How I Teach

No hiding: This Colorado teacher doesn’t hold back his feelings about how music moves him

Chris Maunu, choir director at Arvada West High School, works with students.

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.

Chris Maunu, choir director at Arvada West High School, was rehearsing a OneRepublic song with his students, when he choked up as the full weight of a lyric hit him. It reminded him of his sister, who has cerebral palsy.

Instead of beating back his emotions, Maunu told his students what he was feeling. It was all part of his commitment to show students his true self — and get the same back from them.

He talked to Chalkbeat about how vulnerability helps him teach, why he decided to switch his college major and what he does to encourage peer mentorship.

Maunu is one of 25 music teachers across the country selected as a semifinalist for the 2018 Music Educator Award presented by the Recording Academy and the GRAMMY Museum.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I actually began college as a business management major. My parents insisted that I join the college choir, so I hesitantly signed up on registration day. The director wanted to hear all students sing individually in her office. She made it clear that this was not an audition, but a way to get to know everyone and their voices. When she heard me sing she was quite pleased and asked if I wanted to be in the select chamber choir. I responded, “Sure, let me just drop my history class.”

Before I knew it, I was involved in three collegiate choirs. I LOVED it! Everyone was so passionate and dedicated. I didn’t have a good music program in high school, so this was my first exposure to a quality program. After feeling pressured to put all of my energy into athletics in high school, I had finally found my home! I instantly wanted to provide that for young people. I wanted to do what I could to make sure my students feel PROUD to be in choir in high school. I changed majors that next semester and never looked back.

What does your classroom look like?
We have curved seated risers with 90 chairs. Front and center of the classroom is a seven-foot Steinway grand piano. The walls are decorated with photo collages of senior classes from the last decade, awards, trophies and inspirational quotes.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________Why?
My voice. Modeling is such an important part of my instructional practice. The singing voice is such a complicated and intricate instrument that modeling is a crucial strategy in developing students’ voices.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
We do a lesson based around fear. Students write down their greatest fears and I share them (anonymously) with the class. Inevitably, the most common one is the fear of being judged or criticized in front of their peers. When students learn that we all have the same insecurities around performing, they become more comfortable with who they are as singers and more importantly, as people. This is followed by a guided discussion. It’s amazing how much more supportive of one another they become.

How did you come up with the idea?
I have read a lot of materials by author Brene Brown. She has worked for years at breaking down the barriers of talking about uncomfortable things that we all experience but have a tendency to shove away, such as fear, shame, and vulnerability. She has greatly influenced my teaching.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
With the fear lesson, there is usually some hesitation, but not a lack of understanding. Once they begin hearing others’ vulnerabilities, they truly become engaged. In average music rehearsals, I try to have issues fixed at the “grassroots” level when possible. I strategically seat stronger students next to students with weaker talent or skills. A mentorship develops between the students in which the stronger student can help the weaker one along. If I need to step in, I’ll go that route as well.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
We are constantly learning from one another in the choir room. Students get reminded that whatever another group is learning will apply to them as well. For example, if I’m working with the tenors and tell them that a vowel needs to be taller to achieve a specific blend and intonation, chances are it will also apply to the sopranos, altos and basses. Often each vocal section is dependent upon one another to find a pitch or tune a chord.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
We do full-day retreats with our choirs at the start of the year to build relationships with them and with one another. We also have a student choir leadership team. Members of this team sponsor each choir class and hold social events through the year.

It’s my hope that every student in my classroom feels like they are the most liked and most needed student in the room. I go back to vulnerability. If I am modeling vulnerability — not just being emotional in front of them, but showing them my most authentic self — that bond really seems to take hold.

This is two-fold. First is being authentic in how I behave in general in the classroom. As an introvert, I have always been inspired when I attend professional conferences and see such extroverted leaders in the field share their expertise in how they do things in the classroom. I’ve left so many of those sessions saying to myself, “My teaching personality needs to be more like that!” While I think we all should learn from experts and continue to shape our craft, I think we need to be authentic about who we are. When I started to become more honest with myself, I hit my stride as a teacher.

The second part has to do with what we share with students. We can share personal things about ourselves without being inappropriate. Let’s not be talk about that difficult divorce we are going through, etc. but there are things that can allow students to really connect to us in a vulnerable way. Here is an example. One of my choirs was preparing the song “I Lived” by OneRepublic for our Pops Concert. The song was originally written about a Colorado teen with cystic fibrosis and overcoming life’s difficulties and truly living.

There was a lyric that hit me like a ton of bricks during one class: “I owned every second that this world could give, with every broken bone I swear I lived.” I thought of my own sister with cerebral palsy and began to get emotional. I had a decision to make in that moment — Do I just move on? Or do I take a few minutes and share about myself? I chose to share. We shared, we cried, and we grew closer. When students (especially male students) see an adult figure being truly real, it helps their emotional intelligence grow.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I think it’s when parents share how big of an impact my class has on their child. Parents have shared things like, “You are the only reason my child comes to school” or “My child would have not made it through high school without your class.” Teachers have such a huge impact on their students. Sometimes we get caught in the daily grind and it’s easy to forget that.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“Rising Strong” by Brene Brown

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Provide authentic affirmation to your students at every opportunity.

How I Teach

This Memphis teacher went viral for holding ‘class’ on Facebook Live during a snow day

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Candous Brown teaches one of her 12th-grade English classes at Raleigh-Egypt High School. Brown has been teaching in Memphis for 10 years.

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.

When a week of snow days brought Candous Brown’s 12th-grade English class to a wintry halt, her students convinced her to take her lesson live on Facebook.

So wearing pajamas and with occasional photobombs by her 10-year-old son, Brown sat down at her laptop and convened an impromptu class with about 40 students from Raleigh-Egypt High School in Memphis. Some participants were actually previous students who decided to drop in.

“I’m so proud of y’all for actually wanting to do this,” she said at the outset, complimenting her students for their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and good use of technology.

The 33-year-old teacher has a knack for engaging her students where they are. That means frequently tapping into their love of music to grow their passion for literature.

“Why wouldn’t we focus on that?” she asks rhetorically.

During Black History Month, for instance, Brown pairs excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait” with freedom songs from the documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”

“I want them to know how music was utilized during the civil rights movement,” she said. “ In many instances, it was the thing that kept people motivated and unified.”

Chalkbeat spoke recently with Brown about teaching on Facebook Live and how she builds relationships with her students every day. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always enjoyed literature and reading so it fit that I would be an English teacher.  As a student, my teachers would use me as a peer tutor.  I assisted classmates with their assignments and they would tell me I’d make a great teacher.  Of course, I would reject the idea; but looking back on it, they were leading me in the right direction.

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

I love teaching anything Shakespeare. But more recently, my favorite lesson has been to teach “The Hero’s Journey.” We were reading Beowulf and I wanted the students to trace Beowulf’s journey into the hero that we know him to be in today’s culture. When I first start the unit, I have them think of heros within their own lives. Or times when they felt like they were the hero in a situation. I want them to be able to connect this hero’s journey to themselves.  We read the text, participated in class discussion, did an analytical comparison of the movie and the text.  The students loved it.

Recently, you received national attention for holding class via Facebook Live during a snow day. Why was it important to make instructional time happen during that long break? How do you instill excitement for learning in your students?

That was actually my very first time going live. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to say something foolish and have the entire virtual world see my flub. I got up that morning, planned for some anticipated misconceptions, and went for it.

My students were the ones who set everything up. They asked if I’d be willing to do the lesson and, of course, I couldn’t say no when they were willing to do the work. I told them about my apprehensions and then one student used a phrase that I tell them when they are afraid to try something new: “First time for everything.” At that moment, I knew I had to do it. It was important to make it happen because they wanted it to happen. I always tell them that they cannot wait to be within the confines of a school to learn.

It pleased my soul that they were still attempting to do the work without me and that they trusted me enough to reach out. I think when they see me get excited or passionate about certain topics, it resonates with them.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Students tend to shut down when they don’t understand a lesson. Then, they state the infamous sentence: “I don’t get it.” I force them to think about the lesson and target the source of confusion. They have to be able to explain the problem to me before I help them. More often than not, their own explanation of the misconception helps them figure out the issue on their own. Also, they know that I am a last resort.  They will ask a peer or neighbor before they ask me because they know I will make them explain everything they know before I will help. It forces them to explore their own understanding of the concept.

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

I usually don’t have to say or do much. My facial expressions do the talking for me.  Once the kids see my face, they tell each other to get it together before I start fussing.  Apparently, the last thing they want to hear from me is fussing.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Brown says her facial expressions can do the talking for her when her students get off track.

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 school term, my students complete an “Interest Survey.” I participate with them and allow them to ask me questions. I figure if I’m asking them questions about their lives outside of the classroom, they should be allowed to ask the same of me, within reason. When the surveys are done, I file them. No one will see their answers but me. When appropriate, I incorporate things I learn about them into the lessons to make them more relatable. In that way, they know that I am paying attention and it opens the floor to them so that they know I am trustworthy and truly have their best interest at heart. I never demean them for the things they reveal and I don’t shy away from tough conversations. My door stays open to them unless I’m grading or planning.

What’s the best advice you ever received as a teacher?

To remember why I’m in the classroom. Sometimes, the classroom can be daunting and overwhelming. I have my students, I’m the single mother of a 10-year-old son and, on top of that, I’m working toward a master’s degree. I could easily get discouraged. But if I remember why I’m there, it becomes manageable. I am there to serve my students. I am there to lead my students. Those two things are never lost upon me.

How I Teach

Lessons from the school store: How this special education teacher sets up students for an independent future

Wendi Sussman, a teacher at STRIVE Prep - Federal in Denver, with an eighth-grade student during a field trip to the Air Force Academy.

How do teachers captivate their students? 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 this series here.

Fridays are a big day for the middle school students in Wendi Sussman’s class at STRIVE Prep – Federal in Denver. That’s when they operate the school store — an endeavor they start planning as soon as the school year starts.

For Sussman, a special education teacher, the store is a chance for students to practice all kinds of life skills, from making change to talking with customers.

Sussman, who was a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked to Chalkbeat about how her students decide what to sell at the store, what fueled her interest in special education, and why there’s no stigma when lessons are repeated in her classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I grew up with a sister who has cerebral palsy, so my passion to work with individuals with disabilities has been developing since I was young. I saw firsthand how the school system let down families with children who have disabilities. I spent time in high school and college working and volunteering with this population, and started understanding the value they bring to our society. I began teaching as a way to work with people with disabilities in the early stages of their lives.

After college, I joined Teach for America as a special education teacher and was placed at a college prep charter school. Working at this type of school showed me the importance of giving all students options in their lives after completing their K-12 education, especially those with high needs. I continue teaching so that I can ensure my students have the options they deserve. This is my fifth year teaching in a multi-intensive center program, which serves students with intellectual disabilities as well as other impairments. I could not be happier.

What does your classroom look like?
I want to say that my classroom is clean, neat, and organized and that all staff and students know where everything is and where it belongs. While this is true to some extent, my classroom looks less than perfect due to the joint ownership between staff and students. We set up together, we clean together, and we organize together, which means everything has a place and it’s not always perfect.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my co-teacher and educational assistants. Running a successful center program takes a team. In a classroom of 14 students with individualized and intensive needs, it is not possible to provide the instruction to all students all the time. While I set the vision and do half of the instructional planning, it is the staff I work alongside who ensure the implementation is successful on a daily basis.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? 
Teaching life skills requires skills to transfer from the school setting to the real world. Our student-run school store allows for these connections to be made all year long. Starting in August, students brainstorm ways that we can make money for community trips and life skills lessons throughout the year.

My number one goal for the students in my classroom is to give them authentic practice that sets them up with the skills they need to have options in their lives and to have an independent future. For one student who is visually impaired and does not read or write, this store provides time to practice counting money, interact with customers, and organize merchandise. Another group of students working on social skills and appropriate interactions with adults are able to recruit customers around the school and let them know the store is open. Students with more advanced money skills work on giving correct change to customers and use calculator skills that allow them to run the store with minimal adult support.

While the actual store only happens once a week, the students are invested in the process throughout the year to ensure our Fridays are successful. Preparation includes selecting merchandise, setting prices, and advertising for the store. This year, the class created a survey and graphed the results to determine what would be most popular. Using survey results, students chose to add potato chips to the store’s inventory. The class went to a local store to determine the price of chips in bulk and then set a price for the chips at the classroom store. To raise school-wide excitement, the students prepared announcements and made posters to put around the school. Each Monday, we count our money using both mental math and calculator skills and set aside money to fund upcoming life skills lessons.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
For students with intellectual disabilities, it can take a large amount of repetition before they are able to complete a skill on their own. When teaching and reviewing students work, I look for progress towards a complete understanding of a topic and continue to teach the content until this mastery has been reached. I believe and want my students to believe that anyone can learn anything. With this message in my classroom, there is no stigma to repetitive teaching and learning.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My students want to learn. More often than not, if a student is talking or off task, it is because the work I have provided for the student is not meeting their needs. In the moment when a student is off task, I take a look at their work and see what accommodations it is lacking and make immediate changes. If I notice a pattern in off-task behavior, I think about how I can invest the student in their own goals. I ensure that the work they are provided is scaffolded appropriately to help them reach their goal. When a student feels confident about what they can do, there is very little wasted time in the classroom.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
With our center program model, I teach students for three years, and they are in my class for large parts of the day. This is very different than a typical middle school teacher and something I love about my job. I eat breakfast and lunch alongside my students and make time outside of instruction each day to get to know them. I open up about my family, my hobbies, and what I cook for dinner each night. Students take interest in who I am outside of work, and they begin to open up about themselves as well.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I recently attended a meeting led by my co-teacher focusing on updating a behavior plan for one of our students. During this meeting, the student’s parents helped structure the student’s day to keep him focused during times they knew he would have trouble being alert and gave input on ways to help enforce the updated behavior plan. This was one of the first times I saw both the family and the school creating a plan together. I reflect on this meeting often, because it is exactly what I want my meetings with parents to look like.

Rather than coming to this meeting with a behavior plan already made, she came with ideas, trends, and questions to initiate partnership, rather than bringing a plan for parents to review and approve. This meeting reminds me what is possible with home and school collaboration and gives me a goal to work towards to create team work in future meetings.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Any thriller … “Everything You Want Me To Be” by Mindy Mejia, “Behind Her Eyes” by Sarah Pinborough.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Focus on teacher actions. In my first years of teaching, I would catch myself complaining about a hard day too often, almost always putting the blame on students and their “terrible behavior.” My perspective changed when a co-worker reminded me that while I can’t force a child to make good choices, I can control my own actions. I continue to have hard days, but I now can reflect on situations in my classroom and ask myself what teacher actions caused a student to react this way and what can be done differently next time. Venting to coworkers or friends is important and needs to happen at times, but it doesn’t change the frustrating situations that can happen every day.