How I Teach

Kids learn better when they’re moving. Just ask this Memphis teacher and dance coach.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Alexia Young teaches third-graders at Lucie E. Campbell Elementary School in Memphis, where she also doubles as the dance coach.

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.

Alexia Young loves to keep her third-grade class on the move.

Every day, her students at Lucie E. Campbell Elementary School in Memphis jump up from their desks, dance around the classroom, and belt out a “reading chant,”  complete with hand motions.

“I love to read. I’m intelligent. Whoo that knowledge! Strong and elegant, I love to read, read, read!”

Young says the ritual helps her students focus before they dive into reading time. But equally as important, it gets them up and moving.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Third-graders in Alexia Young’s class go through their daily “reading chant.”

“I teach third-graders. And I know how necessary it is for students this age to be up and moving throughout the day,” said Young, who doubles as her school’s dance coach. “They weren’t meant to learn tied to a desk.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Young about why she became a teacher, the pedagogy of movement, and how she incorporates plays and debates into her classroom. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I specifically wanted to be an urban educator. I was raised in Texas, and attending the University of Memphis for college brought me here. I started teaching in a private Christian environment, but I wanted to start teaching in a different environment. That’s how I came to be a part of the Memphis Teacher Residency, (which is an alternative teacher training program in the city.)

I believe that knowledge is power. To quote the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education: “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” This quote is still accurate for today’s students. In Memphis, children taught in urban settings are often listed as negative statistics. The level of adequate education has declined over the years based on student behavior, vocabulary deficiency, and socioeconomic status. Since I believe in equal education, I want to be an asset in changing those statistics. I want to use my gifts and skills of teaching to uplift and provide exceptional public education to children in urban areas like North Memphis. I believe those students matter and their future matters.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

I love to teach drama and plays in my classroom. We spend a whole series of lessons on plays. I select a play — last week it was “The Alligator and the Ant” — and then assign roles to different students. We do a read-out-loud, where students get to stand up, speak loudly, and really get into it. Even if the students are hesitant at first, by the end of the play, they are actually into their character. These lessons are such a fun way to get students excited about reading. I love to hear and watch the students come to life in plays with twisted plots.

Similar to acting out a drama, I teach my students through debates. When we are reviewing results of a class test, my students have the opportunity to debate against each other about the answers. They get into this, like they get into acting out a drama. It makes going over the answers so much more engaging and active. It’s also a way to ensure that the class understands why the correct answers are correct.

How does being a dance instructor influence the way you teach?

Movement is just so important. I focus on third-grade reading, and reading implies sitting quietly and looking at a page. But that doesn’t always need to be the way we teach reading. Just like music and dance, reading can be a peaceful and tranquil activity. But it can also be a time to get up and act out a scene, or chant and dance together.

I try to incorporate movements, like hand motions, to show students what the words they are reading actually mean. It also helps get their energy up. It’s about connecting the dots, and I don’t know if I would have thought about reading this way without my background in dance.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is vibrant in neon colors. I also display students’ work more than “adult work.” For example, most of the charts on my walls are created by my students. I think it helps my students have a sense of ownership of the classroom.

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

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

We practice “whole brain teaching.” By this, I mean engaging the class as a whole and getting everyone back on track together. At the beginning of the school year, I teach the class chants that I use every day to refocus them. I say “class class,” and they respond together, “yes, yes.” As simple as this is, it really works well. I’ll also clap to get the class back on track. If I see one of the students is distracted or just not tracking with a lesson, I’ll clap out a beat that the whole class has to copy. This kind of jolts students back to paying attention and gives us a starting point to build off of.

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 play multiple roles at the school. I am the dance coach, mentor teacher, and grade chair. I have been the dance coach here for three years, and that’s created so many opportunities to get to know some of my students on another level.

How I Teach

Why students’ birthdays are the perfect icebreaker for this award-winning Tennessee teacher

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin gets a hug from one of her students after the announcement that she was one of two Tennessee teachers to win a Milken Educator Award.

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.

Paula Franklin’s students describe her teaching style as “relaxingly engaging.”

Maybe that’s because she starts out by building relationships with her students, then begins to introduce the content in her Advanced Placement government class at West High School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Since she took on the course, enrollment has doubled. And more than 80 percent of her students exceed the national average on their final AP test scores.

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last year, Franklin was one of two Tennessee teachers chosen by the Milken Family Foundation for their prestigious national teaching award. The honor includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

We spoke with Franklin about why she became a teacher, how she uses birthdays to build relationships with her students, and why campaign finance reform is her favorite lesson to teach. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

My high school AP Biology teacher, Mr. Wheatley, was my inspiration. He cared about his students as people first and whatever we learned about biology was secondary. As a result, I learned a lot of biology, and a tremendous amount about myself, for which I am forever grateful. I work every day to provide the same type of environment to my students. I try to teach them about themselves through the lens of civic education. I want my students to leave my class not only more confident in their knowledge of our government, but also as inquirers and risk-takers who are equipped to ask questions and find the answers.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

I spend the first two to three days of class using Kagan class-building strategies to get to know my students and to get them to know each other. I can always make up time for content later, but the time spent building a classroom culture at the beginning of the year can’t be made up.

Another of my favorite things is finding out my students’ birthdays to celebrate them with the class by asking them three questions: Are you going to drive? What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment,? What do you hope to accomplish before your next birthday?

This allows me to spotlight my students and have them think critically about themselves and their goals. I have asked these same three questions for years, and students have started coming to me on their birthdays after they have left my class to share their accomplishments and goals.

What does your classroom look like?

I love to display student work in my classroom, both from my current and former students, so my walls are pretty well covered in posters and art. I think it’s important to make a classroom into a reflection of the students who learn there and goes a long way toward building community.  I arrange the desks in small sections of rows so that I can easily get to all the students to provide support on a difficult concept or assignment or encouragement to stay on task.

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

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen surprise Franklin with her award.

Google Drive! I am a huge reflector and save all of my lesson materials and reflections on my Drive. That way, I can easily access previous lessons and see how to best adapt them for my current students or the current social-political climate.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

One of my favorite lessons to teach began as my absolute least favorite: Campaign finance reform. The first couple of years, it went terribly. Students didn’t come away with an understanding of campaign finance but were more confused than when we started.

I am big on incorporating technology in my classroom, but for this lesson, I have them write down the original limitations of campaign finance and then cross them off in a different color as we learn about repeals. The action of crossing an item off of the list and annotating with the case or law that repealed it really sticks with them. This lesson is one of my favorites because I get to teach a relatively small amount of content over a class period, students get to work in groups and really wrestle with the content, and they have the opportunity to share their understanding with the whole class.

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

I try to figure out what it was about the lesson they did not understand. I can usually do this by reviewing data from a quiz or test or other assessment or just by asking them. I spend a lot of time in my class focusing on how to ask and answer questions to encourage my students to be advocates for their education both in and out of my classroom. After I figure out what I need to remediate with my classes, I do my best to come up with an example or analogy that is relevant to them. If that doesn’t work, then I ask a colleague how they teach that topic and try that. I am constantly looking for new and different ways to teach content that my students typically struggle with so that I am prepared to switch it up if my plan isn’t working.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It is OK to leave it on your desk; it will still be there in the morning. You are not a bad teacher for needing time for yourself.

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

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.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski 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.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

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 always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”