How I Teach

How this Denver gifted and talented teacher brings fun and joy into her classroom

Teacher Karen Wagner with her third-graders at Denver's Polaris at Ebert Elementary School.

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.

Karen Wagner is a third-grade teacher at Denver’s Polaris at Ebert Elementary, a magnet school for highly gifted students. She likes to immerse students in lessons by bringing related artifacts into her classroom — say, an Indonesian kite or a Japanese curtain.

Wagner is one of 15 teachers who were selected for the inaugural Colorado Teaching Policy Fellowship operated by the national nonprofit Teach Plus. The nine-month program aims to involve teacher leaders in state-level education policy discussions, including how the state responds to the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?

My morning prep time is essential! I turn on my computer and skim through my emails, replying to ones that need an immediate response. Next, I write our schedule for the day on the whiteboard so that my students know what to expect when they arrive. After a glance at my plan book, I mentally rehearse how I’m going to structure my morning lessons and take care of any last-minute preparation of materials. I update my notebook where I delegate tasks for my paraprofessional. Finally, I work on any grading or administrative tasks. I try to make every minute count in the morning.

What does your classroom look like?

I believe that children learn best through integrated thematic units, so my classroom is always filled with artifacts that reflect our current unit of study. For our Asia unit, I have a collection of items from my experience teaching in Japan and traveling abroad. Some of my favorites include a handmade dragon kite from Bali, a Japanese doorway curtain adorned with calligraphy, and a stuffed animal of the Japanese anime character Domo-kun, who is our de-facto class mascot. I want the children to feel immersed in our thematic unit.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?

I really believe that my greatest tools are the relationships I have with each individual student, and the learning community that we have created together. Those relationships help me motivate my students, work with them through challenges, and make them feel truly valued for their own uniqueness. That being said, my Promethean Board is a fantastic tool. I create flipcharts that the children can interact with, show videos, and do impromptu research during class discussions. When used in the right way, it can make a lesson truly come alive.

How do you plan your lessons?

For long-term planning, I plan with the other third-grade teacher and the specialists at our school to integrate lessons into art, music and library for a richer learning experience. For daily lesson planning, first and foremost, I review the work from the previous day to determine if the children have any misconceptions that need to be addressed.

I try to think of an interesting question or task that will engage children right away—either one that connects to a prior lesson or related to their current interests. For example, for a recent math lesson, our previous day’s work had been to estimate and measure objects in the classroom using meters and centimeters. To launch a lesson on metric conversion from centimeters to meters, I asked my children two questions to respond to on their whiteboards: 1. What would you estimate my height is in centimeters? (173 cm) 2. I’ve memorized this number. Why do you think that is? (I lived in Japan and was particularly tall, so I was often asked how tall I was and my friends didn’t understand feet/inches). I also plan my lessons to make sure the children are as actively engaged as possible, through “turn and talks,” class discussions and working on their whiteboards.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?

An ideal lesson is fun and joyful. When children are having a great time learning, they will remember the experience so much more deeply if there are positive emotions associated with it.

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

If a student doesn’t understand a lesson, I have the child first explain their thinking to me so I can gain some insights as to where his or her misconceptions may be. Then, I present the information in a different way and give the child the chance to try out the skill that we’re working on. Most importantly, I find a way for the child to achieve some immediate success as we work together. This helps motivate the child and change his or her trajectory.

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

I may move that child to a separate area to work to minimize distractions, or I may give that child a specific goal to achieve within a certain period of time. Many third-graders still crave their teacher’s approval, so I make a big deal of it when the child meets the goal to make them feel successful. Other times, I may partner a child with a classmate who is very engaged. Motivation can be contagious.

How do you maintain communication with parents?

I write weekly newsletters to update parents on what we have been learning in class, as well as upcoming events. Email is also a great tool. If there is a specific concern, I set up a meeting with the child’s parents.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?

For third-graders, I find that timely feedback is the most effective. I try to provide as much real-time feedback as I can within the structure of a lesson, so that students will be able to process and learn from the feedback they are getting. I choose carefully which assignments will be graded, because I know that if too much time passes between the assignment and when the child receives the feedback, it won’t have much meaning for the child any longer.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a historical fiction piece that takes place in Nigeria in the late 1960s during the country’s civil war. I love learning about the history of countries that were never covered in any of my high school or college classes. A few years ago I watched Adichie’s TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, and was so fascinated by her wisdom and unique perspective that I decided to read her books, too. I have not been disappointed.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

“Remember to enjoy your students. It’s why you became a teacher in the first place.” I’ve heard this mentioned to me from various colleagues throughout my teaching career. Teaching is incredibly challenging (and rewarding) work. If I’m feeling overwhelmed, I try to take a deep breath, look around at my students, and smile. They make everything worth it.

How I Teach

This Colorado teacher keeps parents in the loop — even when they’re stationed overseas

Wendy Murphy, a teacher at Woodmen Hills Elementary in the Falcon 49 school district, is a finalist for Colorado's 2018 Teacher of the Year 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.

Wendy Murphy, a longtime second grade teacher and now an instructional coach at Woodmen Hills Elementary near Colorado Springs, believes in keeping parents involved.

That’s true even when they’re serving military deployments overseas.

To keep faraway moms and dads connected to the classroom and their kids, Murphy has done video conferences via Facebook, included them in holiday story recordings and played host to surprise reunions in her classroom.

Murphy talked to Chalkbeat about why parent deployments hit her hard, how she helps students learn about their names and why she’s not afraid to ask for help. She’s 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?
I absolutely loved my first grade teacher, Mrs. Ann Lane. She gave out the best hugs in the entire world and I wanted to do that, too. One of my favorite memories was looking forward to the end of each day because I knew I would receive that hug from Mrs. Lane no matter what.

Completing classwork was really hard for me and I was always getting into trouble and often off task. Learning to read was a struggle for me that often resulted in tears during daily reading groups. Mrs. Lane believed in me, encouraged me and always taught with a smile. I decided that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up so I could be just like her.

What does your classroom look like?
My signature color is orange as I am a loyal and true alumnae from Oklahoma State University. Within my orange and black classroom you see a respectful, safe, encouraging and collaborative learning environment. You know mistakes are OK and kindness counts. You hear laughter and a sense of enjoyment and pride in my classroom.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my heart. I once learned through a training that if you can capture a kid’s heart, you can capture their mind. Incorporating social-emotional learning across all content areas enhances students’ abilities with academic achievement, careers and life. I teach my students self-management and social awareness, build positive relationships and foster responsible decision-making.

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

One of my favorite beginning-of-the-year activities is an author study about Kevin Henkes. We have been reading his books to kick off second grade for over two decades. One memorable activity is completed after we read the book “Chrysanthemum.” The main character is a little mouse named Chrysanthemum and her parents named her after a flower because they feel that it is an absolutely perfect name.

Students write letters to their own parents asking them how they got their name and parents write letters in return. It is so special for students to share the origin of their name with the class. There are a lot of family names, names formed using letters from Mom and Dad’s names as well as Biblical names, too.

Some of the more humorous ones include being named after video game characters and picking the first letter of a name from the middle of the alphabet because they were the middle child. My son is currently in second grade and my husband and I had the opportunity to respond to the letter he wrote to us about his name just a few weeks ago. It truly touched our hearts and his, too.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I try very hard to create a nurturing and safe learning environment where mistakes are part of the process. Students understand that the struggle is where the learning takes place. It is very important for students to review their work and be reflective when something doesn’t quite click in their learning. Together, we adapt, adjust, try again and give it our best shot.

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

I have taught second grade for 17 years. Early in my career, a parent bought me a rainstick during a field trip to the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. It is the coolest thing! Students immediately focus their energy on me when they hear the soft waterfall sound of the rainstick.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Fostering positive relationships is definitely a priority in my classroom. I love greeting children with a smile and a handshake each morning at the classroom door. I also look forward to our end of the day dismissal where each person shares a personal connection to a topic or a question asked.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Our school is very proud to serve a large number of military families. Many parents and family members are deployed during the school year. Deployments hit me hard, especially when it is the mamas leaving their babies. Last year, one mother, an E-5 Sargent truly appreciated all of the pictures, newsletters and correspondence I sent through a classroom app. Grandpa even helped us do a Facebook phone conference early in the year. Then, part of our second grade Christmas music performance was a recorded video of different adults reading sections of the story, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Our overseas military mama had read the last part of the book on the video-—which was a surprise for her children. It was a truly memorable time for everyone at the performance. (The mother) surprised us again when she ran into the classroom in March — finally home from deployment.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
My name Wendy became popular after the 1904 play Peter Pan. I still love reading the novel “Peter and Wendy” by J. M. Barrie. Some of my other favorites include the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games series, books by John Grisham and James Patterson, and who can resist the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich? I love reading! Growing up, I would rather have been reading than doing my chores, homework or practicing the piano. My mother used to punish me by taking away my Babysitter’s Club, Choose Your Own Adventure or Nancy Drew books.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never be afraid to ask for help. The many demands of teaching can be so intense and stressful. Having a supportive and collaborative team, staff and administration is so important. Be an advocate for yourself, surround yourself with positive people and great things can happen… All you have to do is ask.

How I Teach

Fresh from the Denver suburbs, this new teacher visited a poor student in a rural area and learned a valuable lesson

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.

During her first year teaching, Laura Keathley learned a lesson she has never forgotten.

Keathley, who’d grown up in suburban Denver, was driving to visit a student at home in a rural area of New Mexico. Knowing the child’s family was poor and the home had no electricity or running water, she feared the girl faced a bleak future.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.

Keathley, now a special education teacher at Avery-Parsons Elementary School in the Buena Vista School District, talked to Chalkbeat about what she learned during the visit, why teaching isn’t brain surgery and where silly cat videos fit into the day.

She is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

Laura Keathley
Laura Keathley

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally I started out to be an emergency medical technician then decided to major in social work. One day, I was talking to a former high school teacher when he suggested I come and volunteer at the school helping with his special needs physical education class. I had no background with special needs, but I was looking for a new adventure and this seemed like fun. From the moment I started working with those wonderful kids, I was hooked! My favorite part of teaching is seeing that light go on and a student mastering a new skill. It is so exciting to me whether the accomplishment is big or small.

What does your classroom look like?
Grand Central Station! Keathley’s Korner – a name I created to remove the stigma of special education — has one teacher, three paraprofessionals and 15 students in six grade levels … so it is a busy place. It is open and bright with lots of color. The walls are covered with visual supports designed to make our students more independent. We have four different group tables spread throughout the room. Each area is defined by area rugs or furniture. There is also a mini kitchen with a sink and counters on one side of the room.

The main feature of my classroom is the 411 wall. This is our information center. It tells everyone where they need to go, who is in the room that day, and any special announcements. Students can independently use the board to find their daily activities. My class is always busy and students come and go all day long.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my paraprofessionals. The three ladies that I work with are very talented. My paraprofessionals create and follow their own lesson plans, freeing me up to work with the students and focus on teaching. They are well-versed in the field and have received a great deal of training. I depend on them not only to deliver instruction, but to contribute thoughts and ideas about working with the students. My paraprofessionals have become a resource to the entire school. The joke in our classroom is that we are four parts of the same brain.

In December of 2014, our classroom was awarded model status by the Colorado Department of Education Colorado Model Autism Site Project, or CoMASP. We were the seventh classroom in the state and the second rural school to receive the honor by meeting at least 80 percent of the state’s quality indicators. We achieved this in part because of my paraprofessionals’ willingness to go above and beyond their job to make a difference. I am thankful every day that I work with these wonderful ladies. Thank you Sarah, Lesa and Stephanie!

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
A few years ago I began teaching all the students in our school about the basics of autism and special needs and how to make friends with those students. I wanted something that was easy to adapt to every grade level and that would connect with the students and teachers.

I contacted one of my former students and he created a PowerPoint presentation for me called, “10 Things You Should Know About Having Autism.” His slideshow describes his challenges and feelings about having autism and how to respond to that. Coming from his personal perspective, it is a powerful teaching tool. Paired with the how-to-make-friends presentation from AutismSpeaks.org, it has spawned some amazing conversation in classes. I believe that it has created a much more inclusive and accepting environment throughout our school. I love being able to share how amazing my students are with everyone in the school.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I believe in the saying, “If a child cannot learn the way I teach, then let me teach him the way he can learn.” It is my responsibility to find a way to get that information to my student in a way they can best learn and understand. Sometimes I reteach a lesson several different ways looking for a way to connect with the student. Patience and a willingness to keep trying are important.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My class runs in small groups, so quiet reminders to focus on their work or keep trying are usually all it takes. In group settings, I use a system that we created in my classroom called the Cup Ups. There is a red, green and yellow cup. When the red cup is up, everyone is listening and no questions can be asked. When the yellow cup is up, everyone is listening and if you have a question, you can raise your hand and wait to be called on. When the green cup is up, everyone can talk and discuss quietly and ask questions without raising their hands, as long as they are respectful. I like the visual cue that every child understands.

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 love to get to know my students one-on-one away from an academic setting. I often have my students for multiple years, so I have the luxury of really digging into their lives and finding what motivates them. I love to find a common passion – one student and I watch silly cat videos on YouTube – and then use that to create a relationship. Humor and silliness also go a long way towards building a bridge.

I also work hard to create a safe space for my students to come to when they need support. I use genuine praise and honest feedback when I work with them. I want them to feel that I am behind them all the way. I ask them, “Do you trust me? I need you to know that I am going to give you things that are hard, but never impossible. If you try and use my help we can make this happen. I am always here for you!” I am their biggest cheerleader and advocate.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
My first year of teaching was in Gallup, New Mexico. I was a brand-new teacher fresh from the suburbs of Denver who took the job sight unseen. The first week I was there, I made a home visit to a family that had a special needs child they wanted to enroll in my class. My principal warned me that the family lived far from town, in a small hogan (Navajo traditional house) with dirt floors, no running water, and no electricity. The family had very little money. In my mind, this environment immediately connected to a poor environment for the child and certain deprivation that would only hold this child back in her future. Pity was an overwhelming emotion.

On our way to the house, I was mentally reviewing all the many things I was going to have to do for this poor child. When we got to the house, a large extended family met us. Aunts, uncles, grandparents and parents sat down with us to discuss the child’s needs. Throughout the bilingual conversation, I discovered that this child lived a rich and culture-filled life. Herding sheep, speaking two languages, learning Navajo tradition, learning letters and numbers from every family member in an authentic environment, and the list goes on.

I began to realize that this child was going to be successful because of the incredible home support and love she experienced every day. At that moment, I discovered how dangerous making assumptions about a student based on what you think you know can be for a child. Pity can blind you to what’s right in front of you and make you ineffective. In the 29 years since that lesson, I have never made that mistake again.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am reading the Dark Tower series by Stephen King.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
One of my very favorite veteran teachers once told me, “It’s teaching, not brain surgery. No one is going to die if you don’t get through your lesson. Breathe, relax and enjoy the kids. You can teach a lesson again tomorrow, but you might not get a second chance to connect with a kid.” Yep – words to live by!