How I Teach

This teacher uses Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois to tie the past to the present for his students

PHOTO: Kyle Taubken

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.

History teacher Daniel Warner works to make the past come alive in his Memphis classroom.

Historic documents and mementos line the walls of his U.S. History classroom at East High School to remind his students that what happened yesterday matters today.

One poster reads “What does it mean to be American?” and Warner zeroes in on two African Americans from the 19th and 20th centuries to address that question with his students.

Booker T. Washington believed improving and educating oneself — at the expense of political action — was the right path. W.E.B. DuBois disagreed. He believed political action was at the heart of what would improve the lives of African Americans.

Warner said the two ideologies are “extraordinarily applicable to the questions that still face my students today.”

He also teaches an Advanced Placement history course at East High, an iconic Midtown school that’s undergoing major changes to revamp its image and recruit more students.

Chalkbeat spoke with Warner, 26, about why he became a teacher, how he keeps the attention of his students, and how he brings historical characters to life.  (The questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I hadn’t considered teaching until my senior year of college. In October of that year, I heard about the Memphis Teacher Residency and knew that’s what I wanted to give the next few years of my life to. I became a teacher more for cultivating learners and thinkers than for the essay grading and lesson planning. But I have come to enjoy the job in its entirety. And I have really developed a love for American history and the questions it asks.

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

I love teaching on the dispute between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois because I find it to be extraordinarily applicable to the questions that still face my students and our city today.

Though the NAACP, the organization DuBois helped found, had a strong presence throughout the 20th century in Memphis, Washington’s ideas seem, in my experience, to have had a more lasting impact on the politics of black Memphians. There is a long history of black conservatism (a la Booker T. Washington) in this part of the country, a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality — that no matter your situation, you can overcome, and you have no one to blame but yourself for the choices you make. 

"Each year, students walk away empowered to connect their stories with the ones of those who have gone before them. History class becomes worth their time."

That perspective, held by many of my students, has taught me much about resilience and perseverance. I hope I caused them to question, why we must also work to make the systems and structures fair and equitable, and why it is good and right to demand that of our representatives. There’s always a heated back and forth in the final debate in which half the class represents DuBois’ perspective and half the class represents Washington’s perspective. 

I spend a full week on this mini-unit. I start with the terrifying context of the Jim Crow South, the political violence during and after Reconstruction (e.g. the massacre that happened here in Memphis in 1866), and the disenfranchisement of African American voters. We read some of Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address in which he forgoes challenging segregation as he looks for employment opportunities for black workers in the New South. We then read excerpts of DuBois’ Talented Tenth speech and Souls of Black Folk in which he addresses Washington’s ideas. At the end of the week, we have a rigorous classroom debate in which students have to quote from the primary sources to defend their positions.

Each year, students walk away empowered to connect their stories with the ones of those who have gone before them. History class becomes worth their time.

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

We have a clear set of expectations in my classroom. I tell my students at the beginning of the year, “When I talk, you listen, and when you talk, I’ll listen.” I think that sets a tone of respect for one another that is foundational to a good learning environment.

I also try to use humor to keep the energy up and keep the mood light when appropriate. The teacher has to keep it upbeat when it’s the third day in a row on the issues of 19th-century farmers.

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 try to ask students what kinds of things they like. For example, I have a student right now who every teacher is having a hard time reaching. He’s not a bad kid at all, just real quiet and doesn’t do any of his work. I walked over to him the other day and noticed he was trying to learn Japanese on his laptop. I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but my goal is to tie in what we’re learning to the Japanese culture that fascinates him. Figuring out how to engage each unique child is a huge part of why I find education to be a compelling profession. And oftentimes I find that if I show a student I am interested in him and his hobbies, he will show an interest in class.

I also take my students seriously. When a student comes in crying about their cell phone being taken away or takes the risk of sharing their perspective in class, I never want to make them feel they are out of place for feeling what they feel or thinking what they think. I heard James Baldwin say that Malcolm X  was so adored by his followers and stirred them to action because he made them “feel as though they truly exist.” Looking someone in the eyes and listening is one of the quintessential human acts. I try to take a swing at that as often as possible. Teenagers appreciate it.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am reading a lot! Let’s see:

  • We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates;
  • One Nation, Under God, Kevin Kruse (examining the ways libertarianism got wrapped up in the package deal of what it now means to be evangelical Christian in response to the New Deal);
  • Just finished Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (fantastic characters in a short novella);
  • Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram Kendi;
  • A collection of essays by Wendell Berry called What Are People For?;
  • Brother To A Dragonfly, Will Campbell (absolutely loving this one right now; Will Campbell is one of the most fascinating Southern Christians ever)
  • Awaiting the King, James K.A. Smith.

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.”