Why this Memphis teacher asks her students to create a mixtape every year

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Natasha Wilkins is a history teacher at GRAD Academy Memphis. The charter school in the state-run Achievement School District will close after the 2017-18 school year.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

During her African-American history classes, Natasha Wilkins asks her high school students to answer this question in a “free writing” exercise: “Who is responsible for educating the public about injustice?”

The students type away while listening to R&B singer R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest,” which isn’t uncommon. Wilkins has made a point of integrating music into her classroom at GRAD Academy Memphis, a charter high school within Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Her class culminates with a “Hip Hot History” project, a mixtape produced by her students, who write the lyrics and record their songs in a studio to share their learning.

When asked how she answered the writing prompt, one student said that, thanks to Wilkins, she believes that she is responsible for educating the public about injustice. “I think understanding injustice has a lot to do with understanding history, real history,” the student said. “We can’t care about something we don’t know about.”

That’s the goal of Wilkins’ class:  To help her students, most of whom are black, understand the history of their ancestors and to have fun while doing it.

We asked Wilkins to explain more about her teaching style and how she helps her students “own” history.

Why did you become a teacher?

Of my friends from high school, none of my black male friends graduated from or even made it past their sophomore year of college. I was deeply frustrated by the realization that there was a system in place that left young black men feeling inadequate to pursue their educational goals, and I took the offense personally. I joined Teach For America with the desire to disrupt this cycle. 

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A mural hangs on the wall in Wilkins’ classroom.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a space designed to inspire and affirm. There is student work that lines the walls and quotes designed to push my students to think beyond what is in a textbook. I think a big part of my classroom is also what is not present.  I very intentionally did not put up many images of people from the past. I want my students to view history as not just acts and individuals from the past, but an ever-evolving story of which they are a part.

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

I tend to reframe it in terms of their lives. For example, I related the Civil War to gang warfare, and the division of the North and South leading up to the Civil War to a dating relationship gone bad. Putting the lesson in terms of things my students can relate to gives them confidence in the classroom and affirms that learning is for them, not just something that they do in a school, in a classroom.

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

At the beginning of the year, I do a short unit exploring what history is and how what becomes defined as “history” is determined and recorded. My students explore their perceptions of history and then are given the opportunity to record a story from their lives (also available on SoundCloud) in a project called Our Stories, Our Voices.

I explain to my students that we are all a part of history and that each of us deserves the chance to tell our own stories in our own voices. In this project, I allow my students to tell their stories how they perceive them, in their dialect, in their reality. This is essential to building relationships because it gives my students the space to be themselves, but it also gives me insight into what makes them who they are and the joys and pains that they bring into the classroom.

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

In 2015, I was engaged in a heated discussion with my World History honors class about the inequalities in the education they were receiving versus what I received in my predominantly white high school in Illinois. I was explaining to them why I was giving them the assignments I did, and why I taught the way I did, because that’s what my teachers did and it worked for me.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Wilkins says the goal of her class is to apply history to daily, lived experiences.

It was during this conversation that one of my more reserved students yelled out in frustration, “But this ain’t Springfield, Ms. Wilkins, and all of that Springfield stuff don’t work for us out here in Memphis. We’re different.”

This was a pivotal moment of realization in my teaching. It was in that moment that I finally heard my students and their frustrations and I realized that I needed to step back and learn from them just as they learned from me.

Describe Hip Hot History. Where did the idea come from, how do you implement it in your classroom, and why has it been a success for your students?

The idea for this project actually started as a joke. In class I would often play instrumentals and rap about history or getting back on task, to the amusement of my students. The students started asking me if I was going to drop a mixtape soon and I told them I would. One day, one of my students asked if the class could be on my mixtape and from there Hip Hot History was born.

This project is the capstone project my students complete at the end of the year. They are given the choice of writing a song, spoken-word piece, or creating a documentary film telling the story of blacks in history. They are given full creative license to create their piece with guidelines on how to choose the topic and the length of the piece.

Don’t just help students graduate. Prepare them for what’s next, says high school teacher

Sharon Collins at a New Heights Academy Charter School graduation with students.

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 Sharon Collins found out that some of her students who were strong academically in high school had dropped out of college, she realized more could be done to prepare students for success after they graduate.

An environmental engineer-turned-teacher, Collins has taught middle school math and nearly every high school math subject. Currently teaching seniors at New Heights Academy Charter School in Harlem, Collins tries to ensure that her students feel supported and prepared after they leave her classroom by continuing to meet with and advise them as part of OneGoal, a program that helps teachers become mentors for students during college.

On top of that, her school models their classes after college courses to get students used to a university structure. And to continue growing as an educator herself, Collins works with Math for America as a co-facilitators on a peer learning team. Here, Collins shares how she engages students and pushes them to enjoy math and continue learning.

What’s one way you build strong personal relationships with students?

I teach seniors, so at the start of the year I meet with each of them individually. It helps me know them as people and as learners. I ask them about the future, about college, about possible careers. Where do your interests lie? It’s important know their feelings about math. We have a four-year math requirement, whereas there is normally is a three-year requirement in high schools. My goal is always for the students who hate math to like math by the end of the year — I show them how math relates to the world around them. I also get to know them through going on senior retreat and spending time during lunch period to open classroom. Once you put in that extra time to show that you care, they will put in more effort.

What does your classroom look like?

When you walk in you’d see student projects everywhere. You can see calculus students building roller coasters, board game designs made by the statistics class, who invite 8th graders to come play them to show them that math is fun. In pre-calculus, we do “Shark Tank,” where students come up with idea for product that will help them get money or help humanity and build prototypes of them. I have students from previous years come and serve as the judges. My classroom always has students coming in. Even during 9th period, which is when they can go home, they love to stay, and they get tutoring or just come and talk to me about what they’re thinking about college.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now and how are you addressing it?

Something in general is the intensity of the anti-immigration bias because the student population is 95 percent Latino at my school and that it had an impact on Washington Heights. One way to help with that is with this program I’m involved in called OneGoal, a program where you become a mentor for students in college to help them graduate. In it, we have the space to talk about these issues and just have individual conversations, in particular with undocumented students —just letting them know that they have a safe place here.

But in regards to policy, the issue in high school of not focusing on college is an issue. The goal of high schools is more on graduating students rather than what the next step is for them. That’s how I got involved with OneGoal. I mean, students graduate, but it was interesting seeing who graduated and who didn’t. Even students who were really strong academically sometimes didn’t graduate. I attended a workshop that helped students through college. It’s not all about academic challenges, it’s the social-emotional part too. So OneGoal starts in high school and follows students through the first year, providing them mentorship and support. So over the past year my focus has been going through that transition with students. It can be overwhelming. Their academics go at a faster pace, and its difficult transitioning from teacher to mentor. But it helps so much and college readiness is something that high schools need to be more focused on.

What does your grading style look like and what hacks do you use?

At New Heights, we changed grading style last year to make it more similar to what college looks like. There’s homework and classwork but they don’t count for grades, so this was a big flip for students since now it’s exam based. If you don’t do well on an exam, though, you can retake it. You can do test corrections, or in humanities you can write a paper to bring up the grade. That was a big switch, and I still feel like homework is important to make sure students do well on an assessment. So if you want to retake the test you have to do all of your homework and classwork, to show that there’s a connection between the homework and the testing. But in my class the summative assessments that are a big part of the class are the projects. We do about three to four per quarter. They’ll submit one and publicly present to class or school administration, and they have a rubric they can look at to see which areas they didn’t score high on to be able to resubmit it for a new grade. It’s all challenging because it’s a whole new way, but we want to show them the process of modification.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Show unconditional love to all students. The influence of a great teacher lasts a lifetime. I was the first one to go to college in my family, and most of my student will be too. The amazing teachers I had and their confidence in me and what I could do was transforming.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

To get students attention, I have this saying “Tres, Dos, Uno, Namaste,” and that’s kind of the keyword where they know to come together. I love doing yoga and at the beginning of every yoga class my teacher says “the light in me sees the light in you.” Students face challenges, with poverty and tragedy. I try to make the classroom a positive space. I greet them at the door, I high five students. Learning should be fun, and that’s something that I want to associate for them. So namaste, that’s the word that they associate with me.

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

One thing I do is I have students work in small learning teams — so what happens is I’ll give a formative instruction, see who’s struggling, pull them aside to work with them on the content during a project. Something that I tried last year was having a co-teaching model —so students would teach students, and sometimes they just feel more comfortable doing that. It might just click more, because their peers can relate the materials to things they know about. Another thing is that I always give students my cell, so that they can text me at any time. Sometimes I’ll get a text so late at night. I won’t give them the answer but I’ll help them, I’ll ask them questions to make them think about the problem a different way.

How this Colorado English teacher connected with a mom everyone said was impossible

PHOTO: Steve Debenport | Getty Images

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 the series here.

It was the start of the semester and Ted Halbert, an English teacher at Brighton High School north of Denver, had been warned. The mother of one of his students was extremely hard to handle, the other teachers said.

But Halbert didn’t wait for problems to flare. Instead, he contacted the boy’s mother early on, outlining his hopes for the teen and establishing a pattern of email back-and-forth that lasted through the year.

Halbert talked to Chalkbeat about his rule of thumb for communicating with the boy’s mother — and all parents, why he feels heartbroken when district tax levies fail, and how he uses a Metallica song to explore an anti-war novel with his students.

Halbert is one of 48 educators nationwide selected for the 2019 National Education Association Foundation Global Learning Fellowship. The goal of the program is to help teachers develop the skills to understand and act on issues of global significance.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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

Teaching is my second career. After graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in communications, I spent a year as a student with the international, cross-cultural, and performance-based organization Up with People. It was an incredible experience for me. I loved learning about the world and being in the world with diverse people and living with host families (I have lived with more than 140 host families on four continents). I was hired by Up with People and spent nine years with them — the last three as general manager. But, the organization ceased operations in December 2000 and I was out of a job.

I got a job working for Girls Inc. of Metro Denver as the director of new business and marketing but didn’t love it. But after school the girls would come to our facility for classes and I immediately figured out that I loved being around the learning environment and the learners.

And then, Sept. 11, 2001, happened. That day I made a vow to myself to make the most of my life and not wait for change. The next day I quit Girls Inc. and told the president that I was going to become a teacher. And so I did. I was 33.

How do you get to know your students?

From the first moment they walk in my classroom I do two things: First, I welcome them personally, by name, every day. Second, I try to find out something unique and interesting about each and every student and ask them about it as often as I can. This is an intentional process and must be considered carefully because there are some students who want to hide — they don’t want me to engage and interact — but I refuse to let them and eventually, we create a positive relationship based on growth and trust (and laughter).

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

Before reading the incredible novel “Johnny Got His Gun” by Dalton Trumbo, we listen carefully to Metallica’s song “One,” which was partially inspired by the movie based on Trumbo’s book. We draw what we think is thematically happening in the song, and pull lyrics as evidence to back up our ideas. This gets them engaged and excited to read the book. I mean, if Metallica wrote a song about it, right? So cool.

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

Cool socks.

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

The refusal of the local community here in Brighton and the 27J area to support education through bonds or mill levies is absolutely maddening. Our textbooks are 25 years old. Our technology is outdated. Our rooms are packed with kiddos and when the bell rings at 7 a.m., some of them are barely awake. It truly takes the entire community to ensure the complete education of our young people and when a community does not step up, it breaks my heart. There is serious inequity in how we value our young people and something needs to be done about it. Regardless, I welcome every kid with enthusiasm and work my hardest so that they get the best education possible.

For the record: We have passed some bond issues, but only after making drastic decisions like split schedules (when 9th and 10th grades come early in the morning and 11th and 12th grade stay later) and pack our classes with kiddos. These actions wake up the community for a while so we can pass bonds so we can build new schools and facilities. Makes me sad … These kiddos are so amazing and they deserve better from their community.

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

I had a boy in my room and I was warned that his mom was “crazy” and impossible to manage. People who had the student in their class in other years would roll their eyes and wish me luck.

I reached out to her immediately and set up a relationship with her with very specific guidelines and goals. The goal, obviously, was the academic growth of her son, but I also made it clear that it was my goal that he have fun and be engaged, and want to come to class. Right off the bat, this impressed her and we were off to the races. The other goal (and this is so important when working with individual parents) was that our email communication would not take longer than 20 seconds to create and send. I’m rather serious about this with parents. I will keep in touch with them on an individual basis, but it must be concise and honest. The mother and I built a great relationship based solely on the health and success of the child. We had an incredibly successful year. The other teachers would grumble and complain, and I would just smile.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Understanding why education and young people and teachers aren’t more valued by our society is by far the most difficult part of my job. My students are the economic drivers of our future and deserve the best we can offer them. Where are the adults? Where are the politicians? Where is the support?

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

My biggest misconception was that the students would be difficult to manage. I was wrong. They are wonderful, curious, funny, smart, and engaged and they give me hope. It is society and the community not supporting us that I didn’t expect.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am always reading multiple books, usually one fiction and one non-fiction. Right now, I am inhaling Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” (wow) and “The Bounty: The True Story of Mutiny on the Bounty” by Caroline Alexander.

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

Teaching is about relationships. Build the relationships and they will come.