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.

classroom politics

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

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.