After a mother’s surprising request, this Colorado debate coach realized the value of her work

PHOTO: Incase/Creative Commons

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.

Renee Motter, an English teacher at Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs, was taken aback several years ago when a student’s mother told her it was up to her to save her daughter.

Then Motter thought about it and relaxed. The speech and debate program she coached was already a lifesaver for many kids — that special something that made school worthwhile.

Motter was named the 2017 National Educator of the Year by the National Speech & Debate Association and was one of seven finalists for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year competition.

Motter talked to Chalkbeat about what students value most about the speech and debate program, why she starts class by asking kids to share exciting news and which technology tools she loves most.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

Renee Motter

When I was younger, I taught my older brother how to tie his shoe, and playing school was one of my favorite things. I started college as a broadcasting major, but before the first quarter was finished, I knew talking to a microphone wasn’t for me. While in my English class that quarter, I realized that teaching really was for me, so I changed my major and never looked back.

What does your classroom look like?
Busy. There are posters of proverbs and books and movies everywhere, and when students are there for class or speech and debate practice, you can usually see them working in small groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My computer and projector. We live in such a visual society; we are all so used to seeing everything in front of us. For my students and myself, the computer and projector give us a link to see what is beyond the classroom in order to be informed about what is happening in the world.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my first years of teaching AP English Language, I realized that my students needed an opportunity to see argument in action and, thus, better understand how to write an argument essay. I knew that I had to pick a topic they cared about, so I decided to have them create and present an education plan to prepare students for life in the 21st Century.

First, they had to research the current state of education both here and in other countries, and then, they had to decide what elements of education they would change as well as explain why they felt that would better prepare students for life in the 21st Century. Education is a huge part of our students’ lives, but we never stop to ask them what they think about what they are learning or how they are learning it. I heard so many unique and interesting ideas about what students would do to better their preparation — it was inspiring!

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When students are struggling or not understanding concepts, I like to have them come in so that we can go through the concept and practice it together. I have found this especially effective with writing: having students come in to discuss an essay and talk through what they need to work on is often more effective, I think, than large group writing instruction.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I’m a pretty active teacher, so I tend to move around the room a lot which helps with proximity, and I’m also a pretty random teacher, so when I notice students off task, I’ve found that using humor or story to bring them back works well.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Since I first started teaching more than 20 years ago, I’ve always started class by asking about “exciting things.” After greeting students, the first thing I do is ask students what is exciting in their lives. It’s amazing the stories I hear, and I get to know the students so much more! As I tell my students, “All of us exist outside this classroom, and what we do out there impacts us here, so I want to know what’s happening!” During these few minutes of class every day, we laugh and cry together. It’s great!

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A number of years ago, I had a parent tell me that it was up to me to save her daughter. At first, I was shocked and a bit intimidated. However, as I thought about it and as I’ve had thousands of students go through my forensics program, I’ve realized that it is a place that saves kids. It is a place that gives kids a place to belong, a place to make connections, a place to be heard, a place to be themselves. Over the years, it has amazed me the number of students who have come back and said what an important place forensics, speech and debate was in their lives, how they aren’t sure how they would have made it through high school without it.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Right now, I’m finishing up the second book in the Stranje House series. I read quite a bit of young adult literature as one of my favorite things is to talk about books with students. In fact, I was able to start an Enrichment Reading class for students where they were able to come and read and blog about books of their choice.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The most important thing you can do is care about your students: both who they are now and who they will become. I think it is easier to care about them now, but it is also important to remember that we need to care about their future because that is what we are preparing them for. No matter where they start when they come into my classroom, I always want them to walk out as better readers, writers and thinkers because they will need those skills in the future.

For this Detroit teacher, math is about teaching ‘what makes something true’

PHOTO: Michael Chrzan
Michael Chrzan teaching math during Math Corps, a summer program at Wayne State University.

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 the series here.

Asked what he teaches, Michael Chrzan says “mathematics.” Because in his classroom at Henry Ford Academy, a charter high school in Detroit, math is more than the calculations you need to tip a server or balance a budget. Chrzan, a third-year teacher, sees the abstract reasoning skills of mathematics — the proofs and deductions — as tools to help his students develop a firmer grasp on every aspect of their world.

This is just one of the ways he is unusual. A Teach for America alumnus, Chrzan also went through a traditional teacher training program in college. He is a African-American male math teacher in a country that produces far too few of them. And remember the Pokemon Go craze? He still plays.

Less than a week before Chrzan is to be honored as Teach for America’s teacher of the year in Detroit, Chalkbeat spoke with him about his dealings with parents, the toughest parts of his job, his social media habits, and how he finds  “greatness” in every student.

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

I’ve been teaching in some capacity — teaching or tutoring — since high school. I was a teaching assistant at a summer camp at Wayne State called Math Corps. I caught the bug for teaching there. I did that for three summers. I knew at some point in my life that I would get back into teaching. In college, I took a couple of computer science and math and education classes. And the computer science classes were fun, but I was like, this is just a hobby.

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

I taught geometry the last two years. It’s really a beautiful class because it’s the only class in high school where kids do the work of professional mathematicians. It’s the only class where they do proofs. So we get to have a really rigorous conversation about what makes something true, which is really important in our society right now.

Every year I pull in examples of deductive reasoning from outside of mathematics too.

One of the things I’m going to try this year is bringing in a Supreme Court decision and talking about the deductive reasoning that shows up there.

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

I had a conversation with a very young student’s mother who had the frame of mind that he was responsible for himself.

I was calling to talk about some issues that I’d seen on his homework, and just about getting it completed. That’s a really important part of the learning, that independent practice. And she was very much of the mindset that I needed to have that conversation with him, not her. It was not her job for him to get that done.

It changed how I discussed things with him because it got a much deeper understanding of what he has to deal with outside of these four walls.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is motivating students. There are some students who have a really long history of messaging that they’ve gotten from schools, of the kind of person and students they are. I try to reverse that. You plant a seed when you’re the one teacher who’s telling them something different, but sometimes you don’t get to see that seed bloom in one year.

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

That I was ready for it. I did a lot of pre-professional teaching things. In college, I went to New York for two summers and taught in a program called Breakthrough. I did student teaching. I did Teach for America. I was like, I’ve got to be ready for this, I’ve got so much more experience than most people do when they enter the profession.

I was not ready. There’s is nothing that will prepare you for day in and day out being responsible for your kids’ learning.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Children of Blood and Bone,” by Tomi Adeyemi. It’s possibly one of my favorite books of all time. As a millennial, I’m very into social media. I will typically lull myself to sleep on Instagram. And I’ve gotten back into Pokemon Go.

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

There are two. I can’t decide which I like better. The first would be, ‘don’t take anything personally.’ That really helped me understand that if I’m having a management issue with a kid, it may not have anything to do with me, that’s probably a kid who needs help. And that pairs up with assuming the best of my students. They came to class because they want to learn, and maybe something got in the way. I try to find their greatness, whether it’s math or otherwise. That’s a more human way to see students, and it opens them up to new things, like trying difficult mathematics.

‘It takes a lot of intentionality’ for this Indiana online school teacher to get to know students

PHOTO: Tuan Tran / Getty Images
Young girl sitting in front of laptop

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 the series here.

Even though Lacy Spears teaches at an online school, much of her work takes place off-line.

She keeps a meticulous planner to track not just online classes and meetings with students, but also in-person events and meetings, phone calls to families, and professional development opportunities.

“There are a lot of moving pieces in the daily life of an online educator,” she said.

Spears is a seventh- and eighth-grade reading interventionist at the Insight School of Indiana, a statewide virtual charter school that is part of the Hoosier Academies network.

Spears, who was recently named one of 68 finalists for 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about how she works with her students, and how teaching at an online school has changed her perspective on school choice.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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

Like so many other educators, I fell in love with school and education thanks to a wonderful teacher I had when I was a student. My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Kim Ferguson, really treated me like an individual and helped me learn how to play to my strengths. She gave me more leadership roles in the classroom, encouraged my love of writing, and made a huge effort to connect with me. Mrs. Ferguson even let me stay with her after school every day to help organize her classroom. Her guidance and the relationship she cultivated with me really led me to the path of becoming a teacher.

How do you get to know your students?

It takes a lot of intentionality to get to know students, especially in an online school. With this in mind, I call each of my students and their families at the beginning of the year. I like to introduce myself, make sure they feel ready for the school year, and see how I can help them have a successful start, particularly if they’re new to online learning. Within the first few weeks, I ask students to create a vision board, and I work with them to craft a short-term and long-term goal list for the school year. I keep this dialogue up throughout the year and talk to all my families at least once per month. I also hold student-led conferences at least every quarter to take a closer look at student progress and talk about each student’s goals and how I can best support them.

Additionally, I ask my students to submit interest and reading surveys, which I use to select materials and activities for the class. For example, a lot of my students last year really liked music. So, to help them practice their reading skills I found articles about their favorite artists to help pique their interest. I also played music and used song lyrics to analyze literary elements such as themes and main ideas. Knowing what they’re interested in helps me keep them focused on learning.

Although my classes take place online, I try my best to see my students in person as much as possible. Insight School of Indiana hosts events across the state to help students connect with their peers in their communities. I love to attend these events and help lead several school activities. For example, I serve as the advisor for our school’s chapter of the National Junior Honor Society and manage our school-based food pantry. These are all wonderful opportunities to get to know my students and their families outside of the online classroom.

Lastly, I always try to devote some class time to helping students get to know each other. A few minutes before class begins, I like to invite them to share something about themselves via their webcams. I learn so much more about my students when I see them connect with and support each other in the safe learning environment of our online platform.

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

Lesson planning is one of my favorite parts of teaching. I love the creativity that it allows. I also welcome the opportunity to design lessons that support me in providing a personalized education for each student. I especially love to help them design their own lesson plans, which allows them to take on the role of teacher. The objective is to design a lesson that explains a concept to their peers. Doing this activity helps students master content, keeps them motivated, and helps them retain more information.

To guide them through the process, I first encourage students to use four steps: topic selection, brainstorming lesson elements, designing assessment criteria, and planning and delivery. Students use class time to design their lessons and collaborate with one of their peers to receive feedback. Afterward, they teach their lesson to the class.

The first time I did this activity, I had never seen my students so engaged! Providing opportunities for peer feedback enhances their understanding, and students benefit from the advice and observations of their peers prior to presenting their final projects. Students also become experts on their researched concepts and are proud to teach other students about the new information they learn. They take ownership over their education, reflect on the learning process, collaborate to improve, and practice public speaking skills.

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

More and more, I think we are seeing kids coming to school with worries and troubles from their home lives. So many students are struggling to have their basic needs met. They don’t have enough food, clean clothes, reliable transportation, or a steady roof over their heads. It is challenging to focus on school when you have an empty stomach and haven’t slept. Our school has tried to meet some of those needs through a variety of support programs, including the school’s food pantry in Indianapolis. We work with our families to provide access to clothing, toiletries, and other necessities throughout the year.

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

When I first started teaching, I assumed that when parents didn’t answer the phone when I called home, or didn’t sign their children’s permission slips, or didn’t seem very present, that they must not value education. As I got to know my families, though, I realized that wasn’t the case.

One of my first students sticks out in my mind. His mother had passed away, his dad worked multiple jobs to keep food on their table, and my student was home alone most of the time after school. Feeling frustrated one day with this student’s lack of progress, I asked him what I might do to help him stay motivated and to get him back on track. He mentioned that since his dad was usually working, his grandma was often the only adult he had in his home life. He gave me her phone number, and we called her together. I realized through this conversation, and subsequent calls, that this family absolutely valued education. They just needed food on their table more immediately than they needed to get back to me.

Since then, I am very careful never to judge a family or make assumptions before getting to know them. Sometimes the perspective and the circumstance of a family is just different from your own, or from the majority of your students. Everyone has other things going on in their lives, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t care or that they aren’t doing everything they can for their children.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I think the most difficult part of my job is striking a balance between positive academic outcomes and taking the time to connect with my students on a personal level. It can be easy to get so focused on testing and data that you leave out time to know your students — to listen to them and help them not only master skills and content, but also learn how to build positive relationships, solve problems, and communicate. Teachers aren’t just responsible for academic success. We play an integral role in helping students become well-rounded adults. It can be a challenge to make sure each student has what they need outside of school to succeed in class, but I’m proud to be a part of a learning community at Insight School of Indiana that provides a host of support resources to our students and their families, including our food pantry, college and career planning support, remediation programs, and help with accessing social services.

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

The biggest misconception that I had is that the best school for a student is the school they are assigned by their district. I bought into a lot of the criticisms of school choice when I first became a teacher. I’ll admit that most of the uncertainty I held came more from misinformation than actual experience or facts. Since becoming a teacher at an online charter school, I’ve really seen the benefits that school choice can have for children and families. We have so many students at Insight School of Indiana who are much more successful and feel more secure than they did in their locally-assigned program.

Learning is a personal journey, and while many students thrive in a traditional setting, that’s not the case for everyone. So many students benefit from school choice, and students enroll in online school for a variety of reasons. Whether they are advanced learners or need additional support, are looking for a safe and bullying-free environment, or need to balance academic goals with extracurricular pursuits or medical needs, Insight School of Indiana offers an education they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. The online platform gives our students a public education option that meets their unique needs, and it allows them to set and work towards their goals regardless of their circumstances or previous experiences. Our personalized learning approach definitely helps put students on a path to success.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

As a reading teacher, I gravitate towards things I can talk about with my students. Right now, I’m re-reading The Dark Artifices series by Cassandra Clare. The final book in the series is supposed to come out later this year, and I can’t wait!

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

Never hold grudges. Students must come to school each day with a clean slate from the day before. They need to be free to make mistakes, to learn from them, and to still feel loved and valued along the way.