How I Teach

On snow days, this Colorado teacher uses YouTube to keep his class moving forward

PHOTO: Courtesy Jeremy Beckman
Teacher Jeremy Beckman leads a math lesson at his Colorado Springs 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.

Jeremy Beckman uses a combination of high-tech gadgets and old-school face-to-face communication to connect with his students and their families.

A high school math teacher at Discovery Canyon Campus High School, a Pre-K-12 International Baccalaureate school in Colorado Springs, one of Beckman’s tried-and-true methods for connecting with parents is to attend their kids’ basketball games and band concerts. On snow days, he teaches his AP Calculus class from home via YouTube so the students don’t miss any lessons.

Beckman was a finalist for Colorado Teacher of the Year. We asked him to share his wisdom about lesson planning, paper grading and re-engaging students who’ve lost focus.

 

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style: Engaging.

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?
I’m fortunate that my kindergarten son attends school on the same campus where I teach, so when I get to school, we usually review his vocab lists and get him ready to go for the day before he walks down to his end of campus. After that, I usually do a quick game plan and rundown of what lies ahead for the day and what challenges my students will have with the content we are going to discuss. After that, I check my email just to make sure there are not any changes to the schedule for the day.

What does your classroom look like?
I have 36 desks arranged in pairs, hundreds of senior pictures of former students on the walls, a large drafting table in the front, and numbers on the back board for students to check problems they need help with. I have a plethora of posters from IB, speech and debate, and ones students have made over the years that cover the wall and make the room somewhere kids will want to learn. I use a document cameras on the drafting table to project the lesson while still looking at the students so I can see their reactions and facial expressions while they are going through each lesson.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?
YouTube Live: I record and broadcast class every day on the internet. It has dramatically changed what happens when students miss class or there is a weather day. Students can watch class live, even ask questions, just like they were present. When class is over, it automatically uploads the lesson to YouTube seamlessly. They can watch examples again with explanations at home. For snow days in AP Calculus BC, we have class live from my house to their screen at home, and we don’t lose a precious day before the exam.

How do you plan your lessons?
In reverse. I plan what objective I want students to be able to do by the end of the lesson and make examples and questions to match that objective.tudents have a small quiz every day in class, with work on previous skills embedded in daily activities.

I try to anticipate what the students will struggle with during each lesson and create questions to help them run into more challenging parts before they are working on practice. Lastly, I try to find different levels to help students who already have the concept go deeper, and help students who are struggling break the content down into smaller pieces.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?
Students ask really detailed and engaging questions. I can always tell how the lesson is going based on the quality of questions the students ask. If they are really detailed and make me think, I know the students are engaged and learning. If they are really basic questions, I need to go back and work through the material again.

Other qualities are that student data exceeds my expectations! I give a small, daily assessments about yesterday’s material. It’s always good when every student shows they got it.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Questions, questions, questions. Just like a doctor ask questions until they understand what is wrong, I work to diagnose exactly where the misunderstanding started. It takes time, but once we understand where things went awry, it’s more likely that strategies like different explanations and working another example will be more successful.

The key to this is establishing right from the start of the year that they feel comfortable and safe asking questions. For most of them, asking a question is a risk-taking adventure, and we need them to be responsible risk-takers. I not only encourage students to ask questions, but I expect them to ask questions. I tell them I am in the business of asking questions, and smart people get smarter when they ask what they need help with.

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
I use questions as the key to this one also. Instead of asking the class in general for questions, if I see a student losing focus, I will ask them, “What questions do you have?” It gives lesson feedback and also re-engages them to the learning process.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?
Two ways, in particular. The first is using remind.com. Parents don’t like surprises and love to know what is coming up in a class, and remind.com allows me to send information to their phones without having to give out my personal number. I can send worksheets, test answer keys, test reminders, and let parents know general class announcements.

I also started using the calendar sync feature of smart phones to sync my classroom website calendars with parents’ phones. Most parents use their calendar to keep track of their work lives and this speaks to their language.

The second way is being present at a variety of school functions. I have found that meeting parents at informal situations like basketball games, band concerts and plays is a great way to develop relationships that make communicating with them easier and more productive.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?
Gradecam. It’s an amazing website that turns a document camera into a multiple-choice and numeric grading device. I don’t love multiple-choice questions, but we live in a multiple-choice world, and this allows the students to bring their answer sheet up to my document camera and get instant feedback on how they did. It’s especially useful in the formative feedback setting because it allows students to see which ones they got wrong and go back and correct them instantly. There is no moment kids are more excited to learn how they did on an assessment then the second they turn it in, and this allows me to take advantage of that excitement in the classroom. Students can be more self-servicing using Gradecam and I can work more on helping them than managing paperwork.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Tom Clancy’s Full Force and Effect. I love the Jack Ryan novel series and love how he weaves in history into his fictional accounts of a U.S. secret agent. The whole series is a real page-turner, and I really look forward to new ones coming out.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I was coaching my first basketball game ever and I was sitting on the bench frantically writing out my lineups and plays to call because I was nervous and didn’t want to forget anything. This big guy came up behind the bench and put both hands on my shoulders and said, “Coach, from what I’ve seen in warmups, you want to know the key to your team winning today?” Of course, I nodded. He replied, “Score more points than the other team!” Turned out he was my AD’s dad!

While I laughed it off at the time, during that game I realized I put so much effort into perfecting little details, I had forgotten the big picture goal. This applies daily to teaching. We have so many little details to take care of: grading, entering grades, emails, absent students, meetings, lesson plans. It’s so easy to get caught up in the details that you forget the big picture of why you got into the profession. Teaching can be exhausting, but we can’t forget why we chose it. I chose it to inspire kids to accomplish goals they didn’t even know they could. And it’s great to be reminded on days when the stakes are higher and time is short of what the big picture in education is: our students’ success.

How I Teach

In divisive political times, an East Harlem government teacher strives for nuance

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/Skylyn Torres
Steven Serling, wearing a New York University shirt, poses with seniors wearing gear to represent the colleges they've committed to attending.

Some teachers might prefer to avoid politics in the classroom. Not Steven Serling.

As a government teacher at Park East High School in East Harlem, it seemed impossible to ignore the polarized debates that bombard his students on social media and the nightly news. So, along with a fellow teacher, Serling came up with a series of lessons to help students search for nuance in a world of bombastic soundbites and firey tweets.

“The media and politicians, they’ve been very partisan, and we want to lump things into ‘this-or-that, black-or-white,’” Serling said. “We wanted our students to understand we are human beings who live on a spectrum.”

In class discussions, students explored how they felt about issues such as the death penalty or abortion, and researched the stances of candidates and political parties. When an online quiz revealed many of his students were politically aligned with the presidential candidate Jill Stein, some were surprised to learn there were parties outside of Democrats and Republicans — which led to a lesson on the Green Party and Libertarians.

Along the way, Serling hopes his students solidify their own principles — and gather practical knowledge about how government affects their lives.

“I try to make it as practical and real life as possible,” he said.

In an email interview, Serling explained why he has students write their opinions before discussing them, how he turns the city into a classroom, and what he learned by dropping a former student off at college.

His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How has the current political climate affected how you teach?

As the political climate has become more polarized, it is easier to take one side or another without actually investigating or understanding the nuance. It is important for me now more than ever to make sure that I check my own political beliefs at my classroom door and engage in discussions and lessons which explore those nuances for my students to grapple with and explore their own political beliefs.

What tips do you have for encouraging and leading productive class discussions, especially when the topics you’re covering can be so polarizing?

A good academic discussion takes time to build. It starts with building a classroom community in which there is trust and respect from the start of the year.

[One]strategy that helps is having them write their response first before engaging in a verbal discussion. It allows students time to think through their beliefs, what evidence they could present, and grapple with the nuance prior to the discussion. It gives them more confidence to speak, knowing they have thought it through in writing, and they can refer to their paper if needed while they are speaking.

What’s the hardest part about getting teenagers engaged in government and politics?

Teenagers have opinions on everything, but they seem to have a ‘that’s just the way it is’ mentality and often choose not to engage in government and politics outside the classroom. It is important to me to keep my lesson as relevant as possible to their lives and present examples of government and politics at work within their community.

I have taken my students to two “Ethics in Action” forums sponsored by New York Society for Ethical Culture. The first was on climate change and the second was on police-community relations [and featured] Police Commissioner James O’Neill.

We have in the past partnered with New York Supreme Court Judge Fernando Tapia and brought the 12th grade government students to engage with the many [professionals] who help make the Bronx Court run. After the trip, many students who admitted they get tense walking past the building felt more at ease.

I will say that an unintended consequence of the recent political scene is that, the more polarized it has become, the more engaged our students have become. Students, more than ever, have been asking questions about things they have seen in the news or on their social media feeds. Many alumni have messaged me with pictures of them attending the Bernie Sanders rally in the Bronx or different protests this past year.

What does your classroom look like?

I like to think of my classroom as NYC. When we can’t go outside for a particular experience, I try and bring that experience into the physical classroom. When learning about the first amendment, we have had a former Young Lord member Iris Morales come in and speak about her experience in the 70’s organizing in East Harlem on issues around economic and social justice.When exploring the workings of criminal and civil trials, we have had an exoneree from the Innocence Project come and speak.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

YouTube. I often use YouTube to show quick visual or auditory clips to help provide context to a lesson. It brings a snapshot of the outside world into the classroom.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are off task?

I do try and be cognizant if the student is off task because they are unclear of the directions or material, if they are being distracted, or if they just need a break as they have been sitting through multiple classes with only a three minute passing.

If… I notice they need a quick break from the content, I often use YouTube to play a clip of a song that I like, which they then call “old people” music (which is sad, because I don’t think music from the 90s is old). It generates a laugh and a quick discussion about the song or artist and then we can go back to the lesson.

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

It starts with having a welcoming classroom where everyone is recognized in some way. Be it a high five at the start, a quick check-in, or a general shout-out. I make a point to listen and ask follow-up questions when students speak.

Also, I am okay with allowing them to hear my opinion on certain government topics and current events when asked. It is humanizing and builds trust when you can hear the teacher’s opinions, personal accolades, and struggles.

I also build relationships by being involved outside of the classroom. I coach bowling, I make a point to go to at least one of each sporting event, chaperone trips, dress up during theme days and generally keep my office door open for drop-in conversations. Over time, these experiences build relationships.

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

I offered to take an alum up to college his freshman year. When I went to pick him up, his entire family including grandmother and little siblings came out to help pack the car. They hugged and we left.

His mother called me the next day to express how thankful she was for taking her son up, who was the first to go to college. She went on to express how ashamed she was that she couldn’t do it, listing numerous reasons, from her not having her drivers license and to taking care of her mother and younger siblings. She went on to say that is one of the reasons she wanted him to stay in the city for college.

This experience helped me approach our seniors a bit more empathetically, while being able to ask some questions to get answers that students may not want to express upfront to help have a more honest conversation with themselves and their parents.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Never forget to listen and learn from your students; they are the best teachers.

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? 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.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.