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This Colorado teacher saw tragedy during the pandemic — but also reasons for hope

Michelle Dillard with her students at Mark Twain Elementary School.
Michelle Dillard with her students at Mark Twain Elementary School in Littleton, Colorado.
Courtesy of Michelle Dillard

Shortly after the pandemic hit, one of Michelle Dillard’s fifth grade students lost his father to COVID-19. Her school had already shifted to remote learning, so she and her colleagues tried to find creative ways to support the boy and his family as they grieved.

They made a slideshow of students and staff holding messages of hope, arranged daily check-ins with the grieving student, and organized video meet-ups with a small group of the boy’s peers. Many of the students in Dillard’s class at Mark Twain Elementary in Littleton, Colorado, participated in a Stars Wars-themed drive-by parade for the student and his brother.

Given the gravity of the situation, it never felt like enough, but she said, “We tried our best.”

Dillard, who was recently named a Colorado finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, talked to Chalkbeat about the pandemic’s challenges and silver linings, her third grade teacher’s influence, and how she turns her history lessons into fact-finding missions.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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

Having amazing teachers throughout my education absolutely played a role in my own pursuit of the greatest career in the world, but my big “aha” moment didn’t come until my junior year in college. I spent my first two years pursuing a major in political science, the subject I was most interested in. Learning was something I did for myself because I loved it passionately. When I realized not everyone loves to learn as much or in the same ways, I understood my passion for learning can be used to serve others and help them create their own paths.

Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.

In third grade, I had a wonderfully sweet, smart, personable teacher named Mrs. Boomer. One incident that shaped the way I try to interact with students came out of my own 8-year-old fear of failure. We were taking a test and I remember thinking I could almost get a perfect score if I could just remember one more thing. I pulled the textbook out of my desk and tried to look up the answer with the book propped suspiciously on my lap.

Instead of invalidating my whole test, publicly calling me out in front of peers, or sending me to the office, Mrs. Boomer came close and whispered to me, “Michelle, this is not an open-book test. You will do great without this extra help.” The way she chose forgiveness and guidance instead of a punitive solution helped me feel loved and supported, and that I could do it on my own. This helps me as I strive to approach every student interaction with empathy, understanding, and the big picture in mind.

What was the biggest job challenge you faced over the past year?

Last spring, towards the beginning of the pandemic, one of the children in my class lost his dad to COVID. He was beloved in the community, and the loss was deeply felt by all. This happened after we transitioned to fully remote learning, so anything we as a school staff could do to support my student and his family as they grieved seemed impersonal and never enough. We tried our best by sending messages of love and support to the student and setting up creative ways for him to stay socially connected.

For example, a family friend organized a drive-by Star Wars-themed parade, and many of our students joined in to salute my student and his brother with waving lightsabers. We also collected pictures of each classmate and school staff member who worked with him holding a personal note of encouragement and made a slideshow to share with the student. We set up optional one-on-one Google Meets with a different staff member each day to provide a chance to connect and talk if he was feeling up to it. We also set up virtual get-togethers with a small group of students where they could talk and play together daily with no academic parameters — lots of tours of backyards and showing off their trampoline skills.

Were there any silver linings that have come out of the last year? Lessons learned or successful innovations?

I learned about the power of connectivity in many forms and how much kids yearn to grow as thinkers together. We used writing to stay connected by writing letters to mail, emailing, and using shared Google docs, message boards on Google Classroom, and messages to others around the world using PenPal Schools.

Anytime students learned something new, they immediately wanted to share it with an audience outside their home environment. They seemed to really grasp that learning doesn’t stop with them — they cared deeply about having an audience.

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

I love teaching social studies or interdisciplinary lessons where students analyze multiple primary sources to gain a deeper understanding of the past. We use project-based learning units with the help of amazing resources available through the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. It’s helpful to see that history isn’t linear and that multiple perspectives can give us a clearer picture of events.

One lesson inspired by Stanford University’s Reading Like a Historian encourages students to look at the writings of colonist John Smith to answer the question of whether Pocahontas actually saved his life since his own record tells two different stories. The lesson also laments the fact that we have no written records from other parties, such as the Powhatan people. Students love to see that they can be fact-finders who go directly to the source.

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

Early in my career, our class wrote our “Colorado immigrant stories” — the story of how we came to Colorado. Students were encouraged to interview their family members to help write their stories. One mom wrote in Spanish about a traumatic crossing of the Rio Grande in the middle of the night with her four children. Through her young son, she spoke about the great physical and emotional impact it had, and continued to have, on their family.

The students responded respectfully and asked good questions, and many felt open to sharing similar or related experiences. After my student shared though, some students seemed to have a sense that if their story or experience wasn’t big, it wasn’t important. I would have liked to have had the forethought to follow up well with all students. I also remember feeling that since it was such an impactful story to hear, I should have planned for more follow-up time or given students more resources to explore the issues my student brought up.

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

Before I began my first year in the classroom, I remember thinking, “How will I fill a whole day? What will I talk about?” I now know our time in the classroom is about what we build together as a community of learners. I love seeing where their inquiry will take us; it’s not my time to fill.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I’m reading “The Presidents vs. The Press” by Harold Holzer. It’s a fascinating book about the complex relationship between the press and administrations from Washington to the present.

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

The best advice I’ve received is that my goal for each day should be to provide opportunities for students to say or do something that I didn’t expect and I’ve never heard from another student before.

To provide students with an opportunity to truly surprise me, I try different types of questioning — open-ended questions, probing questions, questions that increase critical awareness, and questions that reinforce equitable participation. Aside from facilitating class from this vantage point, it’s all about student empowerment and making sure they do the majority of the talking when we’re together.

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