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.

Belittled as a child, this Memphis teacher sets a high bar for her students

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell poses with her Aspire Hanley third-graders. Terrell has been teaching for four years and will move to Aspire East in the fall.

Some 20 years ago, Ginny Terrell’s third grade math teacher called her “stupid.” Now, Terrell laughs as she names her current position: a third grade math teacher.

“I was that kid in school that everybody was like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’” said Terrell who has been teaching at the local charter Aspire Hanley for four years and will teach at Aspire East in the fall.

Terrell was held back in kindergarten and struggled from there on. Luckily, she had teachers that stayed with her after hours to give her the support that she didn’t have at home. At that moment, she knew she wanted to be like them.

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell and her Aspire Hanley students.

As middle and high school loomed, Terrell told herself she had two options: sink or swim. So she worked hard — often twice as hard as her classmates, she said — and eventually enrolled in the University of North Texas in her home state.

During college, which took her seven years to complete, Terrell spent time in New Orleans doing service projects, where she often interacted with local youth. Then, she interned at a Title I school, where she noticed that her fellow teachers were unprepared to handle disciplinary issues, and that the “kids weren’t getting what they needed.” (Title I schools, eligible for certain federal funding grants, enroll a high percentage of students from low-income families.)

“I felt like it was the blind leading the blind,” she said.

That work, Terrell said, prepared her for a career in urban education. After graduation, she signed up for Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher licensing program that places college graduates at urban schools.

“They endure more than I could ever dream of,” she said of her students, 88 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. “… I can relate a lot to their home lives, their struggling in school and their not wanting to even be there.”

In this installment of How I Teach, Chalkbeat spoke with Terrell about why her decision to teach in urban schools was such a personal one. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by really utilizing my first month of school. I really try to use every moment and every conversation to truly understand each of my students. I give them a little survey that is like a Facebook page on paper the second day they are at school. I send home a survey [for parents to fill out] about his or her child and that helps me know even more. I spend time talking with them at lunch, recess, and moments during instruction. I try to observe how they respond to my questions, how they respond to hard situations, how they respond to their peers and how they handle learning. I use morning meeting time to know each of my students by playing getting-to-know-you games and simply letting them do a show and tell.

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

For a lesson on perimeter and area, our class took a little trip to the playground.They counted blocks and other items around the playground and added them up to get the perimeter. My students tried teaching each other and asked questions during the lesson on the playground. They told me at the end of the year that was their favorite lesson because they could understand it. This idea came from reading a book “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wished You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms,” by Tracy Johnston Zager. In the book it discusses the importance of including real life examples students can relate to in math and gave multiple examples in other classrooms. I thought that we should use the playground, which will stick with them because they use it every day and they love it!

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

An object I would be helpless without during the school day would be our clip system [moved up and down to track student behavior]! They could see where they were at behaviorally and how they can improve at every moment of the day. I could not live without a behavior system in my classroom. It is the basis of giving students structure and consistency. If you do not have a behavior system that is a well-oiled machine, you will not be able to get to your instruction and plan the engaging lessons. The culture you set, from day one, will drive your classroom.

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

Something that is happening in the community that affects my classroom is the crime rate. I have heard students coming in telling me they could not sleep because of the gunshots or abuse in their homes. Some of the crime happened on our [school] property between parents. This [hurts] student’s ability to focus, and [discourages] parents from coming to the school or even being involved. Students will start following what they see in their community, [so it] is hard for them to learn how to treat their peers or even teachers in a different way.

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

One of my students had a hard time functioning in my classroom. She could not really get along with peers and was sad a lot of the time. I reached out to the mom and discussed what was going on with her. Mom shared with me her life story and what has been going on at home. She wasn’t at all playing a victim or making excuses for her child. She instead asked me for help and support. We prayed for each other and I built a beautiful relationship with that family. It is so easy in the heat of the moment to snap or get angry with a student if he or she is not following directions. It showed me to seek to understand first, then take action. I could have done a lot more damage to the student in the classroom if I did not seek to understand. From that point on, I always make sure I take a step back and understand the situation instead of snap judgements. It taught how I can love each student in the way that will benefit them as future contributors to our society.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job would be not having enough parent involvement. There will be some parents that were very involved and supported the best they can in and outside the classroom. However, it has been difficult for some parents due to working three different jobs, not having enough resources or just not having the mental capacity to support. I cherish their thoughts and their support, so not having that [makes it] difficult to hold my students accountable outside the classroom.

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

I thought I had to dumb down my lessons so other students can learn. It is actually the opposite; having high expectations, students can reach the bar you set. I think I viewed my students as “low” academically, but they are not. Maybe they’re behind, but never low. They are so smart and can do anything you ask. It might take some time and you have to go back, but they are able and more than ready.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Nothing to Prove” by Jennie Allen and “Hope Heals” by Katherine Wolf and Jay Wolf

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

If you think you have arrived in teaching, you need to retire.

Detroit math teacher tends a greenhouse, welcomes parents into her classroom

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Marquita Reese, a math teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, works with students to cook vegetables grown in the school's greenhouse.

How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great Detroit educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at [email protected].

Marquita Reese defies a traditional job title. At the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, an all-boys high school on Detroit’s east side, where she has taught for more than two decades, she is a chef, a gardener, and a meditation leader. Oh, and she teaches math.

Reese headed up an effort to build a greenhouse at Douglass, funded with federal grant dollars. Vegetables grown on the campus are used in cafeterias across Detroit’s main district. When it started in 2016, the program was lauded by Sen. Debbie Stabenow for simultaneously feeding children and teaching about science and nutrition.

Reese spoke with Chalkbeat about the garden, being a woman in the hard sciences, and welcoming parents into her classroom.

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

I graduated from Wilberforce University [in Ohio] with a degree in clinical psychology, but being a psychologist didn’t work out. Wanting to maintain a strong math and science grasp, I enrolled in the school of education at Wayne State, majoring in mathematics and sciences.

I said I’ll do math and science, not really considering that those are two of the most challenging areas of study.

I didn’t realize in retrospect that I was one of the few or only females that had a math and science background in the district. I would go into some meetings and would be one of the only females.

How do you get to know your students?

Students are given a survey and are required to write a short paper about themselves.  They must speak to their expectations and provide some insight about their goals for the present and for five years from now.  This year I included a three-minute meditation in the morning every day. Doing that at the beginning kind of relaxes the setting, and starts to build that trust between you and your students.


You run a greenhouse and garden on the grounds of Douglass Academy, and you also teach lessons about cooking. Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach your students about the garden. Where did the idea come from?

An activity I do before my students set foot in the garden is called colors of the rainbow. You take the colors of the rainbow, but you extend it, so I do teal, tan, indigo. For each color, they have to provide a fruit or vegetable that can be grown in Michigan and they have research their nutritional benefits.

In what region of Michigan can it be grown? When can it be grown, and at what temperature? They present it to the class, and they also have to do a PowerPoint. Then we we go for seed selections or transplants, they understand that some plants can’t be put in the ground at certain times. One year, we actually discovered that we can grow oranges in Michigan.

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

One of the things I felt very passionately about this year was changing the narrative society is putting out, especially looking at melanated young men. I was worried about these young men, their self worth, their self esteem, so I just opened up to them, told them how I’m feeling, and they expressed their views.

It was an emotional time for us all. Being melanated people, we don’t have a good idea of where our ancestors are from, so some of our dialogue is about that. We talk about what we don’t know and what we do know about African cultures.

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

Myself and an English teacher put together a parent group and a student group with all the parents’ email addresses. We’d send a message each time something happened in the classroom, homework or anything else, to the parents and the students.

Then I started getting notes from parents. They said ‘Hey, can we do this too?’

They’d text me like, ‘Hey, I don’t get this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you can come in and take notes, try to figure it out.’

It became an open door.

It was the SAT year, so they knew the importance of the child understanding the material. They never said, ‘It’s because I want to learn.’ They wanted to make sure that when their child came to them, they understood how to help their child.

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

I thought that the students and families that entrusted their kids to me had the same ideologies, learning style, and background as myself. For some, their exposure and educational experience or support was nothing like mine, so I had to refocus and adjust my teaching style and methods.

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

To be hard, consistent, and fair. As the students learn something new, so should I every day.