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

Tupac, Shakespeare, and ‘Stranger Things’: How a top Tennessee teacher relates to her students

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Katherine Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the the Milken Family Foundation.

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 Katherine Watkins found out she would receive a prestigious national teaching award, her students at Millington Central High wrapped her into a huge bear hug.

“We relate to her because she relates to us,” one of her students said when asked why they enjoyed her class. Watkins was honored as a Milken Educator Award last November in front of her students, colleagues and Tennessee’s top education official.

Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the Milken Family Foundation.

We asked Watkins about how she strives for relatability in her classrooms, where she teaches literature, English and coordinates the school’s yearbooks. Millington Central High is racially diverse and made up of about thousand students, one-third of which are described as economically disadvantaged.

Read in her own words how she uses pop culture to build classroom rapport and how she learned not to get flustered when her students got off track. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of books, images, and objects I’ve collected from my travels. These include a handmade Venetian mask I brought back from Italy, pictures I took while standing in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and a twelve-volume, leather-bound edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare that was published in London in 1786

Some people might say I’ve lost my mind to keep such precious relics within reach of teenagers, but I interpret the “value” of these treasures somewhat differently. I want desperately for my students to know and care about the world that exists beyond their immediate reality, and sometimes the best way to achieve that is through tactile experience. I’m trying to cultivate independent thinkers who have the confidence to test limits, ask tough questions, and arrive at their own conclusions. That can’t happen without direct confrontation with the unfamiliar, and until I can afford to actually take them to the places we read about in the literature we study, my souvenirs will have to suffice.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

I could not teach without my close-knit group of teacher friends. This is only my third year at my current school, but everyone was so warm and welcoming when I arrived that it really felt like coming home. We even have a group chat we use every day to share funny memes, vent about our frustrations, offer words of encouragement, and talk through ideas. Feeling like you can be yourself around friends in a judgment-free zone makes all the difference when it comes to a high-stress job like teaching.  Without that kind of solidarity, I know I wouldn’t be nearly as resilient or effective in the classroom.

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

I used to get visibly flustered if students were talking or off task during the lesson. It took me a couple years in the classroom to realize that getting upset is the least effective way to deal with this problem. Many students misbehave because they crave attention, so getting upset is the same as relinquishing control. Nowadays, I vary my approach depending on the severity and intent of the disruption, but regardless of the situation, I never lose my cool.

I have the most success defusing behavioral disruptions through the use of nonverbal cues, which can be as simple as changing my position in the room. For example, if a cluster of students is off task while I’m addressing the whole group, I continue lecturing and simply move to where the problem is occurring and the behavior stops. I’ve also become a sort of Jedi master at the don’t-you-even-think-about-it stare of disapproval. The right look delivered at the right moment can work wonders for classroom management. 

PHOTO: Katherine Watkins
Watkins said she starts each year by giving her kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences.

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

Before my first day at Millington Central High, I had little idea what to expect of my new school and its students. I had driven through Millington a time or two on my way to other destinations, but that was the extent of my familiarity with this community. During my initial interview, I was briefed on school demographics: Millington is ethnically diverse with a high percentage of economic disadvantage, a large SPED population, and nearly a quarter of students coming from single-parent households. It would be a lie to say I never questioned whether the school would be the right fit for me. I worried about my ability to make a connection. Would my students accept me? Would I be able to make a difference in their lives?

I always start each year by giving my kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences. I use this information to get to know students and begin establishing a rapport. Left to my own devices, for example, I would never be motivated to keep up with pop culture trends, but if a large number of my students are listening to a particular artist or watching a specific TV show (Stranger Things anybody?), I make a point of consuming the same media so I can connect with them over more than just academic content. This extra effort on my part—cultural research, if you will—has worked wonders with the kids at Millington. The look of shock on their faces when they realize I can quote lines from Hamlet as readily as the lyrics to any 2Pac song is priceless.

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

Knowing what’s going on in a student’s home life is a crucial part of being a good teacher, and I always try to consider the bigger picture when difficult situations arise. I have had students come forward with stories of abuse, students who have experienced the death of a parent, and students who are basically raising their younger siblings because Mom works three jobs and Dad isn’t around. A student who arrives to school late and sleeps through first period could just be lazy, but it would be callous and irresponsible to punish the child without first having a conversation to find out what’s causing the behavior. We can’t forget that kids are human beings too, some of whom are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Teaching has made me realize that you can never really know what someone else is going through until you make the effort to understand. This is why it’s so important to reserve judgment and approach students with patience and compassion.

How I Teach

To teach American music, this Colorado teacher takes students back in time

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

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.

Dave Lunn, the band and orchestra director at Liberty Common High School in Fort Collins, was working at a coffee shop when he got the offer to start a band program at the new charter school.

Although he taught private music lessons at the time, he’d never planned to go into teaching. That was his parents’ field, not his.

But once he got started at Liberty Common, where he teaches music theory and music history, too, he knew it was the career for him.

Lunn, who was one of seven finalists for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked to Chalkbeat about why his unit on American Roots music is so important, how a Japanese concept influences his teaching and why he loves parent-teacher conferences.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Both of my parents were teachers, so to forge my own identity, I tried to follow a different path. On the side, I had developed a considerable private music studio, teaching saxophone and other instruments, so I became known in the music education community as a private instructor.

While working as a barista, one of my customers who knew that I taught music lessons was involved in starting a new charter school called Liberty Common School. She approached me about starting a band program as an extracurricular activity for the students. What began as a group of 25 students grew into a music program with five bands and a string orchestra at a school that I have now been working at for 20 years. I guess you could say that teaching found me, because as soon as I began, I knew that it was what I was meant to do. I mainly knew this, because I wouldn’t get that pit in my stomach on Sunday evenings that was such a familiar feeling in other jobs. I loved (and still do) the fact that that being a teacher offered endless opportunities to be creative and more effective.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom communicates two things: 1. My love for all kinds of music (which I hope to be contagious) is broadcast everywhere. There are posters up and musical instruments of all kinds everywhere (I am very clear about which ones are available for students to play and when). 2. That students are welcome. One of my colleagues has dubbed my room “The Oasis,” because stressed-out students often come in during down time to play the piano, or one of the guitars hanging on the wall, or even to study in a low-stress atmosphere.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
My sense of humor. Ever since I was a kid, I loved being (or trying to be) funny. For better or worse, it defined my high school career, as I was voted “Class Clown” of my senior class. In teaching, it has been a great tool for engaging students in the lesson and even more importantly, building relationships. It also keeps me from getting bored!

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite unit is called “American Roots Music.” I teach this unit in a high school class called Introduction to Music History and Theory. In it, I guide students through an American musical “tree,” in which I demonstrate that most of American popular music can be traced back to the folk songs of slaves in the United States. We then discuss how this beautiful music was anonymously created out of the most miserable and unjust circumstances imaginable. We discuss how, after the abolition of slavery, this music would evolve into gospel and blues music, each branching out into yet more musical genres. We explore the many styles of blues that emerged, such as Delta blues, Chicago blues and Kansas City blues, and the tremendous influence those styles would birth. We journey to New Orleans, and learn about how the unique mixing of African, French, Spanish, and Caribbean cultures would eventually create jazz music. We then trace the evolution of jazz through all of its many styles. Finally, we learn about how the meeting of African-American rhythm and blues with white American country music developed into rock and roll.

There are many reasons that this is my favorite unit to teach. Although I am a band and orchestra director, I love lecturing and putting together presentations, and I do so every chance I get. I’m a performer at heart. I believe that the best performances aren’t just spectacles, but involve and engage the audience. The audience should leave a great performance changed, with a new way of looking at things. American Roots music speaks to my soul like no other music. I want my students to understand what I understand about the sublimity of this music.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
The challenge of teaching is, for me, all about striving to help a student understand the concept or material that I am presenting. Like most teachers, I present material in as many ways as I possibly can: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. I am always checking for understanding through the questions I ask. If I feel that a student still doesn’t understand (and really wants to), I will try to find one-on-one time to work with him or her.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
In my more traditional, lecture-oriented classes, I begin by playing interesting music that we have learned about during the previous lesson. I slowly raise the volume until I see all eyes up front. As soon as I stop the music, I begin teaching immediately, by beginning with something engaging. What I am trying to do is keep the pace lively, and not to leave any room for other distractions to take the energy away.

I also move around the room quite a bit, so that every student in the class is effectively “sitting up front.” In my music ensembles classes, routines are worked out during the first few days of school to establish when it is acceptable to play your instrument or talk, and when the attention needs to be on me as the conductor. The use of a conductor’s podium and a baton are what makes this happen. My whole goal is to avoid shouting above the din of the classroom. It works most of the time.

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 take a great interest in getting to know my students individually and, honestly, this is where I put the majority of my energy and receive the most fulfillment back. I use humor to build rapport, establish “buy in,” and disarm any negativity. Other than that, I just pay attention to how different students respond to situations, and I get to know their strengths and weaknesses through our experiences in the classroom. My hope is to be the kind of teacher and mentor that they need.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I know it may sound strange, but I enjoy parent-teacher conferences every year. This is when I get to know the families of new students, as well as continue to build relationships with parents that I have known for years. I always come away with new insights into students who I thought I already knew so much about. While the overwhelming majority of these interactions are positive, I value the more challenging encounters just as much. I learn something every year that helps be get better as an educator.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished a book about world poverty and possible solutions called “UnPoverty: Rich Lessons from the Working Poor” by Mark Lutz. I know this sounds odd for “reading for enjoyment,” but my daughter is spending a gap year working in Nicaragua, and I read it along with her to get a better insight into the nature of the work she is doing. It’s fascinating and soul-provoking.

I also am reading a book called “Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers” by Nick Offerman from the television show “Parks and Recreation.” That is one of my favorite shows, and I got to meet Nick Offerman at a book-signing where I bought the book. It’s a collection of short essays about people he admires. It’s filled with his trademark dry humor and wisdom.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My first principal and education mentor, Dr. Kathryn Knox, mentioned a word that she picked up while living in Japan. The word is “muda,” and it roughly means futility, uselessness, wastefulness. She said that her password at the time was “muda gone”. This inspired me at the time to identify those things that could interfere with my effectiveness as a teacher, and even more importantly, my passion for teaching. There are so many elements in an educator’s career that threaten to weigh us down with “muda,” and keep us from focusing in keeping the joy of learning alive in our students. I have always tried to give all “muda” only the minimal space in my mind that is required, so that my energy is fully available for teaching. It has worked well so far.