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 this educator uses autumn leaves to teach vocab to Memphis’ youngest students

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Trudie Owens, a lead teacher at Porter-Leath in Memphis, says incorporating literacy into every lesson is key, including lessons about fall leaves.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a series we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Trudie Owens says education runs in her blood.

Trudie Owens

Her mother was an elementary school teacher, her grandmother taught middle school, and two sisters teach at the high school level. Owens feels called to work with Memphis’ youngest children.

More than 30 years ago while in high school, Owens began helping at a Memphis day care. Now a classroom veteran, she gets observed by other early childhood educators during trainings at the new Early Childhood Academy operated by Porter-Leath, the largest provider of such programs in Memphis.

“The best part about being an early childhood teacher is watching the incredible growth that occurs in children in the early years,” said Owens, who teaches 1- and 2-year-olds. “They are so excited to learn and try new things.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Owens about how she incorporates early literacy into every lesson, including one about autumn leaves, and what she wishes more people knew about how to stimulate a young child’s thinking. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What does your classroom look like?

Our classroom is colorful, inviting and nurturing. It is a place that supports children’s creative ideas and encourages them to discover things on their own. One of the reasons I try to make my classroom nurturing is so the children view it as a home away from home. For them to start to learn, talk, sing and dance, they need to feel at home. Some children are coming in with hard home situations and trauma. We have to be mindful of this when we design our classrooms.

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

A lesson I call ‘’Welcome Fall Leaves and Trees’’ lets children sort leaves by colors and shapes, touch tree bark, and talk about weather/season change by using different books. I’m inspired from the season change of summer to fall. The leaves on trees are beautiful and the fall flowers are blooming. My favorite colors are fall colors: red, yellow, orange, brown, purple and a little green.

A lot of people don’t understand how incredibly important it is to talk to a child from the time they are born. By taking children outside and speaking with them about the changing seasons, we cover so much vocabulary. It’s a hands-on activity, but it’s also increasing the children’s own personal vocabularies.

Many children don’t have the literacy skills they need when they arrive at elementary school. How do you incorporate literacy at the early childhood level?

It’s in all of our activities. You can learn a lot about children’s interest from observing their play. We talk with them about what they’re interested in, whether it’s little race cars or building blocks. Conversation with a child stimulates their thinking and increases understanding. I’m not talking about baby talk, but adult-like conversations. These early experiences are linked with later school achievement, emotional and social well-being. A huge part of building a student’s literacy is getting them talking.

You also want the children to have fun. We know that young children learn best through play. And we try to recognize very early if a child (struggles to) form certain words or talk at all. Porter-Leath provides an array of services, and if we catch a learning disability or speech impediment early on, that child won’t fall as far behind.

What do you wish people knew about early childhood teaching and learning?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Owens works on vocabulary and motor skills with her students while creating a “handprint” tree.

The main thing I wish people knew is that conversations (with young children) stimulate their thinking and increase understanding. Children learn to communicate, cooperate, problem-solve, negotiate, create, and practice self-control. We can learn a lot from each other when we really listen.

For our kids, their language skills are just starting, and they’re often still doing a lot of babbling. But they learn to speak by hearing us and talking to one another. We are always talking to them. It’s things like, when a student is playing with a ball, asking “What color ball are you throwing?” Saying the color to them and asking them to repeat you. These interactions are so important to their development.

If you could change anything about the way Tennessee does early childhood education, what would you change?

I would offer more grant money to fund programs like ours. Memphis doesn’t have free pre-K space for every child who needs it. We have so many on our waiting list.

How I Teach

After a mother’s surprising request, this Colorado debate coach realized the value of her work

PHOTO: Incase/Creative Commons

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.

Renee Motter, an English teacher at Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs, was taken aback several years ago when a student’s mother told her it was up to her to save her daughter.

Then Motter thought about it and relaxed. The speech and debate program she coached was already a lifesaver for many kids — that special something that made school worthwhile.

Motter was named the 2017 National Educator of the Year by the National Speech & Debate Association and was one of seven finalists for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year competition.

Motter talked to Chalkbeat about what students value most about the speech and debate program, why she starts class by asking kids to share exciting news and which technology tools she loves most.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

Renee Motter

When I was younger, I taught my older brother how to tie his shoe, and playing school was one of my favorite things. I started college as a broadcasting major, but before the first quarter was finished, I knew talking to a microphone wasn’t for me. While in my English class that quarter, I realized that teaching really was for me, so I changed my major and never looked back.

What does your classroom look like?
Busy. There are posters of proverbs and books and movies everywhere, and when students are there for class or speech and debate practice, you can usually see them working in small groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My computer and projector. We live in such a visual society; we are all so used to seeing everything in front of us. For my students and myself, the computer and projector give us a link to see what is beyond the classroom in order to be informed about what is happening in the world.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my first years of teaching AP English Language, I realized that my students needed an opportunity to see argument in action and, thus, better understand how to write an argument essay. I knew that I had to pick a topic they cared about, so I decided to have them create and present an education plan to prepare students for life in the 21st Century.

First, they had to research the current state of education both here and in other countries, and then, they had to decide what elements of education they would change as well as explain why they felt that would better prepare students for life in the 21st Century. Education is a huge part of our students’ lives, but we never stop to ask them what they think about what they are learning or how they are learning it. I heard so many unique and interesting ideas about what students would do to better their preparation — it was inspiring!

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When students are struggling or not understanding concepts, I like to have them come in so that we can go through the concept and practice it together. I have found this especially effective with writing: having students come in to discuss an essay and talk through what they need to work on is often more effective, I think, than large group writing instruction.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I’m a pretty active teacher, so I tend to move around the room a lot which helps with proximity, and I’m also a pretty random teacher, so when I notice students off task, I’ve found that using humor or story to bring them back works well.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Since I first started teaching more than 20 years ago, I’ve always started class by asking about “exciting things.” After greeting students, the first thing I do is ask students what is exciting in their lives. It’s amazing the stories I hear, and I get to know the students so much more! As I tell my students, “All of us exist outside this classroom, and what we do out there impacts us here, so I want to know what’s happening!” During these few minutes of class every day, we laugh and cry together. It’s great!

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A number of years ago, I had a parent tell me that it was up to me to save her daughter. At first, I was shocked and a bit intimidated. However, as I thought about it and as I’ve had thousands of students go through my forensics program, I’ve realized that it is a place that saves kids. It is a place that gives kids a place to belong, a place to make connections, a place to be heard, a place to be themselves. Over the years, it has amazed me the number of students who have come back and said what an important place forensics, speech and debate was in their lives, how they aren’t sure how they would have made it through high school without it.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Right now, I’m finishing up the second book in the Stranje House series. I read quite a bit of young adult literature as one of my favorite things is to talk about books with students. In fact, I was able to start an Enrichment Reading class for students where they were able to come and read and blog about books of their choice.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The most important thing you can do is care about your students: both who they are now and who they will become. I think it is easier to care about them now, but it is also important to remember that we need to care about their future because that is what we are preparing them for. No matter where they start when they come into my classroom, I always want them to walk out as better readers, writers and thinkers because they will need those skills in the future.