‘They are world-changers.’ A sixth-grade teacher wants stifled voices to be heard

PHOTO: Lindsey Lucero
Kathleen Anderson, a Language Arts teacher at STRIVE Prep-Kepner, with two 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.

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.

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.