How I Teach

This Colorado history teacher learned an important lesson from an angry father

Nathan Pearsall, a history teacher at Vista Ridge High School, with his 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.

Don’t be alarmed if you see wadded up paper flying across history teacher Nathan Pearsall’s classroom at Vista Ridge High School in the Falcon 49 school district in Colorado Springs. It’s probably part of his favorite lesson on the modernization of trench warfare during World War I.

Pearsall’s plan to become a history teacher took shape when he was in 11th grade. He talked to Chalkbeat about the man who inspired him to enter the field, how he earns students’ respect and what he learned from a student’s angry father.

Pearsall 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 became a teacher because I come from a long line of educators and I felt it was my calling in life. I had a true moment of enlightenment during my 11th grade AP U.S. History class. My teacher inspired me with his passion for not only the content of the course but also the relationships he built with each student. I knew from that point on that I wanted to pursue a career where I could have a similar impact on students.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a former computer lab in the interior of the school. I have no windows, but make up for that with many maps and student work. I have two whiteboards and a 70-inch television with Apple TV. I have laptop computers available on occasion for the class. Additionally, near my desk I have some pictures and letters from former students as well as my diplomas and comic books so students may see some of my accomplishments and interests.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I enjoy teaching about the new technologies of World War I and how the war changed the way war was conducted. The lesson not only describes the many new technologies of modern warfare, it shows the shift from a cavalry that used horses to one that used cars, trucks and tanks.

We also conduct in-class trench warfare using balled-up paper to simulate some of the conditions and strategies used in World War I and demonstrate how ineffective they initially were. We then look at how warfare had to change to adapt to the new technologies so that victory was ensured.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I use many formative assessments and informal checks for understanding in order to gauge the learning of all students for each lesson. When a student doesn’t understand, I encourage self-advocacy and asking questions. I also make sure that I walk around the room and ask probing questions throughout the lessons and especially during individual or group activities to see where the students are in their understanding. I respond as much as I am able and if they are still not getting the material, I talk with colleagues to see what strategies have worked for them.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
We establish a social contract at the outset of the year to ensure that students have an understanding of classroom procedures and expectations. Many of my expectations address problems with off-task behavior preemptively. I use traditional teaching strategies such as proximity to encourage students to get back on task and address the off-task behavior personally with a level of respect that is typically reciprocated.

If it is a classroom issue, I will stand at the front of the room silently until the class is ready to move on. Most students understand when I am ready for their attention and help fellow students get back on track. This mutual respect takes time to build, but is certainly worth it to reduce the disruptions and off task behavior.

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 get to know my students in a variety of ways, including personal conversations and shared stories during individual work time, greeting students at the door, knowing every student’s name and a favorite hobby or interest. I can use this information to better make connections to the content in the class and to make stronger and more respectful relationships throughout the school year. I focus heavily in the first couple of months on getting to know each student in my classes. I also involve myself in as many activities as possible out of school.

I am the Student Council Adviser, which puts me in contact with more students throughout the school. I also make sure to attend students’ sporting events, concerts, plays, etc. so they know that I support them. Just being there for them to see is sometimes enough to build a lasting relationship because students know that you care about them and are interested in what they are passionate about.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I benefitted from a particularly contentious encounter with a parent of a student who was not in my class. In my second year as the Student Council Adviser, a student asked if Student Council could help her put on an event to raise money for children in Japan. Long story short, her father was upset with the seeming lack of promised support that she was receiving and brought it to the attention of my principal without first speaking with me about the issue.

We called a meeting with the father to find out exactly why he was feeling the way that he was. After a 45-minute conversation with my principal and the father, we discovered a solution as well as the reason for his negative feelings regarding the alleged lack of support.

This taught me a couple of very important lessons, 1.) Make sure we are extremely clear in our communication about our ability and willingness to help students outside of Student Council accomplish a desired task and 2.) Many parents are fierce advocates for their children, but typically run on only one perspective: their child’s. I have since not had any problems with parents or family members being upset with me, but that is because I have learned to be proactive and clear in communicating my expectations and expected outcomes.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am currently reading the collective works of C.S. Lewis. I also enjoy reading comic books and connecting the themes to the historical time period in which they were written — especially older Captain America, Spider-Man, Batman or the Avengers.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Teaching is less about the content and more about the relationships. Students may not care about what you are teaching them, but if they care about you and respect you as an educator, they are much more inclined to succeed in your class.

How I Teach

In divisive political times, an East Harlem government teacher strives for nuance

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/Skylyn Torres
Steven Serling, wearing a New York University shirt, poses with seniors wearing gear to represent the colleges they've committed to attending.

Some teachers might prefer to avoid politics in the classroom. Not Steven Serling.

As a government teacher at Park East High School in East Harlem, it seemed impossible to ignore the polarized debates that bombard his students on social media and the nightly news. So, along with a fellow teacher, Serling came up with a series of lessons to help students search for nuance in a world of bombastic soundbites and firey tweets.

“The media and politicians, they’ve been very partisan, and we want to lump things into ‘this-or-that, black-or-white,’” Serling said. “We wanted our students to understand we are human beings who live on a spectrum.”

In class discussions, students explored how they felt about issues such as the death penalty or abortion, and researched the stances of candidates and political parties. When an online quiz revealed many of his students were politically aligned with the presidential candidate Jill Stein, some were surprised to learn there were parties outside of Democrats and Republicans — which led to a lesson on the Green Party and Libertarians.

Along the way, Serling hopes his students solidify their own principles — and gather practical knowledge about how government affects their lives.

“I try to make it as practical and real life as possible,” he said.

In an email interview, Serling explained why he has students write their opinions before discussing them, how he turns the city into a classroom, and what he learned by dropping a former student off at college.

His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How has the current political climate affected how you teach?

As the political climate has become more polarized, it is easier to take one side or another without actually investigating or understanding the nuance. It is important for me now more than ever to make sure that I check my own political beliefs at my classroom door and engage in discussions and lessons which explore those nuances for my students to grapple with and explore their own political beliefs.

What tips do you have for encouraging and leading productive class discussions, especially when the topics you’re covering can be so polarizing?

A good academic discussion takes time to build. It starts with building a classroom community in which there is trust and respect from the start of the year.

[One]strategy that helps is having them write their response first before engaging in a verbal discussion. It allows students time to think through their beliefs, what evidence they could present, and grapple with the nuance prior to the discussion. It gives them more confidence to speak, knowing they have thought it through in writing, and they can refer to their paper if needed while they are speaking.

What’s the hardest part about getting teenagers engaged in government and politics?

Teenagers have opinions on everything, but they seem to have a ‘that’s just the way it is’ mentality and often choose not to engage in government and politics outside the classroom. It is important to me to keep my lesson as relevant as possible to their lives and present examples of government and politics at work within their community.

I have taken my students to two “Ethics in Action” forums sponsored by New York Society for Ethical Culture. The first was on climate change and the second was on police-community relations [and featured] Police Commissioner James O’Neill.

We have in the past partnered with New York Supreme Court Judge Fernando Tapia and brought the 12th grade government students to engage with the many [professionals] who help make the Bronx Court run. After the trip, many students who admitted they get tense walking past the building felt more at ease.

I will say that an unintended consequence of the recent political scene is that, the more polarized it has become, the more engaged our students have become. Students, more than ever, have been asking questions about things they have seen in the news or on their social media feeds. Many alumni have messaged me with pictures of them attending the Bernie Sanders rally in the Bronx or different protests this past year.

What does your classroom look like?

I like to think of my classroom as NYC. When we can’t go outside for a particular experience, I try and bring that experience into the physical classroom. When learning about the first amendment, we have had a former Young Lord member Iris Morales come in and speak about her experience in the 70’s organizing in East Harlem on issues around economic and social justice.When exploring the workings of criminal and civil trials, we have had an exoneree from the Innocence Project come and speak.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

YouTube. I often use YouTube to show quick visual or auditory clips to help provide context to a lesson. It brings a snapshot of the outside world into the classroom.

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

I do try and be cognizant if the student is off task because they are unclear of the directions or material, if they are being distracted, or if they just need a break as they have been sitting through multiple classes with only a three minute passing.

If… I notice they need a quick break from the content, I often use YouTube to play a clip of a song that I like, which they then call “old people” music (which is sad, because I don’t think music from the 90s is old). It generates a laugh and a quick discussion about the song or artist and then we can go back to the lesson.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

It starts with having a welcoming classroom where everyone is recognized in some way. Be it a high five at the start, a quick check-in, or a general shout-out. I make a point to listen and ask follow-up questions when students speak.

Also, I am okay with allowing them to hear my opinion on certain government topics and current events when asked. It is humanizing and builds trust when you can hear the teacher’s opinions, personal accolades, and struggles.

I also build relationships by being involved outside of the classroom. I coach bowling, I make a point to go to at least one of each sporting event, chaperone trips, dress up during theme days and generally keep my office door open for drop-in conversations. Over time, these experiences build relationships.

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

I offered to take an alum up to college his freshman year. When I went to pick him up, his entire family including grandmother and little siblings came out to help pack the car. They hugged and we left.

His mother called me the next day to express how thankful she was for taking her son up, who was the first to go to college. She went on to express how ashamed she was that she couldn’t do it, listing numerous reasons, from her not having her drivers license and to taking care of her mother and younger siblings. She went on to say that is one of the reasons she wanted him to stay in the city for college.

This experience helped me approach our seniors a bit more empathetically, while being able to ask some questions to get answers that students may not want to express upfront to help have a more honest conversation with themselves and their parents.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Never forget to listen and learn from your students; they are the best teachers.

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

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.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.