How I Teach

Why this Bronx music teacher uses science — and bananas — in her classroom

PHOTO: Courtesy photo
Melissa Salguero uses technology and science experiments to teach her music class at P.S. 48 in the Bronx.

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.

Melissa Salguero returned from spring break to find that thieves had raided her music classroom.

Faced with empty instrument cases, torn drum heads, and missing recording equipment, Salguero did the only thing that felt right. She grabbed a guitar and held music class in the auditorium of her school, P.S. 48 in the Bronx, while police dusted for fingerprints.

“It was important to me that they had music that day to show the kids that we can survive anything,” she said.

A marching band devotee in high school and music lover since childhood, Salguero spends three hours a day commuting from Connecticut, arriving by 7 a.m. for early-morning band practice. During the school day, her classroom can feel like a science lab as students learn about sound waves and electricity through experiments — such as when Salguero recently connected a banana to a computer in order to play it like a piano.

Most of the materials she uses for these lessons are donated. Salguero has raised more than $200,000 for the music program at P.S. 48, including $50,000 presented to her on the Ellen DeGeneres show. This year, she is one of 25 finalists nationally for a Grammy Music Educator award. The winner will attend the Grammy Awards.

Here is why Salguero asks her students for “brutally honest” feedback on her lessons, builds pianos out of playdough, and makes sure to remember birthdays.

Responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What do your students get in music class that they can’t get in any other subject?

Music education teaches my students the value of working together and the sense of accomplishment that comes from working towards performances. In my music class, students are able to express themselves, explore the questions they may have, and develop their curiosity for learning.

When you went on Ellen, she described the neighborhood your school is in as “scary.” What do you you wish people understood better about your students?

It is a rough neighborhood, but I see potential in every one of my students to rise above their circumstances. I want people to understand how music education can foster a love for learning, especially in Hunts Point. The kids are bright, talented, and have so much to give; their voices just need a chance to be heard.

Why do you mix science with music?

Science helps my students better understand musical concepts because they’re encouraged to try to understand how things work. Some musical concepts are abstract, such as a sound wave. Performing experiments in class gives them something concrete to explain these abstract concepts. Performing experiments teaches my students resilience because if something doesn’t work out as planned, there’s always another way. For example, instead of my students becoming discouraged if something doesn’t work, they problem solve and think of new ideas.

What is the best compliment you’ve gotten from a student about your teaching?

I love when my students tell me how I helped them overcome a fear. Because of my core teaching values, I encourage my students to make mistakes and to keep trying, and this is where they gain the confidence to overcome their fears.

What does being nominated for a Grammy Educator Award mean to you? What would winning it mean?

Besides the accolades and the cool trophy, it means that music education and the work that music educators do is important and is being recognized on a national level. I’m just one music teacher in a world of many. There are so many music teachers that are changing so many lives. If I can help spread the message that music education is important and is worth supporting, I would love for that message to be a global one.

Why did you become a teacher?

The leadership skills I learned in high school and college music programs help shape the person I am today. I want to help my students discover who they are and I want to help shape them into tomorrow’s leaders.

What does your classroom look like?

If you were sitting in my room watching a lesson you would probably see lots of students asking questions and lots of cogs turning inside of their heads. I foster a curious culture in my classroom that encourages students to ask questions: What is that? How does this work? What is happening? How are you doing that? When the students drive the lesson the engagement is 100%. They are driving the bus I’m just the tour guide.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

My humor and my patience get me through each day. If a teacher can learn to laugh and be patient, it is a recipe for a great classroom culture. Students want to feel respected, and sometimes they unaware how to achieve this.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?

I love teaching my “Science of Sound” unit; I get to see students be amazed with some of the experiments. For example, I have used nothing but a needle and a piece of paper to play a record and we have made pianos out of playdough.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Every student is different, and it is my job to ensure that every student has the unique tools they need in order to be successful. I teach concepts from many different angles and give my students different methods to demonstrate their understanding of the subject. If a student still doesn’t understand, I ask myself what I can do differently.

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

I often ask my students for “brutally honest” feedback on lessons. I’m not scared to admit to myself that my lesson ideas might not be as engaging as I thought. It’s important for teachers to reflect and adjust their future lessons accordingly.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Part of being a good teacher is knowing your students! I sincerely care about them whether that is in the form of: remembering birthdays, writing positive notes home, or maintaining communication with parents. Above all, it’s important to me to give the students 100% of my attention when they speak to me. It damages the relationship when the students feels that you are not present and their voices are not heard.

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

I had a student that had some really extreme behavior problems in school. Before getting to know her, because she was labeled as a “bad kid,” I had preconceived notions about her. I decided to take her under my wing and mentor her. We worked on positive ways to express her emotions. I helped her write songs and we even recorded a CD. She had somebody that was willing to invest time in her, and I noticed a drastic change in her behavior. I learned that every student, when given the opportunity, can do great things.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

“Our job is to teach the students we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. Those we have right now. All of them.” – Dr. Kevin Maxwel

In the Classroom

How an Indianapolis teacher is making fourth grade more like a video game

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Guillermo Perez, right, finished nearly all of his assignments from their class game at home in his free time.

The tension was rising in Amanda Moore’s class. Fourth graders were facing off against a dragon-like Sea Raptal, and it was a close fight. Victory hung in the balance.

“What is the universal theme of our text?” asked Moore, calling on a boy to explain a story students had been reading in small groups. His answer — to treat others as you want to be treated — was correct, leading to the defeat of the monster, and causing the class to erupt in chatter and cheers.

All this excitement is because of “gamification,” a new approach Moore recently began using in her fourth-grade class at Chapelwood Elementary School in Wayne Township. With the help of an online platform called Classcraft, which allows students to inhabit characters, earn points, and complete quests, Moore designs adventures that entice students to practice math and reading skills.

Gamification is a growing trend in education that aims to use games to engage students in school work. Critics, though, raise concerns about students spending too much time on screens and the quality of the games. But games are becoming increasingly popular among teachers, and research suggests that games can improve student scores in subjects such as math and history.

Moore, who has taught at Chapelwood for a decade, learned about gamification recently while completing a master’s degree in curriculum and education technology at Ball State University. Since she started using games to teach in January, it has totally transformed the class, Moore said. Now, she is building positive relationships with students because she is playing games with them.

“We forget that kids are kids, and they want to play. And they are motivated by play, and they learn through play,” she said. “Gamification allows us to get back to that a little bit.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Characters from an adventure that’s helping Chapelwood elementary school students master reading skills.

This week is spring break, so Moore is working with a group of students who are slightly below grade level in reading for intersession. When the week began, Moore told the students that they were on a magical boat that was shipwrecked. As a class, they must collect enough crystals for their ship to set sail again.

In part, the game is based online, and students can bring laptops from school and keep playing at home. There is an adventure map, and every student has a character. Students can earn points online by completing assignments where they practice making inferences and identifying themes, and Moore can see how they are progressing. But the game is also the backdrop for other work, and the class sometimes comes to a halt when students face random events, where they can win or lose points.

“It’s fun because you can learn while you are playing a game,” said Lilly Mata-Turcios, a student in the class.

Since Moore started using online gaming, students have been more engaged, and they’ve continued to do school work at home so they can win rewards such as new armor for their characters or pets, she said. The class has built a strong community because students have to work together to defeat monsters like the Sea Raptal, Moore said.

“It’s a model of what personalization can look like in a blended classroom,” said Michele Eaton, the district director of virtual and blended learning.

During most weeks, students spend about an hour each day completing math and reading assignments through Classcraft. Moore also works with small groups and does instruction with the whole class. But everything they do takes place against the backdrop of their adventure.

“I think it’s just a really powerful way to teach,” Moore said. “It is absolutely worth the time.”

thrown for a loop

Elementary school teachers sometimes follow a class of students from year to year. New research suggests that’s a good idea.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Student Jaela Manzanares gets reading help from substitute teacher Colleen Rys in her third-grade class at Beach Court Elementary School in Denver.

When Kim Van Duzer, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, had a chance to follow her students from third to fourth grade the next school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a positive experience,” she said. “One of the big advantages is starting in September hitting the ground running — you already know the kids and the things they did the previous year and the things they need to work on.”

Now, a new study seems to confirm Van Duzer’s experience. Students improve more on tests in their second year with the same teacher, it finds, and the benefits are largest for students of color.

Repeating teachers is “a beneficial and relatively low-cost policy that should be given due consideration,” write the researchers, Andrew Hill of Montana State University and Daniel Jones of the University of Southern Carolina.

The paper focuses on North Carolina students in grades 3 to 5 who had the same teacher two years in a row. That usually occurred not when a whole class repeated  with the same teacher — what’s often called “looping” — but with a small share of students ending up with the same teacher twice, for whatever reason.

How much did that second year with a teacher help? The overall effect was very small, enough to move an average student from about the 50th to the 51st percentile. But even this modest improvement is notable for several reasons.

First, it’s a policy that, at least in theory, doesn’t cost anything or require legislation to implement. Schools, if they choose to, could make looping a habit.

Second, the gains were larger for kids of color than for white students, suggesting that this could make a slight dent in longstanding test-score gaps.

Third, the students who saw the biggest gains had teachers who were lower performing overall, suggesting that having the same students twice may be particularly useful for helping teachers improve.

Fourth, it’s an idea that could affect a lot of students. Just being in a class where many peers were repeating with a teacher seemed to benefit kids who were new to the teacher, the study finds. The researchers think that could be because those teachers’ classroom environments improve during that second year with many of the same students.

That aligns with Van Duzer’s experience, when she had a handful of new students in her looped class. “The other kids were really welcoming to them, and they became fully integrated members of our class community,” she said.

Fifth, there may be other benefits not captured by test score gains. For Van Duzer, being able to pick up existing connections with students’ families was another perk. “It takes a school year to fully develop a relationship with kids and their parents — for everybody to get to know each other, to develop trust, to be able to speak really openly,” she said.

One important caveat: the study can’t prove that if looping were expanded, that the benefits would persist. Past research also isn’t much of a guide because there’s so little out there, but what exists is consistent with the latest study.

A recent analysis found students in rural China scored higher on tests as a result of the approach. Here in the U.S., the best evidence might come from what amounts to the reverse of the policy: having teachers of younger students focus on a single subject, and thus not have a single class of students. In Houston, this led to substantial drops in student test scores and attendance.

These studies suggest early grade teachers do better when they “specialize” in a small group of students, rather than a certain academic subject.

To Van Duzer, who now serves as a math coach at her school, having a firm understanding of what students learned the previous year is crucial and helps explain the findings.

“A lot of times when kids move into a new grade, the teachers are like, ‘You learned this last year!’ and the kids are like, ‘We did?’” she said. “But then if you say certain words … you remind them of certain experiences, like ‘Remember when we studied China and we talked about this?’ and then they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I do remember.’ But if you haven’t been there with them for those experiences, it’s harder to activate that knowledge.”