How I Teach

‘They are world-changers.’ A sixth-grade teacher wants stifled voices to be heard

PHOTO: Lindsey Lucero
Kathleen Anderson, a Language Arts teacher at STRIVE Prep-Kepner, with two 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.

When Kathleen Anderson, a sixth-grade English language arts teacher at STRIVE Prep – Kepner in Denver, called a student’s mother to discuss her son’s failing grade, she got an earful. The irate mother explained to Anderson that her son was failing all of his classes because he didn’t know how to read.

The startling conversation was a wake-up call and Anderson soon began tutoring the boy after school to help him catch up. She talked to Chalkbeat about why she’s never forgotten the mother’s frustration, what she does to recognize quiet student leaders and how her favorite assignment teaches students to take the moral high road.

Anderson is one of seven finalists for Colorado’s 2018 Teacher of the Year award, which will be announced Nov. 1.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
After attending high school and college at almost all white schools, I realized I had been blind to the opportunity gap that had been present right before my eyes all those years. I was driven to become a teacher when I knew living in a world where injustice and inequity strike down children’s opportunity before they can say the words “race” and “class” was a world I could not continue living in without taking action.

I was driven to become a teacher by my innermost desire to give undocumented students, students of color, and all other stifled voices the tools to be heard and overcome the obstacles set before them. I know that change will come when my students have learned how to have thoughtful, innovative, game-changing conversations about equity and equality themselves. They are the world-changers.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom: bright charts, the Mexican flag, Michael Jordan posters, part of the school library (usually messy — I’m trying so hard but still have yet to get this right!), an American flag, wobbly chairs, writer’s notebooks, flowers, headphones, extra breakfast snacks, and 11 12-year-olds.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my__________ Why?
My resident teacher, Ms. Kelsey Thomson. I did a residency program and I know the first year can be tough. However, Ms. Thomson approaches her job with love, compassion and, above all else, humor. Someone to laugh with throughout the day is irreplaceable. It’s middle school. Enough said.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
After reading the novel “Esperanza Rising” as a class, I asked students to reflect upon how immigrants overcome hardships as Esperanza and her mother do in the novel. The prompt is as follows: Choose two texts from this quarter to explain how the people prove the ideas in the proverb, “He who falls today may rise tomorrow.”

While the curriculum asked students to use two texts, I changed the assignment so my students would have the opportunity to empower their own identity as immigrants with immigrant parents. In the political climate today, many of my students live with constant fear and anxiety of deportation and hear continually hurtful, negative dialogue about Mexican people and other immigrant communities. I not only wanted this to be a lesson in writing fluidly, citing textual evidence, and providing in-depth analysis, but also a life lesson about taking the moral high road.

Students were asked to interview an immigrant they knew personally. We wrote interview questions together and then students completed their interviews as homework. The next day, every student shared a remarkable story about a person in their life who had lived out the proverb, “He who falls today may rise tomorrow.”

One young man wrote about his father being near starvation: “I wanted the immigration police to catch us … That’s how hungry we were.” Another young woman wrote about her mom’s fear of being deported: “I was scared of being sent back with my sisters and brothers. I pretended like I was with a different family.”

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
This year is the first year I can truly say I am re-teaching in an honest way. My first year of teaching, I didn’t re-teach. It was overwhelming enough to get lessons out the door. In the following years, I re-taught lessons when my coach told me it was necessary after observing a lesson fall flat.

In embracing the ‘re-teach,’ I have let go of my compulsive need to have everything created and ready for each day of the week the weekend before. I start by reviewing the standards I’ll be teaching each day and roughly sketch out what I know students need at-bats with to produce an exemplary “exit ticket.” However, Monday night, I will analyze my data within exit tickets, ‘do nows,’ and text dependent questions from that day to see if I need to do a whole class re-teach from a different angle or a small group intervention during our first 20 minute minutes of individualized instruction time.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
Positive Narration. Every student’s actions are rooted in their desire to succeed and feel loved. As students are off task, I remind myself these behaviors are driven by the student’s want for love and attention. However, using public, negative verbiage and the student’s name over and over again only draws attention to off-task behavior. When I need students to redirect, I narrate students who are quietly leading by example.

I was surprised one year when a student muttered under her breath, “Why does he get all the attention?” about a boy who was consistently causing distractions and out of his seat. In that moment, I realized that while I had been scolding him for his behavior, I had said his name over 20 times during the class period. Today, when students are off-task, I remember what the quiet girl said and look to those silent, steady leaders who are setting an example with their respectful and focused actions.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
The restorative practices purposefully embedded within our school have been critical to my students’ academic growth and success, and they have become a bedrock in my own teaching philosophy. STRIVE Prep – Kepner has the lowest number of student send-outs of any middle or high school in our network. At the beginning of the school year, our leader gathered our team together and stated we wouldn’t be allowed to send students out of class. She believed sending students out of class when there was a problem only put more space between ourselves and the student. Ninety-seven percent of our students are Hispanic, and many of these students are already receiving messaging from the socio-political arena that they are not welcome; schools must refuse to send that message. We remediate problems within our classroom so our students do not miss valuable learning experiences when they react to emotional or social stress.

An example of restorative practice was with a student who spoke out of turn several times during our end-of-year award ceremony. I signaled for him to stand and meet me at the back of the room and asked him how he was feeling. He replied in a brash, angry tone: “This is a waste of my time. This is stupid.” “You’re a brilliant scholar,” I replied and told him I knew what it felt like to be at a ceremony and not receive an award. He pushed back with angry, negative comments. I asked him if he was feeling stressed about passing sixth grade. First, he said no, but as I waited silently, he began to cry. As I comforted him, it was clear his behavior wasn’t motivated by disrespect, but by a longing for positive feedback in an academic setting. During this restorative conversation, I discovered the student needed someone to tell him he was loved and needed — someone at school who believed in him.

I know some may argue their students are too tough or too dangerous, and they must be removed from the classroom to make sure that other students can learn. Yet, I argue, with evidence present in my everyday practice in a turnaround school, one must stand in front of each child with the belief that each individual is desperate to learn, to teach, to love, and to be loved. Sending students out the door for someone else to handle creates an abyss between the teacher and student emotionally and academically that is difficult to close.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Last November, I called families to discuss their child’s failing grade in English Language Arts. One mother’s tone immediately became brusque. “Hablo espanol,” I said. She quickly began speaking in Spanish as she unfolded her son’s truth. Obviously her son was failing all his classes, she said, because he didn’t know how to read.

Her tone went from short to furious. However, she didn’t seem furious with me, but clearly so tired of seeing her son fail again and again plainly because he was a sixth grader who couldn’t read. I told her I would work with him after school. We spent many Wednesdays reading together after school last year. I will never forget this parent conversation because of the earnest frustration in the tone of this mother’s voice. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to see your 11-year-old struggle with basic reading skills but her emotion made it clear to me I must dedicate myself to becoming a sixth grade English Language Arts teacher as well as a full-time reading interventionist.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“To the Left of Time,” a book of poetry by Thomas Lux and “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi.

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.