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 the 2018 national teacher of the year manages a classroom with 12 languages with a white board and a paper clip

PHOTO: Ferguson Films
2018 national teacher of the year Mandy Manning.

Four years ago, Mandy Manning realized she wanted to have an impact outside her classroom, where she spent her days teaching immigrant and refugee students how to navigate their new school and new lives.

To do that, though, she also realized that she would need more than just years of experience. She would need a platform.

This year, she got just that: Manning, who teaches in Spokane, Washington, was named the 2018 national teacher of year.

“People need to know how amazing these immigrant and refugee students are,” she told Chalkbeat.

It’s a message she feels more urgency to spread as the current presidential administration takes a harsh position toward immigrants and asylum-seekers. Manning said she spent several months responding to students asking her when they would have to leave the country.

But the core of Manning’s work is to teach immigrant and refugee students foundational language skills and help ease their transition to the U.S. The students, who come from across the school district, usually spend one semester with her at the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School.

“I’m their ambassador. Hopefully I’m a good example of what we are as Americans,” she said.

This interview, part of Chalkbeat’s How I Teach series, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

Teaching really chose me, because I hadn’t intended to become a teacher. I finished my undergraduate degree, which was in filmmaking, and I really wasn’t interested in continuing in that line of work. A friend, who was a paraeducator — someone within a classroom who works one-on-one with students — suggested I become a paraeducator.

Then I taught in the Peace Corps, which really helped expand my worldview. Even after that, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a teacher. I moved to Texas and my aunt suggested I apply to teaching positions, even though I wasn’t certified or had a degree in education. It was almost as if teaching was pursuing me and I was just denying it.

How do you get to know your students?

I’m very welcoming to them. I think that’s so essential, because the very first day is where you set your climate and environment in the classroom. For me that means being very upbeat and excited and ensuring that I’m introducing myself to every student as they’re walking in and figuring out their name and where they’re from and what languages they speak.

I used to teach general education — film making, journalism, communications, English. With them I would just have conversations like, ‘You are an individual and I’m an individual and yes I am your teacher and you are my student but I’m still interested in who you are not just as a learner but as a person.’ With the newcomers, it’s a little more difficult because we’re starting with charades, essentially.

So slowly, every day, I learn something new about my kids and that’s my goal. As long as I learn something about one student each day, I’m moving forward.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

It’s our “Out in the Community” lesson. It has to do with the foundational language we’re teaching — giving and receiving directions and the basic ability to navigate your community. The reason I love it so much is that we actually get to go out and explore the neighborhood of the school and sometimes the downtown area of Spokane — the actual community in which they live and they’re expected to function as community members.

It’s so fun to watch the kids and what things are of interest to them and how they draw their maps. They also make connections back to their home country when they’re talking about the differences between their neighborhoods or schools or communities.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My whiteboard and markers. Personally, I need a paper clip, which is so dumb, but it helps me concentrate. I just play with it when I’m teaching and communicating with kids. But the thing I really need in my classroom all the time is the ability to write things down because it helps with that comprehensible input for my kids.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Right now, it’s the climate around immigrants and refugees. Spokane is pretty good, pretty neutral. There isn’t a whole lot of negative communication or messaging, but it does happen. It’s happened in our hallways at school where kids have been told to go back to Africa or horrible racist slurs have been called against Arabic kids or kids from African nations. It impacts how welcome and comfortable my students feel.

It also brings older students, who have gone beyond the Newcomer Center back to my classroom more often, because my room represents the first place they were comfortable and safe. They’re often returning to me and the bilingual specialist I work with just for the reassurance that they’re welcome and they’re safe here in our nation. That’s something we now have to navigate every single day.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

The first year I started to do home visits — at that time I had families from Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, and different nations in Africa. These home visits with all these different families showed me so much about individual differences between people of the same culture and between different cultures.

I got to see how they’re living, who they’re living with, the different type of homes — apartments, duplexes, single-family dwellings, or a house — and just how they interacted with each other. It broadened my perspective of family. there are so many different types of families within the students born within the United States, then to see it on a such a large scale with different cultures, it’s helped me to seek value in every single different type of family. And to understand that even though things operate differently in each home, that doesn’t diminish the beauty of that home.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is the middle of the year, semester-end. Kids at the Newcomer Center come from all over the school district. Usually after a semester, they then go on to their neighborhood high school. We have several practices in place to help with transition, but that semester break, it’s really hard to say goodbye to the kids.

It’s harder than at the end of the year because at the end of the year, we’re all taking a break. That semester, some of my kids are leaving and I’m not going to see them on a regular basis. And we’ve bonded with one another so much that it’s really hard, and I always end crying for the whole day because I’m going to miss them so much.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I didn’t know what I was doing at all when I had my first classroom. I didn’t even know how to read a teacher’s edition of a textbook. I sort of jumped in with both feet. I guess I assumed I needed to understand how to build a lesson exactly and that would be a hard hurdle for me, but I soon found out it doesn’t matter how beautifully you structure your lesson plan, because teaching is really about monitoring and adjusting for whatever the needs are of the kids at the time. You might have the most beautiful lesson but chances are it will shift and change in the first 10 minutes.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?  

Focus on your kids and everything else will fall into place.

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‘What if this was my son?’ How Newark’s Teacher of the Year pushes autistic students to succeed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Lourdes Reyes, Newark's 2018 Teacher of the Year.

A normal Monday in Lourdes Reyes’ classroom at the First Avenue School begins with a pleasant routine.

Her six students, a mix of first and second-graders with autism, eat breakfast quietly at their desks then brush their teeth in the restroom. Then they return to class, as they did one Monday morning this month, to recite the days and months and share highlights from the weekend — a trip to the zoo, playtime in the park, an evening bike ride.

“Alright,” Reyes said in a soothing tone as she moved the lesson along. “Everybody had a good weekend.”

But on Monday, May 7, things were far from normal.

That was when the district’s interim superintendent arrived unannounced in her classroom bearing balloons and a bouquet, with television cameras in tow, to inform her that she was Newark’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. Reyes tearfully accepted the award as her daughter, a teacher at Elliott Street School, looked on. Then she walked into the hallway, where dozens of students cheered and chanted her name.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Reyes told Chalkbeat during a recent interview.

In college, Reyes had studied to become a social worker. But after her son, Ishmail, was born with autism, she wanted to learn more about his condition. Before long, she had earned a master’s degree in special education and become a teacher of students with autism — a job she’s held for 21 years.

After two decades, she has yet to slow down. Every day after class she begins her second job as an early-intervention specialist, visiting families’ homes to work with young children suspected of having disabilities. After finishing around 8:30 p.m., she takes a late-night walk with her youngest son — a routine that, along with a healthy new diet, helped her lose 65 pounds over the past year.

Reyes stays just as busy at school. In addition to academic lessons, she teaches her students life skills like tying their shoes and cooking — sometimes on a portable stove, which Reyes used one day this year to cook green eggs and ham. In April, which is National Autism Awareness Month, she helped raise $2,300 for the school’s autism program and organized a performance where her students sang Disney songs. Reyes performed alongside wearing the red hat and spotted pants of Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl from “Toy Story.”

Principal Jose Fuentes, who was part of the 10-person leadership team at First Avenue that nominated Reyes for her award, called her “one of the pillars of the school.” She extends herself far beyond her own classroom, showing colleagues and parents how to challenge and support students with autism, Fuentes said.

“She’s giving new light to the possibilities of what it means to be an educator,” he said. “That’s Reyes.”

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get into teaching?

When my second son was born, Ishmail, he was born with autism.

I was first of all shocked that I had an autistic son. It was very difficult and devastating for all of us. My husband and I had to go for counseling. It was very hard. But then we overcame it. I decided I’m going to take something negative and make something positive out of it.

So I went to graduate school and I took classes on special ed. I loved it and so I took another class. One class led to another.

Then I started volunteering at my son’s school. I was there all the time. In the evenings my husband would get home, he’d watch the kids, I’d go and take my class.

Next thing you know, in two years I completed a master’s in special ed.

How has being the parent of a child with autism shaped the way you teach?

Everything I still do today is focused on, “What if this was my son?”

I think that’s what makes me a little different. Like if I was doing this for him, how would I teach it?

What have you learned about what it takes to be an effective teacher of students with autism?

You can’t feel sorry for a child. Just because they have a disability does not mean that they can’t do something. You have to put that aside and show them in a way that tough love to get them to master the skills. Which is hard for some of the parents to do.

We have to do a lot of what the parents don’t do. For instance, tooth brushing, that’s a life skill. At home they say, “He doesn’t want to brush his teeth.” But they do it here every morning.

It sounds like a big part of your job is working with parents.

I give them my cell number. They call me at all times.

Sometimes [a student’s mother] will say, “It’s a rough morning. He didn’t want to change. I’m sending you the uniform in the book bag.” Then when he comes in, we transition him. When we do toothbrushing we say, “You need to change now.”

Then when it’s 2:45, “You don’t want to wear it? OK, let’s go change you. Put on your jeans, go on the bus.” Happy trooper.

How are you able to make progress with students who come in without many academic skills?

It’s ongoing, and it’s repetitive. Teaching the skills. Pulling them out, teaching them [through] individualized instruction.

And it happens also with the assistance of the aides. I have four great aides. None of this could happen without them.

Ms. [Rasheedah] Jacobs, guess how many years she’s been with me. Fourteen. When I came here and interviewed, I said, “I’ll take the job under the condition that Ms. Jacobs could come with me.” She really, really is a great teacher. I call her a teacher, not even an aide. She’s my right hand.

Can you think of a student whom you had a lot of success with?

Last year, I had one of my highest functioning students. She has Asperger’s. What a thrill to have that little girl. Oh my gosh.

Every week the principal gives the word of the week. She memorized and knew every single word from September to June. And recited it in an assembly, with a sentence for each word. She’s unbelievable!

We had a student [at Quitman Street Community School] who had a band on his esophagus, and he had a feeding tube in kindergarten. We couldn’t believe it — he was in diapers.

I was like, “If we can get this little boy to be toilet trained, that will be a success.” Do you know we mastered that? We did it.

How do you know if you’ve been successful by the end of the year?

Seeing [a student] who didn’t know the letters of the alphabet, seeing him writing sentences, filling in blanks, reciting words.

Knowing [a different student] can tie his shoes. Knowing he can brush his teeth.

Knowing that parents are happy with the progress of their students. Them sharing with me the change in their child once they started coming into my classroom. Parents telling me, “Oh, that’s not the same kid who was in the school last year. That’s a different child.”

What’s your advice to teachers who are just starting out?

Have a lot of patience. Be real devoted.

And do not look at a student with autism as a person who is weak. Have high expectations that they are capable of doing everything and anything with the right accommodations.

It can be done, but it takes someone with dedication, sensitivity, and also someone who does not feel sorry for a child. Anything is possible. There are no limits.