How I Teach

The 2017 National Teacher of the Year on the mom who changed how she talks to her toughest students

PHOTO: CCSSO
2017 National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee.

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.

Sydney Chaffee made headlines recently as the first charter school teacher to be named the national teacher of the year. Getting there, she says, was a continuous process of learning from others — including her students’ families.

A breakthrough moment: meeting with one of her more difficult students’ mothers.

“The way she spoke to her daughter — loving but firm, patient but expectant — was a model for me in how to communicate both love and high expectations at the same time,” Chaffee explained.

Chaffee has taught ninth grade humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. From introducing debate about the Puerto Rican debt crisis to comparing classrooms to colonies, she also relies heavily on storytelling in the classroom.

She talked to Chalkbeat about a few of her most memorable moments — and why hand gestures are key to her teaching.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Why did you become a teacher?

I wanted to inspire the same kind of curiosity and excitement about learning in other people that my own teachers had inspired in me. Plus, I loved school and figured becoming a teacher was the best way to never have to leave.

What’s something interesting about your physical classroom — something on the walls, for example?

I like for my classroom to be colorful and full of words. Right now, my favorite thing about my room is that my students and I have filled one window with colorful stars. On each star, a student wrote “kudos” for another student for their work in this year’s Poetry Out Loud recitation competition. Some of the kudos are for stellar performances or persevering through stage fright; others are for being supportive and empathetic peers. They’re posted as a reminder of what we can accomplish together.

Fill in the blank: I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

Hands. I am a wild gesticulator. I don’t even notice I’m doing it most of the time, but whenever my students decide to impersonate me, their hands go crazy with big, dramatic gestures. So much of teaching is storytelling, and my hands help me tell the story.

Tell us a bit about a favorite lesson. How did you come up with the idea?

My favorite lesson, recently, was a simulation of the Puerto Rican debt crisis that my student teacher and I co-designed. We wanted to help students understand some of the basic economic concepts so they could write about the crisis in a more informed way, but the issue is complex and confusing. We worked together to brainstorm ideas, draft a plan, test-drive it, and revise it. The final lesson, which my student teacher facilitated, was hands-on, engaging, and gave students a solid grasp of tricky content. And it was fun to teach, too.

Collaboration is such an important ingredient in strengthening our practice as educators. I was happy to have the chance to learn from my student teacher’s creative ideas; what we came up with together was so much better than I would have come up with on my own.

What’s your go-to response when a student doesn’t understand something critical?

I like to draw an analogy between what we’re learning and something students can relate to or easily picture in their minds. For example, when we read, early in the year, texts that question whether historians should use the verb “discover” in relation to Christopher Columbus (“Columbus discovered America”), some students have trouble understanding why this is controversial. I ask them to imagine that someone who had never been to our neighborhood before suddenly walked into the school and pronounced that they had “discovered” it, even though we were all already sitting inside and learning.

Or, in learning about colonialism, I do a simulation with students asking them to reimagine the classrooms in our school as separate territories and brainstorm ways that we might be able to get our hands on the resources that another territory possesses. Taking time to describe these concepts and make them tangible for students helps ensure that they “stick.”

What’s something you do to build relationships with students?

I hold them to high expectations, but I also joke around with them and am not afraid to be a little goofy in class. Being silly disarms kids and helps them open up to me so I can get to know them better.

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 acted very “tough.” She left class all the time, crumpled up tests, argued. When her mother came in for a meeting, she called this student by an endearing nickname and spoke to her with such gentleness and empathy. She told her that her behavior was not OK, but she also probed to find out what was really going on.

That was such an invaluable learning moment for me. The way she spoke to her daughter — loving but firm, patient but expectant — was a model for me in how to communicate both love and high expectations at the same time. It reminded me that families know and love our students — their children — best in the world, and we have so much to learn from them about who our students really are.

I try to channel that mother now when I’m talking with a student who is really struggling.

What is the hardest part of your job?

This job is incredible and rewarding, but the work is never done. There is never a day where, as a teacher, I will close my laptop at the end of the day, put my feet up, and think, “Well, that’s settled.” There is always more work to grade, more lessons to write, more students to think about: How will I get this one to write a thesis? How will I help that one with reading informational texts?

It’s hard, but I’m not complaining. It is work that I love to do, because it challenges me and allows me to keep learning all the time. I get to reinvent my class constantly.

What advice would you give a teacher starting out next year?

Don’t be afraid to have other people come into your classroom and observe you. The more you can collaborate with your colleagues and get feedback on what’s happening in your room, the more you’ll learn and the more you’ll help your students grow.

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.”