How I Teach

Why this Memphis teacher asks her students to create a mixtape every year

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Natasha Wilkins is a history teacher at GRAD Academy Memphis. The charter school in the state-run Achievement School District will close after the 2017-18 school year.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

During her African-American history classes, Natasha Wilkins asks her high school students to answer this question in a “free writing” exercise: “Who is responsible for educating the public about injustice?”

The students type away while listening to R&B singer R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest,” which isn’t uncommon. Wilkins has made a point of integrating music into her classroom at GRAD Academy Memphis, a charter high school within Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Her class culminates with a “Hip Hot History” project, a mixtape produced by her students, who write the lyrics and record their songs in a studio to share their learning.

When asked how she answered the writing prompt, one student said that, thanks to Wilkins, she believes that she is responsible for educating the public about injustice. “I think understanding injustice has a lot to do with understanding history, real history,” the student said. “We can’t care about something we don’t know about.”

That’s the goal of Wilkins’ class:  To help her students, most of whom are black, understand the history of their ancestors and to have fun while doing it.

We asked Wilkins to explain more about her teaching style and how she helps her students “own” history.

Why did you become a teacher?

Of my friends from high school, none of my black male friends graduated from or even made it past their sophomore year of college. I was deeply frustrated by the realization that there was a system in place that left young black men feeling inadequate to pursue their educational goals, and I took the offense personally. I joined Teach For America with the desire to disrupt this cycle. 

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A mural hangs on the wall in Wilkins’ classroom.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a space designed to inspire and affirm. There is student work that lines the walls and quotes designed to push my students to think beyond what is in a textbook. I think a big part of my classroom is also what is not present.  I very intentionally did not put up many images of people from the past. I want my students to view history as not just acts and individuals from the past, but an ever-evolving story of which they are a part.

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

I tend to reframe it in terms of their lives. For example, I related the Civil War to gang warfare, and the division of the North and South leading up to the Civil War to a dating relationship gone bad. Putting the lesson in terms of things my students can relate to gives them confidence in the classroom and affirms that learning is for them, not just something that they do in a school, in a classroom.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

At the beginning of the year, I do a short unit exploring what history is and how what becomes defined as “history” is determined and recorded. My students explore their perceptions of history and then are given the opportunity to record a story from their lives (also available on SoundCloud) in a project called Our Stories, Our Voices.

I explain to my students that we are all a part of history and that each of us deserves the chance to tell our own stories in our own voices. In this project, I allow my students to tell their stories how they perceive them, in their dialect, in their reality. This is essential to building relationships because it gives my students the space to be themselves, but it also gives me insight into what makes them who they are and the joys and pains that they bring into the classroom.

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

In 2015, I was engaged in a heated discussion with my World History honors class about the inequalities in the education they were receiving versus what I received in my predominantly white high school in Illinois. I was explaining to them why I was giving them the assignments I did, and why I taught the way I did, because that’s what my teachers did and it worked for me.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Wilkins says the goal of her class is to apply history to daily, lived experiences.

It was during this conversation that one of my more reserved students yelled out in frustration, “But this ain’t Springfield, Ms. Wilkins, and all of that Springfield stuff don’t work for us out here in Memphis. We’re different.”

This was a pivotal moment of realization in my teaching. It was in that moment that I finally heard my students and their frustrations and I realized that I needed to step back and learn from them just as they learned from me.

Describe Hip Hot History. Where did the idea come from, how do you implement it in your classroom, and why has it been a success for your students?

The idea for this project actually started as a joke. In class I would often play instrumentals and rap about history or getting back on task, to the amusement of my students. The students started asking me if I was going to drop a mixtape soon and I told them I would. One day, one of my students asked if the class could be on my mixtape and from there Hip Hot History was born.

This project is the capstone project my students complete at the end of the year. They are given the choice of writing a song, spoken-word piece, or creating a documentary film telling the story of blacks in history. They are given full creative license to create their piece with guidelines on how to choose the topic and the length of the piece.

How I Teach

Why this Memphis history teacher seeks to create a ‘calming slice of Africa’ in his classroom

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Torian Black, 30, teaches African-American history at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis.

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.

Torian Black felt excluded as he grew up in Memphis City Schools, and he hopes he can help his students of color feel better about themselves and their school than he did.

Black, 30, teaches African-American history at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis, a high school run by one of  Memphis’ highest performing charter organizations. He grew up in Memphis City Schools and graduated from White Station High School, but Black says he doesn’t look back on that time fondly.

“My experience as an African-American male student being educated at White Station High School was one filled with prejudice, uneasiness, and an experience in which I had to seek refuge,” Black said.

“It was an experience in which I was always ‘the other’ in the classroom and was never intentionally brought into an inclusive space,” he said.

Black wants to give his students a much different experience than he had in high school. The majority of students at Freedom Prep are students of color.

We spoke with Black about how he incorporates African history into his classroom — complete with instruments and tapestries — and why the Black Power movement is his favorite lesson to teach. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Why did you become a teacher?

My experience at Howard University, a historically black university, taught me who I was and what I should have been taught at a much younger age. It was an experience in finding my own identity through education. I wanted to be sure students who looked like me would not only receive an experience free of the ailments I experienced growing up, but would also receive a transformational experience that would positively impact their lives for generations.

What does your classroom look like?

I sought to create a calming slice of Africa in my classroom. There are African instruments, plants, and tapestries of African fabrics adorning my room.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Black incorporates African instruments, plants, and tapestries into his classroom.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

There is a unit I teach that solely focuses on the Black Power movement. I walk students through where the Black Panther symbol came from: the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Mississippi, which fought for black political rights in 1966. We discuss the rise of the Black Panther party in California in the 1960s and how it connects to the civil rights movement.

This is definitely the most anticipated unit among students. All too often, we are looked at as second-class citizens. The perspective that matters most in life is how we see ourselves.

A survey I conducted at the beginning of the year revealed that our students still think of themselves as inferior in many ways. The “doll test” conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark identified this feeling in African-American children more than 50 years ago. Unfortunately, not much has changed today in the way black and brown children think. When students learn and see people like them serving as examples of strength and self-determination, they see what they can do themselves.

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

I sought to recreate aspects of Africa in my classroom. So, I often use music from African instruments in a call-and-response fashion to get their attention. Djembes, shekeres, and thumb pianos are some of the instruments I use.

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

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Black started teaching at Freedom Prep five years ago.

Every interaction with a student is an opportunity to build a stronger relationship. First, it’s important to establish a strong warm, strict classroom culture that is positive, urgent and requires critical thought. It’s important that students see who we are as people. I include stories of my childhood, pictures of my family, and examples of the mistakes I have made throughout life in my lessons.

For teachers, building relationships with a group of students comes first.  Then, all downtime activities — transitions, lunchtime, or after school— are perfect times to build stronger individual relationships by just asking questions you would ask of anyone you would genuinely like to connect with,  know, and understand.

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

Recently, a parent of a student I teach informed me that they chose Freedom Prep high school because of me. She said she heard of my reputation for infusing love and joy in my lessons, she heard of my desire and commitment for students to love themselves and their identity, and she trusted my ability to grow her child academically. This parent already was looking into Freedom Prep, but once she heard of what I brought to the table, that’s when she made her decision. To entrust another person to educate your child is a weight as heavy as the mountains because the educator has a strong hand in shaping each child’s path to their destiny. To know that I had that impact on even one parent meant that my work, the long hours, and the stress are worth it and I am walking in my purpose.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet” by Ta-Nehisi Coates as well as “The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America.”

How I Teach

This Colorado teacher admitted she didn’t know all the answers – and students responded

PHOTO: Hero Images | Getty Images
Girl using laptop in classroom.

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.

When a new student arrived in her class at Cherry Creek High School, computer science teacher Jocelyn Nguyen-Reed tried hard to make her feel welcome and supported. But as the year wore on, the girl withdrew and Nguyen-Reed began to wonder if her overtures were making any difference.

That spring, she discovered what a big impression her efforts had made when the student’s father called to ask for advice on how to help his daughter. The teen, he said, believed Nguyen-Reed could help her with anything.

Nguyen-Reed talked to Chalkbeat about what she realized after that phone call, how she discovered her passion for teaching, and why she tells students she doesn’t know all the answers.

Nguyen-Reed is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

The summer before my junior year in college, after a having tough year and burning out in my pre-med track, I took a summer position as a camp counselor in a two-week STEM program for high school students. As a part of the job, I was the teaching assistant for a chemistry class. I was so nervous while I was setting up the first lab. I kept running all the different scenarios in my head trying to make sure it wouldn’t be a complete disaster! To my delight, the first lab was a great success and the “high” I felt following the first day on the job made me I realize how passionate I was about teaching and education. The camp was the first time in a long time that I had been so excited to get up in the morning to do something.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?
I think the biggest misconception was that I had to be the expert at everything all the time. My first year teaching, I had been assigned to teach two levels of computer science when I had very limited computer science background. I prepared as much as I could over the summer, but was terrified coming into the year because I knew students would ask me questions I wouldn’t be able to answer.

I decided to be upfront with them and invite them to ask questions, but to allow me room to find out what they needed when I did know the answers. It turned out they appreciated this approach more than I expected. The unexpected perk was that students were more empowered to try to figure out the answers and we often worked as a team to get to the bottom of whatever problems they encountered. It taught me the importance of authenticity in teaching and that modeling the learning process is extremely valuable..

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of the more fun lessons I teach is sorting algorithms in my AP Computer Science course. An algorithm in computer science is simply a step-by-step process for solving a problem. In our everyday life, sorting is one that comes up all the time — sorting your phone contacts by name or sorting your search results by relevance. In this lesson, we explore ways to sort data quickly and efficiently.

I usually start with a silly story that then poses the problem of sorting some set of papers or punch cards. I might talk about how programmers once programmed on punch cards, so tasks that are simple to code today took many, many punch cards to code in the past. “Imagine you had a stack of 1,000 punch cards,” I might say to my students. “But then you trip on the steps, and they are everywhere! … Now what?” Students start by brainstorming their own ideas for how to sort them. I then focus on just a few and use students in my class as “lists to sort” to demonstrate each one. Students usually enjoy the interactivity of the lesson.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I will usually try to tackle this in two ways: I’ll use his or her peers to help or arrange personal one-on-one help. My students usually have a table partner with whom they have ample opportunities to work. I usually remind them that no matter the task, their jobs are two-fold. First, make sure they understand the concepts. If not, then their job is to ask questions (of their peers or me). Second, make sure their partners understand the concepts. If they don’t, their job is to explain the concepts to them. If a student is still struggling, I’ll reach out and try to make a plan/time with them to make sure they get caught up.

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 start of the year, I ask students about their strengths, weaknesses, needs, interests, and the things about which they are excited or worried. During the year, I periodically ask them to write to me how they are, what’s going well, what’s not going well, and what they need from me. I always enjoy getting to read what they write and responding to each one. It is especially nice to hear from those who are more shy or quiet in class. Otherwise, I just try to meet students with a smile and ask them about what’s happening in their lives each day, or follow up about something they told me some other time.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In my first couple years teaching, I felt the need to be everything to everyone all the time, and I worked countless hours trying to make my lessons as engaging as possible. I had a student who was new to the community at the start of the year, and I made extra effort to make her comfortable. As the year continued, I noticed that she started to change -— her image, her attitude, etc. I had a good relationship with her, but she seemed to withdraw a little bit and I wasn’t really sure how to help her. I gathered that her home life was stressful, so I continued to be kind to her and let her know I was there for her.

I received a surprise phone call that spring that really changed my perspective on the effort I was putting into my job everyday. It was her dad asking me for input on how to help his daughter. “She seems to believe that you can help her with just about anything,” he said in his voicemail. From that moment on, I realized that my efforts to care for my students will never be wasted, and no matter how tired or overwhelmed I feel, care and kindness will always be worth it.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Currently, I’m working my way through “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” by Dana Goldstein. I am only about 10 pages in, but I’m enjoying it so far!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Take everything one step at a time. I have a tendency to take on a lot at once. I have high expectations for myself, so I can overwhelm myself easily. It is a nice reminder that not everything has to get done NOW. Some of it can wait, and even just doing a little at a time can go a long way.