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 the 2018 national teacher of the year manages a classroom with 12 languages with a white board and a paper clip

PHOTO: Ferguson Films
2018 national teacher of the year Mandy Manning.

Four years ago, Mandy Manning realized she wanted to have an impact outside her classroom, where she spent her days teaching immigrant and refugee students how to navigate their new school and new lives.

To do that, though, she also realized that she would need more than just years of experience. She would need a platform.

This year, she got just that: Manning, who teaches in Spokane, Washington, was named the 2018 national teacher of year.

“People need to know how amazing these immigrant and refugee students are,” she told Chalkbeat.

It’s a message she feels more urgency to spread as the current presidential administration takes a harsh position toward immigrants and asylum-seekers. Manning said she spent several months responding to students asking her when they would have to leave the country.

But the core of Manning’s work is to teach immigrant and refugee students foundational language skills and help ease their transition to the U.S. The students, who come from across the school district, usually spend one semester with her at the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School.

“I’m their ambassador. Hopefully I’m a good example of what we are as Americans,” she said.

This interview, part of Chalkbeat’s How I Teach series, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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

Teaching really chose me, because I hadn’t intended to become a teacher. I finished my undergraduate degree, which was in filmmaking, and I really wasn’t interested in continuing in that line of work. A friend, who was a paraeducator — someone within a classroom who works one-on-one with students — suggested I become a paraeducator.

Then I taught in the Peace Corps, which really helped expand my worldview. Even after that, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a teacher. I moved to Texas and my aunt suggested I apply to teaching positions, even though I wasn’t certified or had a degree in education. It was almost as if teaching was pursuing me and I was just denying it.

How do you get to know your students?

I’m very welcoming to them. I think that’s so essential, because the very first day is where you set your climate and environment in the classroom. For me that means being very upbeat and excited and ensuring that I’m introducing myself to every student as they’re walking in and figuring out their name and where they’re from and what languages they speak.

I used to teach general education — film making, journalism, communications, English. With them I would just have conversations like, ‘You are an individual and I’m an individual and yes I am your teacher and you are my student but I’m still interested in who you are not just as a learner but as a person.’ With the newcomers, it’s a little more difficult because we’re starting with charades, essentially.

So slowly, every day, I learn something new about my kids and that’s my goal. As long as I learn something about one student each day, I’m moving forward.

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

It’s our “Out in the Community” lesson. It has to do with the foundational language we’re teaching — giving and receiving directions and the basic ability to navigate your community. The reason I love it so much is that we actually get to go out and explore the neighborhood of the school and sometimes the downtown area of Spokane — the actual community in which they live and they’re expected to function as community members.

It’s so fun to watch the kids and what things are of interest to them and how they draw their maps. They also make connections back to their home country when they’re talking about the differences between their neighborhoods or schools or communities.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

My whiteboard and markers. Personally, I need a paper clip, which is so dumb, but it helps me concentrate. I just play with it when I’m teaching and communicating with kids. But the thing I really need in my classroom all the time is the ability to write things down because it helps with that comprehensible input for my kids.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Right now, it’s the climate around immigrants and refugees. Spokane is pretty good, pretty neutral. There isn’t a whole lot of negative communication or messaging, but it does happen. It’s happened in our hallways at school where kids have been told to go back to Africa or horrible racist slurs have been called against Arabic kids or kids from African nations. It impacts how welcome and comfortable my students feel.

It also brings older students, who have gone beyond the Newcomer Center back to my classroom more often, because my room represents the first place they were comfortable and safe. They’re often returning to me and the bilingual specialist I work with just for the reassurance that they’re welcome and they’re safe here in our nation. That’s something we now have to navigate every single day.

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

The first year I started to do home visits — at that time I had families from Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, and different nations in Africa. These home visits with all these different families showed me so much about individual differences between people of the same culture and between different cultures.

I got to see how they’re living, who they’re living with, the different type of homes — apartments, duplexes, single-family dwellings, or a house — and just how they interacted with each other. It broadened my perspective of family. there are so many different types of families within the students born within the United States, then to see it on a such a large scale with different cultures, it’s helped me to seek value in every single different type of family. And to understand that even though things operate differently in each home, that doesn’t diminish the beauty of that home.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is the middle of the year, semester-end. Kids at the Newcomer Center come from all over the school district. Usually after a semester, they then go on to their neighborhood high school. We have several practices in place to help with transition, but that semester break, it’s really hard to say goodbye to the kids.

It’s harder than at the end of the year because at the end of the year, we’re all taking a break. That semester, some of my kids are leaving and I’m not going to see them on a regular basis. And we’ve bonded with one another so much that it’s really hard, and I always end crying for the whole day because I’m going to miss them so much.

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

I didn’t know what I was doing at all when I had my first classroom. I didn’t even know how to read a teacher’s edition of a textbook. I sort of jumped in with both feet. I guess I assumed I needed to understand how to build a lesson exactly and that would be a hard hurdle for me, but I soon found out it doesn’t matter how beautifully you structure your lesson plan, because teaching is really about monitoring and adjusting for whatever the needs are of the kids at the time. You might have the most beautiful lesson but chances are it will shift and change in the first 10 minutes.

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

Focus on your kids and everything else will fall into place.

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‘What if this was my son?’ How Newark’s Teacher of the Year pushes autistic students to succeed

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Lourdes Reyes, Newark's 2018 Teacher of the Year.

A normal Monday in Lourdes Reyes’ classroom at the First Avenue School begins with a pleasant routine.

Her six students, a mix of first and second-graders with autism, eat breakfast quietly at their desks then brush their teeth in the restroom. Then they return to class, as they did one Monday morning this month, to recite the days and months and share highlights from the weekend — a trip to the zoo, playtime in the park, an evening bike ride.

“Alright,” Reyes said in a soothing tone as she moved the lesson along. “Everybody had a good weekend.”

But on Monday, May 7, things were far from normal.

That was when the district’s interim superintendent arrived unannounced in her classroom bearing balloons and a bouquet, with television cameras in tow, to inform her that she was Newark’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. Reyes tearfully accepted the award as her daughter, a teacher at Elliott Street School, looked on. Then she walked into the hallway, where dozens of students cheered and chanted her name.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Reyes told Chalkbeat during a recent interview.

In college, Reyes had studied to become a social worker. But after her son, Ishmail, was born with autism, she wanted to learn more about his condition. Before long, she had earned a master’s degree in special education and become a teacher of students with autism — a job she’s held for 21 years.

After two decades, she has yet to slow down. Every day after class she begins her second job as an early-intervention specialist, visiting families’ homes to work with young children suspected of having disabilities. After finishing around 8:30 p.m., she takes a late-night walk with her youngest son — a routine that, along with a healthy new diet, helped her lose 65 pounds over the past year.

Reyes stays just as busy at school. In addition to academic lessons, she teaches her students life skills like tying their shoes and cooking — sometimes on a portable stove, which Reyes used one day this year to cook green eggs and ham. In April, which is National Autism Awareness Month, she helped raise $2,300 for the school’s autism program and organized a performance where her students sang Disney songs. Reyes performed alongside wearing the red hat and spotted pants of Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl from “Toy Story.”

Principal Jose Fuentes, who was part of the 10-person leadership team at First Avenue that nominated Reyes for her award, called her “one of the pillars of the school.” She extends herself far beyond her own classroom, showing colleagues and parents how to challenge and support students with autism, Fuentes said.

“She’s giving new light to the possibilities of what it means to be an educator,” he said. “That’s Reyes.”

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you get into teaching?

When my second son was born, Ishmail, he was born with autism.

I was first of all shocked that I had an autistic son. It was very difficult and devastating for all of us. My husband and I had to go for counseling. It was very hard. But then we overcame it. I decided I’m going to take something negative and make something positive out of it.

So I went to graduate school and I took classes on special ed. I loved it and so I took another class. One class led to another.

Then I started volunteering at my son’s school. I was there all the time. In the evenings my husband would get home, he’d watch the kids, I’d go and take my class.

Next thing you know, in two years I completed a master’s in special ed.

How has being the parent of a child with autism shaped the way you teach?

Everything I still do today is focused on, “What if this was my son?”

I think that’s what makes me a little different. Like if I was doing this for him, how would I teach it?

What have you learned about what it takes to be an effective teacher of students with autism?

You can’t feel sorry for a child. Just because they have a disability does not mean that they can’t do something. You have to put that aside and show them in a way that tough love to get them to master the skills. Which is hard for some of the parents to do.

We have to do a lot of what the parents don’t do. For instance, tooth brushing, that’s a life skill. At home they say, “He doesn’t want to brush his teeth.” But they do it here every morning.

It sounds like a big part of your job is working with parents.

I give them my cell number. They call me at all times.

Sometimes [a student’s mother] will say, “It’s a rough morning. He didn’t want to change. I’m sending you the uniform in the book bag.” Then when he comes in, we transition him. When we do toothbrushing we say, “You need to change now.”

Then when it’s 2:45, “You don’t want to wear it? OK, let’s go change you. Put on your jeans, go on the bus.” Happy trooper.

How are you able to make progress with students who come in without many academic skills?

It’s ongoing, and it’s repetitive. Teaching the skills. Pulling them out, teaching them [through] individualized instruction.

And it happens also with the assistance of the aides. I have four great aides. None of this could happen without them.

Ms. [Rasheedah] Jacobs, guess how many years she’s been with me. Fourteen. When I came here and interviewed, I said, “I’ll take the job under the condition that Ms. Jacobs could come with me.” She really, really is a great teacher. I call her a teacher, not even an aide. She’s my right hand.

Can you think of a student whom you had a lot of success with?

Last year, I had one of my highest functioning students. She has Asperger’s. What a thrill to have that little girl. Oh my gosh.

Every week the principal gives the word of the week. She memorized and knew every single word from September to June. And recited it in an assembly, with a sentence for each word. She’s unbelievable!

We had a student [at Quitman Street Community School] who had a band on his esophagus, and he had a feeding tube in kindergarten. We couldn’t believe it — he was in diapers.

I was like, “If we can get this little boy to be toilet trained, that will be a success.” Do you know we mastered that? We did it.

How do you know if you’ve been successful by the end of the year?

Seeing [a student] who didn’t know the letters of the alphabet, seeing him writing sentences, filling in blanks, reciting words.

Knowing [a different student] can tie his shoes. Knowing he can brush his teeth.

Knowing that parents are happy with the progress of their students. Them sharing with me the change in their child once they started coming into my classroom. Parents telling me, “Oh, that’s not the same kid who was in the school last year. That’s a different child.”

What’s your advice to teachers who are just starting out?

Have a lot of patience. Be real devoted.

And do not look at a student with autism as a person who is weak. Have high expectations that they are capable of doing everything and anything with the right accommodations.

It can be done, but it takes someone with dedication, sensitivity, and also someone who does not feel sorry for a child. Anything is possible. There are no limits.