How I Teach

This teacher of the year finalist uses music to teach second graders vocabulary

PHOTO: Courtesy of Simpson
Jodi Simpson at Paonia Elementary School

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.

To keep her students focused and inspired, Jodi Simpson turns to the Beatles, Keb Mo and Sarah McLachlan.

Simpson, a second-grade teacher at Paonia Elementary School on the Western Slope, uses music to teach science and social studies, transition between subjects and give her students a break.

The Colorado Teacher of the Year finalist has other wisdom to share about how to use music and photos, connect with parents in her small town and check for students’ learning. Here’s an introduction to Simpson and how she teaches:

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style: Relationships!

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?
Morning is the time to get things rolling!

I pick up one of my students and together we roll into the parking lot and start our day. We meet up with two other students and get right to our reading practice time from 7:30 a.m. to 8. Before the rest of the class arrives, we play a rhyming game, letter sounds, “go fish,” or sight word dominoes. Brief games open the positive path into our phonics, fluency and comprehension activities that come next.

Before you know it, the other 19 students begin to enter the room with their smiles and hugs. Energy fills the room! It’s a good thing I set up learning materials the afternoon before so we can gather on the carpet to share “good things in our lives” and start our day!

What does your classroom look like?
Our room is colorful, warm, open and welcoming. Desks are arranged into groups. Cozy chairs, colorful carpets for large group gatherings and bookshelves full of books create our learning space.

Plants, butterfly cages, seeds, leaves and a cheerful red geranium line the south wall by the windows. Lamps add soft light, posters of nature/wildlife inspire us to go out and wonder, and the faces of Malala Yousafsai, Jane Goodall, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa remind us about courage, peace, humanity and the difference each person can make in the world.

Of the utmost importance, our Classroom Agreement hangs on the board. Students created the list of ways they want to be treated and how they will treat each other. Their ideas range from kindness to respect to gratitude to love of learning.

They ended their list with this line about how they will treat each other when there’s conflict: “We will use respectful voices, faces, and hearts.”

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?
The tools I use every day are iTunes and iPhoto.

We transition through our subjects and other parts of our day with music and songs!

When we gather for discussion/share time we play “I’m Amazing” by Keb Mo. The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” warms us up as we come in from the playground on cold winter days. “Ordinary Miracle” by Sarah McLachlan reminds us about the miracles of nature all around us.

I download songs about our second-grade content and we sing, dance and move as we learn science/social studies concepts and vocabulary. We sing about a butterfly’s metamorphosis and its migration. We sing about the seasons and the weather. Later in the year, we’ll learn songs that teach us about the Underground Railroad, civil rights and how to love ourselves and each other.

iPhoto stores our images throughout the year. We use a camera and an iPad to capture moments of our learning to post on our class wiki page and create a “Padlet” for other second grade scientists to connect to as we compare our notes and observations on raising butterflies. Children post their comments and captions for the photos on the class website. My students enjoy seeing themselves and each other.

It’s amazing how such “techie” tools can touch us at such a warm, human level.

How do you plan your lessons?
As I plan my lessons, I think to myself: What are we learning? How are we learning it? And why is it important and relevant?

Identifying the “what” is based on second-grade state content standards.

The “how” sets the tone. Will we engage in “I do – We do – You do” with modeling and guided support and then independent practice? Or we will use the inquiry method? Will students choose how they show their understanding and application of new skills?

Who needs a little review before having a go at it? Who needs more time? Who is ready to work independently?

Do we need math manipulatives? Do we need mentor texts?

It’s the challenge of figuring out the “how” that makes teaching and learning works of art.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?
An ideal lesson is similar to a life cycle. The lesson begins with an essential question or big idea. The modeling, guidance and practice move to the next steps of discussion, application, understanding and more questions.

Lessons need to be social and collaborative. Turning and talking to our learning partners help us express what we’re learning and what we hear others say they are learning.

During the lesson, I’m evaluating student understanding, moving around the room and checking in, assisting when needed. Reflection on learning and finally returning to the initial question or big idea summarizes our lesson.

The best lessons and learning experiences are meaningful, hands-on, fun and engaging.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
During a lesson, I begin checking on their understanding by asking for more questions or simply asking for a thumbs up, thumbs down or a wiggly “in between” for children to let me know if they’re with me so far. It’s fascinating to see that 7- and 8-year-olds are very honest and comfortable letting me know when they are “getting it” or not.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
I try my best to get a sense of my students’ emotions, moods or focus as they enter the classroom. Hopefully, I’ve sensed who might need an extra hug or light conversation as I offer a hand as they unpack their homework and hang up their things.

When children need to be re-engaged I usually find a way to move closer to them, physically. A light touch, a nod, a reminder: “Remember, we agreed to how we will all work together to create the kind of learning space we want.” Other short phrases that work are: “Do you need me to help you with something?” “How can I help?” “Let me show you a little trick I’ve learned to figure this out. Maybe it will work for you.”

How do you maintain communication with the parents?
We live in a small community and many of my families and I communicate face-to-face. When needed, I make phone calls to share insight, celebrate or discuss ways we can work together to support their children if a challenge arises. Very rarely do I use e-mail, unless a parent prefers this method.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
When thinking about being the teacher I want to be, I think of Debbie Miller’s words from a post on Choice Literacy: “I wanted to be a good teacher. But I was looking outside myself for all the answers. I didn’t know that most of the answers were inside me all along. And I’m hoping you know that they’re inside you, too.”

Also, Ann Marie Corgill shared three essentials during a webinar with the Center for the Collaborative Classroom: “To change the face of education we need to: No. 1 Slow Down. No. 2 Put Relationships First. And No. 3 Stop Talking.”

How I Teach

Why students’ birthdays are the perfect icebreaker for this award-winning Tennessee teacher

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin gets a hug from one of her students after the announcement that she was one of two Tennessee teachers to win a Milken Educator Award.

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.

Paula Franklin’s students describe her teaching style as “relaxingly engaging.”

Maybe that’s because she starts out by building relationships with her students, then begins to introduce the content in her Advanced Placement government class at West High School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Since she took on the course, enrollment has doubled. And more than 80 percent of her students exceed the national average on their final AP test scores.

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last year, Franklin was one of two Tennessee teachers chosen by the Milken Family Foundation for their prestigious national teaching award. The honor includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

We spoke with Franklin about why she became a teacher, how she uses birthdays to build relationships with her students, and why campaign finance reform is her favorite lesson to teach. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

My high school AP Biology teacher, Mr. Wheatley, was my inspiration. He cared about his students as people first and whatever we learned about biology was secondary. As a result, I learned a lot of biology, and a tremendous amount about myself, for which I am forever grateful. I work every day to provide the same type of environment to my students. I try to teach them about themselves through the lens of civic education. I want my students to leave my class not only more confident in their knowledge of our government, but also as inquirers and risk-takers who are equipped to ask questions and find the answers.

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

I spend the first two to three days of class using Kagan class-building strategies to get to know my students and to get them to know each other. I can always make up time for content later, but the time spent building a classroom culture at the beginning of the year can’t be made up.

Another of my favorite things is finding out my students’ birthdays to celebrate them with the class by asking them three questions: Are you going to drive? What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment,? What do you hope to accomplish before your next birthday?

This allows me to spotlight my students and have them think critically about themselves and their goals. I have asked these same three questions for years, and students have started coming to me on their birthdays after they have left my class to share their accomplishments and goals.

What does your classroom look like?

I love to display student work in my classroom, both from my current and former students, so my walls are pretty well covered in posters and art. I think it’s important to make a classroom into a reflection of the students who learn there and goes a long way toward building community.  I arrange the desks in small sections of rows so that I can easily get to all the students to provide support on a difficult concept or assignment or encouragement to stay on task.

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

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen surprise Franklin with her award.

Google Drive! I am a huge reflector and save all of my lesson materials and reflections on my Drive. That way, I can easily access previous lessons and see how to best adapt them for my current students or the current social-political climate.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

One of my favorite lessons to teach began as my absolute least favorite: Campaign finance reform. The first couple of years, it went terribly. Students didn’t come away with an understanding of campaign finance but were more confused than when we started.

I am big on incorporating technology in my classroom, but for this lesson, I have them write down the original limitations of campaign finance and then cross them off in a different color as we learn about repeals. The action of crossing an item off of the list and annotating with the case or law that repealed it really sticks with them. This lesson is one of my favorites because I get to teach a relatively small amount of content over a class period, students get to work in groups and really wrestle with the content, and they have the opportunity to share their understanding with the whole class.

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

I try to figure out what it was about the lesson they did not understand. I can usually do this by reviewing data from a quiz or test or other assessment or just by asking them. I spend a lot of time in my class focusing on how to ask and answer questions to encourage my students to be advocates for their education both in and out of my classroom. After I figure out what I need to remediate with my classes, I do my best to come up with an example or analogy that is relevant to them. If that doesn’t work, then I ask a colleague how they teach that topic and try that. I am constantly looking for new and different ways to teach content that my students typically struggle with so that I am prepared to switch it up if my plan isn’t working.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It is OK to leave it on your desk; it will still be there in the morning. You are not a bad teacher for needing time for yourself.

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

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 this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

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 always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”