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 Kathleen Anderson, a sixth-grade English language arts teacher at STRIVE Prep – Kepner in Denver, called a student’s mother to discuss her son’s failing grade, she got an earful. The irate mother explained to Anderson that her son was failing all of his classes because he didn’t know how to read.
The startling conversation was a wake-up call and Anderson soon began tutoring the boy after school to help him catch up. She talked to Chalkbeat about why she’s never forgotten the mother’s frustration, what she does to recognize quiet student leaders and how her favorite assignment teaches students to take the moral high road.
Anderson is one of seven finalists for Colorado’s 2018 Teacher of the Year award, which will be announced Nov. 1.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Why did you become a teacher?
After attending high school and college at almost all white schools, I realized I had been blind to the opportunity gap that had been present right before my eyes all those years. I was driven to become a teacher when I knew living in a world where injustice and inequity strike down children’s opportunity before they can say the words “race” and “class” was a world I could not continue living in without taking action.
I was driven to become a teacher by my innermost desire to give undocumented students, students of color, and all other stifled voices the tools to be heard and overcome the obstacles set before them. I know that change will come when my students have learned how to have thoughtful, innovative, game-changing conversations about equity and equality themselves. They are the world-changers.
What does your classroom look like?
My classroom: bright charts, the Mexican flag, Michael Jordan posters, part of the school library (usually messy — I’m trying so hard but still have yet to get this right!), an American flag, wobbly chairs, writer’s notebooks, flowers, headphones, extra breakfast snacks, and 11 12-year-olds.
Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my__________ Why?
My resident teacher, Ms. Kelsey Thomson. I did a residency program and I know the first year can be tough. However, Ms. Thomson approaches her job with love, compassion and, above all else, humor. Someone to laugh with throughout the day is irreplaceable. It’s middle school. Enough said.
What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
After reading the novel “Esperanza Rising” as a class, I asked students to reflect upon how immigrants overcome hardships as Esperanza and her mother do in the novel. The prompt is as follows: Choose two texts from this quarter to explain how the people prove the ideas in the proverb, “He who falls today may rise tomorrow.”
While the curriculum asked students to use two texts, I changed the assignment so my students would have the opportunity to empower their own identity as immigrants with immigrant parents. In the political climate today, many of my students live with constant fear and anxiety of deportation and hear continually hurtful, negative dialogue about Mexican people and other immigrant communities. I not only wanted this to be a lesson in writing fluidly, citing textual evidence, and providing in-depth analysis, but also a life lesson about taking the moral high road.
Students were asked to interview an immigrant they knew personally. We wrote interview questions together and then students completed their interviews as homework. The next day, every student shared a remarkable story about a person in their life who had lived out the proverb, “He who falls today may rise tomorrow.”
One young man wrote about his father being near starvation: “I wanted the immigration police to catch us … That’s how hungry we were.” Another young woman wrote about her mom’s fear of being deported: “I was scared of being sent back with my sisters and brothers. I pretended like I was with a different family.”
How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
This year is the first year I can truly say I am re-teaching in an honest way. My first year of teaching, I didn’t re-teach. It was overwhelming enough to get lessons out the door. In the following years, I re-taught lessons when my coach told me it was necessary after observing a lesson fall flat.
In embracing the ‘re-teach,’ I have let go of my compulsive need to have everything created and ready for each day of the week the weekend before. I start by reviewing the standards I’ll be teaching each day and roughly sketch out what I know students need at-bats with to produce an exemplary “exit ticket.” However, Monday night, I will analyze my data within exit tickets, ‘do nows,’ and text dependent questions from that day to see if I need to do a whole class re-teach from a different angle or a small group intervention during our first 20 minute minutes of individualized instruction time.
How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
Positive Narration. Every student’s actions are rooted in their desire to succeed and feel loved. As students are off task, I remind myself these behaviors are driven by the student’s want for love and attention. However, using public, negative verbiage and the student’s name over and over again only draws attention to off-task behavior. When I need students to redirect, I narrate students who are quietly leading by example.
I was surprised one year when a student muttered under her breath, “Why does he get all the attention?” about a boy who was consistently causing distractions and out of his seat. In that moment, I realized that while I had been scolding him for his behavior, I had said his name over 20 times during the class period. Today, when students are off-task, I remember what the quiet girl said and look to those silent, steady leaders who are setting an example with their respectful and focused actions.
How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
The restorative practices purposefully embedded within our school have been critical to my students’ academic growth and success, and they have become a bedrock in my own teaching philosophy. STRIVE Prep – Kepner has the lowest number of student send-outs of any middle or high school in our network. At the beginning of the school year, our leader gathered our team together and stated we wouldn’t be allowed to send students out of class. She believed sending students out of class when there was a problem only put more space between ourselves and the student. Ninety-seven percent of our students are Hispanic, and many of these students are already receiving messaging from the socio-political arena that they are not welcome; schools must refuse to send that message. We remediate problems within our classroom so our students do not miss valuable learning experiences when they react to emotional or social stress.
An example of restorative practice was with a student who spoke out of turn several times during our end-of-year award ceremony. I signaled for him to stand and meet me at the back of the room and asked him how he was feeling. He replied in a brash, angry tone: “This is a waste of my time. This is stupid.” “You’re a brilliant scholar,” I replied and told him I knew what it felt like to be at a ceremony and not receive an award. He pushed back with angry, negative comments. I asked him if he was feeling stressed about passing sixth grade. First, he said no, but as I waited silently, he began to cry. As I comforted him, it was clear his behavior wasn’t motivated by disrespect, but by a longing for positive feedback in an academic setting. During this restorative conversation, I discovered the student needed someone to tell him he was loved and needed — someone at school who believed in him.
I know some may argue their students are too tough or too dangerous, and they must be removed from the classroom to make sure that other students can learn. Yet, I argue, with evidence present in my everyday practice in a turnaround school, one must stand in front of each child with the belief that each individual is desperate to learn, to teach, to love, and to be loved. Sending students out the door for someone else to handle creates an abyss between the teacher and student emotionally and academically that is difficult to close.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Last November, I called families to discuss their child’s failing grade in English Language Arts. One mother’s tone immediately became brusque. “Hablo espanol,” I said. She quickly began speaking in Spanish as she unfolded her son’s truth. Obviously her son was failing all his classes, she said, because he didn’t know how to read.
Her tone went from short to furious. However, she didn’t seem furious with me, but clearly so tired of seeing her son fail again and again plainly because he was a sixth grader who couldn’t read. I told her I would work with him after school. We spent many Wednesdays reading together after school last year. I will never forget this parent conversation because of the earnest frustration in the tone of this mother’s voice. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to see your 11-year-old struggle with basic reading skills but her emotion made it clear to me I must dedicate myself to becoming a sixth grade English Language Arts teacher as well as a full-time reading interventionist.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
“To the Left of Time,” a book of poetry by Thomas Lux and “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi.