How I Teach

What to do when your class loses focus? This teacher picks up a guitar

Joella DeLisi Melnikov

As a teenager in a sea of 4,000 students at Staten Island’s Tottenville High school, Joella DeLisi Melnikov found her niche in the music room.

“In the music room, you knew everybody,” recalls Melnikov, now 36. “There’s really nothing like sitting in the middle of an orchestra or band … and feeling the music and being surrounded by everyone around you.”

At age nine, Melnikov picked up the clarinet, setting off a love of music that led to two separate music degrees and a number of professional gigs. She often taught private lessons on the side to students who complained that there were few public music classes available to them.

That gave Melnikov a sense of mission when she began teaching music in the city’s public schools — a job she landed (part-time at first) through the city’s Arts Matter program, an effort to expand access to arts education.

Now, as a full-time teacher at P.S./I.S. 121 Nelson Rockefeller in Brooklyn, she is hoping to help her students feel connected to school through music, and inspire a few musicians in the process.

This interview has been lightly edited.

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style:

Energetic. I am always excited to try new things and take risks with the kids, and we feed off of each other’s energy and enthusiasm.

Why did you become a teacher?

Learning music in public school changed my life. I wanted to give that same opportunity to other children.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a completely hands-on room, where all of the instruments are laid out all around you. The students are able to pick up whichever instrument they’re currently working on and jump right into a rehearsal. Even the students as young as kindergarten are able to take out the rhythm instruments and share them with the class.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________.

Smartboard.

Why?

The students are constantly asking to learn new songs or to try out new things. We can quickly pull up anything they are interested in and try it out right away.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?

Modern Rock Band. I took the Little Kids Rock workshop, [which helps teachers learn to use music students already listen to], and they introduced the Modern Rock Band curriculum. It is the easiest and quickest way to get students who don’t even know how to hold an instrument to begin playing songs that they recognize and can sing along to. The students sound like a real rock band within just a few lessons.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

I first try to understand what it is they’re having trouble with. If I try explaining it a different way and they’re still struggling, I ask one of their classmates to help. They often have a way of explaining things from their own viewpoint that they understand much better from each other.

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

If the whole class needs to be brought back to attention, I’ll pick up a guitar and start playing a song. One or two more students might join in, and the rest of the class will enjoy the short performance. Then I remind them that this is what we’re working toward, and get them back to work. If I just have one or two students having trouble paying attention, I’ll put them in charge of helping another student. They really enjoy taking ownership of their skills and knowledge.

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 try to be very real with my students. They see that I’m a person too, and I make mistakes. We have a motto in our classroom: Respect yourself, each other, and the instruments. I treat them like young adults, and they give me the same respect. They also like to read the inspirational posters we have hanging in the room like: “It’s okay to make a mistake when you’ve tried. It’s a mistake not to try.”

We talk about how it’s inevitable that we’re going to make a mistake, because we’re trying new things. And we may even feel embarrassed now and then. But we’re all in this together. When someone is struggling, I can hear them calling out and quoting that poster to each other. The music room is a safe place for a lot of them. They stop by when they’re having a rough day, and they know they won’t be judged here.

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 had a very different home life from what I had imagined. When he often forgot his instrument and lost his music, I assumed he just wasn’t that interested. I learned that he was often going to a different house each night, and he was doing his best to overcome his own obstacles. I invited him to come rehearse with me during lunch, and gave him a second set of instruments and music to keep at school. He became one of my best musicians that year.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Tomorrow is another day. Even if everything goes completely wrong, we can try it all again tomorrow. A bad dress rehearsal often precedes an amazing performance.

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.”