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

Live, from Music City, an elementary school teacher presents life lessons with a beat

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Christopher Blackmon leads second-grade students in a song he wrote and composed as a music teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Nashville.

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.

Sixteen miles from Music Row, a bustling nexus of Nashville’s recording industry, second-grade students are hard at work perfecting a single at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School.

“Winners, winners don’t quit. They don’t quit!” they sing, reading lyrics and music on a screen. “If I can believe it, then I can achieve it! I must leave my doubts behind.”

Then come the dance moves. Students shake and wiggle with exuberance.

The songwriting credit goes to Christopher Blackmon, a music teacher at Edison Elementary and one of 31 educators nationwide named 2017 Music Teachers of Excellence by the Country Music Association. The CMA Foundation is honoring the group Wednesday at a Nashville event hosted by Little Big Town, the CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year.

The acknowledgement draws attention to music education at a time when such programs are being slashed from public schools nationwide. But at Edison Elementary, the pace for teaching and learning music is picking up. In addition to providing instruction twice a week during school, Blackmon and a colleague lead after-school activities that include piano lessons and video production. More than 100 students, or about a sixth of the student body, participate in extra musical enrichment.

Here’s how Blackmon inspires students to love music, and to extend their enthusiasm to other academic subjects. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was most impacted by my high school music experience. We had a great program. I was in the band. I played tuba and baritone, but I also played jazz piano for a jazz combo. My band teacher was somebody you just look up to.

I’m always trying to push kids toward having a strong, principled life that means something and contributes something positive to the culture. With music education, I felt like I could teach both music and those positive character principles that I think kids need.

What does your classroom look like?

There’s a big open space in the middle and toward the front because it’s versatile. I do a lot of things with instruments and I set the instruments out and I have students rotating so they can see the screen, where I have the music up. I like to use less paper because students are just going to throw it away anyway.

They also dance a lot. In fact, they dance every day they come here. Probably, if I hadn’t been a music teacher, I would’ve been in P.E. Exercise helps brain development. The coordinated movement, especially symmetrical movements, where you cross the meridians of your body, is very important to cross-hemispheric development. Music as a whole is. That’s why I am such an advocate for music education, especially at the elementary level. I do a lot of stuff with audio production, (and) I could teach that in high school, but I think this is where people’s foundations are. I want to impact the beginning. I want to impact those foundations and help them establish their lives.

I have keyboards along the back of my room. I inherited 10 and then I have begged, borrowed and stole to get a class set so I can teach kids piano. I actually designed these. It allows four kids to sit at a table and hear only their keyboard through headphones. I can have some kids moving faster working together, some kids moving slower working together.

There’s so much research that shows that kids who get early piano instruction — piano or guitar — their brains develop more gray matter. The research shows over and over that they score higher on tests, that they do better with certain types of problem-solving skills, and so it’s better for everybody, whether or not they’re going to stick with it in real life.

What can’t you teach without?

(Click to listen to this track.)


Every time they walk into the classroom, they don’t get a chance to ask me questions and talk, because I told them I want to hear music first.

This little track is really effective because it reminds them what they’re going to do every single day, and then they know what to expect, but it gets harder and harder each time. It starts my class out the same way, but it doesn’t take a long time, and by five minutes into the class, they have already grown musically.

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

I try to catch the ones doing right and then comment on it because people will look at them and they’ll pull it together. I’ll say, “I love how so-and-so is being a STAR.” My little STAR thing is just: stand up straight, track the speaker, actively participate, respectfully celebrate. I say it all the time.

If a kid is just totally not getting it together, sometimes I’ll say, “Can you go write down and say how you would fix this?” That usually helps them.

How does parental communicate fit into your teaching approach?

When I see kids with musical talent, I write a personal note or call that parent and let them know that I really recommend that they get some kind of lesson or connect that child to music in some other kind of way. A lot of time, that will be a hook to get students through school when it’s hard.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It sounds like common sense, but the best advice I ever received was about classroom management from Sue Hall, who was the last music teacher here. She said, “Whatever you say you’re going to do, do it.” If you don’t have the respect of the students, you cannot teach them. It doesn’t matter how much they like you — I mean, they can love you — but if they don’t respect you, they don’t behave. And if they don’t behave, they cannot learn.

What does it mean to be teaching music in Music City?

What I do wouldn’t be accepted by a lot of music programs. Sometimes they just want you to do stale old canned musicals they found somewhere, or they want you to teach in a traditional way. I teach in a very non-traditional way, because I’m exposing kids to the real music machine. These kids could make a living in a lot of different ways in music. Traditionally, it’s very classical-based instruction. But if they know how to produce music and they have a good idea, you can make a living. You don’t have to be a big label anymore.

Here’s a music video created and produced by Blackmon and students in an afterschool program:

How I Teach

Harsh realities of growing up poor pushed this Colorado teacher to connect with her students

Teacher Natalie Mejia, right, with students from Atlas Preparatory School on "Nerds Rule the World" day last fall.

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.

Natalie Mejia, a math teacher at Atlas Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, knows the challenges many of her students face. She grew up poor in Los Angeles, navigating an education system that didn’t reflect her culture or background.

It’s the reason she’s determined to show her seventh- and eighth-graders how much they matter.

“They won’t care what you know, until they know that you care,” she says.

Mejia is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I believe our kids deserve to be surrounded by people who love them and believe in their tenacity to succeed. Growing up low-income in Los Angeles exposed me to many harsh realities that motivated me to pursue higher education. Additionally, as a first-generation high school and college graduate, I can relate to the adversity my children face on their pursuit to learn and navigate within an institution that wasn’t built with their social or cultural identity in mind.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is split into three sections — pink, blue, and orange. In the pink section, eight students are receiving direct instruction. In the blue section, eight students are reviewing prerequisite skills for upcoming lessons and in the orange section 16 students are working on online lessons on the Khan Academy website. The students rotate every other day through the sections so that all 32 scholars are working directly with me, in pairs, or independently to master the content.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ____________. Why?
My smart board. I absolutely love the white board in the classroom because it makes it easier for students to follow along as I teach. Additionally, the colored pens allow me to differentiate or emphasize notes within the lesson.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I enjoy teaching my students our statistics unit because this is the place where they can be the most creative. My school takes a traditional approach to learning. However, in this unit students are encouraged to create their own statistical questions and gather data. This unit I believe allows them to personalize the learning and justify their thinking.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student shares that he/she doesn’t fully understand a concept or demonstrates gaps on the three-question assessment they turn in at the end of the day, I do any of the following:
– Provide one-on-one instruction before school, during lunch, or after school.
– Modify the upcoming lesson to provide better scaffolding and support.
– Pair the student with someone who’s mastered the concept and can serve as a peer tutor.
– Follow up with parents directly about how they can support the student at home.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My strategies vary from class to class and student to student. If one or two students are off task, I am more private in my approach to redirect their behavior.

If an entire section in my class is off-task, I walk over and provide a countdown to get their attention. Once I have their full attention I restate expectations and narrate positive behaviors.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
First and foremost, I approach my students and my work with the utmost humility and appreciation. I tell my students early on and often how much I love them and how their presence brings joy to my life.

I continue to demonstrate my commitment to them and their education by establishing academic and social goals for the year. I challenge them to be present in class and to own their learning environment by supporting one another. In addition to our time in class, I try to attend our students’ games and family events in the community. In doing this, I can foster deep relationships with my students and their families. Collectively we work throughout the year to be advocates for their students’ academic and socio-emotional success.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I met Mr. Senior in the summer of 2011 in Baltimore. He was a single father of two middle school-aged boys and attended our pre-school conference. This meeting was an opportunity for us to check-in as student, parent(s), and advisors prior to the start of the school year to establish academic and social goals for the year. Throughout the year, Mr. Senior demonstrated unwavering commitment and love for his children through his active participation and involvement in our school.

His persistence in advocating for his children challenged the unknown bias I had toward fathers being passive participants within education. We’ve stayed in touch over the last six years and it’s such a pleasure to see the joy and pride he has for his sons and their long-term success.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am currently reading “Drown” by Junot Diaz. It is a goal to immerse myself in more Latino/a literature.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
A few months ago, I was reading, “The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community is Inspiring the World” by Nadia Lopez. In her text she wrote, “This is not a Third World country. This is real life in the United States of America, and the qualities in these kids that frustrate teachers are the very same ones that help them survive every day.”

Her sentiments resonated with me because I love and respect my students’ ability to face the adversity with authenticity and courage. Approaching my work with this mindset inspires me to be the best mentor and educator for my students and their families.