How I Teach

How I Teach: A fourth-grade teacher uses dance parties and emojis to engage students

Lauren Bakian Aaker reads aloud to her fourth-grade students.

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.

When Lauren Bakian Aaker’s teaches fourth-grade students at P.S. 110 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, she is not afraid to have fun.

The room is emoji-themed, she throws dance parties to regain classroom focus, and she likes to “say yes” when her students have new ideas for learning. She’s also constantly thinking of ways to engage her students, and her best ideas often come on the subway, in the shower, or at the gym, she said.

Bakian Aaker was a finalist for the prestigious 2017 New York State Teacher of the Year award. In this installment of How I Teach, we asked Bakian Aaker to share what makes her classroom come alive. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What’s your routine like when you arrive at school?

First thing I do when I get off the train is get my favorite coffee in the Lower East Side from Roasting Plant. When I get to school, I say hello to my colleagues, unpack my bag and start finishing up final details for the day’s lessons: the morning message, charts, handouts for students and more. The morning time flies by, but I need the quiet before the chaos.

What does your classroom look like?

When I first came to P.S. 110, my principal, Karen Feuer, described my room as bright and cheerful when she introduced me to the staff, even quoting me as saying “I could live in this classroom!” Every time someone new enters my room, they comment on its color and vibe.

I also have a classroom theme each year. Some of my favorites have been “Smart Cookies,” “Super Mario Students,” “Minion Buddies,” and this year’s theme is “Emojis.” I send a postcard to every student before school starts to get them pumped up for the year and build community. Students usually know my class by the themes on bulletin boards and I catch many peeking in to see what’s happening in the “Emoji classroom.”

The best thing about my classroom is that it’s the students’ classroom. They decide how to organize and where to put things and they help me make it a place where learning and teaching is bright and cheerful from September to June.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without?

Why? I love having my laptop to show quick videos or make our own. I use iMovie to film them acting out poetry or putting on a colonial play. I’ve enlisted some of my more challenging students to star in videos that teach the class different routines to get them on board and have a positive experience. I also use an app called Remind to communicate with parents that has been awesome. Parents receive texts or emails depending on their choice and it makes it so easy to share everything, from the best moments to those we need to work on.

I’m also trying out a new app this year called Fresh Grade that is a digital portfolio. Three years ago I tried to do my own version of a digital portfolio for each student before parent-teacher conferences and it took forever. Glad someone (smarter) made it easier for me.

How do you plan your lessons?

The best lessons are those that I conceptualize in the strangest of places: the subway, the shower, the gym. I always have a plan, but I find that I’m more of an “improv” teacher. The rule in improv (I think) is “say yes,” and I do to so many ideas that both my students and I have. At P.S. 110, I have some great colleagues that I bounce these ideas off of and they always come back to me with some suggestion or encouragement to do it.

I think lessons can always be better, smarter and more fun! I don’t look at my “plan book” from last year to see what I did, but instead I get to know the kids, their likes/dislikes and find engaging ways to teach. It doesn’t mean I don’t use previous lessons or ideas, I’m just a bit more flexible in my approach and like to fit the lessons to the students instead of the other way around.

What makes an ideal lesson?

I always try to start with an engaging analogy (coming to your book club unprepared is like going to a Super Bowl party without the dip you promised you would make) or a story (when I was younger, my dad took me to a movie and at the very end, the screen went black — I never knew what happened. This is just like your writing when you leave the reader in the dark).

Sometimes standards and teaching objectives can be abstract, so finding a way to help them bridge the gap between their understanding and the content is vital. I also make sure my students have choice — from the texts they read to strategies for solving math problems to independent projects they want to create.

In addition to engagement and choice, I would have to say pace can make or break a lesson. Lessons that go too slow or too fast can ruin a perfectly thought through plan. I know lessons are not one-shot-deals, and I … find ways to support students through individual conferences, small group sessions or resources as they work independently. An ideal lesson changes from class to class, so it’s finding that sweet spot each year to help your students reach their potential.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand something?

The short answer: Find a new way to teach it. The long answer: Get to know what the missing link is. I ask a lot of questions and require explanation without judgment: “Say more.” “How do you know?” “Hmmm … how did you get there?” “What will you do next?” “What made you try this?” and more. When students know it’s okay not to know, they are more likely to share their thinking and that’s where the learning and teaching can take place in a real, authentic way.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

When I see I’m losing my students, I do a dance party. It takes on different names and has different songs, but it loosens everyone up. On a more individual basis, it depends on the student. Some need to get a drink of water and take a quick break, others just need a reminder or for me to be near them. Some aren’t engaged because the lesson is going too slow or too fast for them. In that case, I send some off to work independently on a different task or pull a small group to re-teach something that was misunderstood. I love to utilize sing-songy attention-getters like “Hocus pocus, everybody focus!” Movement, music and fun are key in my class.

How do you communicate with parents?

Every month I do a handout called “Ms. Bakian’s Top 10.” I try to give them the info that is relevant and important for that month since families can be so busy. I know that paper handouts don’t always do the trick, so email and the text-messaging app for teachers let me share quick photos, reminders and news from the day. I continue to text families from previous years before the first day of school and during breaks to let them know I’m thinking about them. They send me messages, too. Once my student, always my student!

What hacks do you use to grade papers?

Inspired by the ELA curriculum we adopted, I … created a checklist progression with phrases like “On my way,” “Almost there,” “Super Mario Level!” that corresponded to the grade-level expectations. By making simple checklists with these statements, I can quickly grade their assignments and simultaneously give feedback in the form of “polish” and “praise points.”

My homework hack is to have them self-assess if they mostly got it or need some help. Students place their homework in one of those baskets and check off whether or not they completed their homework assignment. It allows me to quickly meet with those who already know they need assistance. I know homework is a hot topic right now and I don’t put too much emphasis on it, never have. Some parents take issue with this, but I remind them that I want to spend as much time on our classroom experiences, not grading homework that may or may not reveal their strengths and weaknesses.

What are you reading for fun?

I, like many of my students, like to read on my commute and right before bed. I recently started “The Couple Next Door” [by Shari Lapena] and also enjoyed some Jojo Moyes books this summer. I am also (sadly) addicted to the news lately and can’t get enough of the election. It’s just fascinating! Mainly, though, I’m reading or singing board books by Joyce Wan and Dr. Seuss to my one-year-old daughter, Genevieve.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

My dad, who is also an educator, told me at the start of my teaching career that if something I was doing in the classroom didn’t have a true purpose, stop doing it. That has stuck with me in every way possible from the way my students pack up and line up to the ways in which I form small groups and plan my lessons. If I can’t answer “why?”, then it goes.

How I Teach

This Colorado teacher keeps parents in the loop — even when they’re stationed overseas

Wendy Murphy, a teacher at Woodmen Hills Elementary in the Falcon 49 school district, is a finalist for Colorado's 2018 Teacher of the Year 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.

Wendy Murphy, a longtime second grade teacher and now an instructional coach at Woodmen Hills Elementary near Colorado Springs, believes in keeping parents involved.

That’s true even when they’re serving military deployments overseas.

To keep faraway moms and dads connected to the classroom and their kids, Murphy has done video conferences via Facebook, included them in holiday story recordings and played host to surprise reunions in her classroom.

Murphy talked to Chalkbeat about why parent deployments hit her hard, how she helps students learn about their names and why she’s not afraid to ask for help. She’s one of seven finalists for Colorado’s 2018 Teacher of the Year award, which will be announced Nov. 1.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I absolutely loved my first grade teacher, Mrs. Ann Lane. She gave out the best hugs in the entire world and I wanted to do that, too. One of my favorite memories was looking forward to the end of each day because I knew I would receive that hug from Mrs. Lane no matter what.

Completing classwork was really hard for me and I was always getting into trouble and often off task. Learning to read was a struggle for me that often resulted in tears during daily reading groups. Mrs. Lane believed in me, encouraged me and always taught with a smile. I decided that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up so I could be just like her.

What does your classroom look like?
My signature color is orange as I am a loyal and true alumnae from Oklahoma State University. Within my orange and black classroom you see a respectful, safe, encouraging and collaborative learning environment. You know mistakes are OK and kindness counts. You hear laughter and a sense of enjoyment and pride in my classroom.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my heart. I once learned through a training that if you can capture a kid’s heart, you can capture their mind. Incorporating social-emotional learning across all content areas enhances students’ abilities with academic achievement, careers and life. I teach my students self-management and social awareness, build positive relationships and foster responsible decision-making.

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

One of my favorite beginning-of-the-year activities is an author study about Kevin Henkes. We have been reading his books to kick off second grade for over two decades. One memorable activity is completed after we read the book “Chrysanthemum.” The main character is a little mouse named Chrysanthemum and her parents named her after a flower because they feel that it is an absolutely perfect name.

Students write letters to their own parents asking them how they got their name and parents write letters in return. It is so special for students to share the origin of their name with the class. There are a lot of family names, names formed using letters from Mom and Dad’s names as well as Biblical names, too.

Some of the more humorous ones include being named after video game characters and picking the first letter of a name from the middle of the alphabet because they were the middle child. My son is currently in second grade and my husband and I had the opportunity to respond to the letter he wrote to us about his name just a few weeks ago. It truly touched our hearts and his, too.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I try very hard to create a nurturing and safe learning environment where mistakes are part of the process. Students understand that the struggle is where the learning takes place. It is very important for students to review their work and be reflective when something doesn’t quite click in their learning. Together, we adapt, adjust, try again and give it our best shot.

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

I have taught second grade for 17 years. Early in my career, a parent bought me a rainstick during a field trip to the Manitou Cliff Dwellings. It is the coolest thing! Students immediately focus their energy on me when they hear the soft waterfall sound of the rainstick.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Fostering positive relationships is definitely a priority in my classroom. I love greeting children with a smile and a handshake each morning at the classroom door. I also look forward to our end of the day dismissal where each person shares a personal connection to a topic or a question asked.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Our school is very proud to serve a large number of military families. Many parents and family members are deployed during the school year. Deployments hit me hard, especially when it is the mamas leaving their babies. Last year, one mother, an E-5 Sargent truly appreciated all of the pictures, newsletters and correspondence I sent through a classroom app. Grandpa even helped us do a Facebook phone conference early in the year. Then, part of our second grade Christmas music performance was a recorded video of different adults reading sections of the story, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Our overseas military mama had read the last part of the book on the video-—which was a surprise for her children. It was a truly memorable time for everyone at the performance. (The mother) surprised us again when she ran into the classroom in March — finally home from deployment.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
My name Wendy became popular after the 1904 play Peter Pan. I still love reading the novel “Peter and Wendy” by J. M. Barrie. Some of my other favorites include the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games series, books by John Grisham and James Patterson, and who can resist the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich? I love reading! Growing up, I would rather have been reading than doing my chores, homework or practicing the piano. My mother used to punish me by taking away my Babysitter’s Club, Choose Your Own Adventure or Nancy Drew books.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never be afraid to ask for help. The many demands of teaching can be so intense and stressful. Having a supportive and collaborative team, staff and administration is so important. Be an advocate for yourself, surround yourself with positive people and great things can happen… All you have to do is ask.

How I Teach

Fresh from the Denver suburbs, this new teacher visited a poor student in a rural area and learned a valuable lesson

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.

During her first year teaching, Laura Keathley learned a lesson she has never forgotten.

Keathley, who’d grown up in suburban Denver, was driving to visit a student at home in a rural area of New Mexico. Knowing the child’s family was poor and the home had no electricity or running water, she feared the girl faced a bleak future.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.

Keathley, now a special education teacher at Avery-Parsons Elementary School in the Buena Vista School District, talked to Chalkbeat about what she learned during the visit, why teaching isn’t brain surgery and where silly cat videos fit into the day.

She is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

Laura Keathley
Laura Keathley

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally I started out to be an emergency medical technician then decided to major in social work. One day, I was talking to a former high school teacher when he suggested I come and volunteer at the school helping with his special needs physical education class. I had no background with special needs, but I was looking for a new adventure and this seemed like fun. From the moment I started working with those wonderful kids, I was hooked! My favorite part of teaching is seeing that light go on and a student mastering a new skill. It is so exciting to me whether the accomplishment is big or small.

What does your classroom look like?
Grand Central Station! Keathley’s Korner – a name I created to remove the stigma of special education — has one teacher, three paraprofessionals and 15 students in six grade levels … so it is a busy place. It is open and bright with lots of color. The walls are covered with visual supports designed to make our students more independent. We have four different group tables spread throughout the room. Each area is defined by area rugs or furniture. There is also a mini kitchen with a sink and counters on one side of the room.

The main feature of my classroom is the 411 wall. This is our information center. It tells everyone where they need to go, who is in the room that day, and any special announcements. Students can independently use the board to find their daily activities. My class is always busy and students come and go all day long.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
I couldn’t teach without my paraprofessionals. The three ladies that I work with are very talented. My paraprofessionals create and follow their own lesson plans, freeing me up to work with the students and focus on teaching. They are well-versed in the field and have received a great deal of training. I depend on them not only to deliver instruction, but to contribute thoughts and ideas about working with the students. My paraprofessionals have become a resource to the entire school. The joke in our classroom is that we are four parts of the same brain.

In December of 2014, our classroom was awarded model status by the Colorado Department of Education Colorado Model Autism Site Project, or CoMASP. We were the seventh classroom in the state and the second rural school to receive the honor by meeting at least 80 percent of the state’s quality indicators. We achieved this in part because of my paraprofessionals’ willingness to go above and beyond their job to make a difference. I am thankful every day that I work with these wonderful ladies. Thank you Sarah, Lesa and Stephanie!

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
A few years ago I began teaching all the students in our school about the basics of autism and special needs and how to make friends with those students. I wanted something that was easy to adapt to every grade level and that would connect with the students and teachers.

I contacted one of my former students and he created a PowerPoint presentation for me called, “10 Things You Should Know About Having Autism.” His slideshow describes his challenges and feelings about having autism and how to respond to that. Coming from his personal perspective, it is a powerful teaching tool. Paired with the how-to-make-friends presentation from AutismSpeaks.org, it has spawned some amazing conversation in classes. I believe that it has created a much more inclusive and accepting environment throughout our school. I love being able to share how amazing my students are with everyone in the school.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I believe in the saying, “If a child cannot learn the way I teach, then let me teach him the way he can learn.” It is my responsibility to find a way to get that information to my student in a way they can best learn and understand. Sometimes I reteach a lesson several different ways looking for a way to connect with the student. Patience and a willingness to keep trying are important.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My class runs in small groups, so quiet reminders to focus on their work or keep trying are usually all it takes. In group settings, I use a system that we created in my classroom called the Cup Ups. There is a red, green and yellow cup. When the red cup is up, everyone is listening and no questions can be asked. When the yellow cup is up, everyone is listening and if you have a question, you can raise your hand and wait to be called on. When the green cup is up, everyone can talk and discuss quietly and ask questions without raising their hands, as long as they are respectful. I like the visual cue that every child understands.

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 love to get to know my students one-on-one away from an academic setting. I often have my students for multiple years, so I have the luxury of really digging into their lives and finding what motivates them. I love to find a common passion – one student and I watch silly cat videos on YouTube – and then use that to create a relationship. Humor and silliness also go a long way towards building a bridge.

I also work hard to create a safe space for my students to come to when they need support. I use genuine praise and honest feedback when I work with them. I want them to feel that I am behind them all the way. I ask them, “Do you trust me? I need you to know that I am going to give you things that are hard, but never impossible. If you try and use my help we can make this happen. I am always here for you!” I am their biggest cheerleader and advocate.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
My first year of teaching was in Gallup, New Mexico. I was a brand-new teacher fresh from the suburbs of Denver who took the job sight unseen. The first week I was there, I made a home visit to a family that had a special needs child they wanted to enroll in my class. My principal warned me that the family lived far from town, in a small hogan (Navajo traditional house) with dirt floors, no running water, and no electricity. The family had very little money. In my mind, this environment immediately connected to a poor environment for the child and certain deprivation that would only hold this child back in her future. Pity was an overwhelming emotion.

On our way to the house, I was mentally reviewing all the many things I was going to have to do for this poor child. When we got to the house, a large extended family met us. Aunts, uncles, grandparents and parents sat down with us to discuss the child’s needs. Throughout the bilingual conversation, I discovered that this child lived a rich and culture-filled life. Herding sheep, speaking two languages, learning Navajo tradition, learning letters and numbers from every family member in an authentic environment, and the list goes on.

I began to realize that this child was going to be successful because of the incredible home support and love she experienced every day. At that moment, I discovered how dangerous making assumptions about a student based on what you think you know can be for a child. Pity can blind you to what’s right in front of you and make you ineffective. In the 29 years since that lesson, I have never made that mistake again.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am reading the Dark Tower series by Stephen King.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
One of my very favorite veteran teachers once told me, “It’s teaching, not brain surgery. No one is going to die if you don’t get through your lesson. Breathe, relax and enjoy the kids. You can teach a lesson again tomorrow, but you might not get a second chance to connect with a kid.” Yep – words to live by!