How I Teach

What to do when your class loses focus? This teacher picks up a guitar

Joella DeLisi Melnikov

As a teenager in a sea of 4,000 students at Staten Island’s Tottenville High school, Joella DeLisi Melnikov found her niche in the music room.

“In the music room, you knew everybody,” recalls Melnikov, now 36. “There’s really nothing like sitting in the middle of an orchestra or band … and feeling the music and being surrounded by everyone around you.”

At age nine, Melnikov picked up the clarinet, setting off a love of music that led to two separate music degrees and a number of professional gigs. She often taught private lessons on the side to students who complained that there were few public music classes available to them.

That gave Melnikov a sense of mission when she began teaching music in the city’s public schools — a job she landed (part-time at first) through the city’s Arts Matter program, an effort to expand access to arts education.

Now, as a full-time teacher at P.S./I.S. 121 Nelson Rockefeller in Brooklyn, she is hoping to help her students feel connected to school through music, and inspire a few musicians in the process.

This interview has been lightly edited.

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style:

Energetic. I am always excited to try new things and take risks with the kids, and we feed off of each other’s energy and enthusiasm.

Why did you become a teacher?

Learning music in public school changed my life. I wanted to give that same opportunity to other children.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a completely hands-on room, where all of the instruments are laid out all around you. The students are able to pick up whichever instrument they’re currently working on and jump right into a rehearsal. Even the students as young as kindergarten are able to take out the rhythm instruments and share them with the class.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________.

Smartboard.

Why?

The students are constantly asking to learn new songs or to try out new things. We can quickly pull up anything they are interested in and try it out right away.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?

Modern Rock Band. I took the Little Kids Rock workshop, [which helps teachers learn to use music students already listen to], and they introduced the Modern Rock Band curriculum. It is the easiest and quickest way to get students who don’t even know how to hold an instrument to begin playing songs that they recognize and can sing along to. The students sound like a real rock band within just a few lessons.

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

I first try to understand what it is they’re having trouble with. If I try explaining it a different way and they’re still struggling, I ask one of their classmates to help. They often have a way of explaining things from their own viewpoint that they understand much better from each other.

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

If the whole class needs to be brought back to attention, I’ll pick up a guitar and start playing a song. One or two more students might join in, and the rest of the class will enjoy the short performance. Then I remind them that this is what we’re working toward, and get them back to work. If I just have one or two students having trouble paying attention, I’ll put them in charge of helping another student. They really enjoy taking ownership of their skills and knowledge.

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 try to be very real with my students. They see that I’m a person too, and I make mistakes. We have a motto in our classroom: Respect yourself, each other, and the instruments. I treat them like young adults, and they give me the same respect. They also like to read the inspirational posters we have hanging in the room like: “It’s okay to make a mistake when you’ve tried. It’s a mistake not to try.”

We talk about how it’s inevitable that we’re going to make a mistake, because we’re trying new things. And we may even feel embarrassed now and then. But we’re all in this together. When someone is struggling, I can hear them calling out and quoting that poster to each other. The music room is a safe place for a lot of them. They stop by when they’re having a rough day, and they know they won’t be judged here.

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

I had a student who had a very different home life from what I had imagined. When he often forgot his instrument and lost his music, I assumed he just wasn’t that interested. I learned that he was often going to a different house each night, and he was doing his best to overcome his own obstacles. I invited him to come rehearse with me during lunch, and gave him a second set of instruments and music to keep at school. He became one of my best musicians that year.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Tomorrow is another day. Even if everything goes completely wrong, we can try it all again tomorrow. A bad dress rehearsal often precedes an amazing performance.

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

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.