How I Teach

This Colorado teacher admitted she didn’t know all the answers – and students responded

PHOTO: Hero Images | Getty Images
Girl using laptop in classroom.

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.

When a new student arrived in her class at Cherry Creek High School, computer science teacher Jocelyn Nguyen-Reed tried hard to make her feel welcome and supported. But as the year wore on, the girl withdrew and Nguyen-Reed began to wonder if her overtures were making any difference.

That spring, she discovered what a big impression her efforts had made when the student’s father called to ask for advice on how to help his daughter. The teen, he said, believed Nguyen-Reed could help her with anything.

Nguyen-Reed talked to Chalkbeat about what she realized after that phone call, how she discovered her passion for teaching, and why she tells students she doesn’t know all the answers.

Nguyen-Reed is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

The summer before my junior year in college, after a having tough year and burning out in my pre-med track, I took a summer position as a camp counselor in a two-week STEM program for high school students. As a part of the job, I was the teaching assistant for a chemistry class. I was so nervous while I was setting up the first lab. I kept running all the different scenarios in my head trying to make sure it wouldn’t be a complete disaster! To my delight, the first lab was a great success and the “high” I felt following the first day on the job made me I realize how passionate I was about teaching and education. The camp was the first time in a long time that I had been so excited to get up in the morning to do something.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?
I think the biggest misconception was that I had to be the expert at everything all the time. My first year teaching, I had been assigned to teach two levels of computer science when I had very limited computer science background. I prepared as much as I could over the summer, but was terrified coming into the year because I knew students would ask me questions I wouldn’t be able to answer.

I decided to be upfront with them and invite them to ask questions, but to allow me room to find out what they needed when I did know the answers. It turned out they appreciated this approach more than I expected. The unexpected perk was that students were more empowered to try to figure out the answers and we often worked as a team to get to the bottom of whatever problems they encountered. It taught me the importance of authenticity in teaching and that modeling the learning process is extremely valuable..

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of the more fun lessons I teach is sorting algorithms in my AP Computer Science course. An algorithm in computer science is simply a step-by-step process for solving a problem. In our everyday life, sorting is one that comes up all the time — sorting your phone contacts by name or sorting your search results by relevance. In this lesson, we explore ways to sort data quickly and efficiently.

I usually start with a silly story that then poses the problem of sorting some set of papers or punch cards. I might talk about how programmers once programmed on punch cards, so tasks that are simple to code today took many, many punch cards to code in the past. “Imagine you had a stack of 1,000 punch cards,” I might say to my students. “But then you trip on the steps, and they are everywhere! … Now what?” Students start by brainstorming their own ideas for how to sort them. I then focus on just a few and use students in my class as “lists to sort” to demonstrate each one. Students usually enjoy the interactivity of the lesson.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I will usually try to tackle this in two ways: I’ll use his or her peers to help or arrange personal one-on-one help. My students usually have a table partner with whom they have ample opportunities to work. I usually remind them that no matter the task, their jobs are two-fold. First, make sure they understand the concepts. If not, then their job is to ask questions (of their peers or me). Second, make sure their partners understand the concepts. If they don’t, their job is to explain the concepts to them. If a student is still struggling, I’ll reach out and try to make a plan/time with them to make sure they get caught up.

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 start of the year, I ask students about their strengths, weaknesses, needs, interests, and the things about which they are excited or worried. During the year, I periodically ask them to write to me how they are, what’s going well, what’s not going well, and what they need from me. I always enjoy getting to read what they write and responding to each one. It is especially nice to hear from those who are more shy or quiet in class. Otherwise, I just try to meet students with a smile and ask them about what’s happening in their lives each day, or follow up about something they told me some other time.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In my first couple years teaching, I felt the need to be everything to everyone all the time, and I worked countless hours trying to make my lessons as engaging as possible. I had a student who was new to the community at the start of the year, and I made extra effort to make her comfortable. As the year continued, I noticed that she started to change -— her image, her attitude, etc. I had a good relationship with her, but she seemed to withdraw a little bit and I wasn’t really sure how to help her. I gathered that her home life was stressful, so I continued to be kind to her and let her know I was there for her.

I received a surprise phone call that spring that really changed my perspective on the effort I was putting into my job everyday. It was her dad asking me for input on how to help his daughter. “She seems to believe that you can help her with just about anything,” he said in his voicemail. From that moment on, I realized that my efforts to care for my students will never be wasted, and no matter how tired or overwhelmed I feel, care and kindness will always be worth it.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Currently, I’m working my way through “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” by Dana Goldstein. I am only about 10 pages in, but I’m enjoying it so far!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Take everything one step at a time. I have a tendency to take on a lot at once. I have high expectations for myself, so I can overwhelm myself easily. It is a nice reminder that not everything has to get done NOW. Some of it can wait, and even just doing a little at a time can go a long way.

How I Teach

Why this Memphis history teacher seeks to create a ‘calming slice of Africa’ in his classroom

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Torian Black, 30, teaches African-American history at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis.

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.

Torian Black felt excluded as he grew up in Memphis City Schools, and he hopes he can help his students of color feel better about themselves and their school than he did.

Black, 30, teaches African-American history at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis, a high school run by one of  Memphis’ highest performing charter organizations. He grew up in Memphis City Schools and graduated from White Station High School, but Black says he doesn’t look back on that time fondly.

“My experience as an African-American male student being educated at White Station High School was one filled with prejudice, uneasiness, and an experience in which I had to seek refuge,” Black said.

“It was an experience in which I was always ‘the other’ in the classroom and was never intentionally brought into an inclusive space,” he said.

Black wants to give his students a much different experience than he had in high school. The majority of students at Freedom Prep are students of color.

We spoke with Black about how he incorporates African history into his classroom — complete with instruments and tapestries — and why the Black Power movement is his favorite lesson to teach. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Why did you become a teacher?

My experience at Howard University, a historically black university, taught me who I was and what I should have been taught at a much younger age. It was an experience in finding my own identity through education. I wanted to be sure students who looked like me would not only receive an experience free of the ailments I experienced growing up, but would also receive a transformational experience that would positively impact their lives for generations.

What does your classroom look like?

I sought to create a calming slice of Africa in my classroom. There are African instruments, plants, and tapestries of African fabrics adorning my room.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Black incorporates African instruments, plants, and tapestries into his classroom.

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

There is a unit I teach that solely focuses on the Black Power movement. I walk students through where the Black Panther symbol came from: the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Mississippi, which fought for black political rights in 1966. We discuss the rise of the Black Panther party in California in the 1960s and how it connects to the civil rights movement.

This is definitely the most anticipated unit among students. All too often, we are looked at as second-class citizens. The perspective that matters most in life is how we see ourselves.

A survey I conducted at the beginning of the year revealed that our students still think of themselves as inferior in many ways. The “doll test” conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark identified this feeling in African-American children more than 50 years ago. Unfortunately, not much has changed today in the way black and brown children think. When students learn and see people like them serving as examples of strength and self-determination, they see what they can do themselves.

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

I sought to recreate aspects of Africa in my classroom. So, I often use music from African instruments in a call-and-response fashion to get their attention. Djembes, shekeres, and thumb pianos are some of the instruments I use.

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

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Black started teaching at Freedom Prep five years ago.

Every interaction with a student is an opportunity to build a stronger relationship. First, it’s important to establish a strong warm, strict classroom culture that is positive, urgent and requires critical thought. It’s important that students see who we are as people. I include stories of my childhood, pictures of my family, and examples of the mistakes I have made throughout life in my lessons.

For teachers, building relationships with a group of students comes first.  Then, all downtime activities — transitions, lunchtime, or after school— are perfect times to build stronger individual relationships by just asking questions you would ask of anyone you would genuinely like to connect with,  know, and understand.

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

Recently, a parent of a student I teach informed me that they chose Freedom Prep high school because of me. She said she heard of my reputation for infusing love and joy in my lessons, she heard of my desire and commitment for students to love themselves and their identity, and she trusted my ability to grow her child academically. This parent already was looking into Freedom Prep, but once she heard of what I brought to the table, that’s when she made her decision. To entrust another person to educate your child is a weight as heavy as the mountains because the educator has a strong hand in shaping each child’s path to their destiny. To know that I had that impact on even one parent meant that my work, the long hours, and the stress are worth it and I am walking in my purpose.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet” by Ta-Nehisi Coates as well as “The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America.”

How I Teach

How one Memphis teacher brings the lessons of MLK to life – and how his students teach him back

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Kyle Grady, a 12th-grade government and economics teacher at Freedom Prep Academy in Memphis, uses a free curriculum about Memphis in 1968 to teach his students about the life and death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

A Memphis educator who frequently teaches about Martin Luther King Jr. says his students have taught him as much about civil rights as they’ve learned from him.

Kyle Grady, a 12th-grade government and economics teacher, said the activism he has seen among his students has been inspiring. He points to their involvement in the recent March for Our Lives protest against gun violence as an example.

“I feel like my students have been preparing me to celebrate the life of Dr. King,” Grady said. “They’re reminding me that the civil rights movement isn’t over, but it’s really coming back in student activism. As an adult, I don’t own legacy of the civil rights movement or Dr. King. It belongs to the next generation, and they decide how to build upon it.”

Grady was a philosophy professor at Rhodes College in Memphis before switching to teach in K-12. For the last three years, he has taught government and economics at Freedom Preparatory Academy, one of Memphis’ highest-performing charter networks.

We asked Grady about how he incorporates King’s life into his classroom, especially during the year that marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis, as well as how he uses Memphis 1968, free curriculum from the education group Facing History and Ourselves. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach about the civil rights movement?

One thing I did this year in my government class that I really enjoyed was to have my students write a political manifesto. A lot of the academic papers my students write deprive them of their voice, and this was a way to encourage them to own their own voice. I want to encourage them to learn about government, not just about how it works, but to see themselves as potential agents of change. Writing a manifesto forces them to take what would be otherwise abstract academic concepts and think about how they could have an impact on the world around them.

Asking them to write a manifesto is a challenge because most have never been introduced to that concept. So we started with some examples, and one they are really familiar with: the Declaration of Independence. Then I showed them the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program. This is a powerful way, I think, to draw on work of the civil rights movement.

How is the upcoming anniversary bringing MLK to life for your students? Did they already know a lot about his story? What did they not know?

We did a unit on the theory of capitalism and Marxism. To bring that down out of the clouds, we used the Memphis sanitation workers strike and the anti-poverty campaign of the later years of Dr. King’s life. We can relate this to what’s happening in Memphis right now.

Most of my students have this picture in their heads of King as passive, non-violent resistance, and don’t understand the full depth of his economic interests. Yes, you can get voting rights, but if you’re economically disenfranchised, you’re no better off.

I think my students walk away with an understanding — it might sound obvious, but it’s eye-opening to them — that poverty is not an individual issue but a cultural problem. They have a responsibility, not just to lift themselves and their family out of poverty, but to care about the economic freedom of those around them. It’s helpful for them to study economics, the civil rights movement, and the life of King all together to help deepen their understanding that freedom is not just about appealing to government for new laws or electing someone aligned to their beliefs. Rather, every decision we make in lives and communities has an impact on our own economic freedoms and that of those around us.

How do you view other textbooks or curriculums related to the civil rights movement?

One of my favorite texts is Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I love it as a teacher, because I think he’s modeling what using your own education looks like. To write this letter, he’s metaphorically taking books down off his shelves and reading through them. He’s using his education in a moment of political and personal crisis. That’s what I would love for my students, and all students, to be able to do — not just answer teachers’ questions but take their wealth of information and use it in a totally creative way. That’s what Dr. King did. He drew on disparate sources to show the gravity of the project, and that the movement was not just about this group of people in this moment of time, but about universal themes of humanity.

Tell us about the Teaching Memphis 1968 curriculum. How has it enhanced your instruction?

I’m not from Memphis originally, I came here to work at Rhodes from California. Before reading this curriculum and attending the sessions on it, I didn’t understand how the events of 1968 impacted the way Memphians viewed themselves.

I had no idea that many Mempians had this false sense that Memphis was ahead of the rest of the South when it came to integration, and that Memphis prided itself as not having much racial tension prior to the strike. I brought these lessons into my classroom when we were doing a unity on community — what strengthens and what threatens people’s sense of community.

We used Memphis in 1968 and prior as an example of how communities carry around a sense of identity that can be out of sync with reality. Sometimes, it’s these moments of crisis that tell us who we are. It’s only when our communities break down that we see how they really worked, right?