How I Teach

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 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.