How I Teach

How I Teach: From philosophy professor to high school government teacher

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kyle Grady begins his high school government class at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Memphis.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Kyle Grady, Freedom Preparatory Academy

When Kyle Grady earned his doctorate in philosophy, he knew he would be a teacher. But he didn’t expect to work with high school students.

After a few years teaching in Memphis at Rhodes College, though, he became more interested in understanding how students learn. That meant leaving the college classroom.

“So much has already been decided by the time they get to college,” he said. “I wanted to get on the other side of the process.”

Grady ended up at Freedom Preparatory Academy, one of Memphis’ highest performing charter networks. This year, he’s teaching 12th grade government and economics. Here’s what he had to say about getting students to connect with the material and developing critical thinking skills.

What’s a word or short phrase to describe your teaching style?

Teaching is not about putting sight in blind eyes, but developing curiosity. I like to tap into what [students] are already interested in thinking about and finding a way to connect the material to themselves.

What does your classroom look like?

The seating is seminar style. They are forced to look across the room at each other in the eye. I want them to pose their own questions and not have to look up front, just focused on me.

What’s the most interesting contrast between high school and college students?

High school students are much less hesitant about speaking their minds on complex and sensitive issues, which means that we can get right to the heart of controversial questions much more quickly. This is a difference that I never anticipated before I started teaching high school.

What’s the most fun you had teaching this year so far?

Being able to discuss the presidential election results with my government students, who showed how much they have developed a deep understanding of our political system. There were many strong emotions and confusing questions for us all to process that day, but my students gave me a lot of hope for our political future.

What’s your favorite lesson to teach?

I teach a lesson on the concept of justice in which students begin by choosing a set of laws from the perspective of their own identity, then repeat the process with an identity — age, sex, race, etc. — that is randomly assigned to them. It’s always amazing to watch how quickly this shift in perspective affects students’ sense of fairness, and ultimately the laws that they find just.

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

Sometimes we plan on certain assumptions and we find out we’ve made all the wrong guesses on what they know. In that situation, you just have to get rid of your plan and use class discussion to steer the class back to the topic at hand. One time, we segued to social media when talking about political philosophies. Eventually, there was a thread of connection about societal pressures that got us back on track.

What are you reading for fun?

I’m terrible about always being in the middle of several books at the same time. On my nightstand right now are a collection of essays by John Muir, a copy of Homer’s Odyssey, and book called “Against Democracy.”

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Trust the path you’re on. The philosopher Hegel wrote something that has always resonated with me: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” We tend not to understand processes that we’re involved in until they reach their conclusions. But all the choices we’ve made, all the people we’ve met, everything we’ve learned has set us on the path we’re taking. Sometimes we need to keep moving forward, even when we don’t know exactly where that path is taking us.

How I Teach

She became a special education teacher by accident. Then she fell in love with her job.

PHOTO: Anna Vick
Special education teacher Anna Vick in her classroom at Highlands Ranch High School in Douglas County.

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.

Anna Vick, a special education teacher at Highlands Ranch High School in the Douglas County School District, has no shortage of tools to get students learning.

She uses art projects, YouTube videos, music, aromatherapy, brain breaks and more to reach her students, all of whom have serious emotional disabilities.

Vick is one of 15 teachers who were selected for the inaugural Colorado Teaching Policy Fellowship operated by the national nonprofit Teach Plus. The nine-month program aims to involve teacher leaders in state-level education policy discussions, including how the state responds to the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always loved working with children, but fell into the field of special education somewhat by accident. I was hired on as a teaching assistant, and my role ended up being allocated to special education. Although I wasn’t sure about the idea, I tried it and fell in love.

One of my biggest inspirations as an educator is my cousin, Katie, who is on the autism spectrum. As we are close in age, I grew up learning about Katie’s needs along with her incredible talents and strengths. We have always had a strong relationship, and knowing her has given me insight into creative ways that I can best support my students.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of student artwork. Specifically for students with emotional support needs, art can be very therapeutic and has been a positive outlet throughout the school year.

I love globes, so we have several of those around the room, too. On a sensory note, there are muted covers for our bright fluorescent lights in order to help students stay more regulated. The covers cast more of a yellow light, creating a soothing atmosphere. We are lucky to have big windows for natural light as well. Aromatherapy and mindfulness/relaxation music have also made a positive difference in the room.

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

I love using videos to supplement my teaching. Especially when students are heavily impacted in reading or communication, videos can bring out learning that might not have connected otherwise.

I’ve found some great instructional videos on YouTube for math concepts. I’ll often use these on the projector at the beginning of the period and then introduce a game or activity where students can apply the skill in collaboration with staff and peers. They learn without even realizing it, and this has been a great way to reach students with serious emotional disabilities who might not be able to engage in a lecture/textbook teaching format.

How do you plan your lessons?

I use online resources, talk with fellow teachers, and get creative about options and activities that can create differentiation for each student. Even if I don’t take the resource straight from a website, I often look online just to get ideas on effective ways to teach and reinforce concepts. I can modify these ideas to create a lesson more targeted to the needs of my students, but teaching blogs and websites give me great ideas regarding practical applications of skills and concepts. I also use backwards planning, which allows me to think about the bigger picture and identify the end goal before beginning the planning process.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?

An ideal lesson has something for all learners and is differentiated based on pace and need. I try to incorporate technology, reading, writing, independent work, activities, games, discussion, and some direct instruction in each unit (and ideally, each day). I am grateful for the opportunity to work in the center-based program, as having a smaller caseload allows me to truly teach to the student and avoid letting students get “lost in the crowd.”

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

I always encourage students engaging and collaborating, even if they are incorrect on the concept itself. I am always so thrilled to have students asking or answering questions. That, in and of itself, is a target for me before any actual content can be learned. Therefore, if a student expresses or shows that he or she is not understanding the content, I first positively reinforce the fact that engagement is happening in the first place. I then sit with the student in a small group or one-on-one, addressing the issue through multiple modes of instruction (e.g. technology/video learning, talking through concepts, showing visuals, etc.). One of the best feelings as a teacher is seeing the conceptual block clear so a student can move forward after mastering content.

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

I really enjoy brain breaks and physical activity during classes. Specifically with my student population, I have found taking walks to be very effective. It’s great when weather is warm enough to go outside, but even a walk around the building can help students refocus during long block days. If students are disengaging in the middle of instruction, I might also try changing my method; for instance, giving some independent work instead of direct instruction, allowing students to practice problems on the whiteboard, adding some background music, or giving a different kind of visual support.

How do you maintain communication with parents?

I send daily parent communication sheets as a “back and forth log” for student behavior, learning, and progress. Other than this, I make a point of asking parents what is the best method of communication for them. I am happy to text, email, call or meet in-person with parents to discuss issues or concerns as they arise. I also find it helpful to reach out to parents just to check in or report a positive for the day. On my daily sheets, I am sure to fill out the “celebration” space each time. Even on the most challenging of days, this helps me to think of a positive piece for the student. It impacts my perspective, and I hope it impacts the perspectives of students and parents reading the sheet each day.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?

Color, color, color! I find color-coding for errors, citation problems, spelling, sentence structure, etc. can help both my students and I to determine the areas in which further support is necessary. I typically grade online to keep the process streamlined, and often post my comments in the Google Drive or in the word processor that we’re using.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I read a great deal of non-fiction, but Dostoevsky is one of my all-time favorite authors. Crime and Punishment is the best.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

“If people knew better, they’d do better.” I was working in a school with a very high poverty rate and the staff faced many difficult situations each day. I had an administrator who always reminded us of this, helping us to take the blame off of others and to look at bigger systemic issues to support and educate for growth.

As an advocate for collaborative problem-solving, I have learned that students behave appropriately when they can. If a student is demonstrating problem behaviors, the function must be examined along with the lagging skills. Targeting interventions in these areas is the surest key to success. Work smarter, not harder!

Bridging the divide

Red meets blue: How students can find common ground in Trump’s America

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Student leaders in Memphis talk about how to facilitate conversations at their high schools to promote honesty, respect and understanding in a divided America.

A group of Arizona students proudly unfurl a Confederate flag during the Pledge of Allegiance. Male students in Indiana are emboldened to touch girls inappropriately. In Tennessee, a student declares that Spanish classes aren’t needed because President-elect Donald Trump is “sending all the Mexicans back.”

In the wake of Trump’s election in November, reports of derogatory language, harassment and even assault have increased substantially in America’s schools, according to a national survey of more than 10,000 educators.

Now as the nation prepares for Trump’s inauguration on Friday, numerous groups are working to equip student leaders to help their classmates find common ground in an increasingly polarized climate.

Chalkbeat listened in recently in Memphis as six student leaders from different schools and diverse backgrounds talked about how to foster understanding. The discussion was organized by Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit organization that trains students of diverse ideologies and identities to examine prejudice together.

The student leaders came together from public and private schools in parts of Shelby County that are both red and blue. They represent ideologies that are conservative, moderate and liberal in a city where nearly one in three people live in poverty and schools have become increasingly racially segregated. Here are five themes that emerged:

Recognize that polarization exists.

Students first must acknowledge that healing is needed, said Khamilla Johnson, a 17-year-old black student at Overton High School.

“There are a lot of people who feel like there’s no need to heal because there’s nothing wrong,” she said. “So, first of all, we have to educate people on the different perspectives of what’s happened, especially coming from the different diversity of America. There are certain groups that have felt attacked during the election, post-election.”

Set a tone that honors honesty and respect.

Leodan Rodriguez, a senior at White Station High School, helped to frame the conversation at his school just two days after Election Day.

In a video of his remarks over the school’s loudspeaker, Rodriguez called on classmates to focus on their similarities in one of the most diverse schools in the city. It was important, he said, to assure students that they could speak out honestly, as long as they do so respectfully.

“From there, so many conversations were brought in different classes with so many groups of students, which I really liked,” said Rodriguez, a first-generation Mexican-American who voted in his first presidential election in November. Before that day, “I felt like there was such a lack of conversation and a lack of exposure to this type of environment where you’re able to speak out and not be necessarily judged for it.”

Among those who felt anxiety at her school was Addie Quinlen, an 18-year-old senior at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, who voted for a third-party candidate. As a white conservative, she felt under attack and ostracized for her beliefs amid the heat of the campaign rhetoric.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Amal Altareb speaks with student leaders from other schools.

“(Students and teachers were) looking at Donald Trump and saying this man is hateful. This man is intolerant. And it felt like everyone was turning around and treating his supporters in the same way,” she said of the day after the election. “Even if you don’t feel like you can’t respect their opinion, you can respect their right to their opinion. And I think my school lost that that day. But hopefully we can regain that.”

A climate of fear and anxiety can have a chilling effect on free speech, said Amal Altareb, a Muslim who attends Central High School. She said that, though most students at her school were upset by Trump’s victory, many would not speak up during class discussions.

“What I didn’t like was in every classroom that I went to, almost the whole class would agree on the same side and I felt like there were some students who disagreed but they did not have enough courage to say I disagree with you because the whole class would attack them,” she said.

Through Facing History and Ourselves, student leaders are trained to facilitate discussion, often setting up “contracts” that include showing respect, being honest, suspending judgment, and not making assumptions about others with different opinions.


Read Chalkbeat’s story on what we saw and heard in Tennessee schools on the day after Election Day.


“When everyone gets to talk, everyone talks less” from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Identify common goals.

In a divisive climate, students must be reminded that they also have things in common, which can be a starting point for conversation, said Altareb.

“I think a way that could bridge the division in America is to remind everyone that everyone wants to make America great again,” the 16-year-old junior said of Trump’s campaign slogan. “Everyone wants to live a comfortable life where they’re not discriminated against, where they have jobs, good education, just whatever. Everyone wants to have a good life and that’s our common goal.”

“I’m going to trust my president-elect” from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Watch after students who are vulnerable.

In an emotionally charged environment, it’s imperative to speak out against discrimination of vulnerable groups, the students agreed.

Ema Wagner

Rodriguez’s speech, for instance, was in response to reports that students yelled “Go Trump” in the halls of White Station High School in an effort to intimidate Hispanic students.

“On either side, we like to ignore certain groups of people because they’re small or they disagree with us, so we just want to put that out of our minds,” said Ema Wagner, a senior at White Station. “But with learning about different perspectives, we need to stop ignoring other people that are different than us because that’s just a sore that festers.”

Emphasize the value of listening to each other.

While Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton easily carried the vote in urban Memphis, Rahm Bakshi is a senior at Arlington High School in the Memphis bedroom community of Arlington, where Trump received strong support. Noting that his classmates’ political conversation happened mostly online, Bakshi observed that both conservative and liberal students became “echo chambers” of what they heard on social media, rather than seeking to listen to each other.

“In a lot of the mainstream media, I noticed a lot of fear mongering on both sides. That just divides everyone. Because, you know, fear is an emotion. It’s not rational,” Bakshi said. “And I feel like it still does happen on both sides.”

He continued: “It’s not about the side, it’s about the truth. I’d rather believe the truth than the agenda or narrative that someone is spewing for whoever.”

Quinlen hopes she and other student leaders can do a better job of promoting understanding as the nation transitions to a new president.

“I don’t think it’s possible for us to get it perfectly right, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on it,” she said. “And that doesn’t mean that we can’t improve where we are.”