How I Teach: One Memphis teacher’s advice for bringing the world into a second-grade classroom

PHOTO: Melissa Collins
Melissa Collins visits with students during her two-week trip to India last summer.

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 Collins couldn’t take her second-grade students with her on trips to Brazil and India — so she brings her travels into her Memphis classroom instead.

This summer, Collins joined 36 educators from around the world at the Maverick Teachers Global Summit in India. In 2013, she worked with other teachers in Brazil as an NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellow — an experience she blogged about and used to develop lessons that other teachers can download. Those experiences, she says, have helped her expose her students at John P. Freeman Optional School to other cultures.

Chalkbeat recently asked Collins, a teacher for Shelby County Schools, to explain how she does what she does. (Her answers have been lightly edited and condensed.)

What’s a short phrase to describe your teaching style?
Getting to know who my students are and listening to them. If I don’t know who my students are — what their individual interests are, what makes them tick — how can I teach them in a way that makes them feel engaged and invested?

How do you make learning come alive in your classroom?
It’s about taking risks and thinking outside of the box. For example, I sing a lot. I know my students love music, so I create lesson plans that incorporate song lyrics or instruments. I also have lab coats for each student that they put on whenever we do a science lesson. They see themselves as real-life scientists, which creates excitement. It feels like we’re doing something special, not just opening our books to the next science lesson.

Melissa Collins' colorful second-grade classroom reflects her travels.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Melissa Collins’ colorful second-grade classroom reflects her travels.

What does “global education” mean to you?
There are so many cultures out there in the world that are very different than the day-to-day life that my students experience. Bringing what I experience in other countries back to my kids in a tangible way helps them understand how people live and act in places very different than here.

How do you create lesson plans that reflect global education?
When I was in Brazil and India, I thought about what I could physically bring back into my classroom that reflected their cultures. While visiting markets in Brazil, I came across a lot of different instruments I had never seen before. I brought some of these instruments back for my students to use during lessons about Brazilian music and culture.

We’re also teaching an increasingly diverse group of students. Are some of your students from other countries? Can they speak about their own experience? Can their parents? Think about your friends and acquaintances. Odds are, someone you know has had a global experience that can connect to a lesson you’re trying to teach. When I first started teaching, I had a great relationship with a woman from China. She would come talk to my kids about her culture and allow them to taste different foods. That was one of their favorite days of the school year.

How do you determine if a lesson is successful?
When students began to ask questions for themselves. I want my students to form a curiosity about the world — to think beyond their neighborhoods. That’s success to me, when a student is asking questions for the sake of their own understanding.

And it’s also a success if students have fun. Learning has to be fun. If students enjoy what they are learning, they will be motivated to keep learning.

Melissa Collins shows off her singing skills while in India.
PHOTO: Melissa Collins
Collins shows off her singing skills in India.

What’s some of the best advice you’ve received as a teacher?
Always focus on your babies. Putting your students at the center is how you make sure it’s the best learning experience possible for them.

Help your students understand who they are and how they fit into the world — from kindergarten on up. Having an understanding of their own identity is huge in then helping them understand the bigger world out there.

Chalkbeat’s newest newsletter is made for teachers. Sign up here.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

We’re about to launch another newsletter over here at Chalkbeat, and this one is especially for teachers.

The newsletter is a spinoff of our interview series How I Teach. Over the past year, our reporters have already introduced you to a Memphis teacher who uses Facebook Live on snow days, a government teacher in East Harlem tackling debates about race and the presidency, a Colorado Springs teacher who helps students navigate parents’ deployments, and dozens of other educators from across the country.

Our goal is to share realistic snapshots of what life looks like in classrooms today, and make sure you don’t miss the tips and tricks those teachers have passed along to us. (Our goal is definitely not to provide any more professional development or pat answers about successful teaching.)

In the newsletter, we’ll also include stories we think might be especially useful to teachers, including our take on new research and thoughtful pieces written by educators themselves. And we’ll use this newsletter as another chance to bring you into our reporting — letting you know what we’re working on and how you can help by sharing your own experiences.

Ann Schimke, the Colorado-based reporter behind some of our award-winning coverage of early childhood issues and many How I Teach features, will be your guide.

Interested? Sign up below. And for those of you keeping track, we now have local newsletters for each of our bureaus — Chicago (where coverage is launching soon), Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, Newark, New York City, and Tennessee — plus a national newsletter and a Spanish-language newsletter out of Colorado.

‘Mathonopoly’ and basketball: How this Memphis teacher uses games to teach math

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Yomyko Clark, in her first year of teaching at Aspire Hanley Middle School, says she has taught several game-based math lessons throughout the year.

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.

In a classroom in Memphis, sixth-graders are hard at work creating their own version of Monopoly.

Dubbed “Mathonopoly,” students are prompted to design a board game that incorporates 15 math problems. After several class periods of strategizing, the students take turns playing each other’s games.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Clark helps her students design their game of “Mathonopoly.”

Yomyko Clark, in her first year of teaching at Aspire Hanley Middle School, says this lesson is one of several game-based math lessons she teaches throughout the year.

“Our students pay attention when they are having fun,” Clark said. “Do many of my kids associate ‘fun’ with math? No, but my goal is to help them see how math is a part of everyday games that they love.”

Clark, 25, grew up in Memphis, graduated from East High School, and went on to study social work at the University of Memphis.  She found her way to the classroom through a teacher training program with Aspire Public Schools, the national charter operator that runs Hanley as part of Tennessee’s state-run school district.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

My inspiration to teach derives from working with children for several years throughout my college career. I started in social work, but I realized that I wanted to work more closely with kids. I wanted to be in a classroom. I chose to teach because I want to be an example to children that they can succeed and accomplish anything that they dream. My goal is to encourage children to feel self-sufficient in their own learning skills.

How does your own education experience impact you as a teacher?

I graduated from East High School, and I had one teacher there who really changed my life. She taught English, and she was so hands-on in her classroom. She showed me how engaging education could be. And she had this mother’s love. If you were failing her course, you better believe she was going to talk to your family. But she also wasn’t going to give up on anyone.

Now, I try to tell my kids, “I’m your mom. You’re my babies, and I’m going to fuss over you, but you’re going to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?

One of my favorite lessons to teach is ratios with percent. I love this lesson because it deals with comparing different quantities.

Most of my students love to throw balled up paper in the trash like they are playing basketball. So, to teach this lesson, I incorporated a paper basketball tournament where students played “basketball” with the trashcan and balled-up paper. As a class, we kept a record of how many shots students attempted versus how many shots made. We’re able to create different percentage ratios from this.

What’s makes this lesson work — like the Monopoly game — is that it’s fun. Students are engaged the whole time; they’re cheering on their classmates as they shoot baskets. But they’re also shouting out the ratios we calculate. They’re learning, and they don’t even know it.

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

Aspire Hanley, math, classroom, students
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Clark teaches 6th-grade math at the middle school run by Aspire Public Schools.

To get the class attention when students are talking I use a call and response. For example, If you can hear my voice, say “Oh Yeah!,” and the students will respond “Oh Yeah” and get silent.

We also have an incentives system at our school — where we can give students “bonuses” and rewards. If I student is modeling great behavior, I point it out to the class and mention that they’ve earned a bonus.This really works well because students have really bought into receiving bonuses and earning incentives.

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

One day after work, I saw a student walking in the hallway around 4:45 p.m., which was after dismissal. The student informed me that she missed the bus and didn’t have a phone to contact her parents. With no hesitation, I gave her the phone. The student could not remember the number so I called a number in her file. I was able to speak with the grandmother and the grandmother did nothing but refer to the student as dumb and stupid because he/she missed the bus. Saddened for the student, I was able to understand why he/she was soft spoken and very sensitive when given a behavioral redirection. This situation opened my eyes greatly and made me more vulnerable to the student’s feelings. It changed the way I interacted with her in the future.