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.

How I Teach

To teach American music, this Colorado teacher takes students back in time

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

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.

Dave Lunn, the band and orchestra director at Liberty Common High School in Fort Collins, was working at a coffee shop when he got the offer to start a band program at the new charter school.

Although he taught private music lessons at the time, he’d never planned to go into teaching. That was his parents’ field, not his.

But once he got started at Liberty Common, where he teaches music theory and music history, too, he knew it was the career for him.

Lunn, who was one of seven finalists for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked to Chalkbeat about why his unit on American Roots music is so important, how a Japanese concept influences his teaching and why he loves parent-teacher conferences.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Both of my parents were teachers, so to forge my own identity, I tried to follow a different path. On the side, I had developed a considerable private music studio, teaching saxophone and other instruments, so I became known in the music education community as a private instructor.

While working as a barista, one of my customers who knew that I taught music lessons was involved in starting a new charter school called Liberty Common School. She approached me about starting a band program as an extracurricular activity for the students. What began as a group of 25 students grew into a music program with five bands and a string orchestra at a school that I have now been working at for 20 years. I guess you could say that teaching found me, because as soon as I began, I knew that it was what I was meant to do. I mainly knew this, because I wouldn’t get that pit in my stomach on Sunday evenings that was such a familiar feeling in other jobs. I loved (and still do) the fact that that being a teacher offered endless opportunities to be creative and more effective.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom communicates two things: 1. My love for all kinds of music (which I hope to be contagious) is broadcast everywhere. There are posters up and musical instruments of all kinds everywhere (I am very clear about which ones are available for students to play and when). 2. That students are welcome. One of my colleagues has dubbed my room “The Oasis,” because stressed-out students often come in during down time to play the piano, or one of the guitars hanging on the wall, or even to study in a low-stress atmosphere.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
My sense of humor. Ever since I was a kid, I loved being (or trying to be) funny. For better or worse, it defined my high school career, as I was voted “Class Clown” of my senior class. In teaching, it has been a great tool for engaging students in the lesson and even more importantly, building relationships. It also keeps me from getting bored!

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite unit is called “American Roots Music.” I teach this unit in a high school class called Introduction to Music History and Theory. In it, I guide students through an American musical “tree,” in which I demonstrate that most of American popular music can be traced back to the folk songs of slaves in the United States. We then discuss how this beautiful music was anonymously created out of the most miserable and unjust circumstances imaginable. We discuss how, after the abolition of slavery, this music would evolve into gospel and blues music, each branching out into yet more musical genres. We explore the many styles of blues that emerged, such as Delta blues, Chicago blues and Kansas City blues, and the tremendous influence those styles would birth. We journey to New Orleans, and learn about how the unique mixing of African, French, Spanish, and Caribbean cultures would eventually create jazz music. We then trace the evolution of jazz through all of its many styles. Finally, we learn about how the meeting of African-American rhythm and blues with white American country music developed into rock and roll.

There are many reasons that this is my favorite unit to teach. Although I am a band and orchestra director, I love lecturing and putting together presentations, and I do so every chance I get. I’m a performer at heart. I believe that the best performances aren’t just spectacles, but involve and engage the audience. The audience should leave a great performance changed, with a new way of looking at things. American Roots music speaks to my soul like no other music. I want my students to understand what I understand about the sublimity of this music.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
The challenge of teaching is, for me, all about striving to help a student understand the concept or material that I am presenting. Like most teachers, I present material in as many ways as I possibly can: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. I am always checking for understanding through the questions I ask. If I feel that a student still doesn’t understand (and really wants to), I will try to find one-on-one time to work with him or her.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
In my more traditional, lecture-oriented classes, I begin by playing interesting music that we have learned about during the previous lesson. I slowly raise the volume until I see all eyes up front. As soon as I stop the music, I begin teaching immediately, by beginning with something engaging. What I am trying to do is keep the pace lively, and not to leave any room for other distractions to take the energy away.

I also move around the room quite a bit, so that every student in the class is effectively “sitting up front.” In my music ensembles classes, routines are worked out during the first few days of school to establish when it is acceptable to play your instrument or talk, and when the attention needs to be on me as the conductor. The use of a conductor’s podium and a baton are what makes this happen. My whole goal is to avoid shouting above the din of the classroom. It works most of the time.

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 take a great interest in getting to know my students individually and, honestly, this is where I put the majority of my energy and receive the most fulfillment back. I use humor to build rapport, establish “buy in,” and disarm any negativity. Other than that, I just pay attention to how different students respond to situations, and I get to know their strengths and weaknesses through our experiences in the classroom. My hope is to be the kind of teacher and mentor that they need.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I know it may sound strange, but I enjoy parent-teacher conferences every year. This is when I get to know the families of new students, as well as continue to build relationships with parents that I have known for years. I always come away with new insights into students who I thought I already knew so much about. While the overwhelming majority of these interactions are positive, I value the more challenging encounters just as much. I learn something every year that helps be get better as an educator.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished a book about world poverty and possible solutions called “UnPoverty: Rich Lessons from the Working Poor” by Mark Lutz. I know this sounds odd for “reading for enjoyment,” but my daughter is spending a gap year working in Nicaragua, and I read it along with her to get a better insight into the nature of the work she is doing. It’s fascinating and soul-provoking.

I also am reading a book called “Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers” by Nick Offerman from the television show “Parks and Recreation.” That is one of my favorite shows, and I got to meet Nick Offerman at a book-signing where I bought the book. It’s a collection of short essays about people he admires. It’s filled with his trademark dry humor and wisdom.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My first principal and education mentor, Dr. Kathryn Knox, mentioned a word that she picked up while living in Japan. The word is “muda,” and it roughly means futility, uselessness, wastefulness. She said that her password at the time was “muda gone”. This inspired me at the time to identify those things that could interfere with my effectiveness as a teacher, and even more importantly, my passion for teaching. There are so many elements in an educator’s career that threaten to weigh us down with “muda,” and keep us from focusing in keeping the joy of learning alive in our students. I have always tried to give all “muda” only the minimal space in my mind that is required, so that my energy is fully available for teaching. It has worked well so far.

How I Teach

Why we decided to launch the Great American Teach-Off, and how it will work (updated)

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post
Algebra teacher Jessica Edwards helps students with math problems during her 9th grade algebra class at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, Colorado.

This post has been updated, as of January 4, 2018, to add the names of our design team members and to reflect our final Teach-Off design.

Two years ago, SXSW EDU approached me to be the keynote speaker at their conference in Austin, Texas. My book, Building a Better Teacher, had come out the year before, and they wanted me to talk about it. I floated a counter-proposal: Instead of having me, a journalist, stand on stage and talk about teaching, what if a teacher stood on stage and actually taught?

The idea stemmed from my reporting in Japan, where I watched public research lessons — complete lessons taught before an audience of fellow teachers, and followed by a discussion of what could be learned from the teaching episode. Public lessons are common in Japanese schools, part of the larger practice of jugyokenkyu, or lesson study. I absolutely loved observing these lessons and the discussions afterward. Each one was a gripping drama packed with confusion, struggle, and moments of revelation. I had already begun to see teaching through new eyes when I traveled to Japan — not as a matter of charisma and personality, the common American understanding, but as a craft — and these research lessons built on, and deepened, that lesson.

As I wrote in my book, “Teachers not only had to think; they had to think about other people’s thinking. They were an army of everyday epistemologists, forced to consider what it meant to know something and then reproduce that transformation in their students. Teaching was more than story time on the rug. It was the highest form of knowing.”

How amazing would it be if I could find a way for other Americans to have that same experience I had, learning, anew, what teaching is all about, without traveling to Japan? Alas, SXSW EDU said no to my proposal, but the organizers kept the door open to showcasing live teaching at a future conference. Two years later, when we discussed the idea again, they said they wanted to pursue it, and the seeds of our Teach-Off experiment were planted.

The original idea was Iron Chef, for teachers. That came from Akihiko Takahashi, a professor of education here in the U.S. who spent his early career in Japan, and a champion for bringing lesson study to America. Takahashi told me about a twist on the public research lesson, inspired by Iron Chef, in which two teachers teach live lessons back to back — each tackling the same topic, but through a different approach, like chefs cooking the same set of ingredients to different effect. As I wrote about in an excerpt of my book for the New York Times Magazine, he’d participated in such a “teach-off” on a stage in front of 1,000 teachers.

"I absolutely loved observing these lessons and the discussions afterward. Each one was a gripping drama packed with confusion, struggle, and moments of revelation."

If I wanted to give more people the learning experience I had, and do it in the U.S., the Iron Chef approach seemed perfect. But as my colleagues at Chalkbeat and I began talking with SXSW EDU about how we could actually pull such a thing off, we realized it would be all but impossible, at least this year.

Critical to lesson study is that a teacher teaches his or her own students. That way, he knows what the students do and don’t understand before going into the lesson. And it honors an essential truth of teaching: that each lesson is just one page in the long book of a year or more’s worth of learning. Flying two teachers and their students to Austin, and all the legal and logistical work that would require, seemed beyond possible to us in the time we had. But SXSW EDU was a big stage, and we didn’t want to turn the opportunity down without considering: Might there be a more doable version?

As we were thinking about this, I happened to attend a day of lectures and discussion honoring the career of Magdalene Lampert, a master teacher educator who was also, along with Takahashi, a main character in my book. Lampert has dedicated her career, in part, to explaining the complex nature of teaching within the over-simplified culture of American public policy. In the last several years she had hit on a concept that colleagues of hers were using in teacher education: the instructional activity, a classroom routine that can be used with students — and also, crucially, practiced (“rehearsed,” in her words) in lower-risk settings without actual students, like a teacher education classroom where fellow students play the part of children in a class.

At the center of the event honoring Lampert, held at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was a demonstration of an instructional activity, also known as an instructional routine. In the demonstration, Elham Kazemi, a professor of math and science education at the University of Washington, led a group of adults in an instructional activity called “choral counting,” while Lampert acted in the role of teacher educator, offering feedback to Kazemi as she walked us through the activity.

Everyone in the room was riveted: by the lesson, which had us counting by 7’s and looking for patterns, and also by the teaching, which Lampert and Kazemi unveiled together, vividly, showcasing the many decisions Kazemi had to make, from how to organize the numbers on the whiteboard to help us see the patterns to how to design the activity and how to respond to our questions. This work is almost always invisible to the general public, but via the instructional activity, Lampert and Kazemi taught us two lessons — the first about math and numbers, and the second about teaching. I had the same feeling I did during public lessons in Japan: a gripping reminder of how complicated, challenging, and awesome teaching can be.

Afterward, I talked with some of the other attendees about our SXSW EDU opportunity, and an incredible group was formed. I called them our “design team” — teacher educators who thought there had to be a way to work within the constraints of our limited budget and timeline to teach a broader audience something important about teaching. One member of the group told me about her long-standing fascination with cooking and singing competition shows: how they showcased an intricate craft to a broad audience (the broadest!). She’d long thought, in her private time, about how a similar show might work for teaching. In a way, that was already part of her job as a teacher educator, helping novices come to unlearn their starting-point assumptions about teaching and see the work in a new, more complicated, and more truthful light.

When we all left Cambridge, I asked this design team to join me and our executive editor for a series of phone calls to determine if there was a way we could achieve our goals within the context we had been given. It wasn’t lost on me that the challenge we presented our design team with was not unlike what teachers have to do every day: work within far from perfect settings to achieve a learning goal that can sometimes feel impossible, given the constraints. Unsurprisingly, the design team stepped up brilliantly, and the Great American Teach-Off was born.

We’ll share more soon about how the competition is aimed at working within constraints. A few of the problems we sought to solve and our solutions to them:

How could we approximate some of the most important work of teaching in a condensed amount of time?

The concept of an instructional activity is a huge help here. Think of the instructional activity like a very well chosen book excerpt. It’s impossible to convey the fullness of a book without actually reading it, but a great excerpt can take a slice of what it feels like to read the book. By using instructional activities for our lesson challenge, we realized we could show the complexity of teaching in a period of time much shorter than an average lesson.

How could we approximate teaching without actual students?

This is a huge constraint, but it is also one that teacher educators have worked hard to solve for, and we decided to borrow from what they have learned. While some purists believe teaching can’t be taught until a teacher has a classroom all his or her own, others take the position that it’s important to give people who are learning to teach experiences that are, in their words, “approximated” versions of the real thing before they become full-blown teachers.

Both Lampert and Pam Grossman, dean of of the University of Pennsylvania’s education school, have shown that teachers can learn about teaching when their colleagues act in the role of students. Kazemi and Lampert’s instructional activity at Harvard, meanwhile, showed me that even with a large audience of adults acting as students, many important parts of teaching could still be made visible. The crucial and essential work of understanding students’ developing thinking over the course of a year cannot be directly seen, but with a solid discussion afterward of what the slice of teaching shows us, it does not fully disappear. We’re building on these models as we design the Teach-Off.

How could we make the invisible work of teaching visible in a contest setting?

Since making the invisible visible is, well, our entire goal here, we knew we couldn’t just have a contest in which teachers taught live on stage. We also needed lots of opportunities to help the audience peer inside teachers’ heads and see what thinking they were doing as they taught. Cooking and singing competition shows offered some great models for how to do this in the form of the celebrity judges, the “coaches” who sometimes are assigned to contestants offstage, and the host who interviews everyone about how they are making their decisions. We decided that our Teach-Off would include all of these roles: a coach for each team of teachers, judges who are skilled teacher educators and would understand that their role was not to critique but to unpack and help the audience “see” the teaching, and finally a host who could interview not just the judges but also the teachers themselves about how they tackled their lesson challenge. (Sidenote: We haven’t identified people to fit all these roles yet, so if you’re interested, please let us know!)

Is a competition appropriate? [UPDATED January 4, 2018]

We wrestled with this a lot, and ultimately our revised design eliminates the competition element. There won’t be a winner of the Teach-Off, only prizes that a panel of judges award to each participating team.

Some have speculated that we faced pressure from sponsors or some other force to make the Teach-Off competitive. We didn’t. We were attracted to the format because of the narrative power a contest holds for an audience. The stakes of being anointed the “winner,” or not, would have been completely made-up, but we hoped they would also make people keep watching.

Nevertheless, as we saw many teachers recoil at the thought of a competition, we decided the narrative stakes were less important than what was always our ultimate goal: to showcase the way that teachers plan, re-plan, re-think, revise, both beforehand and on the spot, and to honor that work with all the force we can muster. As I said in the earlier version of this post, if we pull this off, the real winners won’t be either team of teachers. They’ll be the audience and the general public, who will learn what it takes to engage in the professional practice on display.

We’re still finalizing the design of this event in real time, and surely we don’t have this in its best possible form just yet. We welcome discussion of what it takes to make the work of teaching public. And we also offer deepest gratitude to SXSW EDU and the philanthropists who made it possible for us to take up this opportunity in the first place. I especially want to thank our design team: Julie Sloan of the Boston Teacher Residency, David Wees of New Visions for Public Schools, and Amy Lucenta of Fostering Math Practices. These teachers and teacher educators have donated a lot of time and thoughtfulness to making this a success, and their generosity of time and spirit inspire me.

Enter the Great American Teach-Off contest here by January 19, 2018.

A final footnote: If you want to watch the keynote address I ended up giving at SXSW EDU in 2015, I am embarrassed to report that you can do so online, here. You’ll see I tried to act out teaching on stage, my best approximation of the learning I’d had and probably one of the worst acting performances you’ll see. I think we can do better, and in March — with the help of all of you — we will try.