How I Teach

For this first-grade teacher, visiting students at home is part of the job

Valerie Lovato, a first grade teacher at Denver's Eagleton Elementary, poses with her students in front of a military helicopter that landed on the school's soccer field as part of the "Live Drug Free!" initiative.

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.

Valerie Lovato, a first-grade teacher at Denver’s Eagleton Elementary School, spends early August visiting the homes of as many students as she can. She comes empty-handed — no clipboard or paperwork. Her goal is to get to know her new students on their home turf.

Lovato talked to Chalkbeat about why she likes home visits, how she uses classroom technology and what she learned from a set of twins with special needs.

Lovato is one of 20 educators who were 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.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I think teaching has always been a part of my personality. Even though I didn’t have any teachers in my family, it felt like a natural profession for me. I enjoyed talking to people. I liked teaching and taking care of my little cousins and brother.

When I was in high school I had an elective course that taught me a little about teaching and I was able to volunteer at my old elementary school. While I was there I worked one-on-one with a girl from Russia and I loved tutoring her and helping her learn English. My senior year I worked with a kindergarten class and I fell in love with teaching little ones. I knew then I wanted to be a teacher, I applied to University of Northern Colorado – a known teaching school and I haven’t looked back!

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is bright and engaging. I don’t have a teacher’s desk because I don’t want to be tied up behind a desk. I have a large guided reading table and my students are seated in small groups, which I change often. This year is the first year I have chosen to create a classroom theme. I’m planning an insect theme. This is a topic we address in both literacy and science, so I will be able to incorporate project-based learning into the room as well as create a space for creativity and imagination.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Technology. It has opened so many doors not only for my students’ learning but for my own learning as well. I am always reading a new blog or passage from the experts. I am constantly researching online about lesson planning, engaging projects, and behavior modifications. I also try to bring as much technology to my students as possible. I have received ipods in donations so students can listen to books “on tape.” I also have a computer and an iPad for students to use in the classroom. My school also has a smart board in every classroom. I have my students use the board during centers rotations so they can practice their reading skills in online games and activities. I try to take my students to our computer lab every day so they can take reading quizzes and practice their math and phonics skills. I hope we continue to receive more technology and one day I would love to have my little first-graders do a project-based learning activity on Google Classroom.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I love teaching our living creatures science unit. I bring in real animals, such as goldfish, ants, caterpillars/butterflies, ladybugs and pillbugs to enhance our learning. We get to explore so many topics within the unit such as living/non-living, the life-cycle, and characteristics of insects, isopods and animals.

The students are very engaged because they get a hands on experience with the animals and begin to have a greater understanding about how the animals are important to our ecosystems. They also get to observe, question and explore the animals in a protected environment.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I work with my students in small groups throughout the day. It is easy for me to see who has misconceptions and I can usually address them right in the moment. I am going to practice one-on-one conferences in a different way this year and I hope it will help address misunderstandings as well.

During whole group instruction, when a student doesn’t understand a question or has an incorrect response, I never tell them outright they are wrong. I will ask for clarification or explanation from the student and will use open-ended questions for the class as a whole to explore the misconception.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I never yell above the distractions. I use a wind chime to grab attention at the end of an activity — it’s not as loud as a timer or other noise-maker. I also like to use a basic hand-raising gesture. I will raise my hand and others will follow until all students have raised their hands and are quiet.

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 am fortunate enough to have been introduced to an amazing program called the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, based out of Sacramento, Calif. It is a voluntary program in which teachers are paid to conduct home visits with their students and their families outside of the school day.

I try to do many visits in the beginning of August to get to know students and their families before school starts. I don’t bring any paperwork and I am not evaluating anything or anyone. I talk with students and their families, I meet their pets and see their bedrooms. The kids love to show me around their house and their favorite toys.

Once the school year is rolling, our class has a daily morning meeting. Sometimes we will have a sharing circle, some days I’ll have a lesson for the day for them, or we will talk about social emotional skills we can use in and out of the classroom. I also believe in having small groups as much as possible throughout the day. This helps me get to know the students on an academic and personal basis. I know what skills each student has, and where they can make growth. We also will have a natural discussion on their likes, dislikes and daily life adventures.

If I am not able to have a home visit with a family, I take other opportunities to try to get to know the student and their family. For example, I greet every child before they enter my classroom. I also walk my students out to the playground at the end of the day. A majority of my students are picked up by family members. This helps me get to know them as well.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I remember teaching a set of twin boys that were so adorable and funny, and also had some setbacks. I worked really hard to get to know them and their parents. I went on a home visit and communicated frequently with them. They had individualized education plans that required very specific steps to increase their academic levels. I collaborated with the special education team and their families on a regular basis. This experience was early in my teaching career and I feel because the collaboration was so amazing between the parents and myself that we made great gains. The boys went onto middle school this year and are doing amazing in school!

What are you reading for enjoyment?
On vacation at the beach, I read two books: One about a girl overcoming a drug addiction and the other about a girl who takes a cross-country road trip to discover herself. They were called “White Lines” and “Traveling Light” respectively.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mom always told me, “The answer is no until you ask.” I am not afraid to ask for a home visit, or a grant, or some extra materials for my classroom. I am not afraid to search out leadership programs or professional development because unless I ask to apply or attend the class, the answer is already no. I also like to use this phrase with my students. Sometimes, they are very timid in asking for something simple, like a tissue or pencil. It comes down to confidence. If you need something, ask for it.

How I Teach

How this Colorado drama teacher gets to know her students with a 20-second exercise

One of Kelly Jo Smith's students with her project on theater design.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Kelly Jo Smith, an English, speech, and drama teacher at La Junta Junior/Senior High School in southeastern Colorado, got her start in the arts with a directing gig in fifth grade.

Today, she hopes to spark her students’ creativity the way her own teachers did when she was in school.

Smith talked to Chalkbeat about why she loves teaching her gifted and talented theater class, what she’s learned from watching colleagues teach, and how one mother’s words stayed with her.

Smith is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state’s 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.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I grew up playing school, helping others with projects, and directing shows, so I think it was instinctual. I was allowed to write and direct my first play in fifth grade, so my love of theater has been lifelong.

I attended Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and received my bachelor’s degree in theater and communication with a minor in English. But I really think it was my high school teachers that had the biggest effect on my life. In everything from drama to band, I thrived and got to test and hone my creative side.

What does your classroom look like?
I decided a long time ago that if I was going to spend so much time at school (and what teacher doesn’t) I wanted my classroom to be cheerful and comfortable. My classroom has posters, student work, pictures — almost every inch of it is covered. I have a portfolio section where students keep their written work to show during conferences and “Student Center” where students can turn in work and pick up makeup work. The carpeted floor makes it easy to move groups to the floor as a way to meet several learning needs.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite classes to teach — or I should say mentor — is the gifted and talented theater course. I designed this when I was getting my master’s degree from Adams State University. Students can begin with an examination of theater history, or an acting or directing project. I have had students create Greek masks, one-man shows, film projects, and currently have one student studying theater design. Students start with the standards, design their project, read articles and text, and blog and journal. Finally, they have a public showing or juried presentation. I love working with students who are fired up and inspired to test their own creative ideas. Teaching kids to explore and how to shape that exploration is key.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Presenting oral and written instructions are important. That way, students can listen in the moment, but have clarification to refer to at home. I encourage students to ask for clarification and that may come in conferences, emails or thumbs up or down, pairing off and explaining the lesson to their peer. I also have a class Facebook page, where I post updates and assignment links so that parents can get the information as well.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I like using the “catch and release” strategy from Penny Kittle’s book, “The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching.” It comes from her experience fishing with her dad. In the classroom, we provide directions and then release students to work, but sometimes we need to catch them again to explain a detail or celebrate an accomplishment. Other times just walking by and making my presence known is all that is needed. I like to have several tricks because no one class is the same.

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 like to learn about my students’ history. I share my story: “How did I get to where I am?” My first assignment in my speech class is called the “20/20 Speech.” Twenty slides in 20 seconds — students will include pictures of themselves at different ages, pictures of family, activities, schools they want to attend, future plans, books, movies and music. They begin and end with a quote that represents their essence. It is a great way to learn about students.

I watched a teacher (going to visit other classrooms is the best way to perfect your craft) start the class by opening it up to anything that happened since they last met that needed to be discussed. I like doing that because it gives students a voice in the classroom and then clears the way for focus on lessons.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
My creativity. Kids are kids! If you teach long enough you see cycles come and go and you have probably heard it all. If you approach the class with creativity, a good attitude, and a sense of humor … failures are not the end, just opportunity for a different approach.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I had a great mom of a student and each time we would leave for a (field) trip, she would tell me, “Drive careful. You have precious cargo.” All our students are precious cargo and the journey we take them on can change their lives.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I had a principal once tell me, “Kelly, make sure they treat you like a professional.” Teaching is a profession. It is not easy and not for the faint of heart. It is personal and hard, time-consuming and, much of the time, thankless. I am a professional and not all of my attempts in the classroom have been successful, but they have been learning experiences. When I see the light of creativity spark in a student, I know that I am making a difference.

How I Teach

This Memphis teacher went viral for holding ‘class’ on Facebook Live during a snow day

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Candous Brown teaches one of her 12th-grade English classes at Raleigh-Egypt High School. Brown has been teaching in Memphis for 10 years.

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.

When a week of snow days brought Candous Brown’s 12th-grade English class to a wintry halt, her students convinced her to take her lesson live on Facebook.

So wearing pajamas and with occasional photobombs by her 10-year-old son, Brown sat down at her laptop and convened an impromptu class with about 40 students from Raleigh-Egypt High School in Memphis. Some participants were actually previous students who decided to drop in.

“I’m so proud of y’all for actually wanting to do this,” she said at the outset, complimenting her students for their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and good use of technology.

The 33-year-old teacher has a knack for engaging her students where they are. That means frequently tapping into their love of music to grow their passion for literature.

“Why wouldn’t we focus on that?” she asks rhetorically.

During Black History Month, for instance, Brown pairs excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait” with freedom songs from the documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”

“I want them to know how music was utilized during the civil rights movement,” she said. “ In many instances, it was the thing that kept people motivated and unified.”

Chalkbeat spoke recently with Brown about teaching on Facebook Live and how she builds relationships with her students every day. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always enjoyed literature and reading so it fit that I would be an English teacher.  As a student, my teachers would use me as a peer tutor.  I assisted classmates with their assignments and they would tell me I’d make a great teacher.  Of course, I would reject the idea; but looking back on it, they were leading me in the right direction.

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

I love teaching anything Shakespeare. But more recently, my favorite lesson has been to teach “The Hero’s Journey.” We were reading Beowulf and I wanted the students to trace Beowulf’s journey into the hero that we know him to be in today’s culture. When I first start the unit, I have them think of heros within their own lives. Or times when they felt like they were the hero in a situation. I want them to be able to connect this hero’s journey to themselves.  We read the text, participated in class discussion, did an analytical comparison of the movie and the text.  The students loved it.

Recently, you received national attention for holding class via Facebook Live during a snow day. Why was it important to make instructional time happen during that long break? How do you instill excitement for learning in your students?

That was actually my very first time going live. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to say something foolish and have the entire virtual world see my flub. I got up that morning, planned for some anticipated misconceptions, and went for it.

My students were the ones who set everything up. They asked if I’d be willing to do the lesson and, of course, I couldn’t say no when they were willing to do the work. I told them about my apprehensions and then one student used a phrase that I tell them when they are afraid to try something new: “First time for everything.” At that moment, I knew I had to do it. It was important to make it happen because they wanted it to happen. I always tell them that they cannot wait to be within the confines of a school to learn.

It pleased my soul that they were still attempting to do the work without me and that they trusted me enough to reach out. I think when they see me get excited or passionate about certain topics, it resonates with them.

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

Students tend to shut down when they don’t understand a lesson. Then, they state the infamous sentence: “I don’t get it.” I force them to think about the lesson and target the source of confusion. They have to be able to explain the problem to me before I help them. More often than not, their own explanation of the misconception helps them figure out the issue on their own. Also, they know that I am a last resort.  They will ask a peer or neighbor before they ask me because they know I will make them explain everything they know before I will help. It forces them to explore their own understanding of the concept.

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

I usually don’t have to say or do much. My facial expressions do the talking for me.  Once the kids see my face, they tell each other to get it together before I start fussing.  Apparently, the last thing they want to hear from me is fussing.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Brown says her facial expressions can do the talking for her when her students get off track.

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 school term, my students complete an “Interest Survey.” I participate with them and allow them to ask me questions. I figure if I’m asking them questions about their lives outside of the classroom, they should be allowed to ask the same of me, within reason. When the surveys are done, I file them. No one will see their answers but me. When appropriate, I incorporate things I learn about them into the lessons to make them more relatable. In that way, they know that I am paying attention and it opens the floor to them so that they know I am trustworthy and truly have their best interest at heart. I never demean them for the things they reveal and I don’t shy away from tough conversations. My door stays open to them unless I’m grading or planning.

What’s the best advice you ever received as a teacher?

To remember why I’m in the classroom. Sometimes, the classroom can be daunting and overwhelming. I have my students, I’m the single mother of a 10-year-old son and, on top of that, I’m working toward a master’s degree. I could easily get discouraged. But if I remember why I’m there, it becomes manageable. I am there to serve my students. I am there to lead my students. Those two things are never lost upon me.