How I Teach

Why this middle school teacher starts the year with blank classroom walls

Jessica Moore teaches language arts at South Valley Middle School in Weld County.

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.

Collaborating with students is important to Jessica Moore, a language arts teacher at South Valley Middle School in northern Colorado’s Weld County RE-1 district. It’s why she uses Google docs to help teach writing. It’s also why she starts the year with blank classroom walls.

Moore is one of 15 teachers who were selected for the inaugural Colorado Teaching Policy Fellowship operated by the national nonprofit Teach Plus. The nine-month program aims to involve teacher leaders in education policy discussions, including how the state responds to the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?

I work best early in the morning, so I generally arrive at school between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m., always with my coffee in-hand! I spend my time before the bell rings either creating lessons, refining lessons that I have previously taught or those in progress, and preparing instructional materials for my students.

In order to make learning interactive, I often use manipulatives, such as word or evidence cards. Many mornings, I am furiously cutting away on the paper cutter in order to have these materials ready to go for kids before class starts.

What does your classroom look like?

I have seven large, circular tables in my room where students work, as well as a table in the back that I use for small group intervention and individual conferencing with students.

I always start the year with my walls entirely blank. I believe that anything that goes up on my walls needs to be created collaboratively with my students. The posters are created together through instruction and discussion, which ensures that they are more than just colorful decorations.

I have a teacher station at the front of my room, which is really just my document camera on top of my computer cart, but I use this area for direct instruction where I can project any text that we are working with on the board for all of my students to see.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?

Although it is not fancy, the use of Google Docs has been a powerful tool in my work with students on their writing. Whenever we start a new writing assignment, students share their doc with me. As they are writing, I check in with them in real time and provide comments and suggestions. They love the text message feel and respond with questions, comments or ideas for changes. Not only does this give me a record of our conversations, but also helps me to guide them in the writing process in a more timely and authentic way.

How do you plan your lessons?

As a language arts teacher, one of the core components of my lesson planning is text selection. College- and career-ready standards prioritize the use of richly layered, complex text for all students. I have found that locating quality, engaging text is paramount to my ability to design thought-provoking, text-dependent questions and tasks that guide students to think critically and carefully about the text.

Complex text also lends itself so well to teaching the nine other reading standards because there is depth to the material on the page. Once I have picked my text and aligned it with the standards, I take into consideration how I will support struggling readers to access the material that they might not otherwise be able to read on their own.

I have found that using manipulatives, such as cutting apart the text to draw their attention to an important passage, or giving word cards to help them see patterns in author’s word choice, can be helpful as well as strategies like framed paragraphs to help students write more sophisticated responses. I also think about how I can meet the needs of my gifted students, which may include incorporating additional texts or research.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?

The best lessons are ones where the students are clearly and intentionally asking and answering questions that not only address the content of the lesson, but also connect to other content areas as well. I love when we have to pull ourselves away from our lesson because class is over!

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

Generally speaking, students will understand at least some part of the material, so it is my job to figure out where the breakdown happened. I usually will sit down with a student one-on-one and start back at the beginning of the lesson. Sometimes, this includes having them tell me what the directions were. Sometimes I ask them to tell me about what they just read, while other times, I have them walk me through their thinking about a particular question. Out of these conversations, it usually becomes clear quickly what the misconception or gap in thinking was and I can work directly with the student to make adjustments and corrections.

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

Middle school is an interesting age because there can be literally a million reasons why a student has lost engagement. But I have started to notice that when one has lost focus, others are likely to follow.

I usually respond in a couple of ways. First, I try proximity. I might stand near the student, or ask a question to get a sense of where his or her mind is. Sometimes this works, and other times it’s an indicator that I may need to change things up for everyone.

Recently, I have found that taking a minute or two to break and talk about life has been surprisingly powerful! Sometimes they just want to tell me something that has happened, or share a silly joke, but I try to be flexible and willing to meet them where they are because the relationship aspect of teaching is so powerful. Also, when I am willing to share in their world for a few minutes each day, I can ask them to share in mine (the learning) for the other 50-plus minutes and they are far more willing. The most important thing that I have learned about engagement though is that relevancy is key — if they connect to the material, they will work to learn it.

How do you maintain communication with parents?

Phone calls, text messages, emails, Friday Folders and the classroom webpage.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?

In writing, for example, I don’t wait until the final product is turned into grade it. Instead, I give regular feedback to my students and watch to see how they integrate my comments and suggestions into what they are doing.

If I asked them to write a paper and then just graded what they turned in, I would likely have a lot of Fs. But I am interested in the learning process as much as the final product. I also really love to use rubrics, and find that developing the rubric together as a class as part of the instructional process gives my student buy-in and an awareness of the expectations that we collectively have for our work.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have always been really interested in the criminal justice system. Recently, I started reading the book “Chasing the Scream,” which is a fascinating look at the War on Drugs. I haven’t been able to put it down! It is giving me a lot to think about in terms of the future of our country and gives me even more conviction about the importance and role of education in our country.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My mother-in-law once told me: “They won’t always remember what you taught them, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” I think about this every single day (seriously!) I know that they might not all remember what assonance is, but I do hope they will remember that I honestly and truly cared about them as unique individuals.

How I Teach

When a parent pushed for a lesson on Mayan history, this Colorado teacher invited her in to help

PHOTO: Megan Witucki
Megan Witucki, a teacher at Compass Montessori School in Wheat Ridge, works with students.

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.

Megan Witucki, an elementary teacher at Compass Montessori School, a charter school in Wheat Ridge, believes in the power of community experts.

That’s why when a parent pushed for a lesson on Mayan history, Witucki invited her in to speak about native cultures. Likewise, for a major end-of-year art project, Witucki brought in a local artist who shared her secrets with students.

Witucki talked to Chalkbeat about why she started tapping into community expertise and how the Montessori approach helps her get to know students and foster a culture of work.

Witucki is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I wanted to give back to my community in a meaningful and lasting way. I love working with children and I admire their sense of wonder and their infectious passion to learn. Each day provides me with the chance to empower a child as well as the opportunity to grow and learn myself.

What does your classroom look like?
I am one of two fully-trained certified Montessori teachers who guide the instruction of 33 first through third grade children in our multi-age, lower elementary classroom.

Our classroom is designed to foster choice. It is inviting, cozy, inspiring and engaging. Our classroom is not very big and we have to accommodate 33 little bodies. We also have a plethora of Montessori materials that need to be available to the students at all times. Rather than traditional desks we use individual lap tables, small group tables and work rugs that define the children’s work spaces.

We have space for the students to display their work on the walls and framed prints of art masterworks to inspire creativity. We have classroom plants to add natural beauty to the environment and provide students with hands-on experience during botany lessons.

Throughout our morning work period, one of us offers individual or small group lessons while the other monitors the children’s independent work and re-directs or guides when necessary.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without the support of my school community. Montessori education is a team effort that requires the assistance of and support from the child, their parents, their peers, the co-teaching pair, staff, administration and the larger Compass Montessori community.

Co-teaching is an integral part of a larger network that cares for the children. This network functions like concentric circles that surround and support the child-learner. In the innermost circle is the child, driven by their inherent passions and intrinsic interests. Next, the parents and family, who support the child with their work and education. In the succeeding circle, the learner is given academic, social and emotional support by my co-teacher and me.

The following circle of support is offered by the child’s classmates who vary in age and provide the child with peer guidance as well as opportunities to mentor others and take on multiple leadership roles. This circle is surrounded by an involved administration and the larger staff support circle. Finally, comes the support circle of the greater Compass Montessori community of parents and extended families.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is assemblage art. In Montessori, we naturally integrate art and music into our regular classroom curriculum. The idea for assemblage art came to me when my co-teacher and I were inventorying our leftover art supplies and craft items from previous years’ projects. We had identified odds and ends that we wanted to find a use for when I stumbled upon another teacher’s Pinterest pin.

Our version of this project would be the culminating celebration of all of the year’s original artwork. We began by studying the work of the Russian-American artist Louise Nevelson, who is best known for her groundbreaking work with found art, later known as assemblage art. We discussed how this visionary saw the potential beauty in items discarded by others. The students had rich discussions about what art is and where it can be found. They concluded that sometimes art is where we least expect it.

I then invited our school chef Michelle Lundquist, whom everyone refers to as the “grandma” of our school. Michelle is also a talented local artist who specializes in assemblage art. She shared her inspirations with us and spoke about her artwork.

The children then spent a week collecting old or forgotten knickknacks, pieces from recycling bins, artifacts from the natural world and even items destined for the garbage. In addition, my co-teacher and I organized our miscellaneous craft items; we cut cardboard boxes into 8 x 8 canvases, and set out all of the materials for children to use in their art works.

We invited several parents into the classroom to help with the hot-gluing process and then dedicated a full three-hour morning work period to constructing the assemblages. After the pieces were glued, I spray-painted them monochromatic black, bronze, or gold according to each child’s choice. I was astonished at the strikingly beautiful creations! Though I had hoped to display the composite in the hallway, the children, duly proud of their pieces, insisted on taking them home.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When a child does not understand the material I have presented, I will first attempt to evaluate why. Finding out why is key to understanding the solution.

The reason may be non-classroom related, like the child has not eaten breakfast or they are distressed by home issues. I will then attempt to remedy the situation as best I can. I may feed the child or offer the lesson at another time when they can better focus.

At times, lack of understanding is due to the level of the material being inappropriate. If so, I might go back to a previous lesson with the child to scaffold their knowledge base and better equip them for the more advanced concept. If the material is too easy and the child is bored, I might progress the child ahead to offer more challenge.

A child might need to see the concept presented in a way that better suits their individual learning style. Some children need to manipulate the material themselves; some need to draw the concept; some need to write it out; others need to move and fidget while they listen. We have access to the multitude of Montessori materials and accompanying curricula that allow us to teach all concepts kinesthetically when necessary.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
Our classroom often looks like organized chaos. At any given time, there may be 33 children working on 33 different projects all in our small space. When I am tempted to stop the class because they look off task, I find it is best practice to wait a minute and observe. I often discover that my first impression of off-task behavior — loud, excited talking, movement — is actually educational in nature and can lead to great work. If allowed, the discussions the students have with one another are often the foundation of invaluable learning pathways and great peer-driven projects.

On the other hand, when the behavior is indeed off task, I will have one of the children ring our chime and then politely ask the class to adjust their behavior to better allow for focused, respectful work. We work hard with the children to create and foster a culture of work by providing varied opportunities for them to take ownership over their learning process.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Allowing children to take ownership of their learning through choice offers students the ability to show me what drives and motivates them. I then take that information to design an evolving individualized curriculum.

I also have the benefit of teaching all my students for three years. As a result I can carefully observe their educational, social, and emotional behaviors and choices. In three years I also regularly interact with the child’s family and often gain more valuable insights. With careful observation and purposeful interaction I am able to foster authentic relationships with my students and their families.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In my first year of teaching, I had my first lesson in the power of inviting parents and the community into my classroom. I was approached by a mother in my classroom who was passionate about Mayan history and wanted her child to have more exposure to the history of native cultures. I asked if she would be willing to volunteer a few times a month to share her knowledge with the whole class. She graciously agreed and provided a richly detailed program that I still use today.

Her contributions also inspired me to establish additional classroom-community partnerships with educators from the Jefferson County Indian Education Program and the Mayan dancers from the Denver Chicano Humanities and Arts Council. The experiences shared by community members enriched our classroom in a way that would never have been possible otherwise. This mom’s passion for Mayan culture taught me to seek input from all the resources available to me so I can teach most effectively.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I found it to be inspiring, thought provoking and a great read for a teacher’s summer list!

What’s the best advice you ever received?

One of my many mentors once told me that a child comes to us with many hidden gifts and treasures, and it is our job as educators to guide and encourage that child to bring those gifts forth and share them with the world. As Maria Montessori once wrote, “Free the child’s potential and you will transform him into the world.”

How I Teach

This Colorado music teacher doesn’t want to stifle the noise — or students’ creativity

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

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.

Considering that music teacher Justin Bankey describes his teaching style as “structured goofiness,” it’s not surprising that he doesn’t always jump in when his students are noisy or distracted. Often, he says, those are the moments that spark the greatest creativity.

Bankey, who teaches at Cactus Valley Elementary School in the Garfield School District in western Colorado, talked to Chalkbeat about his sense of humor, his extracurricular jobs and the conversation-starters he uses with students.

Bankey is one of 20 educators who were selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom. He’s also twice been named his school’s “Teacher of the Year” by colleagues in his building.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Music teacher Justin Bankey dressed as a magician

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher in a roundabout way. I went into college double-majoring in music and psychology in hopes of going into music therapy. My vocal scholarship allowed for music performance and/or music education, and the deeper I became involved in my education classes, the more I realized that I enjoyed the education aspect. I also started to reflect on all the wonderful teachers I had and how those teachers influenced me.

What does your classroom look like?
A large rectangle, and some other stuff. Oh, you want to know about the other stuff? I surround the students with pictures and words that involve music: posters of composers, pictures of musical symbols, a musical word wall, a wall devoted to the work that students create, whiteboards, pictures of instruments split into families or orchestral positions, tables to set instruments on or micro keyboards for my piano lab, musical rugs, chairs and a projector in the middle. The heart of my operation is my sound system: CD player, amp, equalizer and a computer to run sound and slides. Also, two of my large walls move so my room can open up as the stage we use for performances on either the gym or cafeteria side.

If you can picture the most awesome music room imaginable and then… look next door. I’m joking. I think it is a wonderful room. We are lucky to have it, but if I had the money I can imagine some pretty cool stuff for the students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
My sense of humor. I can’t imagine not laughing at some point in the day, either because of students, friends and colleagues… or just because humor enriches everything like music does!

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons to teach is my piano lab. I love to integrate technology whenever I can. The piano lab uses the iPad and an application called Piano Maestro, along with a two-octave keyboard. The students get to work at their own pace, and it has so many facets. I like to think of all these uses as stackable lessons. It’s a culmination of what they are learning in class and transferring that knowledge to a hands-on activity. I can also use it in more specific ways like rhythm help, reading the staves, understanding the keyboard, etc.

It also keeps track of the students’ progress so we can use it every year in school. The keyboard knowledge will also lend itself to composing using other technology in the future. I’m excited about the plans for all this awesome technology, but not as excited as the students when they see the lab set up.

How did you come up with the idea?
I learned about it at the Colorado Music Educators Conference. I got in contact with a teacher at a private school that uses it (I think in Texas), and I also got in contact with the application people themselves.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I am relentless with understanding because so much of what I teach is dependent on the last step. The great thing is that these steps circle around so each student has many chances for understanding.

One of the bonuses of my teaching position is that I teach the same lesson to multiple classes (4 sections of each grade level). If I miss some students in one class, I can adjust for the next class. Then for those students that didn’t understand the first time, we break it down in steps until they do understand, and then catch them back up.

I also really enjoy having students help each other out. They are the great equalizer. I also have an open door policy for any students that want or need extra time.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I like to use some tools that I’ve learned over the years like an all class attention-getter. I say “Get into the…” and they answer “Zone!” I use some golden oldies like clapping a short rhythmic phrase, and the students repeat the phrase. I keep track of how well the students are doing by marks on my board. If they see me marking in the good they say “Oh yeah!”, but if they see me marking in the bad the say “ahhhh!” in a sad voice and this will get their attention also.

Then again, I am a music teacher and a bit of noise in the background is what I do! I understand that being off task sometimes cultivates the creativity I hope for so I just have to watch it grow instead of stifling it… within reason.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?
One way is being out in the community at different events so that students see you out of school. I referee football for all ages so I get to see families more often. I take a minute here or there to talk with students about weekend plans, how families are doing, and favorite sports (which is always interesting because everyone knows I am a Seahawks fan in Bronco country). I announce at our high school basketball games where I see former students or students whose siblings I teach. I work at the pool during the summer so I get to see them there, too.

What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I take time in the morning to greet them on the way in and/or after school to wish them a great evening. I like to ask them about new haircuts, clothes, new lingo: “Did you know that ‘throwing shade’ was what I used to call a ‘burn’?!”

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I cannot think of just one memorable time because so much of my contact is very positive so it reinforces a lot of what I do. But I also know that through those contacts with families my teaching does not go in a straight line. Students and students’ families help change the direction of my teaching for the better every day because I am soaking in that outside stimuli.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I love sci-fi/fantasy (Clive Barker, George R.R. Martin, etc.) and/or a good detective/thriller book (James Patterson, Lee Child, etc.)

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Stepping out of one’s comfort zone is stepping into a big world of opportunities! Try and try again. Gosh, so many little tidbits of advice along the way.