How I Teach

For this Denver civics teacher, American history — warts and all — provides inspiration for changing the world

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

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.

Carla Cariño, who teaches civics and ethnic studies at Denver’s North High School, got hooked on teaching because of the things she didn’t learn while she was in school — episodes such as the Wounded Knee Massacre and the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

To Cariño, understanding history is a path to changing the world.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how her students change the world through civic action projects, why she loves meeting students’ parents and what celebrity coined her favorite piece of advice.

Cariño is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide 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?

When I started history courses in college, I was shocked to hear some of the events that took place in history such as the Japanese-American Internment and the Wounded Knee Massacre. I never learned those stories in my high school history classes. It impacted how I saw the world and compelled me to use the knowledge of history as the path towards change in our world. The story of American history is the greatest underdog story of all time and I felt students, adolescents in particular, could be inspired to create change through these stories as well.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is staged to encourage group and class collaboration. The walls are covered with quotes and posters from different historical figures in hopes that they make an impression or initiate a thought when their eyes start to wander around the room. My blinds are always open with the sunshine intentionally shining on my 1986 Cleveland Browns poster, which sparks a lot of conversation.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Fellow teachers. My peers help give me the confidence to try new things and push me to be a better teacher.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
The final unit in Civics every semester is a Civic Action project. For this assignment, students must choose an issue, preferably at the school or local level, for which they want to try and find a policy solution. I am always amazed at the ideas students come up with. This past year, many students wanted to work on gentrification and the lack of affordable housing in Denver. One student worked on improving school lunches and a student last year wanted to work on more school lunch options for Muslim students.

I love this project because I am inspired by the solutions that young people have to issues in our communities. Policy makers should really talk to teenagers more to gain perspective and ideas on solutions to the issues of our time.

Civic action projects are something I’ve been doing since I was a student teacher. My mentor teacher taught me how to implement these types of projects with students early on in my career during student teaching. I also use parts of a curriculum called Project Citizen, which provides a framework for civic action projects.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I provide after-school support or schedule a time when a student can meet. I also provide one-on-one instruction in class or peer support. I try to use many visuals and sample assignments that help students see which direction to go.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I have a pair Tibetan musical instruments I use when things get really noisy. They always get the students’ attention and also produce questions like, “What are those things?”

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

There are some things about me that are forever adolescent. I love candy and hot Cheetos and I tend to like the same music as teens, although that is changing to some extent as I age. I engage in conversations they have with friends and join the discussion. Just talking to students without academic interference is one of the best ways to create relationships.

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

I LOVE meeting students’ parents. I love seeing if they look like them or if their personalities are similar. Meeting parents helps me to see and understand my students as a whole and not a person in my classroom for 50 minutes. It makes me more compassionate for them.

I once had a student with whom I was having a battle of the wills. When he and his mother came in for student-led conferences, she and I really connected. We watched similar TV shows and more importantly, I saw how proud she was of her son because he had worked so hard in school, largely due to her encouragement and love. It made me realize that he was a good person walking the right path and the behaviors that got under my skin were simply typical teen behaviors, not a big deal in the scope of things. This connection helped me see him for all of the roles that he played: A student, son, brother, etc. I was able to better connect with him after that.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
This might sound silly but Oprah once said on her show that the bond that ties all humans together is their desire to be heard. That is so true and it crosses race, sex, class, age, etc. When I am struggling with a student, I remind myself of this which helps me find compassion for any and everybody.

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.