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.

Detroit math teacher tends a greenhouse, welcomes parents into her classroom

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Marquita Reese, a math teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, works with students to cook vegetables grown in the school's greenhouse.

How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great Detroit educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at detroit.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Marquita Reese defies a traditional job title. At the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, an all-boys high school on Detroit’s east side, where she has taught for more than two decades, she is a chef, a gardener, and a meditation leader. Oh, and she teaches math.

Reese headed up an effort to build a greenhouse at Douglass, funded with federal grant dollars. Vegetables grown on the campus are used in cafeterias across Detroit’s main district. When it started in 2016, the program was lauded by Sen. Debbie Stabenow for simultaneously feeding children and teaching about science and nutrition.

Reese spoke with Chalkbeat about the garden, being a woman in the hard sciences, and welcoming parents into her classroom.

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

I graduated from Wilberforce University [in Ohio] with a degree in clinical psychology, but being a psychologist didn’t work out. Wanting to maintain a strong math and science grasp, I enrolled in the school of education at Wayne State, majoring in mathematics and sciences.

I said I’ll do math and science, not really considering that those are two of the most challenging areas of study.

I didn’t realize in retrospect that I was one of the few or only females that had a math and science background in the district. I would go into some meetings and would be one of the only females.

How do you get to know your students?

Students are given a survey and are required to write a short paper about themselves.  They must speak to their expectations and provide some insight about their goals for the present and for five years from now.  This year I included a three-minute meditation in the morning every day. Doing that at the beginning kind of relaxes the setting, and starts to build that trust between you and your students.

You run a greenhouse and garden on the grounds of Douglass Academy, and you also teach lessons about cooking. Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach your students about the garden. Where did the idea come from?

An activity I do before my students set foot in the garden is called colors of the rainbow. You take the colors of the rainbow, but you extend it, so I do teal, tan, indigo. For each color, they have to provide a fruit or vegetable that can be grown in Michigan and they have research their nutritional benefits.

In what region of Michigan can it be grown? When can it be grown, and at what temperature? They present it to the class, and they also have to do a PowerPoint. Then we we go for seed selections or transplants, they understand that some plants can’t be put in the ground at certain times. One year, we actually discovered that we can grow oranges in Michigan.

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

One of the things I felt very passionately about this year was changing the narrative society is putting out, especially looking at melanated young men. I was worried about these young men, their self worth, their self esteem, so I just opened up to them, told them how I’m feeling, and they expressed their views.

It was an emotional time for us all. Being melanated people, we don’t have a good idea of where our ancestors are from, so some of our dialogue is about that. We talk about what we don’t know and what we do know about African cultures.

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

Myself and an English teacher put together a parent group and a student group with all the parents’ email addresses. We’d send a message each time something happened in the classroom, homework or anything else, to the parents and the students.

Then I started getting notes from parents. They said ‘Hey, can we do this too?’

They’d text me like, ‘Hey, I don’t get this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you can come in and take notes, try to figure it out.’

It became an open door.

It was the SAT year, so they knew the importance of the child understanding the material. They never said, ‘It’s because I want to learn.’ They wanted to make sure that when their child came to them, they understood how to help their child.

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

I thought that the students and families that entrusted their kids to me had the same ideologies, learning style, and background as myself. For some, their exposure and educational experience or support was nothing like mine, so I had to refocus and adjust my teaching style and methods.

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

To be hard, consistent, and fair. As the students learn something new, so should I every day.

How this Indianapolis teacher uses his own learning disability to understand his students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at in.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Erik Catellier doesn’t expect perfection from his students. He expects greatness.

That’s why Catellier, a language arts teacher at Center for Inquiry School 2, also wants students and their families to know about his own challenges: He is dyslexic.

“I have never been able to be the sage on the stage, all-knowing teacher,” Catellier, known to students as Mr. Cat, told Chalkbeat. “I am upfront and honest with my students and my families about my struggles as a learner. I have the fact that I am dyslexic in my email signature.”

Catellier was diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade. Dyslexia is a learning disorder affecting a person’s ability to read and spell.

Growing up, the setback pushed him to learn how to manage his own learning style and establish strategies to be successful. With the help of his own teachers, Catellier was able to understand class material and was reassured that he was a capable student.

That’s what inspired Catellier to help his own students discover their own capabilities.

“In the end, I had a lot of adults in my life that believed in me and made me feel valuable. I found that I wanted to be that for others,” he said. “These experiences planted the idea of teaching as a noble profession in my mind.”

Catellier gives the credit to his learning disability for his ability to adapt to a variety of learning styles and skill levels while also building relationships with students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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

PHOTO: Erik Catellier

I don’t really remember a single moment where I decided I wanted to become a teacher. It is just something that I have always felt called to do. When I was very young, I really struggled in school. It took me a long time to figure out how to manage my brain and to establish strategies that would allow me to be successful. I was supported by some amazing teachers who took time out of their day to help me understand not only the material in their class but that I was a capable student and that I was cared for.

In high school, I taught swim lessons and found that I had a talent for helping students overcome their fears in the water and master new skills. I also discovered how amazing it felt when a student mastered a new skill and would swim across the pool for the first time, or jump off the diving board.  

I realized that I had created a situation where that young person could do something they never thought they could. Just like those teachers supported me and helped me see that there was nothing I couldn’t do, I just had to figure out a way that would work for me. In the end, I had a lot of adults in my life that believed in me and made me feel valuable and I found that I wanted to be that for others.

What challenges come with being a language arts teacher with dyslexia?

There are some challenges to being a language arts teacher with dyslexia — usually these always have to do with communication. More and more, the preferred method of communication between school and home is through written communication like emails, newsletters, and text messages. At my school, we even have narrative report cards requiring me to write a paragraph for each student.

My biggest struggle is with editing my own writing. I can’t see simple errors like “from” versus “form,” or “her” versus “here.” But you can imagine receiving an email or report card from your student’s English teacher riddled with little errors does not inspire confidence. I have to go through a lot of extra steps when composing written communications.

What strategies do you use in the classroom to handle your dyslexia?

These steps have been refined over the years as technology has improved, but now every document I write goes through a three-step process. First, I use spell check to catch any simple errors. Second, I use Grammarly to find any mistakes that spellcheck might have missed. Third, I cut and paste it into Google Translate and listen to the computer to read the document.

Usually, if I do this, I catch most of the errors in a document. Unfortunately, I have not found a way to always have enough time to go through this process for everything I create.

How has dyslexia affected you as a teacher?

Whenever I got it into my head that I was some brilliant teacher and tried to control a class-based solely on my encyclopedic knowledge of the English language, I would make some silly error, and all the students would laugh, and the bubble would pop. Instead I had to show students how much I loved the content of the class and that I am always learning and growing, as well. This subject is hard for me as well sometimes, and so we often need to work together to do our best work.

How do you get to know your students?

As a language arts teacher and the “book dealer” of my building, I use books to get to know my students. I talk to my students about what they like to read, and what they don’t like to read. I ask them what their favorite books are, and I share mine with them. I suggest other books I think they might like, and all the time I am getting to know them. You would be surprised how much you can learn about a person when you talk to them about a book that they love.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I just finished “Tuck Everlasting” by Natalie Babbitt, and I am starting “Dread Nation” by Justina Ireland.

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

Every year in the fall, my eighth-graders do a unit on banned and challenged books. Students use the American Library Association’s list of the most banned books to select a book they would like to read and then spend the quarter reading and analyzing it. The unit culminates in students making the case that their book should or should not be allowed in a public library.

I love this unit because, as a teacher, it contains all of my favorite things. It gives students choice in what they read and how they express their ideas, and it has a final product that is very connected with something people actually do. I also love the fact that I “trick” students into reading classic novels, like “Catch-22” or “Catcher in the Rye.”

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

I would be helpless without my daily PowerPoints. I have even been known to insert video clips of myself giving instructions when I am absent so students know what to do. The students call them “The Mr. Cat Vlogs.”

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

My principal always says, “Our parents send us the best kid they can every day.” I have worked really hard to remember that. No matter what a student’s circumstance, it is my job to be the best teacher I can be and to support them in every way I can. Often times school is the only place where a student feels seen and cared about. I think it is important to remember this and to try to be the kind of adult the students need and that they can count on.