How I Teach

Why this Colorado kindergarten teacher embraces student questions she can’t answer

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

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.

Allison Sampish’s kindergarteners read books and watched videos about lions, but still they had questions. To get those questions answered, she tracked down a researcher who studied lions and set up a video call so her students could hear from a true expert.

The kids got their questions about lion manes and hunting habits answered, but more importantly they learned to follow their curiosity and passion, she said.

Sampish, a teacher at Fall River Elementary in the St. Vrain Valley district, talked to Chalkbeat about her switch from accounting to teaching, what she does when kids are off task and how she helped parents figure out how to talk to their kids about school.

Sampish is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group, which met for the first time Tuesday, will provide 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?

My mom would tell you I was a teacher at a very young age, always walking backwards in front of my line of younger cousins and teaching my stuffed animals with chalk on the sidewalk. After working as a public accountant for five years, I realized I was ready to pursue my childhood dream and become a kindergarten teacher. I knew I wanted to facilitate wonder-filled and discovery-based learning experiences for my students every day. I strive to create interdisciplinary tasks that allow my young students to collaborate, enhance their critical thinking skills and communicate their learning.

What does your classroom look like?

We work very hard every year to create a fun, collaborative environment where everyone can learn. Supplies are found at a kindergartner’s eye/hand level and there is frequently a “buzz” coming from our room as they work together to research, build or solve a problem. Dr. Seuss books and characters are also found throughout the classroom. Each year we set the goal that together when they leave me as readers they will be able to read “Green Eggs and Ham” or “Cat in the Hat” all by themselves!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my students’ sense of curiosity. Every day during readers’ workshop kindergartners run across the room to share new knowledge about an animal or nonfiction topic. I love in math when they become so curious about shapes and all year look for them around us. Or, in social studies, when they truly discover what it means to be part of a community.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
This year my kindergartners and I were reading a National Geographic magazine article about lions. They began asking many questions that we added to our “Wonder Wall.” Over the next few days we borrowed books from the library and watched various videos to try and answer our questions. While we answered many of our questions there were still some “big wonders” unanswered. I wanted to model that even as adults we often seek the knowledge of an expert, so I found a lion expert from Virginia Polytechnic Institute to call via Skype. She shared pictures of lions she studied in Africa, helped us act out how female lions hunt, and helped us truly understand the purpose of a male lion’s mane.

The point of lessons like this is not just to teach more about lions, but to encourage them to follow their passion and genuine sense of curiosity and wonder. This type of lesson is always my favorite year after year because they are student-led based on that group of kindergartners’ passions and curiosity. Past inquiry topics have included: blue whales, volcanoes, water cycle, penguins, zebras, narwhals, Africa and Legos.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student doesn’t understand a lesson or concept I quickly ask myself: Do they not understand because they don’t have the skills or background knowledge to understand this concept? Or are they not understanding because of the way I explained the concept or lesson? Based on this reflection I then will either step back and teach them the background knowledge or skill they need or try to explain it a different way.

Oftentimes the student just needs a little more time and practice so I find/create a new game or activity to give all of us a chance to really understand the lesson. For example, in math we often need more practice with addition and subtraction so I will make sure all our math centers are addition and subtraction games with dice, cards, manipulatives, board games or word problems we wrote as class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I have a small wind chime at the front of the classroom that the kindergartners are allowed to ring at any time. They quickly figure out that if their peers are too loud they can ring the chime and ask their friends to please “write with their pencils not their mouths” or to “please turn down their volume.”

I use a lot of proximity to get individual students’ attention or hand them a rain stick that is their “pass” to take a rain stick walk around the hallways to refocus. If several students are off task, then I take it as a sign that we all need a movement break, so we stand up and dance to a favorite nursery rhyme or song.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
At the beginning of the year we do several activities to really get to know each other. We roll a question cube (i.e. favorite color/book/food/activity/animal). The kindergartners love making connections among their new friends. We also make class books once a month that include our writing and pictures or drawings. These class books become favorite books to reread on their own.

Each day during snack time we have “question of the day,” where one student reads the question and then everyone answers the question at their table. Each of these activities allows me the chance to intentionally listen and connect with my students. We can laugh over our similar favorite foods or how we could teach each other our favorite hobbies. Lastly, I check in with each student throughout the day; for example, I may help work on a puzzle, or sit beside two partners doing a math game, or listen in while a student is reading a new book. It is the conversations we have at these moments that help me connect with the students individually.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Parents frequently tell me that at the end of the day their kindergartner is so tired that when asked, “How was school?” the response is simply, “Fine.” Students struggle to remember what we specifically were working on each day. My teammates and I send home newsletters every other week with a description of current learning but this was not helping parents and kindergartners have authentic conversations.

As a result of this feedback, I created “Kindergarten Conversation Cards.” These are just small cards that we now send home once a week that describe what we are working on and ask questions to help deepen conversations between parents and their students. (Example: We got our chick eggs this week. We are learning chicks need a long time to grow. Have you ever had to wait for something to grow? If so, what helped you be patient?) Parents have really appreciated this resource to help begin their conversations with their kindergartners.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
My nieces love to help me find new great read-aloud chapter books. It is so fun to read the same books they are and get their feedback as to if they think the kindergartners would enjoy the book. We are just about to start the book “The Wild Robot” by Peter Brown. I also always have a few other books going either for fun or professional development, current titles on my nightstand are “The Nest,” and “Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mentor, Dr. Brian Sevier, always tells me to “Trust the kids.” I try to think about this all the time in my kindergarten classroom and find he is always right. When I trust the kids, we spend the time to truly research the narwhal that has us all curious about their horn, or to take the math unit outside to really understand how best to measure water, or to just sit and listen to each other during a class meeting.

How I Teach

For this Denver AP English teacher, success means students who push against the status quo

Ashley Farris, an AP English teacher at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School, with her 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.

To Ashley Farris, an advanced placement English teacher at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School in Denver, teaching is an act of social justice — a way to help students push against the status quo and create community change.

It’s an outlook she adopted during her first teaching job in Baltimore, when she got a crash course in racism and poverty. She says her belief that teachers can change the world is what’s kept her in the profession.

Farris is one of 20 educators who were selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide 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 think teaching is in my blood! I am the oldest of my siblings, so I was often teaching them when we were growing up. I found solace in books as a child, and I knew that I wanted to share my love of reading as a teacher.

I think the reasons that I became a teacher are far less important than my reasons for staying. My first teaching assignment was in Baltimore City, and it was the first time I had to confront a system that really was not working for all of the people involved. I learned a lot about racism, poverty and trauma while I was teaching there, and it made me angry. As a person of color, no one had ever taught me the academic vocabulary to describe the things I was experiencing and the things I saw my students experiencing. I pushed myself to learn more about institutional racism, implicit bias, etc. because I knew that my students deserved more. I wanted them to be able to talk about the challenges they saw every day.

For me, teaching has become an act of social justice. If my students are successful, they are pushing back against the status quo, and they are able to make the changes they want to see in their communities. Although I am no longer in Baltimore, I am still committed to working with minority students in underserved communities. I co-taught a social justice class last year and it was incredible to be able to share stories with my students of color about our common experiences. Recently, I saw this quote that said, “She believed she could change the world, so she became a teacher” and I thought: that’s me! That’s why I’m still here!

What does your classroom look like?
I play with seating arrangements a lot in my room. I have tables and they are currently in L-shapes so students can easily work with a partner or in a small group. There is a lot of student talk and collaboration in my class, and I try to choose seating arrangements to help facilitate that. I don’t have too many things on the walls because I find them distracting, but I do have a few plants to add some color and life to the room.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
My document camera, which projects documents onto a screen. I use my document camera every day with students because it is so easy to work alongside them, show them my thinking and have them present their own work.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons last year was an introduction to a unit on truth. I had five volunteers touch an object that was inside of a box and describe what they felt. They each had drastically different answers: Some said the object was soft, others firm, one said it felt feathery. I revealed that the object inside the box was a teddy bear wearing a graduation cap (a gift from my family when I was accepted to college, which also gave me an opportunity to talk about being a first generation college student).

We discussed how although none of the students were wrong about what they felt, none of them was able to understand the whole truth of the object. Then we read both “The Parable of the Elephant” and Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” It sparked a great conversation about how we know when something is true and the importance of listening to different perspectives. Students were still bringing up the “elephant story” in our discussions at the end of the year.

How did you come up with the idea?
I based the entire lesson on “The Parable of the Elephant,” but I Google everything. I am constantly saving articles on Evernote that I think would be interesting to teach in class. I am always on the lookout for something that I think could be useful in a lesson.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student doesn’t understand the lesson, I might have another student help them. Sometimes kids are able to explain things to each other in ways that make more sense. We also have office hours at my school, so I am available at least once a week to help students. I invite students to come during lunch as well if they’d like extra help.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
This is my second year teaching seniors and honestly, they are not often off task nor do they need much to get their attention! When I taught middle school, I found countdowns really useful because it gave students time to wind down their conversations.

Most of the time if students are off task it is because they are confused or they have concerns about something outside the classroom. I simply ask a student if they have a question about the assignment or if everything is OK. If they don’t have questions and they are fine, I repeat the directions for the assignment. I find that is usually enough to get kids back on track and if there is a problem, they now have space to voice it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
On the first day of school, I write each student’s name on an index card and place it on their desk. Their very first assignment is to write something they want me to know about them on the back. That night I read and respond to every card by writing back with a question or comment. I pass the cards back the next day (which helps me learn names) and invite them to respond again. Sometimes students will pass the card with me 3-4 times! Putting in the time to get to know students at the beginning of the year gives me the opportunity to start up conversations with them about their interests and help calm any fears or worries they may have.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
During my first year teaching, I called a parent to discuss her son’s poor behavior in my class. I remember her telling me that she didn’t know what to do with him and asked me if I had any advice. I was 22, barely out of college, with no kids of my own. I had no idea what to tell her!

That moment made me realize that we are all doing that best that we can with what we have and no single one of us (parents, teachers, administrators) has all the answers. It is so important for schools to work with families in order to help their children have engaging educational experiences.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I recently finished “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson and I’m working on “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best teaching advice I’ve ever received was from teacher and education consultant, Jacob Clifford. He said to teach your best lesson on the first day.

How I Teach

This Colorado teacher doesn’t come to class with ironclad lessons. Instead, students help her plan along the way.

Teacher Denise Perritt (far left) poses with her high school English students and a guest speaker who visited her class, author Robert Fulghum.

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.

Denise Perritt, a reading specialist and high school English teacher at the tiny Paradox Valley School in the western Colorado town of Paradox, knew she wanted to teach as an elementary school student. The inspiration? Her fifth-grade teacher, who showed her the joy in teaching.

Perritt, who also serves as vice principal of the charter school, talked to Chalkbeat about her former teacher’s special qualities, the importance of parent feedback and why she likes it when students laugh in class.

Perritt is one of 20 educators who were selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide 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 was inspired by my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Johnson. She led her classroom with compassion, which caused me to believe I could teach. Miss Johnson genuinely cared about our learning, but she also cared about us as students. I learned from my previous teachers in grades K-4, but they were all about the learning and not so much about personally getting to know their students.

I really noticed and liked this teaching style. Further, Miss Johnson’s class was fun and we helped each other learn so everyone was successful, which felt good. I was not just responsible for my own learning, but also for the success of my friends and classmates. So, I guess this is when I first experienced the joy of teaching and became hooked.

What does your classroom look like?
I teach in multiple spaces within our school (sometimes even having to move in the middle of a lesson when the conference room is needed for a meeting). My class spaces are small resource rooms in which I try to create learning energy we can take with us (because my class spaces are fluid, but also as inspiration for students to make learning fun for themselves). I believe learning is a state of mind and does not always have to be connected to a particular place. Although environment does inspire learning, we can create a fun place to learn anywhere if we have the desire to learn within us.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my________?
My heart. My desire to teach started in my heart when my fifth grade teacher’s compassion for her students and teaching stirred my soul and started me thinking about teaching. There is definitely an art and science to teaching. I believe students learn more —and there is plenty of research to support my belief — when they know teachers sincerely care about them. (Not just about what they are learning, but also about the joy in their lives.)

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Honestly, I do not have a favorite lesson. I engage students in my planning (i.e. we decide together which novels we will read and what we will write about) so learning is fun and meaningful for all of us. My students often come up with better lesson ideas than I would.

As we progress through lessons, we include things along the way. For example, one group of readers chose the novel “Hoot” by Carl Hiaasen. The story is about burrowing owls and saving them from having their habitat destroyed. Just yesterday, I received a call from my principal, Jon, who is on vacation and just happened to photograph a mother burrowing owl feeding her babies. We discussed him sharing his photos with our students upon our return to school. Now, if I read this novel with another group of students, I have this additional resource to draw upon. Jon is a wonderful photographer so I also may have him share a bit about how he became interested in photography (sort of a career/mentor teachable moment). So, you can see how things just fall naturally into place, if you are open and flexible with lesson-planning.

Thus, I do not have a favorite lesson because my lessons are not plans, but scaffolds upon which to build student knowledge. The structure supports and allows lots of room for new thoughts and ideas, which allow broader and deeper connections to be made, even if they are months later (as in the case of the owl photos).

How do you respond when students don’t understand your lesson?
I usually ask the students to tell me what they are thinking. Then I can learn how I can add to their thinking to help them get to the expected level of understanding.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I usually tell a joke related to the topic to get them all thinking about the same thing and laughing. Then I have their attention and we are back on topic.

I use laughter in class for many reasons. It decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus helping to keep all of us well and in school. Iit triggers the release of endorphins, which promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain. Also, it promotes a general feeling of fun while learning. I have had teachers say to me, “When I passed your class, I heard a lot of laughing. It sounded like all of you were having fun.”

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Teaching in a small school — total enrollment is 75 in preschool through 12th grade — makes it easy to know all students. I am also the vice principal of the school and stand at the front door each morning to greet each student. I do this for many reasons, but mostly because I like to and it gives me an overall feeling about how each student’s morning has been thus far. Most students have about an hour ride on the bus to get to school; and, since we have one bus, our entire student body comes in at once. Having preschool through 12th grade students together on one bus sometimes causes problems, so I like to nip them early in the day.

I have been at Paradox Valley School two years and have built relationships with students by: Listening (I ask questions to be sure I understand what they are sharing with me); helping; and, being firm (keeping expectations high) and fair. I think the students respect these qualities and I encourage them to do the same as they interact with one another. Our students are truly amazing young people and the foundation of my relationships with them is based upon mutual respect and learning. I learn from them as much as, I hope, they learn from me.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach?
One of the most memorable occurred early in my career and has stuck with me for decades. I was teaching first grade and had a student who was reading significantly below grade level. Diagnostic testing confirmed she needed more time to learn to read. Unfortunately, given the structure of the school in which I was teaching, this meant repeating first grade. Her parents did not agree with the decision so we compromised. I agreed to read with her over the summer and continue to do my best to get her ready for second grade. They agreed, if she was not ready, she would repeat, which is what happened.

I stayed at that school one more year and then transferred to another district, but continued to live in the same community. Years later, her mother sought me out to let me know her daughter was doing well and repeating first grade was the right decision. I was moved that she reached out to let me know. During the span of time between her daughter repeating and seeing her again, I had my own daughter, which also changed my perspective. In my new role as a parent, I tried to let Anna’s teachers and mentors know — from pre-K through college — how much their hard work was appreciated.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World” by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama

What’s the best advice you ever received?

One piece of advice I have used often was shared with me by a professor, Dr. Robert Hanny, while I was studying at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. I was struggling to narrow my research for my dissertation, and he said, “Denise, you do not have to build the wall, you only have to add a brick. Add your brick [research] on top of someone else’s brick, which is already laid; and, design your brick so another can be put on yours by someone, who comes along after you.”

This is true for so much of what we do as educators. We teach our students for a limited time and then they go to another teacher. We cannot teach them all they need to know. We can add to what the child knows already, teach as much as possible in the time we have, and know they will continue learning after they leave our classroom.