Special education teacher — and Sherlock Holmes fan — on why he encourages students to be inquisitive

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

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.

As a Sherlock Holmes buff, it’s fitting that special education teacher Derrick Belanger considers inquisitiveness a critical trait in his seventh-graders at Century Middle School in the Adams 12 Five Star school district. He says students should always be asking the question, “Why?”

Belanger 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 state-level 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?

Teacher Derrick Belanger dresses as Sherlock Holmes for an author talk.

When I arrive at school, my first step is always to check my email to see if I have any messages from parents or students. Being in the field of special education, I make an extra effort to be in constant communication with my parents so that they understand how their students are progressing both in the classroom and on their Individualized Education Program goals.

I also review my lessons for the day, check my progress through my district’s standards-based curriculum, and reflect upon how the learning we are doing in the classroom that day will impact each of my student’s lives. In many ways, I have ten different classrooms going on in each of my periods because I have to tailor my lessons to meet each individual student’s needs. That’s one of the biggest challenges of being a learning specialist; however, I find that when I see the level of student growth, it is also one of the most rewarding.

What does your classroom look like?

Being a traveling teacher, I have to “rent” space from others. Fortunately, the teachers whose classrooms I borrow are very helpful and supportive. When you do enter my classroom, what you will see are questions and collaboration. I always have students working together whether it is co-reading a book, practicing a Kagan strategy such as “Sage and Scribe” or peer editing through Google Docs.

I also always have students ask the question, “Why?” because it is, to me, the most important question for effective learning. If students don’t question why they know or don’t know something, or the importance of what they are learning in the classroom, then they really are not engaging with the material. If my students are self-reflecting inquirers then I know they are learning.

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

I think this is a better question for my students than for me. Personally, I love Google Classroom, Google Docs, and pretty much all of Google’s tools. I share with my students my own professional writing and editorial comments I receive on Google Docs so they can see both the hard work of writing but also the collaboration between a writer and an editor and how that collaboration leads to much better writing. Writing is hard work, even for the professionals! And no one ever writes alone. That’s why it is important for students to get feedback on all their writing from multiple readers.

The reason I think that your question is better suited to students is that often I will give my students an assignment, and on their own, they find the best technological pathway to complete the assignment. For some of my students, a multi paragraph essay is overwhelming, so they write the essay in Google Slides, making a paragraph for each slide. That makes the assignment manageable and gives them the opportunity to complete the assignment at their highest level of writing.

How do you plan your lessons?

I start with my district’s standards-based units, unravel the standards with fellow educators, check where my students have deficiencies and how they can tackle them during the unit, co-create the unit assessment, and then work backwards designing my lessons. As I teach the unit, I then adjust the day-to-day lessons to meet the needs of my students.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?

An ideal lesson has to be engaging and thought-provoking. If students are disconnected from the lesson then it is a failure.

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

When a student does not understand my lesson, I try a different approach to see if I can make a connection. Sometimes with math, students do not understand the abstract aspect of the teaching, so I bring in a hands-on approach. Sometimes rearranging counting chips in a pattern is enough to make the abstract concrete and therefore understandable. With writing, if a student doesn’t understand my lesson, I bring in other exemplars and models. Sometimes seeing the approach from a different author helps.

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

For me, when a student loses focus, I take the personal approach of sitting down with the student, saying I believe they have lost focus, and then listening to their reason. Often, their lack of focus has nothing to do with school. I also check in with the student’s core teachers and counselors, and possibly also the “Response to Intervention” team. I want to ensure that the student is receiving all the support and assistance necessary for success.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?

I am in constant communication with parents through various means. Some parents I contact daily with updates on how their child is performing in class. Others prefer weekly updates. Sometimes this is through phone calls, other times through email or docs. It really depends on what the easiest communication tool is for the parents.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?

The beauty of standards-based grading is that there is always time for improvement. If students want to submit a revision after a work has been graded, they are always welcome to do so. This gives students the freedom to take risks with their learning without fearing the final mark.

Throughout the drafting of a piece of writing, I meet with my students on a daily basis and we discuss the progress of their work. Sometimes this involves editing, sometimes brainstorming, sometimes skill practice, sometimes revision, and sometimes reflection. By the time the actual grading of the paper comes around, the student has a good understanding of their score. This cuts down on the amount of comments I need to type on an assignment. There’s no surprise with the final score, and there is always another opportunity for improvement.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am a major Sherlock Holmes fan. I love the character, the way he solves mysteries, and the way we experience the story through the eyes of Dr. Watson. I always have at least one Sherlock Holmes book I am reading in addition to something else. Currently I am reading “Holmes Away from Home: Tales of the Great Hiatus,” volumes 1 and 2. I am proud to say I have a story in the second collection.

I also always read the New York Times and the Denver Post to stay current with the news at a national and local level. Although with the world today, that has been much less enjoyable.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

I think the best advice I ever received is, “Every student is a unique individual. Treat them as such.” That advice came from my mentor teacher Stephen Ingraham who I worked under at NOBLE High School in Berwick, Maine. I think this is the key to the success of every student in the classroom. When we connect to each student as a unique individual then we know them, know how they learn, know about their families, friends and interests, know their strengths and weaknesses, know what they care about. When you have that connection to a student then you can work with them and they will grow both inside and outside of the classroom.

How the 2018 national teacher of the year manages a classroom with 12 languages with a white board and a paper clip

PHOTO: Ferguson Films
2018 national teacher of the year Mandy Manning.

Four years ago, Mandy Manning realized she wanted to have an impact outside her classroom, where she spent her days teaching immigrant and refugee students how to navigate their new school and new lives.

To do that, though, she also realized that she would need more than just years of experience. She would need a platform.

This year, she got just that: Manning, who teaches in Spokane, Washington, was named the 2018 national teacher of year.

“People need to know how amazing these immigrant and refugee students are,” she told Chalkbeat.

It’s a message she feels more urgency to spread as the current presidential administration takes a harsh position toward immigrants and asylum-seekers. Manning said she spent several months responding to students asking her when they would have to leave the country.

But the core of Manning’s work is to teach immigrant and refugee students foundational language skills and help ease their transition to the U.S. The students, who come from across the school district, usually spend one semester with her at the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School.

“I’m their ambassador. Hopefully I’m a good example of what we are as Americans,” she said.

This interview, part of Chalkbeat’s How I Teach series, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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

Teaching really chose me, because I hadn’t intended to become a teacher. I finished my undergraduate degree, which was in filmmaking, and I really wasn’t interested in continuing in that line of work. A friend, who was a paraeducator — someone within a classroom who works one-on-one with students — suggested I become a paraeducator.

Then I taught in the Peace Corps, which really helped expand my worldview. Even after that, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a teacher. I moved to Texas and my aunt suggested I apply to teaching positions, even though I wasn’t certified or had a degree in education. It was almost as if teaching was pursuing me and I was just denying it.

How do you get to know your students?

I’m very welcoming to them. I think that’s so essential, because the very first day is where you set your climate and environment in the classroom. For me that means being very upbeat and excited and ensuring that I’m introducing myself to every student as they’re walking in and figuring out their name and where they’re from and what languages they speak.

I used to teach general education — film making, journalism, communications, English. With them I would just have conversations like, ‘You are an individual and I’m an individual and yes I am your teacher and you are my student but I’m still interested in who you are not just as a learner but as a person.’ With the newcomers, it’s a little more difficult because we’re starting with charades, essentially.

So slowly, every day, I learn something new about my kids and that’s my goal. As long as I learn something about one student each day, I’m moving forward.

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

It’s our “Out in the Community” lesson. It has to do with the foundational language we’re teaching — giving and receiving directions and the basic ability to navigate your community. The reason I love it so much is that we actually get to go out and explore the neighborhood of the school and sometimes the downtown area of Spokane — the actual community in which they live and they’re expected to function as community members.

It’s so fun to watch the kids and what things are of interest to them and how they draw their maps. They also make connections back to their home country when they’re talking about the differences between their neighborhoods or schools or communities.

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

My whiteboard and markers. Personally, I need a paper clip, which is so dumb, but it helps me concentrate. I just play with it when I’m teaching and communicating with kids. But the thing I really need in my classroom all the time is the ability to write things down because it helps with that comprehensible input for my kids.

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

Right now, it’s the climate around immigrants and refugees. Spokane is pretty good, pretty neutral. There isn’t a whole lot of negative communication or messaging, but it does happen. It’s happened in our hallways at school where kids have been told to go back to Africa or horrible racist slurs have been called against Arabic kids or kids from African nations. It impacts how welcome and comfortable my students feel.

It also brings older students, who have gone beyond the Newcomer Center back to my classroom more often, because my room represents the first place they were comfortable and safe. They’re often returning to me and the bilingual specialist I work with just for the reassurance that they’re welcome and they’re safe here in our nation. That’s something we now have to navigate every single day.

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

The first year I started to do home visits — at that time I had families from Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, and different nations in Africa. These home visits with all these different families showed me so much about individual differences between people of the same culture and between different cultures.

I got to see how they’re living, who they’re living with, the different type of homes — apartments, duplexes, single-family dwellings, or a house — and just how they interacted with each other. It broadened my perspective of family. there are so many different types of families within the students born within the United States, then to see it on a such a large scale with different cultures, it’s helped me to seek value in every single different type of family. And to understand that even though things operate differently in each home, that doesn’t diminish the beauty of that home.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is the middle of the year, semester-end. Kids at the Newcomer Center come from all over the school district. Usually after a semester, they then go on to their neighborhood high school. We have several practices in place to help with transition, but that semester break, it’s really hard to say goodbye to the kids.

It’s harder than at the end of the year because at the end of the year, we’re all taking a break. That semester, some of my kids are leaving and I’m not going to see them on a regular basis. And we’ve bonded with one another so much that it’s really hard, and I always end crying for the whole day because I’m going to miss them so much.

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

I didn’t know what I was doing at all when I had my first classroom. I didn’t even know how to read a teacher’s edition of a textbook. I sort of jumped in with both feet. I guess I assumed I needed to understand how to build a lesson exactly and that would be a hard hurdle for me, but I soon found out it doesn’t matter how beautifully you structure your lesson plan, because teaching is really about monitoring and adjusting for whatever the needs are of the kids at the time. You might have the most beautiful lesson but chances are it will shift and change in the first 10 minutes.

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

Focus on your kids and everything else will fall into place.

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‘What if this was my son?’ How Newark’s Teacher of the Year pushes autistic students to succeed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Lourdes Reyes, Newark's 2018 Teacher of the Year.

A normal Monday in Lourdes Reyes’ classroom at the First Avenue School begins with a pleasant routine.

Her six students, a mix of first and second-graders with autism, eat breakfast quietly at their desks then brush their teeth in the restroom. Then they return to class, as they did one Monday morning this month, to recite the days and months and share highlights from the weekend — a trip to the zoo, playtime in the park, an evening bike ride.

“Alright,” Reyes said in a soothing tone as she moved the lesson along. “Everybody had a good weekend.”

But on Monday, May 7, things were far from normal.

That was when the district’s interim superintendent arrived unannounced in her classroom bearing balloons and a bouquet, with television cameras in tow, to inform her that she was Newark’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. Reyes tearfully accepted the award as her daughter, a teacher at Elliott Street School, looked on. Then she walked into the hallway, where dozens of students cheered and chanted her name.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Reyes told Chalkbeat during a recent interview.

In college, Reyes had studied to become a social worker. But after her son, Ishmail, was born with autism, she wanted to learn more about his condition. Before long, she had earned a master’s degree in special education and become a teacher of students with autism — a job she’s held for 21 years.

After two decades, she has yet to slow down. Every day after class she begins her second job as an early-intervention specialist, visiting families’ homes to work with young children suspected of having disabilities. After finishing around 8:30 p.m., she takes a late-night walk with her youngest son — a routine that, along with a healthy new diet, helped her lose 65 pounds over the past year.

Reyes stays just as busy at school. In addition to academic lessons, she teaches her students life skills like tying their shoes and cooking — sometimes on a portable stove, which Reyes used one day this year to cook green eggs and ham. In April, which is National Autism Awareness Month, she helped raise $2,300 for the school’s autism program and organized a performance where her students sang Disney songs. Reyes performed alongside wearing the red hat and spotted pants of Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl from “Toy Story.”

Principal Jose Fuentes, who was part of the 10-person leadership team at First Avenue that nominated Reyes for her award, called her “one of the pillars of the school.” She extends herself far beyond her own classroom, showing colleagues and parents how to challenge and support students with autism, Fuentes said.

“She’s giving new light to the possibilities of what it means to be an educator,” he said. “That’s Reyes.”

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get into teaching?

When my second son was born, Ishmail, he was born with autism.

I was first of all shocked that I had an autistic son. It was very difficult and devastating for all of us. My husband and I had to go for counseling. It was very hard. But then we overcame it. I decided I’m going to take something negative and make something positive out of it.

So I went to graduate school and I took classes on special ed. I loved it and so I took another class. One class led to another.

Then I started volunteering at my son’s school. I was there all the time. In the evenings my husband would get home, he’d watch the kids, I’d go and take my class.

Next thing you know, in two years I completed a master’s in special ed.

How has being the parent of a child with autism shaped the way you teach?

Everything I still do today is focused on, “What if this was my son?”

I think that’s what makes me a little different. Like if I was doing this for him, how would I teach it?

What have you learned about what it takes to be an effective teacher of students with autism?

You can’t feel sorry for a child. Just because they have a disability does not mean that they can’t do something. You have to put that aside and show them in a way that tough love to get them to master the skills. Which is hard for some of the parents to do.

We have to do a lot of what the parents don’t do. For instance, tooth brushing, that’s a life skill. At home they say, “He doesn’t want to brush his teeth.” But they do it here every morning.

It sounds like a big part of your job is working with parents.

I give them my cell number. They call me at all times.

Sometimes [a student’s mother] will say, “It’s a rough morning. He didn’t want to change. I’m sending you the uniform in the book bag.” Then when he comes in, we transition him. When we do toothbrushing we say, “You need to change now.”

Then when it’s 2:45, “You don’t want to wear it? OK, let’s go change you. Put on your jeans, go on the bus.” Happy trooper.

How are you able to make progress with students who come in without many academic skills?

It’s ongoing, and it’s repetitive. Teaching the skills. Pulling them out, teaching them [through] individualized instruction.

And it happens also with the assistance of the aides. I have four great aides. None of this could happen without them.

Ms. [Rasheedah] Jacobs, guess how many years she’s been with me. Fourteen. When I came here and interviewed, I said, “I’ll take the job under the condition that Ms. Jacobs could come with me.” She really, really is a great teacher. I call her a teacher, not even an aide. She’s my right hand.

Can you think of a student whom you had a lot of success with?

Last year, I had one of my highest functioning students. She has Asperger’s. What a thrill to have that little girl. Oh my gosh.

Every week the principal gives the word of the week. She memorized and knew every single word from September to June. And recited it in an assembly, with a sentence for each word. She’s unbelievable!

We had a student [at Quitman Street Community School] who had a band on his esophagus, and he had a feeding tube in kindergarten. We couldn’t believe it — he was in diapers.

I was like, “If we can get this little boy to be toilet trained, that will be a success.” Do you know we mastered that? We did it.

How do you know if you’ve been successful by the end of the year?

Seeing [a student] who didn’t know the letters of the alphabet, seeing him writing sentences, filling in blanks, reciting words.

Knowing [a different student] can tie his shoes. Knowing he can brush his teeth.

Knowing that parents are happy with the progress of their students. Them sharing with me the change in their child once they started coming into my classroom. Parents telling me, “Oh, that’s not the same kid who was in the school last year. That’s a different child.”

What’s your advice to teachers who are just starting out?

Have a lot of patience. Be real devoted.

And do not look at a student with autism as a person who is weak. Have high expectations that they are capable of doing everything and anything with the right accommodations.

It can be done, but it takes someone with dedication, sensitivity, and also someone who does not feel sorry for a child. Anything is possible. There are no limits.