How this Chicago special education teacher helps students build connections, even remotely

A student works on a laptop computer during a special education classroom exercise.
After Artemis Kolovos began seeing her special education students encounter more interpersonal challenges, she began teaching about friendships. (Nathan W. Armes/Chalkbeat)
How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

When Artemis Kolovos noticed that her students were having trouble making friends and working through conflict, she began brainstorming about how to address the issue. 

Kolovos, who teaches special education students at Budlong Elementary, a preK-8 campus near Lincoln Square, knew that what happened at lunchtime would eventually make its way into her middle grades classroom. So she introduced a novel called “Freak the Mighty,” about two young boys whose friendship helps them face physical and emotional challenges. 

“We realized that we needed to address these topics directly and in a way that students could connect to,” said Kolovos, who became a teacher after mentoring a young person who she felt wasn’t being adequately supported at their school.

Now, as the coronavirus pandemic has shut down school buildings, Kolovos said social connections are even more important. And not just for students — for teachers, too. 

Having a support group of “teachers being there emotionally to recognize the challenges we all face and remind each other we need to breathe sometimes,” said Kolovos. “Don’t teach in isolation. This advice has been invaluable to me.” 

During an interview with Kolovos, she laid out her tips for engaging students and creating community with teachers, and she explained why feedback is crucial to learning. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

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

I was working as a headhunter actually for the brokerage community. I found it emotionally unsatisfying and a little depressing. I started volunteering my extra time as a tutor with Volunteers for America. I had a student whom I looked forward to meeting with every week. We were both frustrated with his homework as it had little to do with what he was learning in class and even less to do with his everyday life. I knew I could help. 

I knew from experience that students liked to see their own lives represented in material. I felt more prepared not only to share stories from more diverse cultures but to use examples of individuals from different walks of life. Hearing about others, who students can make a connection with, will spark curiosity, which is the first step in learning. 

How did you decide to specialize in working with diverse learners (special education students)?

While I was in school, I watched my sister try and navigate specialized services for her daughter. I was at first attracted to learning about the rights of students with special needs. I decided this was the area for me once I learned the impact quality services had on a student with diverse needs.

How did you get to know your students before the pandemic, and how are you getting to know them remotely?

At my school we have committed to building relationships. This means we prioritize getting to know our students in the first two weeks. I plan welcoming lessons together with my team, which focus on identity and community building. There are a number of trust-building activities as well as opportunities for students to reflect on what makes them unique. 

This year, we are adjusting our “brown bag” get-to-know-you activities on the virtual site. We still want to hear voices, but we have to teach new chat features or visual hand signals for agreement. It takes some getting used to, but our students are flexible!

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

For the past few years my English co-teacher and I have taught a unit on the novel “Freak the Mighty,” by Rodman Philbrick. We weave many social-emotional learning lessons into this unit about being a good friend, building self-confidence, and accepting others as they are. The idea came when we started seeing more interpersonal challenges at school, particularly with friendships. We realized that we needed to address these topics directly and in a way that students could connect to.

We’re going through an undoubtedly historical period. How does that affect what goes on inside your class?

My class is a microcosm in that we have diverse representations of our neighborhood and city as whole. Without a doubt, we have students directly impacted at home. Through this uncertainty, we must first offer some stability. My co-teachers and I are finding opportunities to teach anti-racism and celebrate our diversity by reflecting on lessons from history.

One approach is picture walks. In class we often used pictures of sit-ins from the civil rights movement and had students rotate with post-it notes to add noticings, comments, or questions. This generated good discussions. During remote learning we tried a similar activity using a photo of a young lady protesting from the summer. It proved valuable to have students consider the young lady’s perspective and consider her motivations before jumping into discussions about civil unrest in Chicago.

During distance learning, many students may have fallen behind (or further behind). How do you plan to help them catch up? 

Yes, with this in mind it is important to ground all learning with a rationale. Students need to buy into learning and be engaged. Along those lines, I am definitely learning to apply new platforms that can capture attention and allow students to interact with lessons fluidly. Some of my favorites are Peardeck and Nearpod. My co-teachers and I are using this to elicit direct responses from students in our power points and conduct quick student polls. They seem to enjoy this especially as they can add images to their responses and “like” each other’s input.

What does a close network of support for teachers look like when everyone is remote?

Teachers sharing resources, jumping on video calls when necessary to troubleshoot. Teachers volunteering to tutor others on new tech skills or with new platforms. Teachers being there emotionally to recognize the challenges we all face and remind each other we need to breathe sometimes! 

Recommend a book that has helped you be a better teacher, and explain why.

“Growth Mindset,” by Carol Dweck. I have used excerpts and visuals of the brain to motivate students each year to take learning into their own hands. Really, this has made me a better teacher because I am not afraid to raise my expectations. Especially with math, I realized that students in the past had negative self concepts that kept them from taking risks. I now am very purposeful in my feedback and consider how I can get students to not fear mistakes but learn from them.

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

Don’t teach in isolation. This advice has been invaluable to me. The past few years in particular, I have cultivated a close network of support. In my building, it is my grade. We are different in age and our backgrounds, but we trust each other. This allows us to support new ideas and lift up team members when one has a bad day. I realize it is essential we model this first, if we expect our students to do the same.

Correction: This story originally said Budlong Elementary was located in Lincoln Park.

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