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How this Oklahoma geography teacher brings students from crisis to calm

Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Cheyenne Branscum recently won several thousand dollars to purchase a microscope for her students. She takes a team of students to science and engineering competitions. She’s helped them study how tiny pieces of plastic are affecting ocean fish, too.

And no, she’s not the science teacher.

“I teach geography, and I get jokes all the time,” Branscum said. “But I work so closely with the science teacher. It’s OK! We want to make sure that kids understand that all of these subjects blend together, and we want them to see those connections.”

Branscum teaches sixth grade at Shawnee Middle School in Shawnee, Oklahoma. It’s the middle school serving an area that is home to members of several tribal nations, about an hour from Oklahoma City. Branscum is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and about one-third of her school’s students are members of a tribal nation, too.

Her Geo team students, she says, inspired her to apply for the grant she won from the Society for Science & the Public, which will allow them to do experiments without traveling to the local university. We spoke with Branscum about that project, how she brings Native American culture into her geography lessons, and how she’s grown more attuned to the family lives of her sixth-graders, many of whom are in the foster care system.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Cheyenne Branscum (right).
Cheyenne Branscum (right).

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

Before I got into teaching, I was a domestic violence advocate, and I was tutoring on the side.

It became very apparent that I liked the tutoring program better than my job. I was enjoying the one-on-one connections with kids — seeing them grow up and become these little people with independent thoughts.

How do you get to know your students?

At least once a week, I build a very independent lesson so they are sitting at their desks, working. It gets them doing something so that I can walk around and sit down and have conversations.

I will also show up in the lunchroom and joke around with them. I try to come up with an inside joke between me and each student — something they can connect with me on. At the beginning of the year, there was this girl who was really quiet. She was eating a salad, and I just went over and stole one of her croutons. And she looked at me like I was a crazy person. So I just kept doing it. It became this ongoing joke. There was a day I didn’t come to the cafeteria, and she came to me and brought me a crouton.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach.

My favorite lesson to do is one where we look at minorities in the U.S. and really find the similarities and differences in their experiences. I get to bring in Mexican, Hispanic, African, and tribal culture.

I’ll show a news video on Hispanics in California, and how they’ve gone from feeling disenfranchised to now feeling that they can run for office and participate. And I’ll show a video of our local tribes — we have a really thriving local tribe, and the kids are used to hearing about it. And then I’ll show them stories about the Lakota in Pine Ridge, who are incredibly disenfranchised. They’re always shocked. It gives them the tools, no matter what culture they’re looking into, to say, these people went through this. How is this similar to my culture? How is it completely different and why?

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

We have an incredibly high rate of family violence. It affects my students. I’ve had several kids this year go into foster care, and those are the ones I know about. The ones who aren’t in foster care are usually the ones I worry about.

It makes me very flexible. If they show up and they don’t have any work from yesterday, I might have a conversation about why, and move on. I don’t know if they were evicted or they had to run from a violent person. Unfortunately, that means sometimes my standard of what I might take for a grade drops. It’s more important that my students feel safe.

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 recently, an incredible student, who just panics on my tests. We had parent-teacher conferences, and I was talking to what I thought was her mom, who was listed as her mom. She came in, and the woman said, I don’t know if she’s told you this, but I’m her foster mom. I’m actually her aunt.

Immediately, it started clicking for me: this kid is in crisis. When she’s panicking over my tests, it really has nothing to do with my tests. I turned to the kid, and I was joking with her, because I’m a foster parent and she knows my foster daughter. And I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were in the club? Fosters watch out for each other.’

So I think she’s going to slowly relax. But now I understand it wasn’t just test anxiety.

What part of your job is most difficult?

When children confide in you something and you know you have to make a call. You know then that they probably are not going to trust you again, but it’s something you have to do.

What’s the most fun part?

All of the fun toys we get to play with! We have a drone. We’re getting software to do 3D modeling so that we can create 3D maps.

I had several members on the Geo team who were doing a project looking at microplastic in fish. They were having to go to the local university to use their microscope because we didn’t have a powerful enough one here. They really inspired me to ask, what do we need? What kind of equipment would we need to be an incredible STEM community — a school that stands out? I’ll be able to connect it to the projector and we’ll all be able to see it.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

The idea that you have to solve something right then. If there is a kid that is going bonkers in one side of your classroom — do I really need to shut this down right now? He may just need five minutes of spinning in the corner and getting his energy out and then he might be on his way.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

To be positive. You don’t want to be the coworker that brings people down. Your students rely on the team of teachers that they have. You want to be the positive voice on the team.

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