Why this Colorado kindergarten teacher embraces student questions she can’t answer

PHOTO: Nick Hagen

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.

Allison Sampish’s kindergarteners read books and watched videos about lions, but still they had questions. To get those questions answered, she tracked down a researcher who studied lions and set up a video call so her students could hear from a true expert.

The kids got their questions about lion manes and hunting habits answered, but more importantly they learned to follow their curiosity and passion, she said.

Sampish, a teacher at Fall River Elementary in the St. Vrain Valley district, talked to Chalkbeat about her switch from accounting to teaching, what she does when kids are off task and how she helped parents figure out how to talk to their kids about school.

Sampish is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group, which met for the first time Tuesday, 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?

My mom would tell you I was a teacher at a very young age, always walking backwards in front of my line of younger cousins and teaching my stuffed animals with chalk on the sidewalk. After working as a public accountant for five years, I realized I was ready to pursue my childhood dream and become a kindergarten teacher. I knew I wanted to facilitate wonder-filled and discovery-based learning experiences for my students every day. I strive to create interdisciplinary tasks that allow my young students to collaborate, enhance their critical thinking skills and communicate their learning.

What does your classroom look like?

We work very hard every year to create a fun, collaborative environment where everyone can learn. Supplies are found at a kindergartner’s eye/hand level and there is frequently a “buzz” coming from our room as they work together to research, build or solve a problem. Dr. Seuss books and characters are also found throughout the classroom. Each year we set the goal that together when they leave me as readers they will be able to read “Green Eggs and Ham” or “Cat in the Hat” all by themselves!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my students’ sense of curiosity. Every day during readers’ workshop kindergartners run across the room to share new knowledge about an animal or nonfiction topic. I love in math when they become so curious about shapes and all year look for them around us. Or, in social studies, when they truly discover what it means to be part of a community.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
This year my kindergartners and I were reading a National Geographic magazine article about lions. They began asking many questions that we added to our “Wonder Wall.” Over the next few days we borrowed books from the library and watched various videos to try and answer our questions. While we answered many of our questions there were still some “big wonders” unanswered. I wanted to model that even as adults we often seek the knowledge of an expert, so I found a lion expert from Virginia Polytechnic Institute to call via Skype. She shared pictures of lions she studied in Africa, helped us act out how female lions hunt, and helped us truly understand the purpose of a male lion’s mane.

The point of lessons like this is not just to teach more about lions, but to encourage them to follow their passion and genuine sense of curiosity and wonder. This type of lesson is always my favorite year after year because they are student-led based on that group of kindergartners’ passions and curiosity. Past inquiry topics have included: blue whales, volcanoes, water cycle, penguins, zebras, narwhals, Africa and Legos.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student doesn’t understand a lesson or concept I quickly ask myself: Do they not understand because they don’t have the skills or background knowledge to understand this concept? Or are they not understanding because of the way I explained the concept or lesson? Based on this reflection I then will either step back and teach them the background knowledge or skill they need or try to explain it a different way.

Oftentimes the student just needs a little more time and practice so I find/create a new game or activity to give all of us a chance to really understand the lesson. For example, in math we often need more practice with addition and subtraction so I will make sure all our math centers are addition and subtraction games with dice, cards, manipulatives, board games or word problems we wrote as class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I have a small wind chime at the front of the classroom that the kindergartners are allowed to ring at any time. They quickly figure out that if their peers are too loud they can ring the chime and ask their friends to please “write with their pencils not their mouths” or to “please turn down their volume.”

I use a lot of proximity to get individual students’ attention or hand them a rain stick that is their “pass” to take a rain stick walk around the hallways to refocus. If several students are off task, then I take it as a sign that we all need a movement break, so we stand up and dance to a favorite nursery rhyme or song.

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 year we do several activities to really get to know each other. We roll a question cube (i.e. favorite color/book/food/activity/animal). The kindergartners love making connections among their new friends. We also make class books once a month that include our writing and pictures or drawings. These class books become favorite books to reread on their own.

Each day during snack time we have “question of the day,” where one student reads the question and then everyone answers the question at their table. Each of these activities allows me the chance to intentionally listen and connect with my students. We can laugh over our similar favorite foods or how we could teach each other our favorite hobbies. Lastly, I check in with each student throughout the day; for example, I may help work on a puzzle, or sit beside two partners doing a math game, or listen in while a student is reading a new book. It is the conversations we have at these moments that help me connect with the students individually.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Parents frequently tell me that at the end of the day their kindergartner is so tired that when asked, “How was school?” the response is simply, “Fine.” Students struggle to remember what we specifically were working on each day. My teammates and I send home newsletters every other week with a description of current learning but this was not helping parents and kindergartners have authentic conversations.

As a result of this feedback, I created “Kindergarten Conversation Cards.” These are just small cards that we now send home once a week that describe what we are working on and ask questions to help deepen conversations between parents and their students. (Example: We got our chick eggs this week. We are learning chicks need a long time to grow. Have you ever had to wait for something to grow? If so, what helped you be patient?) Parents have really appreciated this resource to help begin their conversations with their kindergartners.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
My nieces love to help me find new great read-aloud chapter books. It is so fun to read the same books they are and get their feedback as to if they think the kindergartners would enjoy the book. We are just about to start the book “The Wild Robot” by Peter Brown. I also always have a few other books going either for fun or professional development, current titles on my nightstand are “The Nest,” and “Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mentor, Dr. Brian Sevier, always tells me to “Trust the kids.” I try to think about this all the time in my kindergarten classroom and find he is always right. When I trust the kids, we spend the time to truly research the narwhal that has us all curious about their horn, or to take the math unit outside to really understand how best to measure water, or to just sit and listen to each other during a class meeting.

How the 2018 national teacher of the year manages a classroom with 12 languages with a white board and a paper clip

PHOTO: Ferguson Films
2018 national teacher of the year Mandy Manning.

Four years ago, Mandy Manning realized she wanted to have an impact outside her classroom, where she spent her days teaching immigrant and refugee students how to navigate their new school and new lives.

To do that, though, she also realized that she would need more than just years of experience. She would need a platform.

This year, she got just that: Manning, who teaches in Spokane, Washington, was named the 2018 national teacher of year.

“People need to know how amazing these immigrant and refugee students are,” she told Chalkbeat.

It’s a message she feels more urgency to spread as the current presidential administration takes a harsh position toward immigrants and asylum-seekers. Manning said she spent several months responding to students asking her when they would have to leave the country.

But the core of Manning’s work is to teach immigrant and refugee students foundational language skills and help ease their transition to the U.S. The students, who come from across the school district, usually spend one semester with her at the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School.

“I’m their ambassador. Hopefully I’m a good example of what we are as Americans,” she said.

This interview, part of Chalkbeat’s How I Teach series, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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

Teaching really chose me, because I hadn’t intended to become a teacher. I finished my undergraduate degree, which was in filmmaking, and I really wasn’t interested in continuing in that line of work. A friend, who was a paraeducator — someone within a classroom who works one-on-one with students — suggested I become a paraeducator.

Then I taught in the Peace Corps, which really helped expand my worldview. Even after that, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a teacher. I moved to Texas and my aunt suggested I apply to teaching positions, even though I wasn’t certified or had a degree in education. It was almost as if teaching was pursuing me and I was just denying it.

How do you get to know your students?

I’m very welcoming to them. I think that’s so essential, because the very first day is where you set your climate and environment in the classroom. For me that means being very upbeat and excited and ensuring that I’m introducing myself to every student as they’re walking in and figuring out their name and where they’re from and what languages they speak.

I used to teach general education — film making, journalism, communications, English. With them I would just have conversations like, ‘You are an individual and I’m an individual and yes I am your teacher and you are my student but I’m still interested in who you are not just as a learner but as a person.’ With the newcomers, it’s a little more difficult because we’re starting with charades, essentially.

So slowly, every day, I learn something new about my kids and that’s my goal. As long as I learn something about one student each day, I’m moving forward.

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

It’s our “Out in the Community” lesson. It has to do with the foundational language we’re teaching — giving and receiving directions and the basic ability to navigate your community. The reason I love it so much is that we actually get to go out and explore the neighborhood of the school and sometimes the downtown area of Spokane — the actual community in which they live and they’re expected to function as community members.

It’s so fun to watch the kids and what things are of interest to them and how they draw their maps. They also make connections back to their home country when they’re talking about the differences between their neighborhoods or schools or communities.

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

My whiteboard and markers. Personally, I need a paper clip, which is so dumb, but it helps me concentrate. I just play with it when I’m teaching and communicating with kids. But the thing I really need in my classroom all the time is the ability to write things down because it helps with that comprehensible input for my kids.

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

Right now, it’s the climate around immigrants and refugees. Spokane is pretty good, pretty neutral. There isn’t a whole lot of negative communication or messaging, but it does happen. It’s happened in our hallways at school where kids have been told to go back to Africa or horrible racist slurs have been called against Arabic kids or kids from African nations. It impacts how welcome and comfortable my students feel.

It also brings older students, who have gone beyond the Newcomer Center back to my classroom more often, because my room represents the first place they were comfortable and safe. They’re often returning to me and the bilingual specialist I work with just for the reassurance that they’re welcome and they’re safe here in our nation. That’s something we now have to navigate every single day.

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

The first year I started to do home visits — at that time I had families from Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, and different nations in Africa. These home visits with all these different families showed me so much about individual differences between people of the same culture and between different cultures.

I got to see how they’re living, who they’re living with, the different type of homes — apartments, duplexes, single-family dwellings, or a house — and just how they interacted with each other. It broadened my perspective of family. there are so many different types of families within the students born within the United States, then to see it on a such a large scale with different cultures, it’s helped me to seek value in every single different type of family. And to understand that even though things operate differently in each home, that doesn’t diminish the beauty of that home.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is the middle of the year, semester-end. Kids at the Newcomer Center come from all over the school district. Usually after a semester, they then go on to their neighborhood high school. We have several practices in place to help with transition, but that semester break, it’s really hard to say goodbye to the kids.

It’s harder than at the end of the year because at the end of the year, we’re all taking a break. That semester, some of my kids are leaving and I’m not going to see them on a regular basis. And we’ve bonded with one another so much that it’s really hard, and I always end crying for the whole day because I’m going to miss them so much.

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

I didn’t know what I was doing at all when I had my first classroom. I didn’t even know how to read a teacher’s edition of a textbook. I sort of jumped in with both feet. I guess I assumed I needed to understand how to build a lesson exactly and that would be a hard hurdle for me, but I soon found out it doesn’t matter how beautifully you structure your lesson plan, because teaching is really about monitoring and adjusting for whatever the needs are of the kids at the time. You might have the most beautiful lesson but chances are it will shift and change in the first 10 minutes.

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

Focus on your kids and everything else will fall into place.

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‘What if this was my son?’ How Newark’s Teacher of the Year pushes autistic students to succeed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Lourdes Reyes, Newark's 2018 Teacher of the Year.

A normal Monday in Lourdes Reyes’ classroom at the First Avenue School begins with a pleasant routine.

Her six students, a mix of first and second-graders with autism, eat breakfast quietly at their desks then brush their teeth in the restroom. Then they return to class, as they did one Monday morning this month, to recite the days and months and share highlights from the weekend — a trip to the zoo, playtime in the park, an evening bike ride.

“Alright,” Reyes said in a soothing tone as she moved the lesson along. “Everybody had a good weekend.”

But on Monday, May 7, things were far from normal.

That was when the district’s interim superintendent arrived unannounced in her classroom bearing balloons and a bouquet, with television cameras in tow, to inform her that she was Newark’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. Reyes tearfully accepted the award as her daughter, a teacher at Elliott Street School, looked on. Then she walked into the hallway, where dozens of students cheered and chanted her name.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Reyes told Chalkbeat during a recent interview.

In college, Reyes had studied to become a social worker. But after her son, Ishmail, was born with autism, she wanted to learn more about his condition. Before long, she had earned a master’s degree in special education and become a teacher of students with autism — a job she’s held for 21 years.

After two decades, she has yet to slow down. Every day after class she begins her second job as an early-intervention specialist, visiting families’ homes to work with young children suspected of having disabilities. After finishing around 8:30 p.m., she takes a late-night walk with her youngest son — a routine that, along with a healthy new diet, helped her lose 65 pounds over the past year.

Reyes stays just as busy at school. In addition to academic lessons, she teaches her students life skills like tying their shoes and cooking — sometimes on a portable stove, which Reyes used one day this year to cook green eggs and ham. In April, which is National Autism Awareness Month, she helped raise $2,300 for the school’s autism program and organized a performance where her students sang Disney songs. Reyes performed alongside wearing the red hat and spotted pants of Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl from “Toy Story.”

Principal Jose Fuentes, who was part of the 10-person leadership team at First Avenue that nominated Reyes for her award, called her “one of the pillars of the school.” She extends herself far beyond her own classroom, showing colleagues and parents how to challenge and support students with autism, Fuentes said.

“She’s giving new light to the possibilities of what it means to be an educator,” he said. “That’s Reyes.”

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get into teaching?

When my second son was born, Ishmail, he was born with autism.

I was first of all shocked that I had an autistic son. It was very difficult and devastating for all of us. My husband and I had to go for counseling. It was very hard. But then we overcame it. I decided I’m going to take something negative and make something positive out of it.

So I went to graduate school and I took classes on special ed. I loved it and so I took another class. One class led to another.

Then I started volunteering at my son’s school. I was there all the time. In the evenings my husband would get home, he’d watch the kids, I’d go and take my class.

Next thing you know, in two years I completed a master’s in special ed.

How has being the parent of a child with autism shaped the way you teach?

Everything I still do today is focused on, “What if this was my son?”

I think that’s what makes me a little different. Like if I was doing this for him, how would I teach it?

What have you learned about what it takes to be an effective teacher of students with autism?

You can’t feel sorry for a child. Just because they have a disability does not mean that they can’t do something. You have to put that aside and show them in a way that tough love to get them to master the skills. Which is hard for some of the parents to do.

We have to do a lot of what the parents don’t do. For instance, tooth brushing, that’s a life skill. At home they say, “He doesn’t want to brush his teeth.” But they do it here every morning.

It sounds like a big part of your job is working with parents.

I give them my cell number. They call me at all times.

Sometimes [a student’s mother] will say, “It’s a rough morning. He didn’t want to change. I’m sending you the uniform in the book bag.” Then when he comes in, we transition him. When we do toothbrushing we say, “You need to change now.”

Then when it’s 2:45, “You don’t want to wear it? OK, let’s go change you. Put on your jeans, go on the bus.” Happy trooper.

How are you able to make progress with students who come in without many academic skills?

It’s ongoing, and it’s repetitive. Teaching the skills. Pulling them out, teaching them [through] individualized instruction.

And it happens also with the assistance of the aides. I have four great aides. None of this could happen without them.

Ms. [Rasheedah] Jacobs, guess how many years she’s been with me. Fourteen. When I came here and interviewed, I said, “I’ll take the job under the condition that Ms. Jacobs could come with me.” She really, really is a great teacher. I call her a teacher, not even an aide. She’s my right hand.

Can you think of a student whom you had a lot of success with?

Last year, I had one of my highest functioning students. She has Asperger’s. What a thrill to have that little girl. Oh my gosh.

Every week the principal gives the word of the week. She memorized and knew every single word from September to June. And recited it in an assembly, with a sentence for each word. She’s unbelievable!

We had a student [at Quitman Street Community School] who had a band on his esophagus, and he had a feeding tube in kindergarten. We couldn’t believe it — he was in diapers.

I was like, “If we can get this little boy to be toilet trained, that will be a success.” Do you know we mastered that? We did it.

How do you know if you’ve been successful by the end of the year?

Seeing [a student] who didn’t know the letters of the alphabet, seeing him writing sentences, filling in blanks, reciting words.

Knowing [a different student] can tie his shoes. Knowing he can brush his teeth.

Knowing that parents are happy with the progress of their students. Them sharing with me the change in their child once they started coming into my classroom. Parents telling me, “Oh, that’s not the same kid who was in the school last year. That’s a different child.”

What’s your advice to teachers who are just starting out?

Have a lot of patience. Be real devoted.

And do not look at a student with autism as a person who is weak. Have high expectations that they are capable of doing everything and anything with the right accommodations.

It can be done, but it takes someone with dedication, sensitivity, and also someone who does not feel sorry for a child. Anything is possible. There are no limits.