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.

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.”