For this Denver AP English teacher, success means students who push against the status quo

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.

To Ashley Farris, an advanced placement English teacher at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School in Denver, teaching is an act of social justice — a way to help students push against the status quo and create community change.

It’s an outlook she adopted during her first teaching job in Baltimore, when she got a crash course in racism and poverty. She says her belief that teachers can change the world is what’s kept her in the profession.

Farris 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 think teaching is in my blood! I am the oldest of my siblings, so I was often teaching them when we were growing up. I found solace in books as a child, and I knew that I wanted to share my love of reading as a teacher.

I think the reasons that I became a teacher are far less important than my reasons for staying. My first teaching assignment was in Baltimore City, and it was the first time I had to confront a system that really was not working for all of the people involved. I learned a lot about racism, poverty and trauma while I was teaching there, and it made me angry. As a person of color, no one had ever taught me the academic vocabulary to describe the things I was experiencing and the things I saw my students experiencing. I pushed myself to learn more about institutional racism, implicit bias, etc. because I knew that my students deserved more. I wanted them to be able to talk about the challenges they saw every day.

For me, teaching has become an act of social justice. If my students are successful, they are pushing back against the status quo, and they are able to make the changes they want to see in their communities. Although I am no longer in Baltimore, I am still committed to working with minority students in underserved communities. I co-taught a social justice class last year and it was incredible to be able to share stories with my students of color about our common experiences. Recently, I saw this quote that said, “She believed she could change the world, so she became a teacher” and I thought: that’s me! That’s why I’m still here!

What does your classroom look like?
I play with seating arrangements a lot in my room. I have tables and they are currently in L-shapes so students can easily work with a partner or in a small group. There is a lot of student talk and collaboration in my class, and I try to choose seating arrangements to help facilitate that. I don’t have too many things on the walls because I find them distracting, but I do have a few plants to add some color and life to the room.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
My document camera, which projects documents onto a screen. I use my document camera every day with students because it is so easy to work alongside them, show them my thinking and have them present their own work.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons last year was an introduction to a unit on truth. I had five volunteers touch an object that was inside of a box and describe what they felt. They each had drastically different answers: Some said the object was soft, others firm, one said it felt feathery. I revealed that the object inside the box was a teddy bear wearing a graduation cap (a gift from my family when I was accepted to college, which also gave me an opportunity to talk about being a first generation college student).

We discussed how although none of the students were wrong about what they felt, none of them was able to understand the whole truth of the object. Then we read both “The Parable of the Elephant” and Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” It sparked a great conversation about how we know when something is true and the importance of listening to different perspectives. Students were still bringing up the “elephant story” in our discussions at the end of the year.

How did you come up with the idea?
I based the entire lesson on “The Parable of the Elephant,” but I Google everything. I am constantly saving articles on Evernote that I think would be interesting to teach in class. I am always on the lookout for something that I think could be useful in a lesson.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student doesn’t understand the lesson, I might have another student help them. Sometimes kids are able to explain things to each other in ways that make more sense. We also have office hours at my school, so I am available at least once a week to help students. I invite students to come during lunch as well if they’d like extra help.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
This is my second year teaching seniors and honestly, they are not often off task nor do they need much to get their attention! When I taught middle school, I found countdowns really useful because it gave students time to wind down their conversations.

Most of the time if students are off task it is because they are confused or they have concerns about something outside the classroom. I simply ask a student if they have a question about the assignment or if everything is OK. If they don’t have questions and they are fine, I repeat the directions for the assignment. I find that is usually enough to get kids back on track and if there is a problem, they now have space to voice 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?
On the first day of school, I write each student’s name on an index card and place it on their desk. Their very first assignment is to write something they want me to know about them on the back. That night I read and respond to every card by writing back with a question or comment. I pass the cards back the next day (which helps me learn names) and invite them to respond again. Sometimes students will pass the card with me 3-4 times! Putting in the time to get to know students at the beginning of the year gives me the opportunity to start up conversations with them about their interests and help calm any fears or worries they may have.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
During my first year teaching, I called a parent to discuss her son’s poor behavior in my class. I remember her telling me that she didn’t know what to do with him and asked me if I had any advice. I was 22, barely out of college, with no kids of my own. I had no idea what to tell her!

That moment made me realize that we are all doing that best that we can with what we have and no single one of us (parents, teachers, administrators) has all the answers. It is so important for schools to work with families in order to help their children have engaging educational experiences.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I recently finished “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson and I’m working on “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best teaching advice I’ve ever received was from teacher and education consultant, Jacob Clifford. He said to teach your best lesson on the first day.

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 detroit.tips@chalkbeat.org.

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.