How I Teach

From the Caribbean to Colorado: One teacher’s journey into the family business

PHOTO: Marta Aldrich

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.

After college in Michigan, Amy Rehberg headed to a Caribbean island to work in the hospitality industry. It was there, while serving frozen yogurt to tourists, that she decided to become a teacher.

When she learned that a local friend — a skilled mechanic — couldn’t read, she became his tutor. She soon found she loved it.

Rehberg, who now teaches English language learners at Horizon High School in Thornton, talked with Chalkbeat about her Caribbean revelation, why teachers need a thick skin, and how she and a colleague created a program for first-generation college-bound students.

Rehberg was one of seven finalists for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year award.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Amy Rehberg is a teacher at Horizon High School in the Adams 12 district.

Why did you become a teacher?
My parents, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and sister-in-law all are or were teachers. So, when I went to Michigan State University as an undergraduate, teaching was not my major. I wanted to do something different than the “family business” but had no idea what that might be. I majored in English and after I graduated, I moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands with two friends. The plan was to wait tables and bartend in order to earn enough money to travel around the world. It was during this time that I decided to become a teacher.

One of my jobs on the island was working at a roadside stand that sold frozen yogurt and cold drinks to tourists. In between customers, I would sit on the deck and read. I had a friend — a local on the island — who would stop by and chat with me and ask about what I was reading. Over time, he confessed that he couldn’t read. This man was very intelligent and could fix any mechanical device on the island, but he was embarrassed about his reading skills and wondered if I could help him.

“Sure,” I said. He knew his letter sounds and could recognize most elementary level words and had a rather sophisticated oral language lexicon. We would work together every time he would stop by the yogurt stand. It was my light bulb moment — it was really satisfying work that didn’t feel like work. I decided to leave the island and move to Colorado. Once I was here, I enrolled at the University of Colorado Boulder to earn my Secondary Teaching Certificate. This was 27 years ago.

What does your classroom look like?
A little like a circus. It’s colorful and full of people taking risks, making connections, and using language.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _______. Why?
My sense of humor. If I couldn’t laugh, I would cry. First, because so many students have really hard lives, and educators do so much more than just teach a subject. Second, the public is so critical of teachers and public schools in general that it takes a thick skin to keep coming back.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My students are always changing, and their language gaps are different, so recycling lessons isn’t the best approach. However, in my upper levels I teach about how we use language to show and not just tell. Students learn about figurative language and sensory description.

After opportunities to practice recognizing and writing similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia, alliteration, etc., I bring out my collection of interesting photos, National Geographic magazine pictures, and other interesting pictures. The gist of the lesson is that the students pick a picture and write an example of each kind of figurative language in order to describe the picture in a colorful way. After they have written their sentences, they write a poem by stringing some of these examples together and adding some sensory details and camouflaging the direct description with more symbolic images. The students then read their poems to the class while we try to guess which picture is being described.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I find another way to get there. Slower and louder is not a solution.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I stand there and wait. I never have to wait very long. The kids police each other.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
First, I’m a pretty straightforward person, and I really like my job. So, I stand at my door, and I say hi to kids. I notice if they get a new haircut or shoes or a phone, and I comment on it. Then, as time goes on, they see a pattern in the way I ask them specific questions about their other classes. I offer time to work on assignments or projects – I help them and I have supplies. They see former students coming in to use the computers or the table to eat lunch. They see students asking me questions about everything under the sun, and they see me finding the answers. So then, within this community, when it’s time to talk about language function and practice grammar in context, they are willing to listen.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Several years ago, I was invited to a student’s home to meet with a college recruiter and help his family navigate the information. The family’s first language was Spanish, and their son was bilingual. I spoke a little Spanish, and the recruiter spoke none. I sat with the family, listened, and asked questions I knew they wanted answers to, and paraphrased other questions.

That experience enlightened me to the idea that we had a population of students that was not getting access to college information. My colleague, Brad Turano, and I brainstormed an idea for a program at our school that would give first-generation college applicants and students of color the information and exposure needed to apply to, pay for, and graduate from college. Our administration liked the idea and funded it. The Adelante Leadership Program has been going strong at Horizon High School for seven years.

We take field trips to college campuses, invite recruiters and other guest speakers to talk about careers, and educational paths to those careers. We practice leadership skills, team-building, problem-solving, and critical thinking. We also teach financial literacy and independent living skills. Students are enrolled for the second semester of their junior year and the first semester of their senior year. When they leave us, students have applied to at least four colleges and for numerous scholarships, they have completed the federal financial aid form, and are prepared to take the next steps toward their life goals.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am reading “What Alice Forgot” by Liane Moriarty. I watched “Big Little Lies” on HBO last summer and have since been reading all her novels.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mentor and friend, Wendy Engelmann, told me early on: “We teach kids, not subjects.” Of course we use content subjects and standards to guide how we teach kids, but the root of teaching is in relationships.

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.