How I Teach

This Colorado music teacher doesn’t want to stifle the noise — or students’ creativity

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

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.

Considering that music teacher Justin Bankey describes his teaching style as “structured goofiness,” it’s not surprising that he doesn’t always jump in when his students are noisy or distracted. Often, he says, those are the moments that spark the greatest creativity.

Bankey, who teaches at Cactus Valley Elementary School in the Garfield School District in western Colorado, talked to Chalkbeat about his sense of humor, his extracurricular jobs and the conversation-starters he uses with students.

Bankey 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. He’s also twice been named his school’s “Teacher of the Year” by colleagues in his building.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Music teacher Justin Bankey dressed as a magician

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher in a roundabout way. I went into college double-majoring in music and psychology in hopes of going into music therapy. My vocal scholarship allowed for music performance and/or music education, and the deeper I became involved in my education classes, the more I realized that I enjoyed the education aspect. I also started to reflect on all the wonderful teachers I had and how those teachers influenced me.

What does your classroom look like?
A large rectangle, and some other stuff. Oh, you want to know about the other stuff? I surround the students with pictures and words that involve music: posters of composers, pictures of musical symbols, a musical word wall, a wall devoted to the work that students create, whiteboards, pictures of instruments split into families or orchestral positions, tables to set instruments on or micro keyboards for my piano lab, musical rugs, chairs and a projector in the middle. The heart of my operation is my sound system: CD player, amp, equalizer and a computer to run sound and slides. Also, two of my large walls move so my room can open up as the stage we use for performances on either the gym or cafeteria side.

If you can picture the most awesome music room imaginable and then… look next door. I’m joking. I think it is a wonderful room. We are lucky to have it, but if I had the money I can imagine some pretty cool stuff for the students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
My sense of humor. I can’t imagine not laughing at some point in the day, either because of students, friends and colleagues… or just because humor enriches everything like music does!

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons to teach is my piano lab. I love to integrate technology whenever I can. The piano lab uses the iPad and an application called Piano Maestro, along with a two-octave keyboard. The students get to work at their own pace, and it has so many facets. I like to think of all these uses as stackable lessons. It’s a culmination of what they are learning in class and transferring that knowledge to a hands-on activity. I can also use it in more specific ways like rhythm help, reading the staves, understanding the keyboard, etc.

It also keeps track of the students’ progress so we can use it every year in school. The keyboard knowledge will also lend itself to composing using other technology in the future. I’m excited about the plans for all this awesome technology, but not as excited as the students when they see the lab set up.

How did you come up with the idea?
I learned about it at the Colorado Music Educators Conference. I got in contact with a teacher at a private school that uses it (I think in Texas), and I also got in contact with the application people themselves.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I am relentless with understanding because so much of what I teach is dependent on the last step. The great thing is that these steps circle around so each student has many chances for understanding.

One of the bonuses of my teaching position is that I teach the same lesson to multiple classes (4 sections of each grade level). If I miss some students in one class, I can adjust for the next class. Then for those students that didn’t understand the first time, we break it down in steps until they do understand, and then catch them back up.

I also really enjoy having students help each other out. They are the great equalizer. I also have an open door policy for any students that want or need extra time.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I like to use some tools that I’ve learned over the years like an all class attention-getter. I say “Get into the…” and they answer “Zone!” I use some golden oldies like clapping a short rhythmic phrase, and the students repeat the phrase. I keep track of how well the students are doing by marks on my board. If they see me marking in the good they say “Oh yeah!”, but if they see me marking in the bad the say “ahhhh!” in a sad voice and this will get their attention also.

Then again, I am a music teacher and a bit of noise in the background is what I do! I understand that being off task sometimes cultivates the creativity I hope for so I just have to watch it grow instead of stifling it… within reason.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?
One way is being out in the community at different events so that students see you out of school. I referee football for all ages so I get to see families more often. I take a minute here or there to talk with students about weekend plans, how families are doing, and favorite sports (which is always interesting because everyone knows I am a Seahawks fan in Bronco country). I announce at our high school basketball games where I see former students or students whose siblings I teach. I work at the pool during the summer so I get to see them there, too.

What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I take time in the morning to greet them on the way in and/or after school to wish them a great evening. I like to ask them about new haircuts, clothes, new lingo: “Did you know that ‘throwing shade’ was what I used to call a ‘burn’?!”

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I cannot think of just one memorable time because so much of my contact is very positive so it reinforces a lot of what I do. But I also know that through those contacts with families my teaching does not go in a straight line. Students and students’ families help change the direction of my teaching for the better every day because I am soaking in that outside stimuli.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I love sci-fi/fantasy (Clive Barker, George R.R. Martin, etc.) and/or a good detective/thriller book (James Patterson, Lee Child, etc.)

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Stepping out of one’s comfort zone is stepping into a big world of opportunities! Try and try again. Gosh, so many little tidbits of advice along the way.

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.

How I Teach

Lessons from the school store: How this special education teacher sets up students for an independent future

Wendi Sussman, a teacher at STRIVE Prep - Federal in Denver, with an eighth-grade student during a field trip to the Air Force Academy.

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.

Fridays are a big day for the middle school students in Wendi Sussman’s class at STRIVE Prep – Federal in Denver. That’s when they operate the school store — an endeavor they start planning as soon as the school year starts.

For Sussman, a special education teacher, the store is a chance for students to practice all kinds of life skills, from making change to talking with customers.

Sussman, who was a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked to Chalkbeat about how her students decide what to sell at the store, what fueled her interest in special education, and why there’s no stigma when lessons are repeated in her classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I grew up with a sister who has cerebral palsy, so my passion to work with individuals with disabilities has been developing since I was young. I saw firsthand how the school system let down families with children who have disabilities. I spent time in high school and college working and volunteering with this population, and started understanding the value they bring to our society. I began teaching as a way to work with people with disabilities in the early stages of their lives.

After college, I joined Teach for America as a special education teacher and was placed at a college prep charter school. Working at this type of school showed me the importance of giving all students options in their lives after completing their K-12 education, especially those with high needs. I continue teaching so that I can ensure my students have the options they deserve. This is my fifth year teaching in a multi-intensive center program, which serves students with intellectual disabilities as well as other impairments. I could not be happier.

What does your classroom look like?
I want to say that my classroom is clean, neat, and organized and that all staff and students know where everything is and where it belongs. While this is true to some extent, my classroom looks less than perfect due to the joint ownership between staff and students. We set up together, we clean together, and we organize together, which means everything has a place and it’s not always perfect.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my co-teacher and educational assistants. Running a successful center program takes a team. In a classroom of 14 students with individualized and intensive needs, it is not possible to provide the instruction to all students all the time. While I set the vision and do half of the instructional planning, it is the staff I work alongside who ensure the implementation is successful on a daily basis.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? 
Teaching life skills requires skills to transfer from the school setting to the real world. Our student-run school store allows for these connections to be made all year long. Starting in August, students brainstorm ways that we can make money for community trips and life skills lessons throughout the year.

My number one goal for the students in my classroom is to give them authentic practice that sets them up with the skills they need to have options in their lives and to have an independent future. For one student who is visually impaired and does not read or write, this store provides time to practice counting money, interact with customers, and organize merchandise. Another group of students working on social skills and appropriate interactions with adults are able to recruit customers around the school and let them know the store is open. Students with more advanced money skills work on giving correct change to customers and use calculator skills that allow them to run the store with minimal adult support.

While the actual store only happens once a week, the students are invested in the process throughout the year to ensure our Fridays are successful. Preparation includes selecting merchandise, setting prices, and advertising for the store. This year, the class created a survey and graphed the results to determine what would be most popular. Using survey results, students chose to add potato chips to the store’s inventory. The class went to a local store to determine the price of chips in bulk and then set a price for the chips at the classroom store. To raise school-wide excitement, the students prepared announcements and made posters to put around the school. Each Monday, we count our money using both mental math and calculator skills and set aside money to fund upcoming life skills lessons.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
For students with intellectual disabilities, it can take a large amount of repetition before they are able to complete a skill on their own. When teaching and reviewing students work, I look for progress towards a complete understanding of a topic and continue to teach the content until this mastery has been reached. I believe and want my students to believe that anyone can learn anything. With this message in my classroom, there is no stigma to repetitive teaching and learning.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My students want to learn. More often than not, if a student is talking or off task, it is because the work I have provided for the student is not meeting their needs. In the moment when a student is off task, I take a look at their work and see what accommodations it is lacking and make immediate changes. If I notice a pattern in off-task behavior, I think about how I can invest the student in their own goals. I ensure that the work they are provided is scaffolded appropriately to help them reach their goal. When a student feels confident about what they can do, there is very little wasted time in the classroom.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
With our center program model, I teach students for three years, and they are in my class for large parts of the day. This is very different than a typical middle school teacher and something I love about my job. I eat breakfast and lunch alongside my students and make time outside of instruction each day to get to know them. I open up about my family, my hobbies, and what I cook for dinner each night. Students take interest in who I am outside of work, and they begin to open up about themselves as well.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I recently attended a meeting led by my co-teacher focusing on updating a behavior plan for one of our students. During this meeting, the student’s parents helped structure the student’s day to keep him focused during times they knew he would have trouble being alert and gave input on ways to help enforce the updated behavior plan. This was one of the first times I saw both the family and the school creating a plan together. I reflect on this meeting often, because it is exactly what I want my meetings with parents to look like.

Rather than coming to this meeting with a behavior plan already made, she came with ideas, trends, and questions to initiate partnership, rather than bringing a plan for parents to review and approve. This meeting reminds me what is possible with home and school collaboration and gives me a goal to work towards to create team work in future meetings.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Any thriller … “Everything You Want Me To Be” by Mindy Mejia, “Behind Her Eyes” by Sarah Pinborough.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Focus on teacher actions. In my first years of teaching, I would catch myself complaining about a hard day too often, almost always putting the blame on students and their “terrible behavior.” My perspective changed when a co-worker reminded me that while I can’t force a child to make good choices, I can control my own actions. I continue to have hard days, but I now can reflect on situations in my classroom and ask myself what teacher actions caused a student to react this way and what can be done differently next time. Venting to coworkers or friends is important and needs to happen at times, but it doesn’t change the frustrating situations that can happen every day.