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This teacher of the year finalist uses music to teach second graders vocabulary

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 keep her students focused and inspired, Jodi Simpson turns to the Beatles, Keb Mo and Sarah McLachlan.

Simpson, a second-grade teacher at Paonia Elementary School on the Western Slope, uses music to teach science and social studies, transition between subjects and give her students a break.

The Colorado Teacher of the Year finalist has other wisdom to share about how to use music and photos, connect with parents in her small town and check for students’ learning. Here’s an introduction to Simpson and how she teaches:

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style: Relationships!

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?
Morning is the time to get things rolling!

I pick up one of my students and together we roll into the parking lot and start our day. We meet up with two other students and get right to our reading practice time from 7:30 a.m. to 8. Before the rest of the class arrives, we play a rhyming game, letter sounds, “go fish,” or sight word dominoes. Brief games open the positive path into our phonics, fluency and comprehension activities that come next.

Before you know it, the other 19 students begin to enter the room with their smiles and hugs. Energy fills the room! It’s a good thing I set up learning materials the afternoon before so we can gather on the carpet to share “good things in our lives” and start our day!

What does your classroom look like?
Our room is colorful, warm, open and welcoming. Desks are arranged into groups. Cozy chairs, colorful carpets for large group gatherings and bookshelves full of books create our learning space.

Plants, butterfly cages, seeds, leaves and a cheerful red geranium line the south wall by the windows. Lamps add soft light, posters of nature/wildlife inspire us to go out and wonder, and the faces of Malala Yousafsai, Jane Goodall, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa remind us about courage, peace, humanity and the difference each person can make in the world.

Of the utmost importance, our Classroom Agreement hangs on the board. Students created the list of ways they want to be treated and how they will treat each other. Their ideas range from kindness to respect to gratitude to love of learning.

They ended their list with this line about how they will treat each other when there’s conflict: “We will use respectful voices, faces, and hearts.”

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?
The tools I use every day are iTunes and iPhoto.

We transition through our subjects and other parts of our day with music and songs!

When we gather for discussion/share time we play “I’m Amazing” by Keb Mo. The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” warms us up as we come in from the playground on cold winter days. “Ordinary Miracle” by Sarah McLachlan reminds us about the miracles of nature all around us.

I download songs about our second-grade content and we sing, dance and move as we learn science/social studies concepts and vocabulary. We sing about a butterfly’s metamorphosis and its migration. We sing about the seasons and the weather. Later in the year, we’ll learn songs that teach us about the Underground Railroad, civil rights and how to love ourselves and each other.

iPhoto stores our images throughout the year. We use a camera and an iPad to capture moments of our learning to post on our class wiki page and create a “Padlet” for other second grade scientists to connect to as we compare our notes and observations on raising butterflies. Children post their comments and captions for the photos on the class website. My students enjoy seeing themselves and each other.

It’s amazing how such “techie” tools can touch us at such a warm, human level.

How do you plan your lessons?
As I plan my lessons, I think to myself: What are we learning? How are we learning it? And why is it important and relevant?

Identifying the “what” is based on second-grade state content standards.

The “how” sets the tone. Will we engage in “I do – We do – You do” with modeling and guided support and then independent practice? Or we will use the inquiry method? Will students choose how they show their understanding and application of new skills?

Who needs a little review before having a go at it? Who needs more time? Who is ready to work independently?

Do we need math manipulatives? Do we need mentor texts?

It’s the challenge of figuring out the “how” that makes teaching and learning works of art.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?
An ideal lesson is similar to a life cycle. The lesson begins with an essential question or big idea. The modeling, guidance and practice move to the next steps of discussion, application, understanding and more questions.

Lessons need to be social and collaborative. Turning and talking to our learning partners help us express what we’re learning and what we hear others say they are learning.

During the lesson, I’m evaluating student understanding, moving around the room and checking in, assisting when needed. Reflection on learning and finally returning to the initial question or big idea summarizes our lesson.

The best lessons and learning experiences are meaningful, hands-on, fun and engaging.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
During a lesson, I begin checking on their understanding by asking for more questions or simply asking for a thumbs up, thumbs down or a wiggly “in between” for children to let me know if they’re with me so far. It’s fascinating to see that 7- and 8-year-olds are very honest and comfortable letting me know when they are “getting it” or not.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
I try my best to get a sense of my students’ emotions, moods or focus as they enter the classroom. Hopefully, I’ve sensed who might need an extra hug or light conversation as I offer a hand as they unpack their homework and hang up their things.

When children need to be re-engaged I usually find a way to move closer to them, physically. A light touch, a nod, a reminder: “Remember, we agreed to how we will all work together to create the kind of learning space we want.” Other short phrases that work are: “Do you need me to help you with something?” “How can I help?” “Let me show you a little trick I’ve learned to figure this out. Maybe it will work for you.”

How do you maintain communication with the parents?
We live in a small community and many of my families and I communicate face-to-face. When needed, I make phone calls to share insight, celebrate or discuss ways we can work together to support their children if a challenge arises. Very rarely do I use e-mail, unless a parent prefers this method.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
When thinking about being the teacher I want to be, I think of Debbie Miller’s words from a post on Choice Literacy: “I wanted to be a good teacher. But I was looking outside myself for all the answers. I didn’t know that most of the answers were inside me all along. And I’m hoping you know that they’re inside you, too.”

Also, Ann Marie Corgill shared three essentials during a webinar with the Center for the Collaborative Classroom: “To change the face of education we need to: No. 1 Slow Down. No. 2 Put Relationships First. And No. 3 Stop Talking.”

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