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How one social studies teacher makes history come alive

Wheat Ridge High School history teacher Stephanie Rossi leads a discussion on the earliest days of American colonies. Rossi has taught Advanced Placement U.S. history for more than a decade.
Wheat Ridge High School history teacher Stephanie Rossi leads a discussion on the earliest days of American colonies. Rossi has taught Advanced Placement U.S. history for more than a decade.
Nicholas Garcia

With school resuming all over Colorado this month, it’s time for teachers, students and families to get back into the regular rhythms of learning. Here, in a feature we are calling How I Teach, we spotlight how great teachers approach their jobs.

If you’re looking for a history lesson, look no further than Stephanie Rossi’s classroom. The Wheat Ridge High School social studies teacher has been teaching students about the founding fathers, Great Depression and Civil Rights movement for 37 years.

Rossi was a part of local history herself when she became a de facto spokeswoman for an advanced U.S. history course that caught the attention of a Jefferson County school board member, who was worried the course wasn’t patriotic. What followed were weeks of student protests and a recall of the school board member and her colleagues.

Rossi is a decorated teacher. Most recently, Rossi was recognized with the George Olmsted Jr. Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching by Williams College in 2015. Chalkbeat spoke to Rossi about how she teaches.

Current subject/grade: Advanced Placement U.S. History, AP Psychology and senior seminar

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style: Interactive. Energetic. I love to encourage critical thinking through the many stories I tell in American history.

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?
I have 20 minutes to get ready: I post my daily agenda for all classes on the board, print copies, do hall duty and begin first period by 7:25.

What does your classroom look like?
It’s warm, welcoming, and friendly with a combination of desks, couches and historical posters all around the room.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?
I can teach without any of the newer technology because I started teaching when none of it existed. But the one technology I would never want to be without is the electronic grade book because it does all the math of figuring out percentages, grade points, etc. that I used to complete by hand using a calculator.

How do you plan your lessons?
All of my lessons have two elements. I use the “Understanding By Design” format that involves starting at the end with this question: What will my students be able to do at the end of this lesson and how will they demonstrate their skills?

The first element is called SKILL Decision. This is always based upon what knowledge and skills my students understand well and do not need to review, and what they do need additional teaching on.

The second element is called CONTENT Decision. An example: Do they understand the cause and effect relationship between King George III’s decisions and the beginning of the colonial rebellion?

My lesson plans are always driven by what proficiencies my student are best skilled in. If I need to slow down, then I do so, and vice versa. I never let the pace of a curriculum drive my decisions; if students need more time to practice a skill, they get it.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?
Every lesson should have a goal, beginning assessment, formative assessments, middle adjustments, progress monitoring and summative assessments. They should be fun, engaging and full of opportunities for students to question, think, explore and learn, and safely demonstrate what they are learning. Lessons should be challenging and there should always be a connection to the next learning.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
In a couple of ways. I try to handle it with my students first.
1. I write a note on their assignment and ask them to come see me.

2. Set up a time to discuss the issue after class.

3. At six weeks, if student is not doing well, I set up a mandatory weekly help session that lasts for the remainder of the year — whether they begin to pass or not. It is intended to get them back on track and not slip again and to build consistent learning practices. It is held after school and I meet with the student from 2:45 to 3:30 and we begin to work together on building their deficient skill set into a proficient set. It is set up by me, student and parents, and I stress it is mandatory. Attendance is taken and grade and skills monitored with more one-on-one work.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
We have a chat. I give them a get out of work free pass to refocus.

Oftentimes, kids want help refocusing because other problems (family, school, work, etc.) are distracting them and they want help in learning some coping skills. A caring question, after class, goes a long way.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?
Email is the best and most efficient. Phone too, but email is best.

What hacks do you use to grade papers?
I am a tough grader. I grade for content and mechanics, but not as a punishment, rather as a learning experience. No tricks: Grading is the bane of every teacher’s existence, but is necessary. Sometimes I hire graders (usually college-age students who are learning to become teachers, former students who are now in college and need some money).

I also have a grade quota I must meet seven days a week so that I do not get behind. As a social studies teacher, I am always grading essays. In fact, I call my papers “my children” because they go everywhere with me. Sometimes I grade only a part of an assignment. But based on the feedback I have received from my students, they thank me every year for grading and putting comments on their work because they like to know what they need to improve on. I believe if my students work hard on an assignment, that they want me to pay them the same kind of attention on an assignment.

I am never caught up. I start in August and am not caught up until the end of the school year. It simply is what it is – an ongoing job that is designed to help the student improve on his/her skill set.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“Hamilton” by Ron Chernow.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I have three examples:
1. A friend and I were traveling through western Colorado. We were lost and the map was not helpful at all. I said, “We are lost, Mary.” She replied, “We are never lost, we just have not been here before.” I have used that idea with my students too. When students say, “I don’t understand this, Mrs. Rossi,” I tell them, “You do not understand it yet, because you have not learned this before. And in time you will understand it, give yourself time to learn.”

2. The other piece of advice is, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a tent with a mosquito.” I believe it is an old African proverb and it says it all!

3. Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you.”

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