Harsh realities of growing up poor pushed this Colorado teacher to connect with her students

Teacher Natalie Mejia, right, with students from Atlas Preparatory School on "Nerds Rule the World" day last fall.

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.

Natalie Mejia, a math teacher at Atlas Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, knows the challenges many of her students face. She grew up poor in Los Angeles, navigating an education system that didn’t reflect her culture or background.

It’s the reason she’s determined to show her seventh- and eighth-graders how much they matter.

“They won’t care what you know, until they know that you care,” she says.

Mejia is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I believe our kids deserve to be surrounded by people who love them and believe in their tenacity to succeed. Growing up low-income in Los Angeles exposed me to many harsh realities that motivated me to pursue higher education. Additionally, as a first-generation high school and college graduate, I can relate to the adversity my children face on their pursuit to learn and navigate within an institution that wasn’t built with their social or cultural identity in mind.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is split into three sections — pink, blue, and orange. In the pink section, eight students are receiving direct instruction. In the blue section, eight students are reviewing prerequisite skills for upcoming lessons and in the orange section 16 students are working on online lessons on the Khan Academy website. The students rotate every other day through the sections so that all 32 scholars are working directly with me, in pairs, or independently to master the content.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ____________. Why?
My smart board. I absolutely love the white board in the classroom because it makes it easier for students to follow along as I teach. Additionally, the colored pens allow me to differentiate or emphasize notes within the lesson.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I enjoy teaching my students our statistics unit because this is the place where they can be the most creative. My school takes a traditional approach to learning. However, in this unit students are encouraged to create their own statistical questions and gather data. This unit I believe allows them to personalize the learning and justify their thinking.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student shares that he/she doesn’t fully understand a concept or demonstrates gaps on the three-question assessment they turn in at the end of the day, I do any of the following:
– Provide one-on-one instruction before school, during lunch, or after school.
– Modify the upcoming lesson to provide better scaffolding and support.
– Pair the student with someone who’s mastered the concept and can serve as a peer tutor.
– Follow up with parents directly about how they can support the student at home.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My strategies vary from class to class and student to student. If one or two students are off task, I am more private in my approach to redirect their behavior.

If an entire section in my class is off-task, I walk over and provide a countdown to get their attention. Once I have their full attention I restate expectations and narrate positive behaviors.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
First and foremost, I approach my students and my work with the utmost humility and appreciation. I tell my students early on and often how much I love them and how their presence brings joy to my life.

I continue to demonstrate my commitment to them and their education by establishing academic and social goals for the year. I challenge them to be present in class and to own their learning environment by supporting one another. In addition to our time in class, I try to attend our students’ games and family events in the community. In doing this, I can foster deep relationships with my students and their families. Collectively we work throughout the year to be advocates for their students’ academic and socio-emotional success.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I met Mr. Senior in the summer of 2011 in Baltimore. He was a single father of two middle school-aged boys and attended our pre-school conference. This meeting was an opportunity for us to check-in as student, parent(s), and advisors prior to the start of the school year to establish academic and social goals for the year. Throughout the year, Mr. Senior demonstrated unwavering commitment and love for his children through his active participation and involvement in our school.

His persistence in advocating for his children challenged the unknown bias I had toward fathers being passive participants within education. We’ve stayed in touch over the last six years and it’s such a pleasure to see the joy and pride he has for his sons and their long-term success.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am currently reading “Drown” by Junot Diaz. It is a goal to immerse myself in more Latino/a literature.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
A few months ago, I was reading, “The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community is Inspiring the World” by Nadia Lopez. In her text she wrote, “This is not a Third World country. This is real life in the United States of America, and the qualities in these kids that frustrate teachers are the very same ones that help them survive every day.”

Her sentiments resonated with me because I love and respect my students’ ability to face the adversity with authenticity and courage. Approaching my work with this mindset inspires me to be the best mentor and educator for my students and their families.

Chalkbeat’s newest newsletter is made for teachers. Sign up here.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

We’re about to launch another newsletter over here at Chalkbeat, and this one is especially for teachers.

The newsletter is a spinoff of our interview series How I Teach. Over the past year, our reporters have already introduced you to a Memphis teacher who uses Facebook Live on snow days, a government teacher in East Harlem tackling debates about race and the presidency, a Colorado Springs teacher who helps students navigate parents’ deployments, and dozens of other educators from across the country.

Our goal is to share realistic snapshots of what life looks like in classrooms today, and make sure you don’t miss the tips and tricks those teachers have passed along to us. (Our goal is definitely not to provide any more professional development or pat answers about successful teaching.)

In the newsletter, we’ll also include stories we think might be especially useful to teachers, including our take on new research and thoughtful pieces written by educators themselves. And we’ll use this newsletter as another chance to bring you into our reporting — letting you know what we’re working on and how you can help by sharing your own experiences.

Ann Schimke, the Colorado-based reporter behind some of our award-winning coverage of early childhood issues and many How I Teach features, will be your guide.

Interested? Sign up below. And for those of you keeping track, we now have local newsletters for each of our bureaus — Chicago (where coverage is launching soon), Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, Newark, New York City, and Tennessee — plus a national newsletter and a Spanish-language newsletter out of Colorado.

‘Mathonopoly’ and basketball: How this Memphis teacher uses games to teach math

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Yomyko Clark, in her first year of teaching at Aspire Hanley Middle School, says she has taught several game-based math lessons throughout the year.

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 the series here.

In a classroom in Memphis, sixth-graders are hard at work creating their own version of Monopoly.

Dubbed “Mathonopoly,” students are prompted to design a board game that incorporates 15 math problems. After several class periods of strategizing, the students take turns playing each other’s games.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Clark helps her students design their game of “Mathonopoly.”

Yomyko Clark, in her first year of teaching at Aspire Hanley Middle School, says this lesson is one of several game-based math lessons she teaches throughout the year.

“Our students pay attention when they are having fun,” Clark said. “Do many of my kids associate ‘fun’ with math? No, but my goal is to help them see how math is a part of everyday games that they love.”

Clark, 25, grew up in Memphis, graduated from East High School, and went on to study social work at the University of Memphis.  She found her way to the classroom through a teacher training program with Aspire Public Schools, the national charter operator that runs Hanley as part of Tennessee’s state-run school district.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

My inspiration to teach derives from working with children for several years throughout my college career. I started in social work, but I realized that I wanted to work more closely with kids. I wanted to be in a classroom. I chose to teach because I want to be an example to children that they can succeed and accomplish anything that they dream. My goal is to encourage children to feel self-sufficient in their own learning skills.

How does your own education experience impact you as a teacher?

I graduated from East High School, and I had one teacher there who really changed my life. She taught English, and she was so hands-on in her classroom. She showed me how engaging education could be. And she had this mother’s love. If you were failing her course, you better believe she was going to talk to your family. But she also wasn’t going to give up on anyone.

Now, I try to tell my kids, “I’m your mom. You’re my babies, and I’m going to fuss over you, but you’re going to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?

One of my favorite lessons to teach is ratios with percent. I love this lesson because it deals with comparing different quantities.

Most of my students love to throw balled up paper in the trash like they are playing basketball. So, to teach this lesson, I incorporated a paper basketball tournament where students played “basketball” with the trashcan and balled-up paper. As a class, we kept a record of how many shots students attempted versus how many shots made. We’re able to create different percentage ratios from this.

What’s makes this lesson work — like the Monopoly game — is that it’s fun. Students are engaged the whole time; they’re cheering on their classmates as they shoot baskets. But they’re also shouting out the ratios we calculate. They’re learning, and they don’t even know it.

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

Aspire Hanley, math, classroom, students
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Clark teaches 6th-grade math at the middle school run by Aspire Public Schools.

To get the class attention when students are talking I use a call and response. For example, If you can hear my voice, say “Oh Yeah!,” and the students will respond “Oh Yeah” and get silent.

We also have an incentives system at our school — where we can give students “bonuses” and rewards. If I student is modeling great behavior, I point it out to the class and mention that they’ve earned a bonus.This really works well because students have really bought into receiving bonuses and earning incentives.

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

One day after work, I saw a student walking in the hallway around 4:45 p.m., which was after dismissal. The student informed me that she missed the bus and didn’t have a phone to contact her parents. With no hesitation, I gave her the phone. The student could not remember the number so I called a number in her file. I was able to speak with the grandmother and the grandmother did nothing but refer to the student as dumb and stupid because he/she missed the bus. Saddened for the student, I was able to understand why he/she was soft spoken and very sensitive when given a behavioral redirection. This situation opened my eyes greatly and made me more vulnerable to the student’s feelings. It changed the way I interacted with her in the future.