How I teach - STEM edition

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.

How I Teach

Why students’ birthdays are the perfect icebreaker for this award-winning Tennessee teacher

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin gets a hug from one of her students after the announcement that she was one of two Tennessee teachers to win a Milken Educator 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.

Paula Franklin’s students describe her teaching style as “relaxingly engaging.”

Maybe that’s because she starts out by building relationships with her students, then begins to introduce the content in her Advanced Placement government class at West High School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Since she took on the course, enrollment has doubled. And more than 80 percent of her students exceed the national average on their final AP test scores.

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last year, Franklin was one of two Tennessee teachers chosen by the Milken Family Foundation for their prestigious national teaching award. The honor includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

We spoke with Franklin about why she became a teacher, how she uses birthdays to build relationships with her students, and why campaign finance reform is her favorite lesson to teach. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

My high school AP Biology teacher, Mr. Wheatley, was my inspiration. He cared about his students as people first and whatever we learned about biology was secondary. As a result, I learned a lot of biology, and a tremendous amount about myself, for which I am forever grateful. I work every day to provide the same type of environment to my students. I try to teach them about themselves through the lens of civic education. I want my students to leave my class not only more confident in their knowledge of our government, but also as inquirers and risk-takers who are equipped to ask questions and find the answers.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

I spend the first two to three days of class using Kagan class-building strategies to get to know my students and to get them to know each other. I can always make up time for content later, but the time spent building a classroom culture at the beginning of the year can’t be made up.

Another of my favorite things is finding out my students’ birthdays to celebrate them with the class by asking them three questions: Are you going to drive? What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment,? What do you hope to accomplish before your next birthday?

This allows me to spotlight my students and have them think critically about themselves and their goals. I have asked these same three questions for years, and students have started coming to me on their birthdays after they have left my class to share their accomplishments and goals.

What does your classroom look like?

I love to display student work in my classroom, both from my current and former students, so my walls are pretty well covered in posters and art. I think it’s important to make a classroom into a reflection of the students who learn there and goes a long way toward building community.  I arrange the desks in small sections of rows so that I can easily get to all the students to provide support on a difficult concept or assignment or encouragement to stay on task.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen surprise Franklin with her award.

Google Drive! I am a huge reflector and save all of my lesson materials and reflections on my Drive. That way, I can easily access previous lessons and see how to best adapt them for my current students or the current social-political climate.

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

One of my favorite lessons to teach began as my absolute least favorite: Campaign finance reform. The first couple of years, it went terribly. Students didn’t come away with an understanding of campaign finance but were more confused than when we started.

I am big on incorporating technology in my classroom, but for this lesson, I have them write down the original limitations of campaign finance and then cross them off in a different color as we learn about repeals. The action of crossing an item off of the list and annotating with the case or law that repealed it really sticks with them. This lesson is one of my favorites because I get to teach a relatively small amount of content over a class period, students get to work in groups and really wrestle with the content, and they have the opportunity to share their understanding with the whole class.

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

I try to figure out what it was about the lesson they did not understand. I can usually do this by reviewing data from a quiz or test or other assessment or just by asking them. I spend a lot of time in my class focusing on how to ask and answer questions to encourage my students to be advocates for their education both in and out of my classroom. After I figure out what I need to remediate with my classes, I do my best to come up with an example or analogy that is relevant to them. If that doesn’t work, then I ask a colleague how they teach that topic and try that. I am constantly looking for new and different ways to teach content that my students typically struggle with so that I am prepared to switch it up if my plan isn’t working.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It is OK to leave it on your desk; it will still be there in the morning. You are not a bad teacher for needing time for yourself.

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

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 always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”