How I Teach

Live, from Music City, an elementary school teacher presents life lessons with a beat

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Christopher Blackmon leads second-grade students in a song he wrote and composed as a music teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Nashville.

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.

Sixteen miles from Music Row, a bustling nexus of Nashville’s recording industry, second-grade students are hard at work perfecting a single at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School.

“Winners, winners don’t quit. They don’t quit!” they sing, reading lyrics and music on a screen. “If I can believe it, then I can achieve it! I must leave my doubts behind.”

Then come the dance moves. Students shake and wiggle with exuberance.

The songwriting credit goes to Christopher Blackmon, a music teacher at Edison Elementary and one of 31 educators nationwide named 2017 Music Teachers of Excellence by the Country Music Association. The CMA Foundation is honoring the group Wednesday at a Nashville event hosted by Little Big Town, the CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year.

The acknowledgement draws attention to music education at a time when such programs are being slashed from public schools nationwide. But at Edison Elementary, the pace for teaching and learning music is picking up. In addition to providing instruction twice a week during school, Blackmon and a colleague lead after-school activities that include piano lessons and video production. More than 100 students, or about a sixth of the student body, participate in extra musical enrichment.

Here’s how Blackmon inspires students to love music, and to extend their enthusiasm to other academic subjects. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was most impacted by my high school music experience. We had a great program. I was in the band. I played tuba and baritone, but I also played jazz piano for a jazz combo. My band teacher was somebody you just look up to.

I’m always trying to push kids toward having a strong, principled life that means something and contributes something positive to the culture. With music education, I felt like I could teach both music and those positive character principles that I think kids need.

What does your classroom look like?

There’s a big open space in the middle and toward the front because it’s versatile. I do a lot of things with instruments and I set the instruments out and I have students rotating so they can see the screen, where I have the music up. I like to use less paper because students are just going to throw it away anyway.

They also dance a lot. In fact, they dance every day they come here. Probably, if I hadn’t been a music teacher, I would’ve been in P.E. Exercise helps brain development. The coordinated movement, especially symmetrical movements, where you cross the meridians of your body, is very important to cross-hemispheric development. Music as a whole is. That’s why I am such an advocate for music education, especially at the elementary level. I do a lot of stuff with audio production, (and) I could teach that in high school, but I think this is where people’s foundations are. I want to impact the beginning. I want to impact those foundations and help them establish their lives.

I have keyboards along the back of my room. I inherited 10 and then I have begged, borrowed and stole to get a class set so I can teach kids piano. I actually designed these. It allows four kids to sit at a table and hear only their keyboard through headphones. I can have some kids moving faster working together, some kids moving slower working together.

There’s so much research that shows that kids who get early piano instruction — piano or guitar — their brains develop more gray matter. The research shows over and over that they score higher on tests, that they do better with certain types of problem-solving skills, and so it’s better for everybody, whether or not they’re going to stick with it in real life.

What can’t you teach without?

(Click to listen to this track.)


Every time they walk into the classroom, they don’t get a chance to ask me questions and talk, because I told them I want to hear music first.

This little track is really effective because it reminds them what they’re going to do every single day, and then they know what to expect, but it gets harder and harder each time. It starts my class out the same way, but it doesn’t take a long time, and by five minutes into the class, they have already grown musically.

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

I try to catch the ones doing right and then comment on it because people will look at them and they’ll pull it together. I’ll say, “I love how so-and-so is being a STAR.” My little STAR thing is just: stand up straight, track the speaker, actively participate, respectfully celebrate. I say it all the time.

If a kid is just totally not getting it together, sometimes I’ll say, “Can you go write down and say how you would fix this?” That usually helps them.

How does parental communicate fit into your teaching approach?

When I see kids with musical talent, I write a personal note or call that parent and let them know that I really recommend that they get some kind of lesson or connect that child to music in some other kind of way. A lot of time, that will be a hook to get students through school when it’s hard.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It sounds like common sense, but the best advice I ever received was about classroom management from Sue Hall, who was the last music teacher here. She said, “Whatever you say you’re going to do, do it.” If you don’t have the respect of the students, you cannot teach them. It doesn’t matter how much they like you — I mean, they can love you — but if they don’t respect you, they don’t behave. And if they don’t behave, they cannot learn.

What does it mean to be teaching music in Music City?

What I do wouldn’t be accepted by a lot of music programs. Sometimes they just want you to do stale old canned musicals they found somewhere, or they want you to teach in a traditional way. I teach in a very non-traditional way, because I’m exposing kids to the real music machine. These kids could make a living in a lot of different ways in music. Traditionally, it’s very classical-based instruction. But if they know how to produce music and they have a good idea, you can make a living. You don’t have to be a big label anymore.

Here’s a music video created and produced by Blackmon and students in an afterschool program:

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? 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.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.

How I Teach

Tupac, Shakespeare, and ‘Stranger Things’: How a top Tennessee teacher relates to her students

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Katherine Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the the Milken Family Foundation.

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 Katherine Watkins found out she would receive a prestigious national teaching award, her students at Millington Central High wrapped her into a huge bear hug.

“We relate to her because she relates to us,” one of her students said when asked why they enjoyed her class. Watkins was honored as a Milken Educator Award last November in front of her students, colleagues and Tennessee’s top education official.

Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the Milken Family Foundation.

We asked Watkins about how she strives for relatability in her classrooms, where she teaches literature, English and coordinates the school’s yearbooks. Millington Central High is racially diverse and made up of about thousand students, one-third of which are described as economically disadvantaged.

Read in her own words how she uses pop culture to build classroom rapport and how she learned not to get flustered when her students got off track. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of books, images, and objects I’ve collected from my travels. These include a handmade Venetian mask I brought back from Italy, pictures I took while standing in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and a twelve-volume, leather-bound edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare that was published in London in 1786

Some people might say I’ve lost my mind to keep such precious relics within reach of teenagers, but I interpret the “value” of these treasures somewhat differently. I want desperately for my students to know and care about the world that exists beyond their immediate reality, and sometimes the best way to achieve that is through tactile experience. I’m trying to cultivate independent thinkers who have the confidence to test limits, ask tough questions, and arrive at their own conclusions. That can’t happen without direct confrontation with the unfamiliar, and until I can afford to actually take them to the places we read about in the literature we study, my souvenirs will have to suffice.

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

I could not teach without my close-knit group of teacher friends. This is only my third year at my current school, but everyone was so warm and welcoming when I arrived that it really felt like coming home. We even have a group chat we use every day to share funny memes, vent about our frustrations, offer words of encouragement, and talk through ideas. Feeling like you can be yourself around friends in a judgment-free zone makes all the difference when it comes to a high-stress job like teaching.  Without that kind of solidarity, I know I wouldn’t be nearly as resilient or effective in the classroom.

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

I used to get visibly flustered if students were talking or off task during the lesson. It took me a couple years in the classroom to realize that getting upset is the least effective way to deal with this problem. Many students misbehave because they crave attention, so getting upset is the same as relinquishing control. Nowadays, I vary my approach depending on the severity and intent of the disruption, but regardless of the situation, I never lose my cool.

I have the most success defusing behavioral disruptions through the use of nonverbal cues, which can be as simple as changing my position in the room. For example, if a cluster of students is off task while I’m addressing the whole group, I continue lecturing and simply move to where the problem is occurring and the behavior stops. I’ve also become a sort of Jedi master at the don’t-you-even-think-about-it stare of disapproval. The right look delivered at the right moment can work wonders for classroom management. 

PHOTO: Katherine Watkins
Watkins said she starts each year by giving her kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences.

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

Before my first day at Millington Central High, I had little idea what to expect of my new school and its students. I had driven through Millington a time or two on my way to other destinations, but that was the extent of my familiarity with this community. During my initial interview, I was briefed on school demographics: Millington is ethnically diverse with a high percentage of economic disadvantage, a large SPED population, and nearly a quarter of students coming from single-parent households. It would be a lie to say I never questioned whether the school would be the right fit for me. I worried about my ability to make a connection. Would my students accept me? Would I be able to make a difference in their lives?

I always start each year by giving my kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences. I use this information to get to know students and begin establishing a rapport. Left to my own devices, for example, I would never be motivated to keep up with pop culture trends, but if a large number of my students are listening to a particular artist or watching a specific TV show (Stranger Things anybody?), I make a point of consuming the same media so I can connect with them over more than just academic content. This extra effort on my part—cultural research, if you will—has worked wonders with the kids at Millington. The look of shock on their faces when they realize I can quote lines from Hamlet as readily as the lyrics to any 2Pac song is priceless.

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

Knowing what’s going on in a student’s home life is a crucial part of being a good teacher, and I always try to consider the bigger picture when difficult situations arise. I have had students come forward with stories of abuse, students who have experienced the death of a parent, and students who are basically raising their younger siblings because Mom works three jobs and Dad isn’t around. A student who arrives to school late and sleeps through first period could just be lazy, but it would be callous and irresponsible to punish the child without first having a conversation to find out what’s causing the behavior. We can’t forget that kids are human beings too, some of whom are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Teaching has made me realize that you can never really know what someone else is going through until you make the effort to understand. This is why it’s so important to reserve judgment and approach students with patience and compassion.