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.
Chris Carter, a world studies teacher at STRIVE Prep – Excel in Denver, gravitated toward teaching after witnessing a community’s commitment to education in a war-torn corner of Africa.
In his classroom, there are no lectures or worksheets. His goal is to get students to ask — and answer — big questions about complex issues.
Carter is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Why did you become a teacher?
My senior year of high school I spent summer break outside Monrovia, Liberia. The country was in the midst of a civil war. Every school building was riddled with bullet holes and burnt walls. Every child and adult I met had lost someone, but none had given up hope in their education. Students and young adults would walk 10 miles to school and then 10 miles home, each day. This experience shaped my dedication and pathway into education. Teaching is one of the hardest jobs and so is learning for many students. I know students love learning and I love helping students find success in their learning.
What does your classroom look like?
My classroom set-up changes every day to create a space that best supports that particular learning objective. When students are working in small groups my tables are in pods. When students are typing a final version of an essay they are seated by themselves. When I have guests coming in to engage in discussion with students, I set the room up in a circle.
What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?
Google Classroom is the new pen and paper. My students are able to collaborate, create and present their thinking visually in real-time in a variety of group and individual work settings. Learning is about making connections and Google Classroom helps my students do this efficiently and effectively.
How do you plan your lessons?
I want my students to engage deeply in inquiry by formulating and answering questions. Students are at the center of learning, always. Gone are the days of lecturing and worksheets. This new type of planning involves intense intellectual prep.
If my students are reading a primary source document, I spend my time planning the lesson by reading the primary source through each of my student’s eyes. This allows me to think about how to pair up students, how best to frame their learning, and how best to support their learning during the close read of a challenging primary source text.
What qualities make an ideal lesson?
A great lesson has two primary functions. You want to hook students and you want students to drive inquiry around a really complex issue and text.
How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I praise the student’s thinking. I use that student as an example of approaching the lesson from a different perspective that is helpful, necessary, and productive. If a student did not understand the lesson it does not mean they didn’t learn something valuable. And in the end I will need to do some re-teaching.
What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
I make a joke. This usually means students are laughing at my attempt to make a joke, not that my joke is funny.
How do you maintain communication with the parents?
Home visits, phone calls, emails and texts. You cannot over-communicate with families.
What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?
Two tricks. First, I grade what matters most and expect my students to engage in a process of revision, peer evaluation and self-evaluation before ever turning anything in for a grade. Second, I do most of my grading in class by continually checking in with students and asking them questions about what they are learning. The result is that students get constant feedback and I don’t grade any papers at home or after school.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
Anything by Nathaniel Philbrick.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
After my first five years of teaching a veteran teacher told me, “Teachers put resources very deliberately in front of students and maintain ideal learning conditions for as many students as possible in very challenging circumstances.”