How I Teach

The 2017 National Teacher of the Year on the mom who changed how she talks to her toughest students

PHOTO: CCSSO
2017 National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee.

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.

Sydney Chaffee made headlines recently as the first charter school teacher to be named the national teacher of the year. Getting there, she says, was a continuous process of learning from others — including her students’ families.

A breakthrough moment: meeting with one of her more difficult students’ mothers.

“The way she spoke to her daughter — loving but firm, patient but expectant — was a model for me in how to communicate both love and high expectations at the same time,” Chaffee explained.

Chaffee has taught ninth grade humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. From introducing debate about the Puerto Rican debt crisis to comparing classrooms to colonies, she also relies heavily on storytelling in the classroom.

She talked to Chalkbeat about a few of her most memorable moments — and why hand gestures are key to her teaching.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Why did you become a teacher?

I wanted to inspire the same kind of curiosity and excitement about learning in other people that my own teachers had inspired in me. Plus, I loved school and figured becoming a teacher was the best way to never have to leave.

What’s something interesting about your physical classroom — something on the walls, for example?

I like for my classroom to be colorful and full of words. Right now, my favorite thing about my room is that my students and I have filled one window with colorful stars. On each star, a student wrote “kudos” for another student for their work in this year’s Poetry Out Loud recitation competition. Some of the kudos are for stellar performances or persevering through stage fright; others are for being supportive and empathetic peers. They’re posted as a reminder of what we can accomplish together.

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

Hands. I am a wild gesticulator. I don’t even notice I’m doing it most of the time, but whenever my students decide to impersonate me, their hands go crazy with big, dramatic gestures. So much of teaching is storytelling, and my hands help me tell the story.

Tell us a bit about a favorite lesson. How did you come up with the idea?

My favorite lesson, recently, was a simulation of the Puerto Rican debt crisis that my student teacher and I co-designed. We wanted to help students understand some of the basic economic concepts so they could write about the crisis in a more informed way, but the issue is complex and confusing. We worked together to brainstorm ideas, draft a plan, test-drive it, and revise it. The final lesson, which my student teacher facilitated, was hands-on, engaging, and gave students a solid grasp of tricky content. And it was fun to teach, too.

Collaboration is such an important ingredient in strengthening our practice as educators. I was happy to have the chance to learn from my student teacher’s creative ideas; what we came up with together was so much better than I would have come up with on my own.

What’s your go-to response when a student doesn’t understand something critical?

I like to draw an analogy between what we’re learning and something students can relate to or easily picture in their minds. For example, when we read, early in the year, texts that question whether historians should use the verb “discover” in relation to Christopher Columbus (“Columbus discovered America”), some students have trouble understanding why this is controversial. I ask them to imagine that someone who had never been to our neighborhood before suddenly walked into the school and pronounced that they had “discovered” it, even though we were all already sitting inside and learning.

Or, in learning about colonialism, I do a simulation with students asking them to reimagine the classrooms in our school as separate territories and brainstorm ways that we might be able to get our hands on the resources that another territory possesses. Taking time to describe these concepts and make them tangible for students helps ensure that they “stick.”

What’s something you do to build relationships with students?

I hold them to high expectations, but I also joke around with them and am not afraid to be a little goofy in class. Being silly disarms kids and helps them open up to me so I can get to know them better.

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

I had a student who acted very “tough.” She left class all the time, crumpled up tests, argued. When her mother came in for a meeting, she called this student by an endearing nickname and spoke to her with such gentleness and empathy. She told her that her behavior was not OK, but she also probed to find out what was really going on.

That was such an invaluable learning moment for me. The way she spoke to her daughter — loving but firm, patient but expectant — was a model for me in how to communicate both love and high expectations at the same time. It reminded me that families know and love our students — their children — best in the world, and we have so much to learn from them about who our students really are.

I try to channel that mother now when I’m talking with a student who is really struggling.

What is the hardest part of your job?

This job is incredible and rewarding, but the work is never done. There is never a day where, as a teacher, I will close my laptop at the end of the day, put my feet up, and think, “Well, that’s settled.” There is always more work to grade, more lessons to write, more students to think about: How will I get this one to write a thesis? How will I help that one with reading informational texts?

It’s hard, but I’m not complaining. It is work that I love to do, because it challenges me and allows me to keep learning all the time. I get to reinvent my class constantly.

What advice would you give a teacher starting out next year?

Don’t be afraid to have other people come into your classroom and observe you. The more you can collaborate with your colleagues and get feedback on what’s happening in your room, the more you’ll learn and the more you’ll help your students grow.

How I Teach

Why this educator uses autumn leaves to teach vocab to Memphis’ youngest students

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Trudie Owens, a lead teacher at Porter-Leath in Memphis, says incorporating literacy into every lesson is key, including lessons about fall leaves.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a series we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Trudie Owens says education runs in her blood.

Trudie Owens

Her mother was an elementary school teacher, her grandmother taught middle school, and two sisters teach at the high school level. Owens feels called to work with Memphis’ youngest children.

More than 30 years ago while in high school, Owens began helping at a Memphis day care. Now a classroom veteran, she gets observed by other early childhood educators during trainings at the new Early Childhood Academy operated by Porter-Leath, the largest provider of such programs in Memphis.

“The best part about being an early childhood teacher is watching the incredible growth that occurs in children in the early years,” said Owens, who teaches 1- and 2-year-olds. “They are so excited to learn and try new things.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Owens about how she incorporates early literacy into every lesson, including one about autumn leaves, and what she wishes more people knew about how to stimulate a young child’s thinking. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What does your classroom look like?

Our classroom is colorful, inviting and nurturing. It is a place that supports children’s creative ideas and encourages them to discover things on their own. One of the reasons I try to make my classroom nurturing is so the children view it as a home away from home. For them to start to learn, talk, sing and dance, they need to feel at home. Some children are coming in with hard home situations and trauma. We have to be mindful of this when we design our classrooms.

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

A lesson I call ‘’Welcome Fall Leaves and Trees’’ lets children sort leaves by colors and shapes, touch tree bark, and talk about weather/season change by using different books. I’m inspired from the season change of summer to fall. The leaves on trees are beautiful and the fall flowers are blooming. My favorite colors are fall colors: red, yellow, orange, brown, purple and a little green.

A lot of people don’t understand how incredibly important it is to talk to a child from the time they are born. By taking children outside and speaking with them about the changing seasons, we cover so much vocabulary. It’s a hands-on activity, but it’s also increasing the children’s own personal vocabularies.

Many children don’t have the literacy skills they need when they arrive at elementary school. How do you incorporate literacy at the early childhood level?

It’s in all of our activities. You can learn a lot about children’s interest from observing their play. We talk with them about what they’re interested in, whether it’s little race cars or building blocks. Conversation with a child stimulates their thinking and increases understanding. I’m not talking about baby talk, but adult-like conversations. These early experiences are linked with later school achievement, emotional and social well-being. A huge part of building a student’s literacy is getting them talking.

You also want the children to have fun. We know that young children learn best through play. And we try to recognize very early if a child (struggles to) form certain words or talk at all. Porter-Leath provides an array of services, and if we catch a learning disability or speech impediment early on, that child won’t fall as far behind.

What do you wish people knew about early childhood teaching and learning?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Owens works on vocabulary and motor skills with her students while creating a “handprint” tree.

The main thing I wish people knew is that conversations (with young children) stimulate their thinking and increase understanding. Children learn to communicate, cooperate, problem-solve, negotiate, create, and practice self-control. We can learn a lot from each other when we really listen.

For our kids, their language skills are just starting, and they’re often still doing a lot of babbling. But they learn to speak by hearing us and talking to one another. We are always talking to them. It’s things like, when a student is playing with a ball, asking “What color ball are you throwing?” Saying the color to them and asking them to repeat you. These interactions are so important to their development.

If you could change anything about the way Tennessee does early childhood education, what would you change?

I would offer more grant money to fund programs like ours. Memphis doesn’t have free pre-K space for every child who needs it. We have so many on our waiting list.

How I Teach

After a mother’s surprising request, this Colorado debate coach realized the value of her work

PHOTO: Incase/Creative Commons

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.

Renee Motter, an English teacher at Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs, was taken aback several years ago when a student’s mother told her it was up to her to save her daughter.

Then Motter thought about it and relaxed. The speech and debate program she coached was already a lifesaver for many kids — that special something that made school worthwhile.

Motter was named the 2017 National Educator of the Year by the National Speech & Debate Association and was one of seven finalists for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year competition.

Motter talked to Chalkbeat about what students value most about the speech and debate program, why she starts class by asking kids to share exciting news and which technology tools she loves most.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

Renee Motter

When I was younger, I taught my older brother how to tie his shoe, and playing school was one of my favorite things. I started college as a broadcasting major, but before the first quarter was finished, I knew talking to a microphone wasn’t for me. While in my English class that quarter, I realized that teaching really was for me, so I changed my major and never looked back.

What does your classroom look like?
Busy. There are posters of proverbs and books and movies everywhere, and when students are there for class or speech and debate practice, you can usually see them working in small groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My computer and projector. We live in such a visual society; we are all so used to seeing everything in front of us. For my students and myself, the computer and projector give us a link to see what is beyond the classroom in order to be informed about what is happening in the world.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my first years of teaching AP English Language, I realized that my students needed an opportunity to see argument in action and, thus, better understand how to write an argument essay. I knew that I had to pick a topic they cared about, so I decided to have them create and present an education plan to prepare students for life in the 21st Century.

First, they had to research the current state of education both here and in other countries, and then, they had to decide what elements of education they would change as well as explain why they felt that would better prepare students for life in the 21st Century. Education is a huge part of our students’ lives, but we never stop to ask them what they think about what they are learning or how they are learning it. I heard so many unique and interesting ideas about what students would do to better their preparation — it was inspiring!

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When students are struggling or not understanding concepts, I like to have them come in so that we can go through the concept and practice it together. I have found this especially effective with writing: having students come in to discuss an essay and talk through what they need to work on is often more effective, I think, than large group writing instruction.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I’m a pretty active teacher, so I tend to move around the room a lot which helps with proximity, and I’m also a pretty random teacher, so when I notice students off task, I’ve found that using humor or story to bring them back works well.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Since I first started teaching more than 20 years ago, I’ve always started class by asking about “exciting things.” After greeting students, the first thing I do is ask students what is exciting in their lives. It’s amazing the stories I hear, and I get to know the students so much more! As I tell my students, “All of us exist outside this classroom, and what we do out there impacts us here, so I want to know what’s happening!” During these few minutes of class every day, we laugh and cry together. It’s great!

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A number of years ago, I had a parent tell me that it was up to me to save her daughter. At first, I was shocked and a bit intimidated. However, as I thought about it and as I’ve had thousands of students go through my forensics program, I’ve realized that it is a place that saves kids. It is a place that gives kids a place to belong, a place to make connections, a place to be heard, a place to be themselves. Over the years, it has amazed me the number of students who have come back and said what an important place forensics, speech and debate was in their lives, how they aren’t sure how they would have made it through high school without it.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Right now, I’m finishing up the second book in the Stranje House series. I read quite a bit of young adult literature as one of my favorite things is to talk about books with students. In fact, I was able to start an Enrichment Reading class for students where they were able to come and read and blog about books of their choice.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The most important thing you can do is care about your students: both who they are now and who they will become. I think it is easier to care about them now, but it is also important to remember that we need to care about their future because that is what we are preparing them for. No matter where they start when they come into my classroom, I always want them to walk out as better readers, writers and thinkers because they will need those skills in the future.