Kids learn better when they’re moving. Just ask this Memphis teacher and dance coach.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Alexia Young teaches third-graders at Lucie E. Campbell Elementary School in Memphis, where she also doubles as the dance coach.

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.

Alexia Young loves to keep her third-grade class on the move.

Every day, her students at Lucie E. Campbell Elementary School in Memphis jump up from their desks, dance around the classroom, and belt out a “reading chant,”  complete with hand motions.

“I love to read. I’m intelligent. Whoo that knowledge! Strong and elegant, I love to read, read, read!”

Young says the ritual helps her students focus before they dive into reading time. But equally as important, it gets them up and moving.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Third-graders in Alexia Young’s class go through their daily “reading chant.”

“I teach third-graders. And I know how necessary it is for students this age to be up and moving throughout the day,” said Young, who doubles as her school’s dance coach. “They weren’t meant to learn tied to a desk.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Young about why she became a teacher, the pedagogy of movement, and how she incorporates plays and debates into her classroom. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I specifically wanted to be an urban educator. I was raised in Texas, and attending the University of Memphis for college brought me here. I started teaching in a private Christian environment, but I wanted to start teaching in a different environment. That’s how I came to be a part of the Memphis Teacher Residency, (which is an alternative teacher training program in the city.)

I believe that knowledge is power. To quote the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education: “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” This quote is still accurate for today’s students. In Memphis, children taught in urban settings are often listed as negative statistics. The level of adequate education has declined over the years based on student behavior, vocabulary deficiency, and socioeconomic status. Since I believe in equal education, I want to be an asset in changing those statistics. I want to use my gifts and skills of teaching to uplift and provide exceptional public education to children in urban areas like North Memphis. I believe those students matter and their future matters.

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

I love to teach drama and plays in my classroom. We spend a whole series of lessons on plays. I select a play — last week it was “The Alligator and the Ant” — and then assign roles to different students. We do a read-out-loud, where students get to stand up, speak loudly, and really get into it. Even if the students are hesitant at first, by the end of the play, they are actually into their character. These lessons are such a fun way to get students excited about reading. I love to hear and watch the students come to life in plays with twisted plots.

Similar to acting out a drama, I teach my students through debates. When we are reviewing results of a class test, my students have the opportunity to debate against each other about the answers. They get into this, like they get into acting out a drama. It makes going over the answers so much more engaging and active. It’s also a way to ensure that the class understands why the correct answers are correct.

How does being a dance instructor influence the way you teach?

Movement is just so important. I focus on third-grade reading, and reading implies sitting quietly and looking at a page. But that doesn’t always need to be the way we teach reading. Just like music and dance, reading can be a peaceful and tranquil activity. But it can also be a time to get up and act out a scene, or chant and dance together.

I try to incorporate movements, like hand motions, to show students what the words they are reading actually mean. It also helps get their energy up. It’s about connecting the dots, and I don’t know if I would have thought about reading this way without my background in dance.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is vibrant in neon colors. I also display students’ work more than “adult work.” For example, most of the charts on my walls are created by my students. I think it helps my students have a sense of ownership of the classroom.

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

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

We practice “whole brain teaching.” By this, I mean engaging the class as a whole and getting everyone back on track together. At the beginning of the school year, I teach the class chants that I use every day to refocus them. I say “class class,” and they respond together, “yes, yes.” As simple as this is, it really works well. I’ll also clap to get the class back on track. If I see one of the students is distracted or just not tracking with a lesson, I’ll clap out a beat that the whole class has to copy. This kind of jolts students back to paying attention and gives us a starting point to build off of.

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 play multiple roles at the school. I am the dance coach, mentor teacher, and grade chair. I have been the dance coach here for three years, and that’s created so many opportunities to get to know some of my students on another level.

How this Indiana teacher helps hospitalized students transition back to school

PHOTO: FS Productions / Getty Images
Nurse talking to girl in hospital bed

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.

When Sara Midura meets her students, they’ve often just gone through a crisis.

As an educational liaison at Riley Hospital for Children, Midura is both a teacher and an educational advocate for patients in the Simon Skjodt Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit. She helps them keep up with schoolwork and transition back to school once their hospital stay is over.

“Many times, the students who come to us are either slipping through the cracks or seen as having huge ‘behavior issues,’” Midura said.

Her work includes easing the anxiety of a student returning to school; partnering with the family, school, and treatment team to make sure a student’s behavioral health needs can be met; and finding a “go-to person” at school who understands the student’s situation.

Midura, who was recently named one of the top 25 finalists for 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about how she supports hospitalized children and how the lack of mental health resources in schools can affect students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I decided to be a teacher in kindergarten — I loved my teacher and loved school, so it felt like a no-brainer to my 5-year-old self! I proceeded to force my friends to play school with me in my basement and made lesson plans during days that I stayed home sick. I toyed with other ideas for professions through my K-12 education, but solidified my desire to be a teacher as a camp counselor during my high school years.

How do you get to know your students?

Since I only have my students for a short period of time, I try to capitalize on the time I have with them by having them fill out a “school profile,” which really serves two purposes. Since the first time I meet the kiddos is almost always their first day on the unit following a crisis, I know that they are not functioning in their prefrontal cortex and are in crisis mode. They understandably are typically shut off, so the school profile is a great way for them to easily and safely let me get to know them a bit. It starts a good rapport, and I can always connect to something in there. Then each day I just make sure I check in with them, always reminding them that I am their advocate. We talk about school, life, and anything else. It can be easier to get to know them since they are in such a small group setting of up to 10 kids. This is my favorite part of the job!

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I am certified in Applied Educational Neuroscience (I took a nine-credit hour graduate course at Butler University with Lori Desautels), so I run a group on my unit every week called “Brain Club.” In this, I teach students about their brains, stress, emotions, and how the coping skills we teach them in their therapies and on the unit are truly brain regulation strategies. We talk about the different parts of the brain, which ones we function in where, our amygdala and fear, and so much else! The kids typically love brain club and are so engaged!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My iPad! Between playing music — I cannot work in silence! — looking up information to help students with their assignments, and using the different educational apps to fit all of my kids’ needs, I bring my iPad with me everywhere.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Mental health resources, or the lack thereof in many districts, greatly impact what happens inside my classroom and on my unit. There are many schools that are so underfunded and lacking resources, leaving staff burnt out. In my mind, this creates and unsafe environment for my patients returning to school. My patients need a school staff that can understand mental/behavioral health.

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

The first really challenging case that I had was a few months into me working on the unit. We had a very high-achieving student who was going through some intensive setbacks, and the student’s dad was extremely concerned about school. I assured him that we would be able to “fix” everything with school and ensure that it went back to his expectation of normal, but that ended up not happening. This experience taught me that I cannot ever promise any outcome, but I can promise families that I will be with them each step of the way to ensure that education matches the treatment needs. This has changed my approach to speaking with families.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Navigating all of the different school systems and cultures during such a short hospitalization period can be very difficult when discussing behavioral health needs. I have my patients for about a week typically, so trying to provide enough support and education to patients, family, and school staff can be very challenging. I often feel like I don’t have the capability to serve schools as well as I would like to with supports! It is also difficult to not know how my students are doing after they are discharged — I wonder about them so often.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I’m not so sure that this was a misconception rather than an underestimation, but I really did not comprehend until I got into teaching how huge of a difference a teacher can make on a child’s life. Now what I know about the brain and mental health is that one positive, intensive relationship with a teacher can absolutely change the course of a student’s life — it’s amazing to watch.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

This is very nerdy of me, but I loved reading books that relate to behavioral health, so currently I am reading “Life Without Ed,” a book told from the perspective of someone who battled an eating disorder. I work with many kids with eating disorders, and it is such a terrible, heartbreaking disease that I greatly misunderstood before working on my unit.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice I received about teaching was to “fill your four circles consistently.” One of my amazing professors from Butler, Theresa Knipstein Meyer, gave a lecture one day about how crucial self-care is for educators. She showed us the theory of the four circles, where you have to consistently be taking care of different aspects of your health for the circles to be balanced and keep “your fire within” ignited. I think that it is so easy for educators to pour their entire hearts and souls into teaching only to get burnt out, and I have had to be conscious about taking care of every aspect of my life. This makes me a much better teacher and person, and I am so grateful to have learned that.

For this Detroit teacher, math is about teaching ‘what makes something true’

PHOTO: Michael Chrzan
Michael Chrzan teaching math during Math Corps, a summer program at Wayne State University.

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.

Asked what he teaches, Michael Chrzan says “mathematics.” Because in his classroom at Henry Ford Academy, a charter high school in Detroit, math is more than the calculations you need to tip a server or balance a budget. Chrzan, a third-year teacher, sees the abstract reasoning skills of mathematics — the proofs and deductions — as tools to help his students develop a firmer grasp on every aspect of their world.

This is just one of the ways he is unusual. A Teach for America alumnus, Chrzan also went through a traditional teacher training program in college. He is a African-American male math teacher in a country that produces far too few of them. And remember the Pokemon Go craze? He still plays.

Less than a week before Chrzan is to be honored as Teach for America’s teacher of the year in Detroit, Chalkbeat spoke with him about his dealings with parents, the toughest parts of his job, his social media habits, and how he finds  “greatness” in every student.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I’ve been teaching in some capacity — teaching or tutoring — since high school. I was a teaching assistant at a summer camp at Wayne State called Math Corps. I caught the bug for teaching there. I did that for three summers. I knew at some point in my life that I would get back into teaching. In college, I took a couple of computer science and math and education classes. And the computer science classes were fun, but I was like, this is just a hobby.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I taught geometry the last two years. It’s really a beautiful class because it’s the only class in high school where kids do the work of professional mathematicians. It’s the only class where they do proofs. So we get to have a really rigorous conversation about what makes something true, which is really important in our society right now.

Every year I pull in examples of deductive reasoning from outside of mathematics too.

One of the things I’m going to try this year is bringing in a Supreme Court decision and talking about the deductive reasoning that shows up there.

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

I had a conversation with a very young student’s mother who had the frame of mind that he was responsible for himself.

I was calling to talk about some issues that I’d seen on his homework, and just about getting it completed. That’s a really important part of the learning, that independent practice. And she was very much of the mindset that I needed to have that conversation with him, not her. It was not her job for him to get that done.

It changed how I discussed things with him because it got a much deeper understanding of what he has to deal with outside of these four walls.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is motivating students. There are some students who have a really long history of messaging that they’ve gotten from schools, of the kind of person and students they are. I try to reverse that. You plant a seed when you’re the one teacher who’s telling them something different, but sometimes you don’t get to see that seed bloom in one year.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

That I was ready for it. I did a lot of pre-professional teaching things. In college, I went to New York for two summers and taught in a program called Breakthrough. I did student teaching. I did Teach for America. I was like, I’ve got to be ready for this, I’ve got so much more experience than most people do when they enter the profession.

I was not ready. There’s is nothing that will prepare you for day in and day out being responsible for your kids’ learning.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Children of Blood and Bone,” by Tomi Adeyemi. It’s possibly one of my favorite books of all time. As a millennial, I’m very into social media. I will typically lull myself to sleep on Instagram. And I’ve gotten back into Pokemon Go.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

There are two. I can’t decide which I like better. The first would be, ‘don’t take anything personally.’ That really helped me understand that if I’m having a management issue with a kid, it may not have anything to do with me, that’s probably a kid who needs help. And that pairs up with assuming the best of my students. They came to class because they want to learn, and maybe something got in the way. I try to find their greatness, whether it’s math or otherwise. That’s a more human way to see students, and it opens them up to new things, like trying difficult mathematics.