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

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.

How I Teach

Tupac, Shakespeare, and ‘Stranger Things’: How a top Tennessee teacher relates to her students

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Katherine Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the the Milken Family Foundation.

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 Katherine Watkins found out she would receive a prestigious national teaching award, her students at Millington Central High wrapped her into a huge bear hug.

“We relate to her because she relates to us,” one of her students said when asked why they enjoyed her class. Watkins was honored as a Milken Educator Award last November in front of her students, colleagues and Tennessee’s top education official.

Watkins was one of 45 educators — and one of two Tennessee teachers — honored nationally in 2017 by the Milken Family Foundation.

We asked Watkins about how she strives for relatability in her classrooms, where she teaches literature, English and coordinates the school’s yearbooks. Millington Central High is racially diverse and made up of about thousand students, one-third of which are described as economically disadvantaged.

Read in her own words how she uses pop culture to build classroom rapport and how she learned not to get flustered when her students got off track. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed.)

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is full of books, images, and objects I’ve collected from my travels. These include a handmade Venetian mask I brought back from Italy, pictures I took while standing in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and a twelve-volume, leather-bound edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare that was published in London in 1786

Some people might say I’ve lost my mind to keep such precious relics within reach of teenagers, but I interpret the “value” of these treasures somewhat differently. I want desperately for my students to know and care about the world that exists beyond their immediate reality, and sometimes the best way to achieve that is through tactile experience. I’m trying to cultivate independent thinkers who have the confidence to test limits, ask tough questions, and arrive at their own conclusions. That can’t happen without direct confrontation with the unfamiliar, and until I can afford to actually take them to the places we read about in the literature we study, my souvenirs will have to suffice.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

I could not teach without my close-knit group of teacher friends. This is only my third year at my current school, but everyone was so warm and welcoming when I arrived that it really felt like coming home. We even have a group chat we use every day to share funny memes, vent about our frustrations, offer words of encouragement, and talk through ideas. Feeling like you can be yourself around friends in a judgment-free zone makes all the difference when it comes to a high-stress job like teaching.  Without that kind of solidarity, I know I wouldn’t be nearly as resilient or effective in the classroom.

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

I used to get visibly flustered if students were talking or off task during the lesson. It took me a couple years in the classroom to realize that getting upset is the least effective way to deal with this problem. Many students misbehave because they crave attention, so getting upset is the same as relinquishing control. Nowadays, I vary my approach depending on the severity and intent of the disruption, but regardless of the situation, I never lose my cool.

I have the most success defusing behavioral disruptions through the use of nonverbal cues, which can be as simple as changing my position in the room. For example, if a cluster of students is off task while I’m addressing the whole group, I continue lecturing and simply move to where the problem is occurring and the behavior stops. I’ve also become a sort of Jedi master at the don’t-you-even-think-about-it stare of disapproval. The right look delivered at the right moment can work wonders for classroom management. 

PHOTO: Katherine Watkins
Watkins said she starts each year by giving her kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

Before my first day at Millington Central High, I had little idea what to expect of my new school and its students. I had driven through Millington a time or two on my way to other destinations, but that was the extent of my familiarity with this community. During my initial interview, I was briefed on school demographics: Millington is ethnically diverse with a high percentage of economic disadvantage, a large SPED population, and nearly a quarter of students coming from single-parent households. It would be a lie to say I never questioned whether the school would be the right fit for me. I worried about my ability to make a connection. Would my students accept me? Would I be able to make a difference in their lives?

I always start each year by giving my kids a questionnaire that asks about their interests, hobbies, attitudes, and past experiences. I use this information to get to know students and begin establishing a rapport. Left to my own devices, for example, I would never be motivated to keep up with pop culture trends, but if a large number of my students are listening to a particular artist or watching a specific TV show (Stranger Things anybody?), I make a point of consuming the same media so I can connect with them over more than just academic content. This extra effort on my part—cultural research, if you will—has worked wonders with the kids at Millington. The look of shock on their faces when they realize I can quote lines from Hamlet as readily as the lyrics to any 2Pac song is priceless.

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

Knowing what’s going on in a student’s home life is a crucial part of being a good teacher, and I always try to consider the bigger picture when difficult situations arise. I have had students come forward with stories of abuse, students who have experienced the death of a parent, and students who are basically raising their younger siblings because Mom works three jobs and Dad isn’t around. A student who arrives to school late and sleeps through first period could just be lazy, but it would be callous and irresponsible to punish the child without first having a conversation to find out what’s causing the behavior. We can’t forget that kids are human beings too, some of whom are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Teaching has made me realize that you can never really know what someone else is going through until you make the effort to understand. This is why it’s so important to reserve judgment and approach students with patience and compassion.