How I Teach

How I Teach: A fourth-grade teacher uses dance parties and emojis to engage students

Lauren Bakian Aaker reads aloud to her fourth-grade 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.

When Lauren Bakian Aaker’s teaches fourth-grade students at P.S. 110 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, she is not afraid to have fun.

The room is emoji-themed, she throws dance parties to regain classroom focus, and she likes to “say yes” when her students have new ideas for learning. She’s also constantly thinking of ways to engage her students, and her best ideas often come on the subway, in the shower, or at the gym, she said.

Bakian Aaker was a finalist for the prestigious 2017 New York State Teacher of the Year award. In this installment of How I Teach, we asked Bakian Aaker to share what makes her classroom come alive. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What’s your routine like when you arrive at school?

First thing I do when I get off the train is get my favorite coffee in the Lower East Side from Roasting Plant. When I get to school, I say hello to my colleagues, unpack my bag and start finishing up final details for the day’s lessons: the morning message, charts, handouts for students and more. The morning time flies by, but I need the quiet before the chaos.

What does your classroom look like?

When I first came to P.S. 110, my principal, Karen Feuer, described my room as bright and cheerful when she introduced me to the staff, even quoting me as saying “I could live in this classroom!” Every time someone new enters my room, they comment on its color and vibe.

I also have a classroom theme each year. Some of my favorites have been “Smart Cookies,” “Super Mario Students,” “Minion Buddies,” and this year’s theme is “Emojis.” I send a postcard to every student before school starts to get them pumped up for the year and build community. Students usually know my class by the themes on bulletin boards and I catch many peeking in to see what’s happening in the “Emoji classroom.”

The best thing about my classroom is that it’s the students’ classroom. They decide how to organize and where to put things and they help me make it a place where learning and teaching is bright and cheerful from September to June.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without?

Why? I love having my laptop to show quick videos or make our own. I use iMovie to film them acting out poetry or putting on a colonial play. I’ve enlisted some of my more challenging students to star in videos that teach the class different routines to get them on board and have a positive experience. I also use an app called Remind to communicate with parents that has been awesome. Parents receive texts or emails depending on their choice and it makes it so easy to share everything, from the best moments to those we need to work on.

I’m also trying out a new app this year called Fresh Grade that is a digital portfolio. Three years ago I tried to do my own version of a digital portfolio for each student before parent-teacher conferences and it took forever. Glad someone (smarter) made it easier for me.

How do you plan your lessons?

The best lessons are those that I conceptualize in the strangest of places: the subway, the shower, the gym. I always have a plan, but I find that I’m more of an “improv” teacher. The rule in improv (I think) is “say yes,” and I do to so many ideas that both my students and I have. At P.S. 110, I have some great colleagues that I bounce these ideas off of and they always come back to me with some suggestion or encouragement to do it.

I think lessons can always be better, smarter and more fun! I don’t look at my “plan book” from last year to see what I did, but instead I get to know the kids, their likes/dislikes and find engaging ways to teach. It doesn’t mean I don’t use previous lessons or ideas, I’m just a bit more flexible in my approach and like to fit the lessons to the students instead of the other way around.

What makes an ideal lesson?

I always try to start with an engaging analogy (coming to your book club unprepared is like going to a Super Bowl party without the dip you promised you would make) or a story (when I was younger, my dad took me to a movie and at the very end, the screen went black — I never knew what happened. This is just like your writing when you leave the reader in the dark).

Sometimes standards and teaching objectives can be abstract, so finding a way to help them bridge the gap between their understanding and the content is vital. I also make sure my students have choice — from the texts they read to strategies for solving math problems to independent projects they want to create.

In addition to engagement and choice, I would have to say pace can make or break a lesson. Lessons that go too slow or too fast can ruin a perfectly thought through plan. I know lessons are not one-shot-deals, and I … find ways to support students through individual conferences, small group sessions or resources as they work independently. An ideal lesson changes from class to class, so it’s finding that sweet spot each year to help your students reach their potential.

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

The short answer: Find a new way to teach it. The long answer: Get to know what the missing link is. I ask a lot of questions and require explanation without judgment: “Say more.” “How do you know?” “Hmmm … how did you get there?” “What will you do next?” “What made you try this?” and more. When students know it’s okay not to know, they are more likely to share their thinking and that’s where the learning and teaching can take place in a real, authentic way.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

When I see I’m losing my students, I do a dance party. It takes on different names and has different songs, but it loosens everyone up. On a more individual basis, it depends on the student. Some need to get a drink of water and take a quick break, others just need a reminder or for me to be near them. Some aren’t engaged because the lesson is going too slow or too fast for them. In that case, I send some off to work independently on a different task or pull a small group to re-teach something that was misunderstood. I love to utilize sing-songy attention-getters like “Hocus pocus, everybody focus!” Movement, music and fun are key in my class.

How do you communicate with parents?

Every month I do a handout called “Ms. Bakian’s Top 10.” I try to give them the info that is relevant and important for that month since families can be so busy. I know that paper handouts don’t always do the trick, so email and the text-messaging app for teachers let me share quick photos, reminders and news from the day. I continue to text families from previous years before the first day of school and during breaks to let them know I’m thinking about them. They send me messages, too. Once my student, always my student!

What hacks do you use to grade papers?

Inspired by the ELA curriculum we adopted, I … created a checklist progression with phrases like “On my way,” “Almost there,” “Super Mario Level!” that corresponded to the grade-level expectations. By making simple checklists with these statements, I can quickly grade their assignments and simultaneously give feedback in the form of “polish” and “praise points.”

My homework hack is to have them self-assess if they mostly got it or need some help. Students place their homework in one of those baskets and check off whether or not they completed their homework assignment. It allows me to quickly meet with those who already know they need assistance. I know homework is a hot topic right now and I don’t put too much emphasis on it, never have. Some parents take issue with this, but I remind them that I want to spend as much time on our classroom experiences, not grading homework that may or may not reveal their strengths and weaknesses.

What are you reading for fun?

I, like many of my students, like to read on my commute and right before bed. I recently started “The Couple Next Door” [by Shari Lapena] and also enjoyed some Jojo Moyes books this summer. I am also (sadly) addicted to the news lately and can’t get enough of the election. It’s just fascinating! Mainly, though, I’m reading or singing board books by Joyce Wan and Dr. Seuss to my one-year-old daughter, Genevieve.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My dad, who is also an educator, told me at the start of my teaching career that if something I was doing in the classroom didn’t have a true purpose, stop doing it. That has stuck with me in every way possible from the way my students pack up and line up to the ways in which I form small groups and plan my lessons. If I can’t answer “why?”, then it goes.

How I Teach

Why students’ birthdays are the perfect icebreaker for this award-winning Tennessee teacher

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin gets a hug from one of her students after the announcement that she was one of two Tennessee teachers to win a Milken Educator Award.

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.

Paula Franklin’s students describe her teaching style as “relaxingly engaging.”

Maybe that’s because she starts out by building relationships with her students, then begins to introduce the content in her Advanced Placement government class at West High School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Since she took on the course, enrollment has doubled. And more than 80 percent of her students exceed the national average on their final AP test scores.

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last year, Franklin was one of two Tennessee teachers chosen by the Milken Family Foundation for their prestigious national teaching award. The honor includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

We spoke with Franklin about why she became a teacher, how she uses birthdays to build relationships with her students, and why campaign finance reform is her favorite lesson to teach. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

My high school AP Biology teacher, Mr. Wheatley, was my inspiration. He cared about his students as people first and whatever we learned about biology was secondary. As a result, I learned a lot of biology, and a tremendous amount about myself, for which I am forever grateful. I work every day to provide the same type of environment to my students. I try to teach them about themselves through the lens of civic education. I want my students to leave my class not only more confident in their knowledge of our government, but also as inquirers and risk-takers who are equipped to ask questions and find the answers.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

I spend the first two to three days of class using Kagan class-building strategies to get to know my students and to get them to know each other. I can always make up time for content later, but the time spent building a classroom culture at the beginning of the year can’t be made up.

Another of my favorite things is finding out my students’ birthdays to celebrate them with the class by asking them three questions: Are you going to drive? What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment,? What do you hope to accomplish before your next birthday?

This allows me to spotlight my students and have them think critically about themselves and their goals. I have asked these same three questions for years, and students have started coming to me on their birthdays after they have left my class to share their accomplishments and goals.

What does your classroom look like?

I love to display student work in my classroom, both from my current and former students, so my walls are pretty well covered in posters and art. I think it’s important to make a classroom into a reflection of the students who learn there and goes a long way toward building community.  I arrange the desks in small sections of rows so that I can easily get to all the students to provide support on a difficult concept or assignment or encouragement to stay on task.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen surprise Franklin with her award.

Google Drive! I am a huge reflector and save all of my lesson materials and reflections on my Drive. That way, I can easily access previous lessons and see how to best adapt them for my current students or the current social-political climate.

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

One of my favorite lessons to teach began as my absolute least favorite: Campaign finance reform. The first couple of years, it went terribly. Students didn’t come away with an understanding of campaign finance but were more confused than when we started.

I am big on incorporating technology in my classroom, but for this lesson, I have them write down the original limitations of campaign finance and then cross them off in a different color as we learn about repeals. The action of crossing an item off of the list and annotating with the case or law that repealed it really sticks with them. This lesson is one of my favorites because I get to teach a relatively small amount of content over a class period, students get to work in groups and really wrestle with the content, and they have the opportunity to share their understanding with the whole class.

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

I try to figure out what it was about the lesson they did not understand. I can usually do this by reviewing data from a quiz or test or other assessment or just by asking them. I spend a lot of time in my class focusing on how to ask and answer questions to encourage my students to be advocates for their education both in and out of my classroom. After I figure out what I need to remediate with my classes, I do my best to come up with an example or analogy that is relevant to them. If that doesn’t work, then I ask a colleague how they teach that topic and try that. I am constantly looking for new and different ways to teach content that my students typically struggle with so that I am prepared to switch it up if my plan isn’t working.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It is OK to leave it on your desk; it will still be there in the morning. You are not a bad teacher for needing time for yourself.

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

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.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski 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.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

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 always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”