We all remember the teacher who made coming to school not a chore but a joy, who didn’t just teach us but gave us space to learn, who influenced the path we took. These are the teachers who made us believe that math is for girls, that we could become scientists, that what we write does matter.
The seven teachers featured here are all 2015 State Teachers of the Year. They work in urban schools, rural hamlets, and suburban districts. They teach science and tech, art and ELA, special education, agriscience. Each one is “that teacher” students will remember years later. As President Obama said at an April ceremony honoring the nation’s top teachers: “America’s future is written in our classrooms. [These teachers give] young people a sense of their own power. They teach students to challenge themselves, and dream beyond their circumstances, and imagine different futures.”
We asked seven of these teachers to share their best lessons. We’re guessing you’ll see some of your own methods in theirs, and an equal enthusiasm for teaching—and come away with some great new ideas and strategies, too!
Investigating Pollution: A Whale of an Idea
Who: Anthony Grisillo
What: Library science, technology
Where: Glenwood Elementary School, Media, Pennsylvania
In creating my lessons, I keep this quote from Carl Sagan in mind: “When you make the finding yourself—even if you’re the last person on Earth to see the light—you’ll never forget it.” Recently, I taught a lesson about how our actions affect the local environment, which in turn alters the environment of a finback whale in the Atlantic Ocean. Using Google Earth, students explored our six degrees of separation from the whale’s habitat. I then had each student take a sip from a bottle of spring water before going to stations to add “pollution” (dish detergent, coffee grounds, etc.) to the bottles. By the third station, they deemed the water undrinkable (they didn’t drink it after the first sip), creating the first aha! moment. The last station was the cafeteria, where I had a life-size inflated finback whale model. We explored how the whale isn’t affected directly by the pollution, but its food supply is. Using pieces of foam board to block the flow of air from the fan inflating the whale, we simulated the reduction of the whale’s food supply (our second aha! moment). Students then chose a different animal to find six degrees of separation between pollution and the animal’s habitat.
21st-Century Lab: “Elephant toothpaste” and Other Super-Science Projects
Who: Maggie Mabery
What: Grades 7 and 8 science
Where: Manhattan Beach Middle School, California
In my eyes, science is about creating, building, and asking questions. Each year during our chemistry units, I conduct extensive demonstration labs. “Elephant Toothpaste” is a classic lab: I combine hydrogen peroxide, potassium iodide, and a squirt of dish soap to teach chemical reactions.
Instead of explaining to students the type of reaction that will occur when combining these ingredients, I do the demonstration in silence while the students videotape me with their iPads. Then they import the movie and record a voice-over discussing the reaction that occurred, write out the chemical-reaction equation, and explain what a catalyst is. It’s a traditional lab with a 21st-century spin.
The students are so excited to teach me what they have witnessed!
Bystanders & Bullies: Acting with Honor
Who: Jennifer Dorman
What: Special educator and reading interventionist
Where: Skowhegan Area Middle School, Maine
As my middle school students pursue greater independence, I look for lessons that will be relevant to their lives. For one of my most effective lessons, I paired nonfiction readings with Dateline’s My Kid Would Never Bully series, which highlights how teen bystanders respond to bullying. Students watched actors portray the bully and the victim, and then watched the reactions of “parents” as they observed their own “child” join in on the bullying or stick up for the victim. It really hit home with my students. I then gave them the discussion and writing prompt “How do you live your life when nobody is watching?” and challenged them to come to the aid of a victim if they saw an instance of bullying. For weeks after this lesson, my students came to class with examples of how they’d stood up to bullies and defended victims. This lesson made an immediate difference in the social lives of my adolescent students.
Character Detectives: Making Deeper Connections
Who: Karen Vogelsang
What: Grade 4
Where: Keystone Elementary, Memphis
In “Character Detectives,” I integrated several standards (ELA, science, social studies) to allow my fourth graders to make new, deeper connections. The lesson began with a simple review of character traits, which is really about making inferences; my fourth graders needed to develop this skill to become critical readers. Each group was given a box with artifacts their mystery character would use (nothing too obvious) and speech bubbles of things their character would say on the job; the professions ranged from paleontologist and zoologist to chef and judge. Students worked together to brainstorm the character’s identity, but they had to provide evidence to support their deductions. After they agreed on who they thought the character was, each student completed a graphic organizer and wrote a narrative for the character.
My students were truly engaged with this lesson, and their narratives really surprised me, because it was early in the school year and the majority of them were struggling writers. My role was to move from group to group asking questions, guiding their thinking, and allowing them time to analyze the artifacts and discuss their findings with their team. The lesson provided depth, and the students’ ability to make inferences about characters improved greatly as the year went on.
Stand & Deliver: Speaking with Confidence and Enthusiasm
Who: Jaclyn Ryan
What: Agriscience teacher and FFA adviser
Where: Signal Knob Middle School, Strasburg, Virginia
Pinpointing my most successful lesson during 10 years of teaching has been challenging, but two lessons that have created those aha! moments come to mind.
In my Agriculture Leadership class, students learn and practice parliamentary procedure. Because middle school is a very challenging time socially and emotionally, some students need extra support when it comes to public speaking. With my consistent encouragement, they learned to formulate their thoughts and debate topics on their feet. I have seen students blossom throughout this lesson!
Another lesson where I’ve seen this happen is in my Agriculture Mechanics class. The thought of firing up a welder to strike an electrode, for example, can be quite frightening, but I work closely with kids and give them support. I see them use their critical-thinking skills to change their techniques (in this instance, working to form the best welding beads possible). They don’t stop until they are satisfied, and they are proud of their efforts and the outcome. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
The Power of Props: Teaching Character Traits with Animal Friends
Who: Sarah M. Reed
What: Grade 3
Where: Field Elementary School, Louisville, Kentucky
To help my third graders understand “inner traits,” I borrowed an idea from Tanny McGregor’s book Comprehension Connections. Working with the folktale “Why Bear Has a Stumpy Tail,” I brought out an old “unstuffed” bear and fox, then pulled out four cards and read aloud from one: “Inside traits are shown by what the character does (their actions), thinks, and says.” I held up the other three cards. One had a picture of a foot, representing the character’s action. The next was of a brain, for the character’s thinking; and the third, lips, for what the character says. I encouraged students to discuss the information they could use from the text to support each of the three pictures. They listened to one another and were quick to argue for better evidence from the text. Subsequently, whenever I asked students to tell me what an inner trait was, they had no problem citing evidence and they reminded me of this lesson!
Metacognition: The Magic of Tuning in to the Little Voice in Your Head
Who: Melody Arabo
What: Grade 3
Wh ere: K eith Elementary School, West Bloomfield, Michigan
My best lesson ever focuses on a concept I didn’t understand until I was an adult: metacognition. I was always aware of the little voice in my head, but I had considered it more of a distraction than a resource—until I took
a professional development workshop on its usefulness.
To help my third graders understand its value, I began by explaining metacognition as a “fancy schmancy” concept that would help them tune in to their thoughts. First, I had them sit quietly. Then we discussed the things they noticed thinking about, like food, recess, and so on. Next, I asked them to keep track of their thinking while they were reading, and something magical happened: I watched kids having conversations with themselves while enjoying good books. Later, students discussed how things that happened in the book made them think of something in their lives (connections), how they guessed what was going to happen next (predictions), and what they thought about how the characters were acting and why (characterization). They were doing what good readers should do. Some students even talked about how they noticed their minds drifting off, realized this was a problem, and made goals to change it.
This lesson changed everything in my classroom, and now metacognition is the foundation for all of the learning that takes place.
Image: Paul Hardy/Corbis/Media Bakery.