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.

Valerie Lovato, a first-grade teacher at Denver’s Eagleton Elementary School, spends early August visiting the homes of as many students as she can. She comes empty-handed — no clipboard or paperwork. Her goal is to get to know her new students on their home turf.

Lovato talked to Chalkbeat about why she likes home visits, how she uses classroom technology and what she learned from a set of twins with special needs.

Lovato is one of 20 educators who were selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides 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 has always been a part of my personality. Even though I didn’t have any teachers in my family, it felt like a natural profession for me. I enjoyed talking to people. I liked teaching and taking care of my little cousins and brother.

When I was in high school I had an elective course that taught me a little about teaching and I was able to volunteer at my old elementary school. While I was there I worked one-on-one with a girl from Russia and I loved tutoring her and helping her learn English. My senior year I worked with a kindergarten class and I fell in love with teaching little ones. I knew then I wanted to be a teacher, I applied to University of Northern Colorado – a known teaching school and I haven’t looked back!

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is bright and engaging. I don’t have a teacher’s desk because I don’t want to be tied up behind a desk. I have a large guided reading table and my students are seated in small groups, which I change often. This year is the first year I have chosen to create a classroom theme. I’m planning an insect theme. This is a topic we address in both literacy and science, so I will be able to incorporate project-based learning into the room as well as create a space for creativity and imagination.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Technology. It has opened so many doors not only for my students’ learning but for my own learning as well. I am always reading a new blog or passage from the experts. I am constantly researching online about lesson planning, engaging projects, and behavior modifications. I also try to bring as much technology to my students as possible. I have received ipods in donations so students can listen to books “on tape.” I also have a computer and an iPad for students to use in the classroom. My school also has a smart board in every classroom. I have my students use the board during centers rotations so they can practice their reading skills in online games and activities. I try to take my students to our computer lab every day so they can take reading quizzes and practice their math and phonics skills. I hope we continue to receive more technology and one day I would love to have my little first-graders do a project-based learning activity on Google Classroom.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I love teaching our living creatures science unit. I bring in real animals, such as goldfish, ants, caterpillars/butterflies, ladybugs and pillbugs to enhance our learning. We get to explore so many topics within the unit such as living/non-living, the life-cycle, and characteristics of insects, isopods and animals.

The students are very engaged because they get a hands on experience with the animals and begin to have a greater understanding about how the animals are important to our ecosystems. They also get to observe, question and explore the animals in a protected environment.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I work with my students in small groups throughout the day. It is easy for me to see who has misconceptions and I can usually address them right in the moment. I am going to practice one-on-one conferences in a different way this year and I hope it will help address misunderstandings as well.

During whole group instruction, when a student doesn’t understand a question or has an incorrect response, I never tell them outright they are wrong. I will ask for clarification or explanation from the student and will use open-ended questions for the class as a whole to explore the misconception.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I never yell above the distractions. I use a wind chime to grab attention at the end of an activity — it’s not as loud as a timer or other noise-maker. I also like to use a basic hand-raising gesture. I will raise my hand and others will follow until all students have raised their hands and are quiet.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I am fortunate enough to have been introduced to an amazing program called the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, based out of Sacramento, Calif. It is a voluntary program in which teachers are paid to conduct home visits with their students and their families outside of the school day.

I try to do many visits in the beginning of August to get to know students and their families before school starts. I don’t bring any paperwork and I am not evaluating anything or anyone. I talk with students and their families, I meet their pets and see their bedrooms. The kids love to show me around their house and their favorite toys.

Once the school year is rolling, our class has a daily morning meeting. Sometimes we will have a sharing circle, some days I’ll have a lesson for the day for them, or we will talk about social emotional skills we can use in and out of the classroom. I also believe in having small groups as much as possible throughout the day. This helps me get to know the students on an academic and personal basis. I know what skills each student has, and where they can make growth. We also will have a natural discussion on their likes, dislikes and daily life adventures.

If I am not able to have a home visit with a family, I take other opportunities to try to get to know the student and their family. For example, I greet every child before they enter my classroom. I also walk my students out to the playground at the end of the day. A majority of my students are picked up by family members. This helps me get to know them as well.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I remember teaching a set of twin boys that were so adorable and funny, and also had some setbacks. I worked really hard to get to know them and their parents. I went on a home visit and communicated frequently with them. They had individualized education plans that required very specific steps to increase their academic levels. I collaborated with the special education team and their families on a regular basis. This experience was early in my teaching career and I feel because the collaboration was so amazing between the parents and myself that we made great gains. The boys went onto middle school this year and are doing amazing in school!

What are you reading for enjoyment?
On vacation at the beach, I read two books: One about a girl overcoming a drug addiction and the other about a girl who takes a cross-country road trip to discover herself. They were called “White Lines” and “Traveling Light” respectively.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mom always told me, “The answer is no until you ask.” I am not afraid to ask for a home visit, or a grant, or some extra materials for my classroom. I am not afraid to search out leadership programs or professional development because unless I ask to apply or attend the class, the answer is already no. I also like to use this phrase with my students. Sometimes, they are very timid in asking for something simple, like a tissue or pencil. It comes down to confidence. If you need something, ask for it.