How I Teach

This teacher uses Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois to tie the past to the present for his students

PHOTO: Kyle Taubken

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.

History teacher Daniel Warner works to make the past come alive in his Memphis classroom.

Historic documents and mementos line the walls of his U.S. History classroom at East High School to remind his students that what happened yesterday matters today.

One poster reads “What does it mean to be American?” and Warner zeroes in on two African Americans from the 19th and 20th centuries to address that question with his students.

Booker T. Washington believed improving and educating oneself — at the expense of political action — was the right path. W.E.B. DuBois disagreed. He believed political action was at the heart of what would improve the lives of African Americans.

Warner said the two ideologies are “extraordinarily applicable to the questions that still face my students today.”

He also teaches an Advanced Placement history course at East High, an iconic Midtown school that’s undergoing major changes to revamp its image and recruit more students.

Chalkbeat spoke with Warner, 26, about why he became a teacher, how he keeps the attention of his students, and how he brings historical characters to life.  (The questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I hadn’t considered teaching until my senior year of college. In October of that year, I heard about the Memphis Teacher Residency and knew that’s what I wanted to give the next few years of my life to. I became a teacher more for cultivating learners and thinkers than for the essay grading and lesson planning. But I have come to enjoy the job in its entirety. And I have really developed a love for American history and the questions it asks.

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

I love teaching on the dispute between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois because I find it to be extraordinarily applicable to the questions that still face my students and our city today.

Though the NAACP, the organization DuBois helped found, had a strong presence throughout the 20th century in Memphis, Washington’s ideas seem, in my experience, to have had a more lasting impact on the politics of black Memphians. There is a long history of black conservatism (a la Booker T. Washington) in this part of the country, a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality — that no matter your situation, you can overcome, and you have no one to blame but yourself for the choices you make. 

"Each year, students walk away empowered to connect their stories with the ones of those who have gone before them. History class becomes worth their time."

That perspective, held by many of my students, has taught me much about resilience and perseverance. I hope I caused them to question, why we must also work to make the systems and structures fair and equitable, and why it is good and right to demand that of our representatives. There’s always a heated back and forth in the final debate in which half the class represents DuBois’ perspective and half the class represents Washington’s perspective. 

I spend a full week on this mini-unit. I start with the terrifying context of the Jim Crow South, the political violence during and after Reconstruction (e.g. the massacre that happened here in Memphis in 1866), and the disenfranchisement of African American voters. We read some of Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address in which he forgoes challenging segregation as he looks for employment opportunities for black workers in the New South. We then read excerpts of DuBois’ Talented Tenth speech and Souls of Black Folk in which he addresses Washington’s ideas. At the end of the week, we have a rigorous classroom debate in which students have to quote from the primary sources to defend their positions.

Each year, students walk away empowered to connect their stories with the ones of those who have gone before them. History class becomes worth their time.

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

We have a clear set of expectations in my classroom. I tell my students at the beginning of the year, “When I talk, you listen, and when you talk, I’ll listen.” I think that sets a tone of respect for one another that is foundational to a good learning environment.

I also try to use humor to keep the energy up and keep the mood light when appropriate. The teacher has to keep it upbeat when it’s the third day in a row on the issues of 19th-century farmers.

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 try to ask students what kinds of things they like. For example, I have a student right now who every teacher is having a hard time reaching. He’s not a bad kid at all, just real quiet and doesn’t do any of his work. I walked over to him the other day and noticed he was trying to learn Japanese on his laptop. I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but my goal is to tie in what we’re learning to the Japanese culture that fascinates him. Figuring out how to engage each unique child is a huge part of why I find education to be a compelling profession. And oftentimes I find that if I show a student I am interested in him and his hobbies, he will show an interest in class.

I also take my students seriously. When a student comes in crying about their cell phone being taken away or takes the risk of sharing their perspective in class, I never want to make them feel they are out of place for feeling what they feel or thinking what they think. I heard James Baldwin say that Malcolm X  was so adored by his followers and stirred them to action because he made them “feel as though they truly exist.” Looking someone in the eyes and listening is one of the quintessential human acts. I try to take a swing at that as often as possible. Teenagers appreciate it.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am reading a lot! Let’s see:

  • We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates;
  • One Nation, Under God, Kevin Kruse (examining the ways libertarianism got wrapped up in the package deal of what it now means to be evangelical Christian in response to the New Deal);
  • Just finished Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (fantastic characters in a short novella);
  • Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram Kendi;
  • A collection of essays by Wendell Berry called What Are People For?;
  • Brother To A Dragonfly, Will Campbell (absolutely loving this one right now; Will Campbell is one of the most fascinating Southern Christians ever)
  • Awaiting the King, James K.A. Smith.

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.