Feature Friday: Jake Downs

Welcome to Feature Friday! Where we showcase a new teacher each week in an interview. For past Feature Friday interviews, go here

Today’s Feature Friday is highlighting Jake Downs. Jake teaches 4th grade in a rural community in Cache Valley, Utah. He also runs a podcast regarding teaching called The Teaching Literacy Podcast. He gives us great insight on the podcast and how it has helped his teaching below. 

What is the Teaching Literacy Podcast and why did you start it?

“The Teaching Literacy Podcast grew out of my experience in my Ph.D. program at Utah State University.  I found there was so much compelling research out there that could really benefit teachers, but it can often be like finding a needle in a haystack.  I also had a few classes where we discussed that there’s not really great channels to allow teachers access to high-quality literacy research.  That really bothered me- there’s this wealth of knowledge out there that could help improve instruction, but it remains largely aloof from teachers.  The current model really follows a trickle-down diffusion approach, which takes time and loses certain nuances.”

“I started the podcast to help address that.  I take quality research, interview the researcher, and talk about their findings and how it would apply to classroom management.  I’ve seen enthusiastic responses from researchers and educators alike. The researchers I’ve talked with are not the stereotypical ivory tower professors, nearly all of them are former teachers who care greatly about supporting our nation’s teachers and readers. Teachers have appreciated listening to research straight from the researcher’s mouth, with ideas of how it could help their instruction.  It’s been a great experience so far, and one I look forward to continuing.”

What is your favorite thing about teaching this age/subject?

“4th grade is a perfect age!  Old enough to be more independent and capable of impressive critical thought, but they still have the magic of childhood that seems to evaporate soon after.  This age group has great content to teach in reading and math as well.” 

“Reading-wise, the third and fourth grades pivot away from a steady diet of phonics and fluency practice, and towards more of a comprehension focus.  Fluency is still an important aspect of my instruction, but I’ve found great satisfaction in teaching reading comprehension, and supporting students to develop proficiency in silent reading efficiency.”

“Math for fourth graders slides toward complexity and abstraction.  For example, in third grade, it’s fairly easy to draw three groups of 6 to model 3×6.  In fourth grade, however, modeling 36×22 becomes more abstract.  We still do it, but we begin to use area models rather than direct representations.  That’s just one example, but I feel that something shifts between third and fourth grades with how the math is approached.”

How have you integrated the arts into your core curriculum?

“One way I’ve integrated art on and off throughout the years is through using ‘One-Pagers’ to integrate reading.  They’re pretty popular right now, just Google the term if you’re unfamiliar, but the gist of it is fusing an artistic representation of a scene from a specific text with summaries and/or direct quotes from the text. One thing good readers do is sift and separate important information from trivial details.  When done right, One-Pagers allow this to be practiced in the classroom in a way that students generally find very engaging.”

If you could recommend one children’s book, what would it be and why? 

“Every year I read ‘City of Ember’ to my students.  It’s a great book about two kids in a dying city that get caught up in an adventure much bigger than themselves- or the city itself.  There are lots of twists and turns, with a jaw-dropping ending.  It’s always a highlight of my year and provides lots of great little teaching moments about comprehension throughout.  A careful reading will show that the ending was there all around, just the bread crumbs were so subtle that it really takes careful reading to put it all together.”

What are your best tips for avoiding burnout? 

“I’ve experienced burnout as an educator, something I think everyone who teaches young minds experiences at one time or another.  There’s a lot of ebb and flow to teaching, but burnout should be avoided at all costs.  It’s like your teeth, if you’re brushing and flossing then getting a cavity filled will be few and far between.  Even if you go to the dentist right when the tooth starts hurting, getting the cavity filled won’t be too bad.  However, if you neglect brushing and flossing, neglect going to the dentist when the tooth starts hurting then pain, infection, and the inevitable root canal is headed your way.”

Something in our culture has made us almost fanatically preventative with our oral health, yet tending to our mental health is much more reactive.  Find what ‘brushing and flossing’ means for you, and do it as much as you need to avoid burnout root canals.  For me, it’s reading good books, thinking deep thoughts, feeling in the driver’s seat with how my classroom is running.  When those things aren’t happening, burnout can creep in for me.  

What do you wish someone would have told you in your first year teaching?  

“There was this perception among my peers in my teaching program that much of what we were learning was relatively useless because things would be different ‘in a real classroom.’  I feel that perception is unfortunate and even dangerous.  True, there is some degree of disconnect between the teaching program and actual classrooms.  But isn’t that true of nearly all non-apprenticeship programs?  Do CPA’s complain about the disconnect between business college and real-life accounting?  What about nurses?” 

“Using a metaphor of learning to fly might be a more productive view towards teacher preparation. Teacher preparation programs are like learning how to fly in a wind tunnel or a flight simulator, assuming many variables to focus on the principles of learning.  The goal isn’t to take a Cessna to the next state over, the goal is to learn the principles of lift, drag, and aero dynamism.  Learning those principles, and the tradeoffs between them are critical to being a successful pilot once you climb into the cockpit.  Yes, piloting an actual plane will have its own learning curve, but the knowledge gained from that crucial pre-flight training will make the difference between a pilot on ‘auto-pilot’ and one who truly understands flying.”

“Good teacher ed programs provide invaluable assistance in ‘flight simulators,’ which means they are not invaluable.  As a first-year teacher, don’t readily discard everything you learned in your prep program.  Find ways to bridge what you’ve learned into your everyday experience.”

How has running your podcast helped you in your teaching?

“Teaching fourth grade, working towards a Ph.D. in literacy, and starting a literacy podcast has been a very fortunate experience.  It’s given me a bit of a ‘workshop’ where what I read and learn from interviews I can tinker within my classroom, and then what I learn from that tinkering informs what I look into next.  It’s certainly been a unique experience- one that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

If you could give teachers one piece of advice about teaching literacy, what would it be?

“Learn the pedagogy and research of literacy.  Teaching Literacy Podcast is one way I’m trying to make that research more readily digestible for educators, but there are many out there.  Once I really started to learn the ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s’ of fluency and reading comprehension my instruction shifted dramatically.  Rather than relying on the curriculum to do the teaching, my curriculum became a tool to leverage my thinking.  I think many of the reading curricula out there are well done and do the things they do for a reason, but they are not a replacement for teacher pedagogical knowledge.  Teachers teach, that’s the bottom line, so learning how reading works will greatly improve any teacher’s instruction.”


Thank you Jake for sharing your insight with us! If you are interested in listening to the Teaching Literacy podcast, you can find it on Apple, Google, or Stitcher. The majority of podcast apps have it available. You can also listen at Teachingliteracypodcast.com. 

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