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.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

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.