How an award-winning teacher uses an app and camera phone to reinforce good math skills

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.

Looking to step up your technology game in the classroom, teachers?


Check out all the cool apps and software Carolyn Jordan, a teacher at Normandy Elementary in Littleton, uses in hers. (Tease: One involves a camera phone, math and parents).

Jordan was among a group of educators recently honored as part of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Along with receiving $10,000, she was given the opportunity to fill out our new How I Teach questionnaire. Here’s what she had to say …

School: Normandy Elementary

Current subject/grade: 4th grade, including an Advanced Math class

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style: Engaging, multi-sensory story-teller

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?
I review the learning objectives for the day and think, ‘How will my students learn what is presented? What is the best way for them to receive the information, practice it, and share out what they have learned?’ This is done for each subject, so no lesson goes by without a pause, or reflection, before it is implemented. Being prepared for your lesson is key. Then the fun begins when the students take it further than you imagined and you allow them the time to investigate more.

What does your classroom look like?

STEM in Colorado | A Chalkbeat special report

PART 1: Little access to STEM education
PART 2: St. Vrain goes all in on STEM
PART 3: What the heck is STEM?
PART 4: Coming Friday
FIRST PERSON: How my STEM education is going to help me get clean drinking water in Ethiopia
HOW I TEACH STEM: An award-winning science teacher shares her classroom practices.
HOW I TEACH STEM: An award winning fourth-grade teacher shares her classroom practices.
The Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado provided financial support for this series.

My classroom has calm colors, superhero decorations (because we all have our unique super powers), areas for partner works, a quiet reading corner, and is visually engaging with sentence starters and helpful tips. There are tall desks for kids who like to wiggle, pillows for floor choice, stools for others and rocking chairs as needed. There are five computers, students’ weekly jobs and independence to move in the room as needed.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?
My Smart Board (an interactive whiteboard) and Doc Camera (a fancy overhead projector) are used for almost every lesson. Zooming in and showing big-size is important, and interacting with Smartboard lessons allows students to be engaged. I love This allows me to take photos and video of students in class, and send them to their parents in a secure way. Parents are only able to see what is specifically linked to their child, and they can comment and praise their child. I shift the role of photographer/videographer to the students, and they are in control of showing their parents how they solve a math problem, or read to the camera their latest narrative story. The parents love this. I use MobyMax, SpellingCity, for skills practice. And often go to Plickers and Kahoot! for quick class check-ins.

How do you plan your lessons?
It is a process. I take notes on what learning objectives need to be covered, then I brainstorm resources to implement the lessons. Sometimes it’s manipulatives for math, or a sorting activity for spelling. It can also be small group work on brainstorming how to approach a problem-solving activity. Knowing the desired outcome is the first step, and then backwards plan to meet the goal of mastery.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?
I was taught the Madeline Hunter Method of lesson planning. It is still very similar 23 years later. You need to start and present the “What they are learning,” the “Why it is important,” and “How you know you will have learned it.” The modeling and check for understanding can be done by the teacher or student. Having the students talk is so important, so by sharing with each other what they already know, it lets the experts in the room already share their knowledge. The lesson also needs to be engaging. Kids need to participate in the learning, not just be receivers of information. Games, acting, drawing, watching, moving, elbow-partner sharing….all need to be involved. Students are not cookie-cutter images. They all have different needs and ways to learn. So during your school day, have you taught in a variety of ways so that each child is reached?

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I love when kids ask questions. When they are needing support, that clues me in that I need to share the information differently so that child can access the information in “their language.” Having another student re-teach the info, or share it in their own words, is more effective than my broken record playing over and over again. Using drawings and concept maps really help cement the concepts

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
I will walk near them, place my hand on their shoulder, or come by and tap on their desk. I find that my voice is not effective. They easily tune me out, so I need to be creative. I tend to sing, chant, clap, or interrupt the class with a brain break, if I need to get students back on track.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?
I love sharing information with my parents. I use email, my website, and the SeeSaw app. I also write notes in the student planners, which parents sign nightly. Communication with parents includes due dates, and homework, but more importantly, it is about what learning is happening in our room and the emotional well-being of the class as a whole.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?
I try to narrow the focus to one or two items to grade. For example, with writing, I ask the students to puts a star next to the paragraph they want me to grade. This way, I can quickly give feedback on one item, instead of needing to provide feedback for the entire piece of writing.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am re-reading the Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon. Since STARZ has a TV series mirroring the books, it is great to dive back into the stories.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Praise openly and often. Discipline privately. And love them up like you would if they were your own.

Belittled as a child, this Memphis teacher sets a high bar for her students

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell poses with her Aspire Hanley third-graders. Terrell has been teaching for four years and will move to Aspire East in the fall.

Some 20 years ago, Ginny Terrell’s third grade math teacher called her “stupid.” Now, Terrell laughs as she names her current position: a third grade math teacher.

“I was that kid in school that everybody was like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’” said Terrell who has been teaching at the local charter Aspire Hanley for four years and will teach at Aspire East in the fall.

Terrell was held back in kindergarten and struggled from there on. Luckily, she had teachers that stayed with her after hours to give her the support that she didn’t have at home. At that moment, she knew she wanted to be like them.

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell and her Aspire Hanley students.

As middle and high school loomed, Terrell told herself she had two options: sink or swim. So she worked hard — often twice as hard as her classmates, she said — and eventually enrolled in the University of North Texas in her home state.

During college, which took her seven years to complete, Terrell spent time in New Orleans doing service projects, where she often interacted with local youth. Then, she interned at a Title I school, where she noticed that her fellow teachers were unprepared to handle disciplinary issues, and that the “kids weren’t getting what they needed.” (Title I schools, eligible for certain federal funding grants, enroll a high percentage of students from low-income families.)

“I felt like it was the blind leading the blind,” she said.

That work, Terrell said, prepared her for a career in urban education. After graduation, she signed up for Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher licensing program that places college graduates at urban schools.

“They endure more than I could ever dream of,” she said of her students, 88 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. “… I can relate a lot to their home lives, their struggling in school and their not wanting to even be there.”

In this installment of How I Teach, Chalkbeat spoke with Terrell about why her decision to teach in urban schools was such a personal one. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by really utilizing my first month of school. I really try to use every moment and every conversation to truly understand each of my students. I give them a little survey that is like a Facebook page on paper the second day they are at school. I send home a survey [for parents to fill out] about his or her child and that helps me know even more. I spend time talking with them at lunch, recess, and moments during instruction. I try to observe how they respond to my questions, how they respond to hard situations, how they respond to their peers and how they handle learning. I use morning meeting time to know each of my students by playing getting-to-know-you games and simply letting them do a show and tell.

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

For a lesson on perimeter and area, our class took a little trip to the playground.They counted blocks and other items around the playground and added them up to get the perimeter. My students tried teaching each other and asked questions during the lesson on the playground. They told me at the end of the year that was their favorite lesson because they could understand it. This idea came from reading a book “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wished You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms,” by Tracy Johnston Zager. In the book it discusses the importance of including real life examples students can relate to in math and gave multiple examples in other classrooms. I thought that we should use the playground, which will stick with them because they use it every day and they love it!

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

An object I would be helpless without during the school day would be our clip system [moved up and down to track student behavior]! They could see where they were at behaviorally and how they can improve at every moment of the day. I could not live without a behavior system in my classroom. It is the basis of giving students structure and consistency. If you do not have a behavior system that is a well-oiled machine, you will not be able to get to your instruction and plan the engaging lessons. The culture you set, from day one, will drive your classroom.

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

Something that is happening in the community that affects my classroom is the crime rate. I have heard students coming in telling me they could not sleep because of the gunshots or abuse in their homes. Some of the crime happened on our [school] property between parents. This [hurts] student’s ability to focus, and [discourages] parents from coming to the school or even being involved. Students will start following what they see in their community, [so it] is hard for them to learn how to treat their peers or even teachers in a different way.

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

One of my students had a hard time functioning in my classroom. She could not really get along with peers and was sad a lot of the time. I reached out to the mom and discussed what was going on with her. Mom shared with me her life story and what has been going on at home. She wasn’t at all playing a victim or making excuses for her child. She instead asked me for help and support. We prayed for each other and I built a beautiful relationship with that family. It is so easy in the heat of the moment to snap or get angry with a student if he or she is not following directions. It showed me to seek to understand first, then take action. I could have done a lot more damage to the student in the classroom if I did not seek to understand. From that point on, I always make sure I take a step back and understand the situation instead of snap judgements. It taught how I can love each student in the way that will benefit them as future contributors to our society.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job would be not having enough parent involvement. There will be some parents that were very involved and supported the best they can in and outside the classroom. However, it has been difficult for some parents due to working three different jobs, not having enough resources or just not having the mental capacity to support. I cherish their thoughts and their support, so not having that [makes it] difficult to hold my students accountable outside the classroom.

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

I thought I had to dumb down my lessons so other students can learn. It is actually the opposite; having high expectations, students can reach the bar you set. I think I viewed my students as “low” academically, but they are not. Maybe they’re behind, but never low. They are so smart and can do anything you ask. It might take some time and you have to go back, but they are able and more than ready.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Nothing to Prove” by Jennie Allen and “Hope Heals” by Katherine Wolf and Jay Wolf

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

If you think you have arrived in teaching, you need to retire.

Detroit math teacher tends a greenhouse, welcomes parents into her classroom

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Marquita Reese, a math teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, works with students to cook vegetables grown in the school's greenhouse.

How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great Detroit educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at

Marquita Reese defies a traditional job title. At the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, an all-boys high school on Detroit’s east side, where she has taught for more than two decades, she is a chef, a gardener, and a meditation leader. Oh, and she teaches math.

Reese headed up an effort to build a greenhouse at Douglass, funded with federal grant dollars. Vegetables grown on the campus are used in cafeterias across Detroit’s main district. When it started in 2016, the program was lauded by Sen. Debbie Stabenow for simultaneously feeding children and teaching about science and nutrition.

Reese spoke with Chalkbeat about the garden, being a woman in the hard sciences, and welcoming parents into her classroom.

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

I graduated from Wilberforce University [in Ohio] with a degree in clinical psychology, but being a psychologist didn’t work out. Wanting to maintain a strong math and science grasp, I enrolled in the school of education at Wayne State, majoring in mathematics and sciences.

I said I’ll do math and science, not really considering that those are two of the most challenging areas of study.

I didn’t realize in retrospect that I was one of the few or only females that had a math and science background in the district. I would go into some meetings and would be one of the only females.

How do you get to know your students?

Students are given a survey and are required to write a short paper about themselves.  They must speak to their expectations and provide some insight about their goals for the present and for five years from now.  This year I included a three-minute meditation in the morning every day. Doing that at the beginning kind of relaxes the setting, and starts to build that trust between you and your students.

You run a greenhouse and garden on the grounds of Douglass Academy, and you also teach lessons about cooking. Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach your students about the garden. Where did the idea come from?

An activity I do before my students set foot in the garden is called colors of the rainbow. You take the colors of the rainbow, but you extend it, so I do teal, tan, indigo. For each color, they have to provide a fruit or vegetable that can be grown in Michigan and they have research their nutritional benefits.

In what region of Michigan can it be grown? When can it be grown, and at what temperature? They present it to the class, and they also have to do a PowerPoint. Then we we go for seed selections or transplants, they understand that some plants can’t be put in the ground at certain times. One year, we actually discovered that we can grow oranges in Michigan.

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

One of the things I felt very passionately about this year was changing the narrative society is putting out, especially looking at melanated young men. I was worried about these young men, their self worth, their self esteem, so I just opened up to them, told them how I’m feeling, and they expressed their views.

It was an emotional time for us all. Being melanated people, we don’t have a good idea of where our ancestors are from, so some of our dialogue is about that. We talk about what we don’t know and what we do know about African cultures.

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

Myself and an English teacher put together a parent group and a student group with all the parents’ email addresses. We’d send a message each time something happened in the classroom, homework or anything else, to the parents and the students.

Then I started getting notes from parents. They said ‘Hey, can we do this too?’

They’d text me like, ‘Hey, I don’t get this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you can come in and take notes, try to figure it out.’

It became an open door.

It was the SAT year, so they knew the importance of the child understanding the material. They never said, ‘It’s because I want to learn.’ They wanted to make sure that when their child came to them, they understood how to help their child.

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

I thought that the students and families that entrusted their kids to me had the same ideologies, learning style, and background as myself. For some, their exposure and educational experience or support was nothing like mine, so I had to refocus and adjust my teaching style and methods.

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

To be hard, consistent, and fair. As the students learn something new, so should I every day.