How I Teach

After teen’s suicide attempt, this Colorado teacher wrote letters to each student. Now, she’ll share her story on a bigger stage.

Teacher Brittni Darras is lifted by graduating seniors from Rampart High School's varsity cheerleading squad, which Darras coaches.

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.

Brittni Darras, an English teacher at Rampart High School in the Colorado Springs-based Academy School District, was shocked by what she learned about one of her students in a parent-teacher conference. The outgoing teen had recently attempted suicide, the girl’s mother told Darras.

The news made Darras realize that other students were probably suffering in silence, too. She decided to write personalized cards to her more than 100 students telling them how much they mattered.

“It changed the way I see my role as a teacher,” she said.

Last fall, Darras’ efforts earned her the 2016 Hero of Mental Health award from AspenPointe, a nonprofit mental health provider in Colorado Springs. In July, she’ll speak at the TEDxMileHigh 2017 event at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver.

Darras talked to Chalkbeat about her card-writing campaign, what motivates her to wake up at 5:45 a.m. and why she doesn’t mind if students talk in class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I have known I wanted to be a teacher since I was in third grade. When I was in elementary school, during summer breaks, I would teach my little brother “lessons” and make him practice school-related work. He was a real trooper!

At the time, I thought I wanted to teach elementary school, but when I entered college, I started tutoring at my former high school through the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) program. I left every day inspired by how hard my students worked. I enjoyed having conversations with them about college and their future plans. By the end of that semester, I switched my major from elementary education to secondary education.

What does your classroom look like?
I like to think of my classroom as a place that is both interactive and caring. My students are frequently up and moving around. For example, one of my favorite interactive activities includes me posing a statement relevant to the unit I am teaching. My students have to stand against the “agree” or “disagree” wall and be prepared to defend their position in regard to the statement. We have had phenomenal discussions about heroes and what it means to be a hero as a result of this activity. It serves as a great introduction to our tragic hero unit.

I consider my classroom caring, because I always reiterate the need for my students to use positive self-talk and to use encouraging words with each other. I also make it a point to ask my students each Friday what their plans are for the weekend, and I always follow up on Monday to ask how their weekends were. It gives me an opportunity to learn what else my students do outside of school, and it provides me with very valuable information about each of my students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _______. Why?
My students. They are the reason I wake up and go to work every day. It’s like I always tell them, “If you love your job, you never work a day in your life.” I love what I do because of my students, so if it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t be worth waking up every morning at 5:45 a.m.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my favorite lessons is a scene interpretation assignment where students have to pick some kind of alternate reality and apply it to a chapter in a novel or a scene in a play we have read in class. They then have to alter the dialogue or script to match their alternate reality. Finally, they perform the new version in class.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If one student doesn’t understand my lesson, I like to pair that student up with another student who understands the topic a little better. It helps develop leadership, and it allows my students to share their knowledge and understanding. It helps the students realize they ARE smart!

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I don’t mind if students are talking. Many times, I ask them to talk. I believe having conversations allows my students to make more sense of the material, and it also allows my students to help and support each other through the learning process.

If students are off task, 99 percent of the time, a conversation with that student one-on-one solves the problem. Most of the time, if a student is off task, it is not intentional. Instead, it is usually because something else is going on at home or with their friends that is causing inner turmoil and making it hard for them to focus. These conversations allow me to assist and support my students as well as show them that I care about more than just their grade on their report card.

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 get to know my students by learning about what they do outside of school. As mentioned before, every week, I ask them how their weekend was, which gives me valuable information about their sports, hobbies and passions. Last year, I created an “Events” section on my board where students could write the date and time of upcoming events, such as their sporting events or school plays. It allowed me to show up to a variety of these events, and I was also able to follow up with my students to ask how the event was if I wasn’t able to attend.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A memorable time that had the most impact on me was when I had contact with a student’s mom at parent-teacher conferences. Her mom told me she had been absent from my class because she almost committed suicide. While this was tragic and devastating, it made me realize that this beautiful, outgoing, friendly girl can’t be my only student who is struggling.

As a result, I took action and wrote personalized cards to each of my students to let them know how much I care about them and why they make a difference in my class and on this planet. It changed the way I see my role as a teacher; teacher’s often see students more hours in a day than the students’ own parents do, so it is important for teachers to support students emotionally instead of just academically.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Right now, I am reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. Part of it is for enjoyment, and part of it is to prepare to teach AP Literature next year!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I ever received is to live each day like it’s my last. I am grateful each day for the opportunities and experiences that I have, and I try to encourage my students to embrace each day and each moment also. I strongly believe that when you start to examine the positive aspects of life, you live a happier, more fulfilling life.

How I Teach

‘All our dreams are on his shoulders.’ The stories that motivate a bilingual teacher

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.

It had been a tiring day of parent-teacher conferences for Amanda Duncan, a sixth-grade dual language literacy teacher at Foster Elementary in Arvada. Then the last family of the evening snapped things back into perspective.

The mother had walked two miles through the snow with her sixth-grade son, pushing the baby in a stroller. She told Duncan that she and her husband hadn’t been able to pursue their education, but wanted something different for their son.

“Will you make sure he stays successful?” the mother asked Duncan. “All our dreams are on his shoulders.”

Duncan, who was named the 2017 Bilingual Teacher of the Year by the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, talked to Chalkbeat about why that conversation was a valuable reminder about the role teachers play in shaping the future.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Amanda Duncan

Why did you become a teacher?
I really didn’t set out to become a teacher. I was always interested in other cultures and languages, and in college I considered majoring in anthropology, then public health. Finally, I settled on Latin American Studies. During my last semester, we had to write a mini-thesis about any topic that interested us, and I chose bilingual education — a controversial political topic at that time (still is!).

After graduating, I began working in a middle school English as a Second Language classroom as a paraprofessional, and realized that it felt right being in a school in a diverse setting. I enrolled in a one-year program to get a teaching license and haven’t looked back. I love how teaching makes you an integral part of the community. It allows you to create change in the world by helping students realize how valuable and unique they are.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom has charts made by the students or me in English and Spanish. There is a lot of intentional use of color to denote important language frames or highlight vocabulary. Since everyone in the room is a second language-learner at some point during the day, I try to provide lots of visual support both with pictures and key words so they have something to latch on to if they are unsure of some word meanings.

For years I was always saying, “It’s Spanish time, I don’t want to hear English right now!” But over time, I had to accept that there is no way to turn off the other language in your brain. So as long as we are using one language as a springboard for understanding or creating in the other, I find value in letting kids use both languages at the same time. It is a natural thing our brains do anyway!

It is a fine line, though. Since we are an immersion program, it is vital that we really hold students to a high standard of production in their second language. But each child builds their second language differently, just like any type of learning. Some need to rely more heavily on their first language to avoid being overwhelmed by the second language. Others are very bilingual already and need to be reminded to continually use Spanish in an academic setting. Even the youngest students know that English is the language of power, and it can easily dominate even in a Spanish immersion classroom. The teachers at my school work tirelessly to constantly lift up the value and beauty of Spanish, so that students will undertake the extra effort of learning through two languages.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Students. Hahaha! No, but really, the students are what keep me coming back day after day. Even after 20 years of working with children, they continue to surprise me with their creativity and initiative. I am constantly inspired by the stories they and their families share with me, their daily struggles and perseverance.

At times I feel exhausted by this job, but then I think of how hard many of our families work and the obstacles they are facing, and I am humbled. Teachers have a tremendous responsibility to give our students the best preparation possible so they can be successful in this country. Our community is counting on us and we cannot let them down.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite units to teach is the personal narrative. I love helping students see that their regular lives contain incredible stories. Sometimes they are heartbreakingly sad. Other times they are ridiculously funny. I love helping them learn techniques to take a seemingly regular moment and create a terrific piece of writing. We do this by studying mentor texts (including those by former students) and I demonstrate my own thinking as I write my own story in front of them. I also incorporate drama into the writing process. and we have learned techniques to help students really immerse themselves in their memories. It is powerful to watch students create a “freeze” of their memory — making themselves into a statue that shows the feelings and the moment — then write. They also interview each other to dig even deeper into that moment in time. Their writing improves exponentially and they are so proud of the results.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When a student doesn’t understand, I first have to figure out why. Were they listening? Is there a misconception? Was my lesson confusing? Did it not meet their learning style? Are they distracted by other things going on in their life? My response depends on what the root cause is for not understanding.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
Any time a teacher redirects a class or a student, it’s a million times more powerful if she gives the reason why they are being redirected. For example, “Table 3, please focus your talk on the lesson. If you talk about other things right now, you will lose your train of thought about the lesson and you won’t produce your best quality of work when it’s time to write.” or “So-and-so, if you are talking while I am giving directions you will not know what to do, and if you don’t know what to do you will not learn this critical skill that will help you be successful in middle school and beyond.” Kids need to know that the rules are not about the teacher having control. Rules are there to protect and enhance the learning environment for everyone’s benefit.

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 think the first step to building relationships with your students is having a genuine curiosity for who each one really is. You need to laugh at the annoying traits that kids exhibit at different stages of life, maybe roll your eyes about it with colleagues later, but also just enjoy watching the kids figure out who they are and who they want to be. My favorite strategy is paraphrasing what students say. It’s helpful when they are upset, or when the problem they are having is confusing or convoluted (No! Not in 6th grade!). It lets students know you “get them”. I also think it’s super helpful to tell them about a time you struggled with a similar issue, and explain how you learned to deal with it. It helps them feel connected. And if you haven’t experienced something like they have, just really saying with your whole heart, “Wow, that sounds so hard to deal with. I am not even sure what to say, but know that I am with you and I am thinking good thoughts for you.” It helps kids feel less alone.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
One story that sticks with me is from a couple of years ago. It was the second night of parent teacher conferences, near the end of the evening. I was tired, feeling good because conferences had gone well, but also feeling overworked and exhausted. It’s easy to feel a little sorry for yourself.

It was a February evening in Colorado, so it was very cold and snowy. I just wanted to be home and curl up on the couch with my family. I peeked into the hall to see if my 7:30 p.m. appointment had arrived, and there was my student Oscar with his mom and his baby sister in the stroller. Their cheeks were rosy-pink and they were unwrapping themselves from their many jackets. They had walked to conferences from their home about two miles away in snowy 20 degree weather.

Oscar’s mom and I introduced ourselves, and she apologized for missing the fall conference, but that was right when her daughter was born.

“Ms. Amanda,” she began in Spanish, “I just want to know if Oscar is doing well in school. Is he respectful to you and his classmates? Does he work hard?” I assured her that Oscar was a model student. “You see, Ms. Amanda, Oscar is the hope of our family. My husband and I weren’t able to study as much as we would have liked to. And now, we work so hard. I work all day and my husband cares for the baby, then I come home and he takes our one car to work at night. But we want a different life for Oscar. Will you make sure he stays successful? All our dreams are on his shoulders.”

This particular story sticks with me because of the cold night, because of the baby, and because I was feeling sorry for myself right before this conversation. But we all hear stories like this all the time. They remind us that we hold in our hands the future of many families, generations even. We cannot let our community down.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrik Backman

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mom was also a teacher and she always reminds me to take time for myself and my family. There is always more that you can do as a teacher. Don’t get too bogged down in trying to make every single lesson perfect. You need to say, “That is enough for today,” and let it go. Guess what? The sun will come up tomorrow and your students will still learn plenty. Especially if you are able to come back fresh and be willing to give your heart to them.

How I Teach

No hiding: This Colorado teacher doesn’t hold back his feelings about how music moves him

Chris Maunu, choir director at Arvada West High School, works with students.

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.

Chris Maunu, choir director at Arvada West High School, was rehearsing a OneRepublic song with his students, when he choked up as the full weight of a lyric hit him. It reminded him of his sister, who has cerebral palsy.

Instead of beating back his emotions, Maunu told his students what he was feeling. It was all part of his commitment to show students his true self — and get the same back from them.

He talked to Chalkbeat about how vulnerability helps him teach, why he decided to switch his college major and what he does to encourage peer mentorship.

Maunu is one of 25 music teachers across the country selected as a semifinalist for the 2018 Music Educator Award presented by the Recording Academy and the GRAMMY Museum.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I actually began college as a business management major. My parents insisted that I join the college choir, so I hesitantly signed up on registration day. The director wanted to hear all students sing individually in her office. She made it clear that this was not an audition, but a way to get to know everyone and their voices. When she heard me sing she was quite pleased and asked if I wanted to be in the select chamber choir. I responded, “Sure, let me just drop my history class.”

Before I knew it, I was involved in three collegiate choirs. I LOVED it! Everyone was so passionate and dedicated. I didn’t have a good music program in high school, so this was my first exposure to a quality program. After feeling pressured to put all of my energy into athletics in high school, I had finally found my home! I instantly wanted to provide that for young people. I wanted to do what I could to make sure my students feel PROUD to be in choir in high school. I changed majors that next semester and never looked back.

What does your classroom look like?
We have curved seated risers with 90 chairs. Front and center of the classroom is a seven-foot Steinway grand piano. The walls are decorated with photo collages of senior classes from the last decade, awards, trophies and inspirational quotes.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________Why?
My voice. Modeling is such an important part of my instructional practice. The singing voice is such a complicated and intricate instrument that modeling is a crucial strategy in developing students’ voices.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
We do a lesson based around fear. Students write down their greatest fears and I share them (anonymously) with the class. Inevitably, the most common one is the fear of being judged or criticized in front of their peers. When students learn that we all have the same insecurities around performing, they become more comfortable with who they are as singers and more importantly, as people. This is followed by a guided discussion. It’s amazing how much more supportive of one another they become.

How did you come up with the idea?
I have read a lot of materials by author Brene Brown. She has worked for years at breaking down the barriers of talking about uncomfortable things that we all experience but have a tendency to shove away, such as fear, shame, and vulnerability. She has greatly influenced my teaching.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
With the fear lesson, there is usually some hesitation, but not a lack of understanding. Once they begin hearing others’ vulnerabilities, they truly become engaged. In average music rehearsals, I try to have issues fixed at the “grassroots” level when possible. I strategically seat stronger students next to students with weaker talent or skills. A mentorship develops between the students in which the stronger student can help the weaker one along. If I need to step in, I’ll go that route as well.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
We are constantly learning from one another in the choir room. Students get reminded that whatever another group is learning will apply to them as well. For example, if I’m working with the tenors and tell them that a vowel needs to be taller to achieve a specific blend and intonation, chances are it will also apply to the sopranos, altos and basses. Often each vocal section is dependent upon one another to find a pitch or tune a chord.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
We do full-day retreats with our choirs at the start of the year to build relationships with them and with one another. We also have a student choir leadership team. Members of this team sponsor each choir class and hold social events through the year.

It’s my hope that every student in my classroom feels like they are the most liked and most needed student in the room. I go back to vulnerability. If I am modeling vulnerability — not just being emotional in front of them, but showing them my most authentic self — that bond really seems to take hold.

This is two-fold. First is being authentic in how I behave in general in the classroom. As an introvert, I have always been inspired when I attend professional conferences and see such extroverted leaders in the field share their expertise in how they do things in the classroom. I’ve left so many of those sessions saying to myself, “My teaching personality needs to be more like that!” While I think we all should learn from experts and continue to shape our craft, I think we need to be authentic about who we are. When I started to become more honest with myself, I hit my stride as a teacher.

The second part has to do with what we share with students. We can share personal things about ourselves without being inappropriate. Let’s not be talk about that difficult divorce we are going through, etc. but there are things that can allow students to really connect to us in a vulnerable way. Here is an example. One of my choirs was preparing the song “I Lived” by OneRepublic for our Pops Concert. The song was originally written about a Colorado teen with cystic fibrosis and overcoming life’s difficulties and truly living.

There was a lyric that hit me like a ton of bricks during one class: “I owned every second that this world could give, with every broken bone I swear I lived.” I thought of my own sister with cerebral palsy and began to get emotional. I had a decision to make in that moment — Do I just move on? Or do I take a few minutes and share about myself? I chose to share. We shared, we cried, and we grew closer. When students (especially male students) see an adult figure being truly real, it helps their emotional intelligence grow.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I think it’s when parents share how big of an impact my class has on their child. Parents have shared things like, “You are the only reason my child comes to school” or “My child would have not made it through high school without your class.” Teachers have such a huge impact on their students. Sometimes we get caught in the daily grind and it’s easy to forget that.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“Rising Strong” by Brene Brown

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Provide authentic affirmation to your students at every opportunity.