-making application TinyTap that helps us share our information with other students all over the world.

I have many standards that I must cover, including animal research and publishing writing in an innovative way. So, my teammates and I decided on this format.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I think of students who aren’t understanding like a puzzle. I think about what they do know and then think about the roadblocks that are holding them back. Then I put a plan in place. I really believe in blending learning and try having the students learn the concept in different ways like with music or in a more visual format. We use an application called Blendspaces that allows me to create interactive lessons using different kinds of media, including video, audio, games and pdfs.

I love teaching fractions and having all the students watching and interacting with the content in a way that makes sense for them. It is powerful and engaging for the students. I also believe in students teaching students. In our room, students will be showing work using Apple TV or doing gallery walks to showcase learning.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
We have many attention-getting sayings. For example, I say “Hulstrom,” and they say “All-Stars.” My new toy is an Echo Dot. I use it to set timers and get students attention. It really seems to be working. However, the newness will wear off and then I’ll need to look for something new and improved.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?
The last few years I have used an app called Seesaw. It is a digital portfolio that students can use. I get messages and pictures from students all during the year — during weekends, holidays, trips and other events. This helps me get to know them outside of school and makes learning and community go 24/7. I can also send out videos, pictures and other items to parents as they are happening in our day. This helps build relationships in a fun and meaningful way.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I think that I will always remember a student who came to our class after a traumatic experience at another school. He was shy and a little scared. His mom really wanted to make sure he was safe and in a school he enjoyed. I understood her sense of urgency. I could see it in her face and hear it in her voice. As a mom, I know that you want your child to have the best. I also wanted him to feel safe and happy at school. That year I had a remarkable class that loved learning and each other. They took him in and within a few days he looked and felt a part of our classroom community. I could see the mom start to relax and feel better. We are still in contact and she still reminds me about how as a team we took something bad and turned it into something positive.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I wish I could list books that I am reading, but being a busy teacher doesn’t leave me much time to spend on reading. However, I am always reading blogs and connecting with other teachers to share and build on ideas. Some of my favorite blogs are Free Technology for Teachers, First Grade Fun Times, Seesaw Blog, TinyTap blog, Fearless First Grade Teachers and Education to the Core. I enjoy social media very much. I also love Pinterest.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I think the best advice I have received is from former teachers and colleagues and that is to find enjoyment in what you do and share that with the students, families and other teachers. When I have that I can pass that along to others. This job is too hard to do without helping each other out.