How I Teach

After a mother’s surprising request, this Colorado debate coach realized the value of her work

PHOTO: Incase/Creative Commons

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.

Renee Motter, an English teacher at Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs, was taken aback several years ago when a student’s mother told her it was up to her to save her daughter.

Then Motter thought about it and relaxed. The speech and debate program she coached was already a lifesaver for many kids — that special something that made school worthwhile.

Motter was named the 2017 National Educator of the Year by the National Speech & Debate Association and was one of seven finalists for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year competition.

Motter talked to Chalkbeat about what students value most about the speech and debate program, why she starts class by asking kids to share exciting news and which technology tools she loves most.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

Renee Motter

When I was younger, I taught my older brother how to tie his shoe, and playing school was one of my favorite things. I started college as a broadcasting major, but before the first quarter was finished, I knew talking to a microphone wasn’t for me. While in my English class that quarter, I realized that teaching really was for me, so I changed my major and never looked back.

What does your classroom look like?
Busy. There are posters of proverbs and books and movies everywhere, and when students are there for class or speech and debate practice, you can usually see them working in small groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My computer and projector. We live in such a visual society; we are all so used to seeing everything in front of us. For my students and myself, the computer and projector give us a link to see what is beyond the classroom in order to be informed about what is happening in the world.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my first years of teaching AP English Language, I realized that my students needed an opportunity to see argument in action and, thus, better understand how to write an argument essay. I knew that I had to pick a topic they cared about, so I decided to have them create and present an education plan to prepare students for life in the 21st Century.

First, they had to research the current state of education both here and in other countries, and then, they had to decide what elements of education they would change as well as explain why they felt that would better prepare students for life in the 21st Century. Education is a huge part of our students’ lives, but we never stop to ask them what they think about what they are learning or how they are learning it. I heard so many unique and interesting ideas about what students would do to better their preparation — it was inspiring!

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When students are struggling or not understanding concepts, I like to have them come in so that we can go through the concept and practice it together. I have found this especially effective with writing: having students come in to discuss an essay and talk through what they need to work on is often more effective, I think, than large group writing instruction.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I’m a pretty active teacher, so I tend to move around the room a lot which helps with proximity, and I’m also a pretty random teacher, so when I notice students off task, I’ve found that using humor or story to bring them back works well.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Since I first started teaching more than 20 years ago, I’ve always started class by asking about “exciting things.” After greeting students, the first thing I do is ask students what is exciting in their lives. It’s amazing the stories I hear, and I get to know the students so much more! As I tell my students, “All of us exist outside this classroom, and what we do out there impacts us here, so I want to know what’s happening!” During these few minutes of class every day, we laugh and cry together. It’s great!

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A number of years ago, I had a parent tell me that it was up to me to save her daughter. At first, I was shocked and a bit intimidated. However, as I thought about it and as I’ve had thousands of students go through my forensics program, I’ve realized that it is a place that saves kids. It is a place that gives kids a place to belong, a place to make connections, a place to be heard, a place to be themselves. Over the years, it has amazed me the number of students who have come back and said what an important place forensics, speech and debate was in their lives, how they aren’t sure how they would have made it through high school without it.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Right now, I’m finishing up the second book in the Stranje House series. I read quite a bit of young adult literature as one of my favorite things is to talk about books with students. In fact, I was able to start an Enrichment Reading class for students where they were able to come and read and blog about books of their choice.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The most important thing you can do is care about your students: both who they are now and who they will become. I think it is easier to care about them now, but it is also important to remember that we need to care about their future because that is what we are preparing them for. No matter where they start when they come into my classroom, I always want them to walk out as better readers, writers and thinkers because they will need those skills in the future.

How I Teach

Why this educator uses autumn leaves to teach vocab to Memphis’ youngest students

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Trudie Owens, a lead teacher at Porter-Leath in Memphis, says incorporating literacy into every lesson is key, including lessons about fall leaves.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a series we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Trudie Owens says education runs in her blood.

Trudie Owens

Her mother was an elementary school teacher, her grandmother taught middle school, and two sisters teach at the high school level. Owens feels called to work with Memphis’ youngest children.

More than 30 years ago while in high school, Owens began helping at a Memphis day care. Now a classroom veteran, she gets observed by other early childhood educators during trainings at the new Early Childhood Academy operated by Porter-Leath, the largest provider of such programs in Memphis.

“The best part about being an early childhood teacher is watching the incredible growth that occurs in children in the early years,” said Owens, who teaches 1- and 2-year-olds. “They are so excited to learn and try new things.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Owens about how she incorporates early literacy into every lesson, including one about autumn leaves, and what she wishes more people knew about how to stimulate a young child’s thinking. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What does your classroom look like?

Our classroom is colorful, inviting and nurturing. It is a place that supports children’s creative ideas and encourages them to discover things on their own. One of the reasons I try to make my classroom nurturing is so the children view it as a home away from home. For them to start to learn, talk, sing and dance, they need to feel at home. Some children are coming in with hard home situations and trauma. We have to be mindful of this when we design our classrooms.

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

A lesson I call ‘’Welcome Fall Leaves and Trees’’ lets children sort leaves by colors and shapes, touch tree bark, and talk about weather/season change by using different books. I’m inspired from the season change of summer to fall. The leaves on trees are beautiful and the fall flowers are blooming. My favorite colors are fall colors: red, yellow, orange, brown, purple and a little green.

A lot of people don’t understand how incredibly important it is to talk to a child from the time they are born. By taking children outside and speaking with them about the changing seasons, we cover so much vocabulary. It’s a hands-on activity, but it’s also increasing the children’s own personal vocabularies.

Many children don’t have the literacy skills they need when they arrive at elementary school. How do you incorporate literacy at the early childhood level?

It’s in all of our activities. You can learn a lot about children’s interest from observing their play. We talk with them about what they’re interested in, whether it’s little race cars or building blocks. Conversation with a child stimulates their thinking and increases understanding. I’m not talking about baby talk, but adult-like conversations. These early experiences are linked with later school achievement, emotional and social well-being. A huge part of building a student’s literacy is getting them talking.

You also want the children to have fun. We know that young children learn best through play. And we try to recognize very early if a child (struggles to) form certain words or talk at all. Porter-Leath provides an array of services, and if we catch a learning disability or speech impediment early on, that child won’t fall as far behind.

What do you wish people knew about early childhood teaching and learning?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Owens works on vocabulary and motor skills with her students while creating a “handprint” tree.

The main thing I wish people knew is that conversations (with young children) stimulate their thinking and increase understanding. Children learn to communicate, cooperate, problem-solve, negotiate, create, and practice self-control. We can learn a lot from each other when we really listen.

For our kids, their language skills are just starting, and they’re often still doing a lot of babbling. But they learn to speak by hearing us and talking to one another. We are always talking to them. It’s things like, when a student is playing with a ball, asking “What color ball are you throwing?” Saying the color to them and asking them to repeat you. These interactions are so important to their development.

If you could change anything about the way Tennessee does early childhood education, what would you change?

I would offer more grant money to fund programs like ours. Memphis doesn’t have free pre-K space for every child who needs it. We have so many on our waiting list.

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.