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.
To Ashley Farris, an advanced placement English teacher at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School in Denver, teaching is an act of social justice — a way to help students push against the status quo and create community change.
It’s an outlook she adopted during her first teaching job in Baltimore, when she got a crash course in racism and poverty. She says her belief that teachers can change the world is what’s kept her in the profession.
Farris is one of 20 educators who were selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Why did you become a teacher?
I think teaching is in my blood! I am the oldest of my siblings, so I was often teaching them when we were growing up. I found solace in books as a child, and I knew that I wanted to share my love of reading as a teacher.
I think the reasons that I became a teacher are far less important than my reasons for staying. My first teaching assignment was in Baltimore City, and it was the first time I had to confront a system that really was not working for all of the people involved. I learned a lot about racism, poverty and trauma while I was teaching there, and it made me angry. As a person of color, no one had ever taught me the academic vocabulary to describe the things I was experiencing and the things I saw my students experiencing. I pushed myself to learn more about institutional racism, implicit bias, etc. because I knew that my students deserved more. I wanted them to be able to talk about the challenges they saw every day.
For me, teaching has become an act of social justice. If my students are successful, they are pushing back against the status quo, and they are able to make the changes they want to see in their communities. Although I am no longer in Baltimore, I am still committed to working with minority students in underserved communities. I co-taught a social justice class last year and it was incredible to be able to share stories with my students of color about our common experiences. Recently, I saw this quote that said, “She believed she could change the world, so she became a teacher” and I thought: that’s me! That’s why I’m still here!
What does your classroom look like?
I play with seating arrangements a lot in my room. I have tables and they are currently in L-shapes so students can easily work with a partner or in a small group. There is a lot of student talk and collaboration in my class, and I try to choose seating arrangements to help facilitate that. I don’t have too many things on the walls because I find them distracting, but I do have a few plants to add some color and life to the room.
Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
My document camera, which projects documents onto a screen. I use my document camera every day with students because it is so easy to work alongside them, show them my thinking and have them present their own work.
What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons last year was an introduction to a unit on truth. I had five volunteers touch an object that was inside of a box and describe what they felt. They each had drastically different answers: Some said the object was soft, others firm, one said it felt feathery. I revealed that the object inside the box was a teddy bear wearing a graduation cap (a gift from my family when I was accepted to college, which also gave me an opportunity to talk about being a first generation college student).
We discussed how although none of the students were wrong about what they felt, none of them was able to understand the whole truth of the object. Then we read both “The Parable of the Elephant” and Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” It sparked a great conversation about how we know when something is true and the importance of listening to different perspectives. Students were still bringing up the “elephant story” in our discussions at the end of the year.
How did you come up with the idea?
I based the entire lesson on “The Parable of the Elephant,” but I Google everything. I am constantly saving articles on Evernote that I think would be interesting to teach in class. I am always on the lookout for something that I think could be useful in a lesson.
How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student doesn’t understand the lesson, I might have another student help them. Sometimes kids are able to explain things to each other in ways that make more sense. We also have office hours at my school, so I am available at least once a week to help students. I invite students to come during lunch as well if they’d like extra help.
How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
This is my second year teaching seniors and honestly, they are not often off task nor do they need much to get their attention! When I taught middle school, I found countdowns really useful because it gave students time to wind down their conversations.
Most of the time if students are off task it is because they are confused or they have concerns about something outside the classroom. I simply ask a student if they have a question about the assignment or if everything is OK. If they don’t have questions and they are fine, I repeat the directions for the assignment. I find that is usually enough to get kids back on track and if there is a problem, they now have space to voice it.
How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
On the first day of school, I write each student’s name on an index card and place it on their desk. Their very first assignment is to write something they want me to know about them on the back. That night I read and respond to every card by writing back with a question or comment. I pass the cards back the next day (which helps me learn names) and invite them to respond again. Sometimes students will pass the card with me 3-4 times! Putting in the time to get to know students at the beginning of the year gives me the opportunity to start up conversations with them about their interests and help calm any fears or worries they may have.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
During my first year teaching, I called a parent to discuss her son’s poor behavior in my class. I remember her telling me that she didn’t know what to do with him and asked me if I had any advice. I was 22, barely out of college, with no kids of my own. I had no idea what to tell her!
That moment made me realize that we are all doing that best that we can with what we have and no single one of us (parents, teachers, administrators) has all the answers. It is so important for schools to work with families in order to help their children have engaging educational experiences.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
I recently finished “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson and I’m working on “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best teaching advice I’ve ever received was from teacher and education consultant, Jacob Clifford. He said to teach your best lesson on the first day.