How I Teach

Why this Memphis teacher asks her students to create a mixtape every year

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Natasha Wilkins is a history teacher at GRAD Academy Memphis, a charter school in the state-run Achievement School District.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

During her African-American history classes, Natasha Wilkins asks her high school students to answer this question in a “free writing” exercise: “Who is responsible for educating the public about injustice?”

The students type away while listening to R&B singer R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest,” which isn’t uncommon. Wilkins has made a point of integrating music into her classroom at GRAD Academy Memphis, a charter high school within Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Her class culminates with a “Hip Hot History” project, a mixtape produced by her students, who write the lyrics and record their songs in a studio to share their learning.

When asked how she answered the writing prompt, one student said that, thanks to Wilkins, she believes that she is responsible for educating the public about injustice. “I think understanding injustice has a lot to do with understanding history, real history,” the student said. “We can’t care about something we don’t know about.”

That’s the goal of Wilkins’ class:  To help her students, most of whom are black, understand the history of their ancestors and to have fun while doing it.

We asked Wilkins to explain more about her teaching style and how she helps her students “own” history.

Why did you become a teacher?

Of my friends from high school, none of my black male friends graduated from or even made it past their sophomore year of college. I was deeply frustrated by the realization that there was a system in place that left young black men feeling inadequate to pursue their educational goals, and I took the offense personally. I joined Teach For America with the desire to disrupt this cycle. 

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A mural hangs on the wall in Wilkins’ classroom.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a space designed to inspire and affirm. There is student work that lines the walls and quotes designed to push my students to think beyond what is in a textbook. I think a big part of my classroom is also what is not present.  I very intentionally did not put up many images of people from the past. I want my students to view history as not just acts and individuals from the past, but an ever-evolving story of which they are a part.

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

I tend to reframe it in terms of their lives. For example, I related the Civil War to gang warfare, and the division of the North and South leading up to the Civil War to a dating relationship gone bad. Putting the lesson in terms of things my students can relate to gives them confidence in the classroom and affirms that learning is for them, not just something that they do in a school, in a classroom.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

At the beginning of the year, I do a short unit exploring what history is and how what becomes defined as “history” is determined and recorded. My students explore their perceptions of history and then are given the opportunity to record a story from their lives (also available on SoundCloud) in a project called Our Stories, Our Voices.

I explain to my students that we are all a part of history and that each of us deserves the chance to tell our own stories in our own voices. In this project, I allow my students to tell their stories how they perceive them, in their dialect, in their reality. This is essential to building relationships because it gives my students the space to be themselves, but it also gives me insight into what makes them who they are and the joys and pains that they bring into the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

In 2015, I was engaged in a heated discussion with my World History honors class about the inequalities in the education they were receiving versus what I received in my predominantly white high school in Illinois. I was explaining to them why I was giving them the assignments I did, and why I taught the way I did, because that’s what my teachers did and it worked for me.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Wilkins says the goal of her class is to apply history to daily, lived experiences.

It was during this conversation that one of my more reserved students yelled out in frustration, “But this ain’t Springfield, Ms. Wilkins, and all of that Springfield stuff don’t work for us out here in Memphis. We’re different.”

This was a pivotal moment of realization in my teaching. It was in that moment that I finally heard my students and their frustrations and I realized that I needed to step back and learn from them just as they learned from me.

Describe Hip Hot History. Where did the idea come from, how do you implement it in your classroom, and why has it been a success for your students?

The idea for this project actually started as a joke. In class I would often play instrumentals and rap about history or getting back on task, to the amusement of my students. The students started asking me if I was going to drop a mixtape soon and I told them I would. One day, one of my students asked if the class could be on my mixtape and from there Hip Hot History was born.

This project is the capstone project my students complete at the end of the year. They are given the choice of writing a song, spoken-word piece, or creating a documentary film telling the story of blacks in history. They are given full creative license to create their piece with guidelines on how to choose the topic and the length of the piece.

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.