How I Teach

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 I Teach

This Colorado teacher keeps parents in the loop — even when they’re stationed overseas

Wendy Murphy, a teacher at Woodmen Hills Elementary in the Falcon 49 school district, is a finalist for Colorado's 2018 Teacher of the Year award.

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.

Wendy Murphy, a longtime second grade teacher and now an instructional coach at Woodmen Hills Elementary near Colorado Springs, believes in keeping parents involved.

That’s true even when they’re serving military deployments overseas.

To keep faraway moms and dads connected to the classroom and their kids, Murphy has done video conferences via Facebook, included them in holiday story recordings and played host to surprise reunions in her classroom.

Murphy talked to Chalkbeat about why parent deployments hit her hard, how she helps students learn about their names and why she’s not afraid to ask for help. She’s one of seven finalists for Colorado’s 2018 Teacher of the Year award, which will be announced Nov. 1.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I absolutely loved my first grade teacher, Mrs. Ann Lane. She gave out the best hugs in the entire world and I wanted to do that, too. One of my favorite memories was looking forward to the end of each day because I knew I would receive that hug from Mrs. Lane no matter what.

Completing classwork was really hard for me and I was always getting into trouble and often off task. Learning to read was a struggle for me that often resulted in tears during daily reading groups. Mrs. Lane believed in me, encouraged me and always taught with a smile. I decided that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up so I could be just like her.

What does your classroom look like?
My signature color is orange as I am a loyal and true alumnae from Oklahoma State University. Within my orange and black classroom you see a respectful, safe, encouraging and collaborative learning environment. You know mistakes are OK and kindness counts. You hear laughter and a sense of enjoyment and pride in my classroom.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my heart. I once learned through a training that if you can capture a kid’s heart, you can capture their mind. Incorporating social-emotional learning across all content areas enhances students’ abilities with academic achievement, careers and life. I teach my students self-management and social awareness, build positive relationships and foster responsible decision-making.

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

One of my favorite beginning-of-the-year activities is an author study about Kevin Henkes. We have been reading his books to kick off second grade for over two decades. One memorable activity is completed after we read the book “Chrysanthemum.” The main character is a little mouse named Chrysanthemum and her parents named her after a flower because they feel that it is an absolutely perfect name.

Students write letters to their own parents asking them how they got their name and parents write letters in return. It is so special for students to share the origin of their name with the class. There are a lot of family names, names formed using letters from Mom and Dad’s names as well as Biblical names, too.

Some of the more humorous ones include being named after video game characters and picking the first letter of a name from the middle of the alphabet because they were the middle child. My son is currently in second grade and my husband and I had the opportunity to respond to the letter he wrote to us about his name just a few weeks ago. It truly touched our hearts and his, too.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I try very hard to create a nurturing and safe learning environment where mistakes are part of the process. Students understand that the struggle is where the learning takes place. It is very important for students to review their work and be reflective when something doesn’t quite click in their learning. Together, we adapt, adjust, try again and give it our best shot.

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

I have taught second grade for 17 years. Early in my career, a parent bought me a rainstick during a field trip to the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. It is the coolest thing! Students immediately focus their energy on me when they hear the soft waterfall sound of the rainstick.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Fostering positive relationships is definitely a priority in my classroom. I love greeting children with a smile and a handshake each morning at the classroom door. I also look forward to our end of the day dismissal where each person shares a personal connection to a topic or a question asked.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Our school is very proud to serve a large number of military families. Many parents and family members are deployed during the school year. Deployments hit me hard, especially when it is the mamas leaving their babies. Last year, one mother, an E-5 Sargent truly appreciated all of the pictures, newsletters and correspondence I sent through a classroom app. Grandpa even helped us do a Facebook phone conference early in the year. Then, part of our second grade Christmas music performance was a recorded video of different adults reading sections of the story, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Our overseas military mama had read the last part of the book on the video-—which was a surprise for her children. It was a truly memorable time for everyone at the performance. (The mother) surprised us again when she ran into the classroom in March — finally home from deployment.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
My name Wendy became popular after the 1904 play Peter Pan. I still love reading the novel “Peter and Wendy” by J. M. Barrie. Some of my other favorites include the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games series, books by John Grisham and James Patterson, and who can resist the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich? I love reading! Growing up, I would rather have been reading than doing my chores, homework or practicing the piano. My mother used to punish me by taking away my Babysitter’s Club, Choose Your Own Adventure or Nancy Drew books.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never be afraid to ask for help. The many demands of teaching can be so intense and stressful. Having a supportive and collaborative team, staff and administration is so important. Be an advocate for yourself, surround yourself with positive people and great things can happen… All you have to do is ask.

How I Teach

Fresh from the Denver suburbs, this new teacher visited a poor student in a rural area and learned a valuable lesson

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.

During her first year teaching, Laura Keathley learned a lesson she has never forgotten.

Keathley, who’d grown up in suburban Denver, was driving to visit a student at home in a rural area of New Mexico. Knowing the child’s family was poor and the home had no electricity or running water, she feared the girl faced a bleak future.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.

Keathley, now a special education teacher at Avery-Parsons Elementary School in the Buena Vista School District, talked to Chalkbeat about what she learned during the visit, why teaching isn’t brain surgery and where silly cat videos fit into the day.

She 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.

Laura Keathley
Laura Keathley

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally I started out to be an emergency medical technician then decided to major in social work. One day, I was talking to a former high school teacher when he suggested I come and volunteer at the school helping with his special needs physical education class. I had no background with special needs, but I was looking for a new adventure and this seemed like fun. From the moment I started working with those wonderful kids, I was hooked! My favorite part of teaching is seeing that light go on and a student mastering a new skill. It is so exciting to me whether the accomplishment is big or small.

What does your classroom look like?
Grand Central Station! Keathley’s Korner – a name I created to remove the stigma of special education — has one teacher, three paraprofessionals and 15 students in six grade levels … so it is a busy place. It is open and bright with lots of color. The walls are covered with visual supports designed to make our students more independent. We have four different group tables spread throughout the room. Each area is defined by area rugs or furniture. There is also a mini kitchen with a sink and counters on one side of the room.

The main feature of my classroom is the 411 wall. This is our information center. It tells everyone where they need to go, who is in the room that day, and any special announcements. Students can independently use the board to find their daily activities. My class is always busy and students come and go all day long.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my paraprofessionals. The three ladies that I work with are very talented. My paraprofessionals create and follow their own lesson plans, freeing me up to work with the students and focus on teaching. They are well-versed in the field and have received a great deal of training. I depend on them not only to deliver instruction, but to contribute thoughts and ideas about working with the students. My paraprofessionals have become a resource to the entire school. The joke in our classroom is that we are four parts of the same brain.

In December of 2014, our classroom was awarded model status by the Colorado Department of Education Colorado Model Autism Site Project, or CoMASP. We were the seventh classroom in the state and the second rural school to receive the honor by meeting at least 80 percent of the state’s quality indicators. We achieved this in part because of my paraprofessionals’ willingness to go above and beyond their job to make a difference. I am thankful every day that I work with these wonderful ladies. Thank you Sarah, Lesa and Stephanie!

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
A few years ago I began teaching all the students in our school about the basics of autism and special needs and how to make friends with those students. I wanted something that was easy to adapt to every grade level and that would connect with the students and teachers.

I contacted one of my former students and he created a PowerPoint presentation for me called, “10 Things You Should Know About Having Autism.” His slideshow describes his challenges and feelings about having autism and how to respond to that. Coming from his personal perspective, it is a powerful teaching tool. Paired with the how-to-make-friends presentation from AutismSpeaks.org, it has spawned some amazing conversation in classes. I believe that it has created a much more inclusive and accepting environment throughout our school. I love being able to share how amazing my students are with everyone in the school.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I believe in the saying, “If a child cannot learn the way I teach, then let me teach him the way he can learn.” It is my responsibility to find a way to get that information to my student in a way they can best learn and understand. Sometimes I reteach a lesson several different ways looking for a way to connect with the student. Patience and a willingness to keep trying are important.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My class runs in small groups, so quiet reminders to focus on their work or keep trying are usually all it takes. In group settings, I use a system that we created in my classroom called the Cup Ups. There is a red, green and yellow cup. When the red cup is up, everyone is listening and no questions can be asked. When the yellow cup is up, everyone is listening and if you have a question, you can raise your hand and wait to be called on. When the green cup is up, everyone can talk and discuss quietly and ask questions without raising their hands, as long as they are respectful. I like the visual cue that every child understands.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I love to get to know my students one-on-one away from an academic setting. I often have my students for multiple years, so I have the luxury of really digging into their lives and finding what motivates them. I love to find a common passion – one student and I watch silly cat videos on YouTube – and then use that to create a relationship. Humor and silliness also go a long way towards building a bridge.

I also work hard to create a safe space for my students to come to when they need support. I use genuine praise and honest feedback when I work with them. I want them to feel that I am behind them all the way. I ask them, “Do you trust me? I need you to know that I am going to give you things that are hard, but never impossible. If you try and use my help we can make this happen. I am always here for you!” I am their biggest cheerleader and advocate.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
My first year of teaching was in Gallup, New Mexico. I was a brand-new teacher fresh from the suburbs of Denver who took the job sight unseen. The first week I was there, I made a home visit to a family that had a special needs child they wanted to enroll in my class. My principal warned me that the family lived far from town, in a small hogan (Navajo traditional house) with dirt floors, no running water, and no electricity. The family had very little money. In my mind, this environment immediately connected to a poor environment for the child and certain deprivation that would only hold this child back in her future. Pity was an overwhelming emotion.

On our way to the house, I was mentally reviewing all the many things I was going to have to do for this poor child. When we got to the house, a large extended family met us. Aunts, uncles, grandparents and parents sat down with us to discuss the child’s needs. Throughout the bilingual conversation, I discovered that this child lived a rich and culture-filled life. Herding sheep, speaking two languages, learning Navajo tradition, learning letters and numbers from every family member in an authentic environment, and the list goes on.

I began to realize that this child was going to be successful because of the incredible home support and love she experienced every day. At that moment, I discovered how dangerous making assumptions about a student based on what you think you know can be for a child. Pity can blind you to what’s right in front of you and make you ineffective. In the 29 years since that lesson, I have never made that mistake again.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am reading the Dark Tower series by Stephen King.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
One of my very favorite veteran teachers once told me, “It’s teaching, not brain surgery. No one is going to die if you don’t get through your lesson. Breathe, relax and enjoy the kids. You can teach a lesson again tomorrow, but you might not get a second chance to connect with a kid.” Yep – words to live by!