How I Teach

This Colorado teacher doesn’t come to class with ironclad lessons. Instead, students help her plan along the way.

Teacher Denise Perritt (far left) poses with her high school English students and a guest speaker who visited her class, author Robert Fulghum.

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.

Denise Perritt, a reading specialist and high school English teacher at the tiny Paradox Valley School in the western Colorado town of Paradox, knew she wanted to teach as an elementary school student. The inspiration? Her fifth-grade teacher, who showed her the joy in teaching.

Perritt, who also serves as vice principal of the charter school, talked to Chalkbeat about her former teacher’s special qualities, the importance of parent feedback and why she likes it when students laugh in class.

Perritt is one of 20 educators who were selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I was inspired by my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Johnson. She led her classroom with compassion, which caused me to believe I could teach. Miss Johnson genuinely cared about our learning, but she also cared about us as students. I learned from my previous teachers in grades K-4, but they were all about the learning and not so much about personally getting to know their students.

I really noticed and liked this teaching style. Further, Miss Johnson’s class was fun and we helped each other learn so everyone was successful, which felt good. I was not just responsible for my own learning, but also for the success of my friends and classmates. So, I guess this is when I first experienced the joy of teaching and became hooked.

What does your classroom look like?
I teach in multiple spaces within our school (sometimes even having to move in the middle of a lesson when the conference room is needed for a meeting). My class spaces are small resource rooms in which I try to create learning energy we can take with us (because my class spaces are fluid, but also as inspiration for students to make learning fun for themselves). I believe learning is a state of mind and does not always have to be connected to a particular place. Although environment does inspire learning, we can create a fun place to learn anywhere if we have the desire to learn within us.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my________?
My heart. My desire to teach started in my heart when my fifth grade teacher’s compassion for her students and teaching stirred my soul and started me thinking about teaching. There is definitely an art and science to teaching. I believe students learn more —and there is plenty of research to support my belief — when they know teachers sincerely care about them. (Not just about what they are learning, but also about the joy in their lives.)

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Honestly, I do not have a favorite lesson. I engage students in my planning (i.e. we decide together which novels we will read and what we will write about) so learning is fun and meaningful for all of us. My students often come up with better lesson ideas than I would.

As we progress through lessons, we include things along the way. For example, one group of readers chose the novel “Hoot” by Carl Hiaasen. The story is about burrowing owls and saving them from having their habitat destroyed. Just yesterday, I received a call from my principal, Jon, who is on vacation and just happened to photograph a mother burrowing owl feeding her babies. We discussed him sharing his photos with our students upon our return to school. Now, if I read this novel with another group of students, I have this additional resource to draw upon. Jon is a wonderful photographer so I also may have him share a bit about how he became interested in photography (sort of a career/mentor teachable moment). So, you can see how things just fall naturally into place, if you are open and flexible with lesson-planning.

Thus, I do not have a favorite lesson because my lessons are not plans, but scaffolds upon which to build student knowledge. The structure supports and allows lots of room for new thoughts and ideas, which allow broader and deeper connections to be made, even if they are months later (as in the case of the owl photos).

How do you respond when students don’t understand your lesson?
I usually ask the students to tell me what they are thinking. Then I can learn how I can add to their thinking to help them get to the expected level of understanding.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I usually tell a joke related to the topic to get them all thinking about the same thing and laughing. Then I have their attention and we are back on topic.

I use laughter in class for many reasons. It decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus helping to keep all of us well and in school. Iit triggers the release of endorphins, which promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain. Also, it promotes a general feeling of fun while learning. I have had teachers say to me, “When I passed your class, I heard a lot of laughing. It sounded like all of you were having fun.”

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Teaching in a small school — total enrollment is 75 in preschool through 12th grade — makes it easy to know all students. I am also the vice principal of the school and stand at the front door each morning to greet each student. I do this for many reasons, but mostly because I like to and it gives me an overall feeling about how each student’s morning has been thus far. Most students have about an hour ride on the bus to get to school; and, since we have one bus, our entire student body comes in at once. Having preschool through 12th grade students together on one bus sometimes causes problems, so I like to nip them early in the day.

I have been at Paradox Valley School two years and have built relationships with students by: Listening (I ask questions to be sure I understand what they are sharing with me); helping; and, being firm (keeping expectations high) and fair. I think the students respect these qualities and I encourage them to do the same as they interact with one another. Our students are truly amazing young people and the foundation of my relationships with them is based upon mutual respect and learning. I learn from them as much as, I hope, they learn from me.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach?
One of the most memorable occurred early in my career and has stuck with me for decades. I was teaching first grade and had a student who was reading significantly below grade level. Diagnostic testing confirmed she needed more time to learn to read. Unfortunately, given the structure of the school in which I was teaching, this meant repeating first grade. Her parents did not agree with the decision so we compromised. I agreed to read with her over the summer and continue to do my best to get her ready for second grade. They agreed, if she was not ready, she would repeat, which is what happened.

I stayed at that school one more year and then transferred to another district, but continued to live in the same community. Years later, her mother sought me out to let me know her daughter was doing well and repeating first grade was the right decision. I was moved that she reached out to let me know. During the span of time between her daughter repeating and seeing her again, I had my own daughter, which also changed my perspective. In my new role as a parent, I tried to let Anna’s teachers and mentors know — from pre-K through college — how much their hard work was appreciated.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World” by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama

What’s the best advice you ever received?

One piece of advice I have used often was shared with me by a professor, Dr. Robert Hanny, while I was studying at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. I was struggling to narrow my research for my dissertation, and he said, “Denise, you do not have to build the wall, you only have to add a brick. Add your brick [research] on top of someone else’s brick, which is already laid; and, design your brick so another can be put on yours by someone, who comes along after you.”

This is true for so much of what we do as educators. We teach our students for a limited time and then they go to another teacher. We cannot teach them all they need to know. We can add to what the child knows already, teach as much as possible in the time we have, and know they will continue learning after they leave our classroom.

How I Teach

Tupac, Shakespeare, and ‘Stranger Things’: How a top Tennessee teacher relates to her students

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Katherine Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the the Milken Family Foundation.

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 Katherine Watkins found out she would receive a prestigious national teaching award, her students at Millington Central High wrapped her into a huge bear hug.

“We relate to her because she relates to us,” one of her students said when asked why they enjoyed her class. Watkins was honored as a Milken Educator Award last November in front of her students, colleagues and Tennessee’s top education official.

Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the Milken Family Foundation.

We asked Watkins about how she strives for relatability in her classrooms, where she teaches literature, English and coordinates the school’s yearbooks. Millington Central High is racially diverse and made up of about thousand students, one-third of which are described as economically disadvantaged.

Read in her own words how she uses pop culture to build classroom rapport and how she learned not to get flustered when her students got off track. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of books, images, and objects I’ve collected from my travels. These include a handmade Venetian mask I brought back from Italy, pictures I took while standing in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and a twelve-volume, leather-bound edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare that was published in London in 1786

Some people might say I’ve lost my mind to keep such precious relics within reach of teenagers, but I interpret the “value” of these treasures somewhat differently. I want desperately for my students to know and care about the world that exists beyond their immediate reality, and sometimes the best way to achieve that is through tactile experience. I’m trying to cultivate independent thinkers who have the confidence to test limits, ask tough questions, and arrive at their own conclusions. That can’t happen without direct confrontation with the unfamiliar, and until I can afford to actually take them to the places we read about in the literature we study, my souvenirs will have to suffice.

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

I could not teach without my close-knit group of teacher friends. This is only my third year at my current school, but everyone was so warm and welcoming when I arrived that it really felt like coming home. We even have a group chat we use every day to share funny memes, vent about our frustrations, offer words of encouragement, and talk through ideas. Feeling like you can be yourself around friends in a judgment-free zone makes all the difference when it comes to a high-stress job like teaching.  Without that kind of solidarity, I know I wouldn’t be nearly as resilient or effective in the classroom.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I used to get visibly flustered if students were talking or off task during the lesson. It took me a couple years in the classroom to realize that getting upset is the least effective way to deal with this problem. Many students misbehave because they crave attention, so getting upset is the same as relinquishing control. Nowadays, I vary my approach depending on the severity and intent of the disruption, but regardless of the situation, I never lose my cool.

I have the most success defusing behavioral disruptions through the use of nonverbal cues, which can be as simple as changing my position in the room. For example, if a cluster of students is off task while I’m addressing the whole group, I continue lecturing and simply move to where the problem is occurring and the behavior stops. I’ve also become a sort of Jedi master at the don’t-you-even-think-about-it stare of disapproval. The right look delivered at the right moment can work wonders for classroom management. 

PHOTO: Katherine Watkins
Watkins said she starts each year by giving her kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Before my first day at Millington Central High, I had little idea what to expect of my new school and its students. I had driven through Millington a time or two on my way to other destinations, but that was the extent of my familiarity with this community. During my initial interview, I was briefed on school demographics: Millington is ethnically diverse with a high percentage of economic disadvantage, a large SPED population, and nearly a quarter of students coming from single-parent households. It would be a lie to say I never questioned whether the school would be the right fit for me. I worried about my ability to make a connection. Would my students accept me? Would I be able to make a difference in their lives?

I always start each year by giving my kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences. I use this information to get to know students and begin establishing a rapport. Left to my own devices, for example, I would never be motivated to keep up with pop culture trends, but if a large number of my students are listening to a particular artist or watching a specific TV show (Stranger Things anybody?), I make a point of consuming the same media so I can connect with them over more than just academic content. This extra effort on my part—cultural research, if you will—has worked wonders with the kids at Millington. The look of shock on their faces when they realize I can quote lines from Hamlet as readily as the lyrics to any 2Pac song is priceless.

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

Knowing what’s going on in a student’s home life is a crucial part of being a good teacher, and I always try to consider the bigger picture when difficult situations arise. I have had students come forward with stories of abuse, students who have experienced the death of a parent, and students who are basically raising their younger siblings because Mom works three jobs and Dad isn’t around. A student who arrives to school late and sleeps through first period could just be lazy, but it would be callous and irresponsible to punish the child without first having a conversation to find out what’s causing the behavior. We can’t forget that kids are human beings too, some of whom are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Teaching has made me realize that you can never really know what someone else is going through until you make the effort to understand. This is why it’s so important to reserve judgment and approach students with patience and compassion.

How I Teach

To teach American music, this Colorado teacher takes students back in time

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

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.

Dave Lunn, the band and orchestra director at Liberty Common High School in Fort Collins, was working at a coffee shop when he got the offer to start a band program at the new charter school.

Although he taught private music lessons at the time, he’d never planned to go into teaching. That was his parents’ field, not his.

But once he got started at Liberty Common, where he teaches music theory and music history, too, he knew it was the career for him.

Lunn, who was one of seven finalists for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked to Chalkbeat about why his unit on American Roots music is so important, how a Japanese concept influences his teaching and why he loves parent-teacher conferences.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Both of my parents were teachers, so to forge my own identity, I tried to follow a different path. On the side, I had developed a considerable private music studio, teaching saxophone and other instruments, so I became known in the music education community as a private instructor.

While working as a barista, one of my customers who knew that I taught music lessons was involved in starting a new charter school called Liberty Common School. She approached me about starting a band program as an extracurricular activity for the students. What began as a group of 25 students grew into a music program with five bands and a string orchestra at a school that I have now been working at for 20 years. I guess you could say that teaching found me, because as soon as I began, I knew that it was what I was meant to do. I mainly knew this, because I wouldn’t get that pit in my stomach on Sunday evenings that was such a familiar feeling in other jobs. I loved (and still do) the fact that that being a teacher offered endless opportunities to be creative and more effective.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom communicates two things: 1. My love for all kinds of music (which I hope to be contagious) is broadcast everywhere. There are posters up and musical instruments of all kinds everywhere (I am very clear about which ones are available for students to play and when). 2. That students are welcome. One of my colleagues has dubbed my room “The Oasis,” because stressed-out students often come in during down time to play the piano, or one of the guitars hanging on the wall, or even to study in a low-stress atmosphere.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
My sense of humor. Ever since I was a kid, I loved being (or trying to be) funny. For better or worse, it defined my high school career, as I was voted “Class Clown” of my senior class. In teaching, it has been a great tool for engaging students in the lesson and even more importantly, building relationships. It also keeps me from getting bored!

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite unit is called “American Roots Music.” I teach this unit in a high school class called Introduction to Music History and Theory. In it, I guide students through an American musical “tree,” in which I demonstrate that most of American popular music can be traced back to the folk songs of slaves in the United States. We then discuss how this beautiful music was anonymously created out of the most miserable and unjust circumstances imaginable. We discuss how, after the abolition of slavery, this music would evolve into gospel and blues music, each branching out into yet more musical genres. We explore the many styles of blues that emerged, such as Delta blues, Chicago blues and Kansas City blues, and the tremendous influence those styles would birth. We journey to New Orleans, and learn about how the unique mixing of African, French, Spanish, and Caribbean cultures would eventually create jazz music. We then trace the evolution of jazz through all of its many styles. Finally, we learn about how the meeting of African-American rhythm and blues with white American country music developed into rock and roll.

There are many reasons that this is my favorite unit to teach. Although I am a band and orchestra director, I love lecturing and putting together presentations, and I do so every chance I get. I’m a performer at heart. I believe that the best performances aren’t just spectacles, but involve and engage the audience. The audience should leave a great performance changed, with a new way of looking at things. American Roots music speaks to my soul like no other music. I want my students to understand what I understand about the sublimity of this music.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
The challenge of teaching is, for me, all about striving to help a student understand the concept or material that I am presenting. Like most teachers, I present material in as many ways as I possibly can: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. I am always checking for understanding through the questions I ask. If I feel that a student still doesn’t understand (and really wants to), I will try to find one-on-one time to work with him or her.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
In my more traditional, lecture-oriented classes, I begin by playing interesting music that we have learned about during the previous lesson. I slowly raise the volume until I see all eyes up front. As soon as I stop the music, I begin teaching immediately, by beginning with something engaging. What I am trying to do is keep the pace lively, and not to leave any room for other distractions to take the energy away.

I also move around the room quite a bit, so that every student in the class is effectively “sitting up front.” In my music ensembles classes, routines are worked out during the first few days of school to establish when it is acceptable to play your instrument or talk, and when the attention needs to be on me as the conductor. The use of a conductor’s podium and a baton are what makes this happen. My whole goal is to avoid shouting above the din of the classroom. It works most of the time.

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 take a great interest in getting to know my students individually and, honestly, this is where I put the majority of my energy and receive the most fulfillment back. I use humor to build rapport, establish “buy in,” and disarm any negativity. Other than that, I just pay attention to how different students respond to situations, and I get to know their strengths and weaknesses through our experiences in the classroom. My hope is to be the kind of teacher and mentor that they need.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I know it may sound strange, but I enjoy parent-teacher conferences every year. This is when I get to know the families of new students, as well as continue to build relationships with parents that I have known for years. I always come away with new insights into students who I thought I already knew so much about. While the overwhelming majority of these interactions are positive, I value the more challenging encounters just as much. I learn something every year that helps be get better as an educator.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished a book about world poverty and possible solutions called “UnPoverty: Rich Lessons from the Working Poor” by Mark Lutz. I know this sounds odd for “reading for enjoyment,” but my daughter is spending a gap year working in Nicaragua, and I read it along with her to get a better insight into the nature of the work she is doing. It’s fascinating and soul-provoking.

I also am reading a book called “Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers” by Nick Offerman from the television show “Parks and Recreation.” That is one of my favorite shows, and I got to meet Nick Offerman at a book-signing where I bought the book. It’s a collection of short essays about people he admires. It’s filled with his trademark dry humor and wisdom.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My first principal and education mentor, Dr. Kathryn Knox, mentioned a word that she picked up while living in Japan. The word is “muda,” and it roughly means futility, uselessness, wastefulness. She said that her password at the time was “muda gone”. This inspired me at the time to identify those things that could interfere with my effectiveness as a teacher, and even more importantly, my passion for teaching. There are so many elements in an educator’s career that threaten to weigh us down with “muda,” and keep us from focusing in keeping the joy of learning alive in our students. I have always tried to give all “muda” only the minimal space in my mind that is required, so that my energy is fully available for teaching. It has worked well so far.