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.”

Belittled as a child, this Memphis teacher sets a high bar for her students

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell poses with her Aspire Hanley third-graders. Terrell has been teaching for four years and will move to Aspire East in the fall.

Some 20 years ago, Ginny Terrell’s third grade math teacher called her “stupid.” Now, Terrell laughs as she names her current position: a third grade math teacher.

“I was that kid in school that everybody was like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’” said Terrell who has been teaching at the local charter Aspire Hanley for four years and will teach at Aspire East in the fall.

Terrell was held back in kindergarten and struggled from there on. Luckily, she had teachers that stayed with her after hours to give her the support that she didn’t have at home. At that moment, she knew she wanted to be like them.

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell and her Aspire Hanley students.

As middle and high school loomed, Terrell told herself she had two options: sink or swim. So she worked hard — often twice as hard as her classmates, she said — and eventually enrolled in the University of North Texas in her home state.

During college, which took her seven years to complete, Terrell spent time in New Orleans doing service projects, where she often interacted with local youth. Then, she interned at a Title I school, where she noticed that her fellow teachers were unprepared to handle disciplinary issues, and that the “kids weren’t getting what they needed.” (Title I schools, eligible for certain federal funding grants, enroll a high percentage of students from low-income families.)

“I felt like it was the blind leading the blind,” she said.

That work, Terrell said, prepared her for a career in urban education. After graduation, she signed up for Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher licensing program that places college graduates at urban schools.

“They endure more than I could ever dream of,” she said of her students, 88 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. “… I can relate a lot to their home lives, their struggling in school and their not wanting to even be there.”

In this installment of How I Teach, Chalkbeat spoke with Terrell about why her decision to teach in urban schools was such a personal one. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by really utilizing my first month of school. I really try to use every moment and every conversation to truly understand each of my students. I give them a little survey that is like a Facebook page on paper the second day they are at school. I send home a survey [for parents to fill out] about his or her child and that helps me know even more. I spend time talking with them at lunch, recess, and moments during instruction. I try to observe how they respond to my questions, how they respond to hard situations, how they respond to their peers and how they handle learning. I use morning meeting time to know each of my students by playing getting-to-know-you games and simply letting them do a show and tell.

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

For a lesson on perimeter and area, our class took a little trip to the playground.They counted blocks and other items around the playground and added them up to get the perimeter. My students tried teaching each other and asked questions during the lesson on the playground. They told me at the end of the year that was their favorite lesson because they could understand it. This idea came from reading a book “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wished You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms,” by Tracy Johnston Zager. In the book it discusses the importance of including real life examples students can relate to in math and gave multiple examples in other classrooms. I thought that we should use the playground, which will stick with them because they use it every day and they love it!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

An object I would be helpless without during the school day would be our clip system [moved up and down to track student behavior]! They could see where they were at behaviorally and how they can improve at every moment of the day. I could not live without a behavior system in my classroom. It is the basis of giving students structure and consistency. If you do not have a behavior system that is a well-oiled machine, you will not be able to get to your instruction and plan the engaging lessons. The culture you set, from day one, will drive your classroom.

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

Something that is happening in the community that affects my classroom is the crime rate. I have heard students coming in telling me they could not sleep because of the gunshots or abuse in their homes. Some of the crime happened on our [school] property between parents. This [hurts] student’s ability to focus, and [discourages] parents from coming to the school or even being involved. Students will start following what they see in their community, [so it] is hard for them to learn how to treat their peers or even teachers in a different way.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

One of my students had a hard time functioning in my classroom. She could not really get along with peers and was sad a lot of the time. I reached out to the mom and discussed what was going on with her. Mom shared with me her life story and what has been going on at home. She wasn’t at all playing a victim or making excuses for her child. She instead asked me for help and support. We prayed for each other and I built a beautiful relationship with that family. It is so easy in the heat of the moment to snap or get angry with a student if he or she is not following directions. It showed me to seek to understand first, then take action. I could have done a lot more damage to the student in the classroom if I did not seek to understand. From that point on, I always make sure I take a step back and understand the situation instead of snap judgements. It taught how I can love each student in the way that will benefit them as future contributors to our society.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job would be not having enough parent involvement. There will be some parents that were very involved and supported the best they can in and outside the classroom. However, it has been difficult for some parents due to working three different jobs, not having enough resources or just not having the mental capacity to support. I cherish their thoughts and their support, so not having that [makes it] difficult to hold my students accountable outside the classroom.

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

I thought I had to dumb down my lessons so other students can learn. It is actually the opposite; having high expectations, students can reach the bar you set. I think I viewed my students as “low” academically, but they are not. Maybe they’re behind, but never low. They are so smart and can do anything you ask. It might take some time and you have to go back, but they are able and more than ready.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Nothing to Prove” by Jennie Allen and “Hope Heals” by Katherine Wolf and Jay Wolf

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

If you think you have arrived in teaching, you need to retire.

Detroit math teacher tends a greenhouse, welcomes parents into her classroom

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Marquita Reese, a math teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, works with students to cook vegetables grown in the school's greenhouse.

How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great Detroit educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at

Marquita Reese defies a traditional job title. At the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, an all-boys high school on Detroit’s east side, where she has taught for more than two decades, she is a chef, a gardener, and a meditation leader. Oh, and she teaches math.

Reese headed up an effort to build a greenhouse at Douglass, funded with federal grant dollars. Vegetables grown on the campus are used in cafeterias across Detroit’s main district. When it started in 2016, the program was lauded by Sen. Debbie Stabenow for simultaneously feeding children and teaching about science and nutrition.

Reese spoke with Chalkbeat about the garden, being a woman in the hard sciences, and welcoming parents into her classroom.

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

I graduated from Wilberforce University [in Ohio] with a degree in clinical psychology, but being a psychologist didn’t work out. Wanting to maintain a strong math and science grasp, I enrolled in the school of education at Wayne State, majoring in mathematics and sciences.

I said I’ll do math and science, not really considering that those are two of the most challenging areas of study.

I didn’t realize in retrospect that I was one of the few or only females that had a math and science background in the district. I would go into some meetings and would be one of the only females.

How do you get to know your students?

Students are given a survey and are required to write a short paper about themselves.  They must speak to their expectations and provide some insight about their goals for the present and for five years from now.  This year I included a three-minute meditation in the morning every day. Doing that at the beginning kind of relaxes the setting, and starts to build that trust between you and your students.

You run a greenhouse and garden on the grounds of Douglass Academy, and you also teach lessons about cooking. Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach your students about the garden. Where did the idea come from?

An activity I do before my students set foot in the garden is called colors of the rainbow. You take the colors of the rainbow, but you extend it, so I do teal, tan, indigo. For each color, they have to provide a fruit or vegetable that can be grown in Michigan and they have research their nutritional benefits.

In what region of Michigan can it be grown? When can it be grown, and at what temperature? They present it to the class, and they also have to do a PowerPoint. Then we we go for seed selections or transplants, they understand that some plants can’t be put in the ground at certain times. One year, we actually discovered that we can grow oranges in Michigan.

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

One of the things I felt very passionately about this year was changing the narrative society is putting out, especially looking at melanated young men. I was worried about these young men, their self worth, their self esteem, so I just opened up to them, told them how I’m feeling, and they expressed their views.

It was an emotional time for us all. Being melanated people, we don’t have a good idea of where our ancestors are from, so some of our dialogue is about that. We talk about what we don’t know and what we do know about African cultures.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Myself and an English teacher put together a parent group and a student group with all the parents’ email addresses. We’d send a message each time something happened in the classroom, homework or anything else, to the parents and the students.

Then I started getting notes from parents. They said ‘Hey, can we do this too?’

They’d text me like, ‘Hey, I don’t get this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you can come in and take notes, try to figure it out.’

It became an open door.

It was the SAT year, so they knew the importance of the child understanding the material. They never said, ‘It’s because I want to learn.’ They wanted to make sure that when their child came to them, they understood how to help their child.

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

I thought that the students and families that entrusted their kids to me had the same ideologies, learning style, and background as myself. For some, their exposure and educational experience or support was nothing like mine, so I had to refocus and adjust my teaching style and methods.

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

To be hard, consistent, and fair. As the students learn something new, so should I every day.