How this Colorado drama teacher gets to know her students with a 20-second exercise

One of Kelly Jo Smith's students with her project on theater design.

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.

Kelly Jo Smith, an English, speech, and drama teacher at La Junta Junior/Senior High School in southeastern Colorado, got her start in the arts with a directing gig in fifth grade.

Today, she hopes to spark her students’ creativity the way her own teachers did when she was in school.

Smith talked to Chalkbeat about why she loves teaching her gifted and talented theater class, what she’s learned from watching colleagues teach, and how one mother’s words stayed with her.

Smith is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state’s Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides 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?

I grew up playing school, helping others with projects, and directing shows, so I think it was instinctual. I was allowed to write and direct my first play in fifth grade, so my love of theater has been lifelong.

I attended Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and received my bachelor’s degree in theater and communication with a minor in English. But I really think it was my high school teachers that had the biggest effect on my life. In everything from drama to band, I thrived and got to test and hone my creative side.

What does your classroom look like?
I decided a long time ago that if I was going to spend so much time at school (and what teacher doesn’t) I wanted my classroom to be cheerful and comfortable. My classroom has posters, student work, pictures — almost every inch of it is covered. I have a portfolio section where students keep their written work to show during conferences and “Student Center” where students can turn in work and pick up makeup work. The carpeted floor makes it easy to move groups to the floor as a way to meet several learning needs.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite classes to teach — or I should say mentor — is the gifted and talented theater course. I designed this when I was getting my master’s degree from Adams State University. Students can begin with an examination of theater history, or an acting or directing project. I have had students create Greek masks, one-man shows, film projects, and currently have one student studying theater design. Students start with the standards, design their project, read articles and text, and blog and journal. Finally, they have a public showing or juried presentation. I love working with students who are fired up and inspired to test their own creative ideas. Teaching kids to explore and how to shape that exploration is key.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Presenting oral and written instructions are important. That way, students can listen in the moment, but have clarification to refer to at home. I encourage students to ask for clarification and that may come in conferences, emails or thumbs up or down, pairing off and explaining the lesson to their peer. I also have a class Facebook page, where I post updates and assignment links so that parents can get the information as well.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I like using the “catch and release” strategy from Penny Kittle’s book, “The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching.” It comes from her experience fishing with her dad. In the classroom, we provide directions and then release students to work, but sometimes we need to catch them again to explain a detail or celebrate an accomplishment. Other times just walking by and making my presence known is all that is needed. I like to have several tricks because no one class is the same.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I like to learn about my students’ history. I share my story: “How did I get to where I am?” My first assignment in my speech class is called the “20/20 Speech.” Twenty slides in 20 seconds — students will include pictures of themselves at different ages, pictures of family, activities, schools they want to attend, future plans, books, movies and music. They begin and end with a quote that represents their essence. It is a great way to learn about students.

I watched a teacher (going to visit other classrooms is the best way to perfect your craft) start the class by opening it up to anything that happened since they last met that needed to be discussed. I like doing that because it gives students a voice in the classroom and then clears the way for focus on lessons.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
My creativity. Kids are kids! If you teach long enough you see cycles come and go and you have probably heard it all. If you approach the class with creativity, a good attitude, and a sense of humor … failures are not the end, just opportunity for a different approach.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I had a great mom of a student and each time we would leave for a (field) trip, she would tell me, “Drive careful. You have precious cargo.” All our students are precious cargo and the journey we take them on can change their lives.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I had a principal once tell me, “Kelly, make sure they treat you like a professional.” Teaching is a profession. It is not easy and not for the faint of heart. It is personal and hard, time-consuming and, much of the time, thankless. I am a professional and not all of my attempts in the classroom have been successful, but they have been learning experiences. When I see the light of creativity spark in a student, I know that I am making a difference.

For this Detroit teacher, math is about teaching ‘what makes something true’

PHOTO: Michael Chrzan
Michael Chrzan teaching math during Math Corps, a summer program at Wayne State University.

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 the series here.

Asked what he teaches, Michael Chrzan says “mathematics.” Because in his classroom at Henry Ford Academy, a charter high school in Detroit, math is more than the calculations you need to tip a server or balance a budget. Chrzan, a third-year teacher, sees the abstract reasoning skills of mathematics — the proofs and deductions — as tools to help his students develop a firmer grasp on every aspect of their world.

This is just one of the ways he is unusual. A Teach for America alumnus, Chrzan also went through a traditional teacher training program in college. He is a African-American male math teacher in a country that produces far too few of them. And remember the Pokemon Go craze? He still plays.

Less than a week before Chrzan is to be honored as Teach for America’s teacher of the year in Detroit, Chalkbeat spoke with him about his dealings with parents, the toughest parts of his job, his social media habits, and how he finds  “greatness” in every student.

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

I’ve been teaching in some capacity — teaching or tutoring — since high school. I was a teaching assistant at a summer camp at Wayne State called Math Corps. I caught the bug for teaching there. I did that for three summers. I knew at some point in my life that I would get back into teaching. In college, I took a couple of computer science and math and education classes. And the computer science classes were fun, but I was like, this is just a hobby.

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

I taught geometry the last two years. It’s really a beautiful class because it’s the only class in high school where kids do the work of professional mathematicians. It’s the only class where they do proofs. So we get to have a really rigorous conversation about what makes something true, which is really important in our society right now.

Every year I pull in examples of deductive reasoning from outside of mathematics too.

One of the things I’m going to try this year is bringing in a Supreme Court decision and talking about the deductive reasoning that shows up there.

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

I had a conversation with a very young student’s mother who had the frame of mind that he was responsible for himself.

I was calling to talk about some issues that I’d seen on his homework, and just about getting it completed. That’s a really important part of the learning, that independent practice. And she was very much of the mindset that I needed to have that conversation with him, not her. It was not her job for him to get that done.

It changed how I discussed things with him because it got a much deeper understanding of what he has to deal with outside of these four walls.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is motivating students. There are some students who have a really long history of messaging that they’ve gotten from schools, of the kind of person and students they are. I try to reverse that. You plant a seed when you’re the one teacher who’s telling them something different, but sometimes you don’t get to see that seed bloom in one year.

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

That I was ready for it. I did a lot of pre-professional teaching things. In college, I went to New York for two summers and taught in a program called Breakthrough. I did student teaching. I did Teach for America. I was like, I’ve got to be ready for this, I’ve got so much more experience than most people do when they enter the profession.

I was not ready. There’s is nothing that will prepare you for day in and day out being responsible for your kids’ learning.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Children of Blood and Bone,” by Tomi Adeyemi. It’s possibly one of my favorite books of all time. As a millennial, I’m very into social media. I will typically lull myself to sleep on Instagram. And I’ve gotten back into Pokemon Go.

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

There are two. I can’t decide which I like better. The first would be, ‘don’t take anything personally.’ That really helped me understand that if I’m having a management issue with a kid, it may not have anything to do with me, that’s probably a kid who needs help. And that pairs up with assuming the best of my students. They came to class because they want to learn, and maybe something got in the way. I try to find their greatness, whether it’s math or otherwise. That’s a more human way to see students, and it opens them up to new things, like trying difficult mathematics.

‘It takes a lot of intentionality’ for this Indiana online school teacher to get to know students

PHOTO: Tuan Tran / Getty Images
Young girl sitting in front of laptop

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 the series here.

Even though Lacy Spears teaches at an online school, much of her work takes place off-line.

She keeps a meticulous planner to track not just online classes and meetings with students, but also in-person events and meetings, phone calls to families, and professional development opportunities.

“There are a lot of moving pieces in the daily life of an online educator,” she said.

Spears is a seventh- and eighth-grade reading interventionist at the Insight School of Indiana, a statewide virtual charter school that is part of the Hoosier Academies network.

Spears, who was recently named one of 68 finalists for 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about how she works with her students, and how teaching at an online school has changed her perspective on school choice.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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

Like so many other educators, I fell in love with school and education thanks to a wonderful teacher I had when I was a student. My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Kim Ferguson, really treated me like an individual and helped me learn how to play to my strengths. She gave me more leadership roles in the classroom, encouraged my love of writing, and made a huge effort to connect with me. Mrs. Ferguson even let me stay with her after school every day to help organize her classroom. Her guidance and the relationship she cultivated with me really led me to the path of becoming a teacher.

How do you get to know your students?

It takes a lot of intentionality to get to know students, especially in an online school. With this in mind, I call each of my students and their families at the beginning of the year. I like to introduce myself, make sure they feel ready for the school year, and see how I can help them have a successful start, particularly if they’re new to online learning. Within the first few weeks, I ask students to create a vision board, and I work with them to craft a short-term and long-term goal list for the school year. I keep this dialogue up throughout the year and talk to all my families at least once per month. I also hold student-led conferences at least every quarter to take a closer look at student progress and talk about each student’s goals and how I can best support them.

Additionally, I ask my students to submit interest and reading surveys, which I use to select materials and activities for the class. For example, a lot of my students last year really liked music. So, to help them practice their reading skills I found articles about their favorite artists to help pique their interest. I also played music and used song lyrics to analyze literary elements such as themes and main ideas. Knowing what they’re interested in helps me keep them focused on learning.

Although my classes take place online, I try my best to see my students in person as much as possible. Insight School of Indiana hosts events across the state to help students connect with their peers in their communities. I love to attend these events and help lead several school activities. For example, I serve as the advisor for our school’s chapter of the National Junior Honor Society and manage our school-based food pantry. These are all wonderful opportunities to get to know my students and their families outside of the online classroom.

Lastly, I always try to devote some class time to helping students get to know each other. A few minutes before class begins, I like to invite them to share something about themselves via their webcams. I learn so much more about my students when I see them connect with and support each other in the safe learning environment of our online platform.

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

Lesson planning is one of my favorite parts of teaching. I love the creativity that it allows. I also welcome the opportunity to design lessons that support me in providing a personalized education for each student. I especially love to help them design their own lesson plans, which allows them to take on the role of teacher. The objective is to design a lesson that explains a concept to their peers. Doing this activity helps students master content, keeps them motivated, and helps them retain more information.

To guide them through the process, I first encourage students to use four steps: topic selection, brainstorming lesson elements, designing assessment criteria, and planning and delivery. Students use class time to design their lessons and collaborate with one of their peers to receive feedback. Afterward, they teach their lesson to the class.

The first time I did this activity, I had never seen my students so engaged! Providing opportunities for peer feedback enhances their understanding, and students benefit from the advice and observations of their peers prior to presenting their final projects. Students also become experts on their researched concepts and are proud to teach other students about the new information they learn. They take ownership over their education, reflect on the learning process, collaborate to improve, and practice public speaking skills.

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

More and more, I think we are seeing kids coming to school with worries and troubles from their home lives. So many students are struggling to have their basic needs met. They don’t have enough food, clean clothes, reliable transportation, or a steady roof over their heads. It is challenging to focus on school when you have an empty stomach and haven’t slept. Our school has tried to meet some of those needs through a variety of support programs, including the school’s food pantry in Indianapolis. We work with our families to provide access to clothing, toiletries, and other necessities throughout the year.

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

When I first started teaching, I assumed that when parents didn’t answer the phone when I called home, or didn’t sign their children’s permission slips, or didn’t seem very present, that they must not value education. As I got to know my families, though, I realized that wasn’t the case.

One of my first students sticks out in my mind. His mother had passed away, his dad worked multiple jobs to keep food on their table, and my student was home alone most of the time after school. Feeling frustrated one day with this student’s lack of progress, I asked him what I might do to help him stay motivated and to get him back on track. He mentioned that since his dad was usually working, his grandma was often the only adult he had in his home life. He gave me her phone number, and we called her together. I realized through this conversation, and subsequent calls, that this family absolutely valued education. They just needed food on their table more immediately than they needed to get back to me.

Since then, I am very careful never to judge a family or make assumptions before getting to know them. Sometimes the perspective and the circumstance of a family is just different from your own, or from the majority of your students. Everyone has other things going on in their lives, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t care or that they aren’t doing everything they can for their children.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I think the most difficult part of my job is striking a balance between positive academic outcomes and taking the time to connect with my students on a personal level. It can be easy to get so focused on testing and data that you leave out time to know your students — to listen to them and help them not only master skills and content, but also learn how to build positive relationships, solve problems, and communicate. Teachers aren’t just responsible for academic success. We play an integral role in helping students become well-rounded adults. It can be a challenge to make sure each student has what they need outside of school to succeed in class, but I’m proud to be a part of a learning community at Insight School of Indiana that provides a host of support resources to our students and their families, including our food pantry, college and career planning support, remediation programs, and help with accessing social services.

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

The biggest misconception that I had is that the best school for a student is the school they are assigned by their district. I bought into a lot of the criticisms of school choice when I first became a teacher. I’ll admit that most of the uncertainty I held came more from misinformation than actual experience or facts. Since becoming a teacher at an online charter school, I’ve really seen the benefits that school choice can have for children and families. We have so many students at Insight School of Indiana who are much more successful and feel more secure than they did in their locally-assigned program.

Learning is a personal journey, and while many students thrive in a traditional setting, that’s not the case for everyone. So many students benefit from school choice, and students enroll in online school for a variety of reasons. Whether they are advanced learners or need additional support, are looking for a safe and bullying-free environment, or need to balance academic goals with extracurricular pursuits or medical needs, Insight School of Indiana offers an education they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. The online platform gives our students a public education option that meets their unique needs, and it allows them to set and work towards their goals regardless of their circumstances or previous experiences. Our personalized learning approach definitely helps put students on a path to success.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

As a reading teacher, I gravitate towards things I can talk about with my students. Right now, I’m re-reading The Dark Artifices series by Cassandra Clare. The final book in the series is supposed to come out later this year, and I can’t wait!

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

Never hold grudges. Students must come to school each day with a clean slate from the day before. They need to be free to make mistakes, to learn from them, and to still feel loved and valued along the way.