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. 

Amidst The Negative, You’re Doing A Good Job

One month before my first-grade year started, I received a letter from my teacher welcoming me to class. To start off my full career as a student, this was a great way to begin. I beamed with pride reading the words my soon-to-be teacher left for me in my mailbox. I knew this year would be extraordinary. 

Our first library trip as a first-grade class was overwhelming for me. I loved reading and I loved books, but I had a hard time choosing with all of the options in front of me. When library time was over and I was about to leave the room empty-handed of something I loved so much, tears overcame my little 6-year-old body. My teacher ran to my aid and led me straight to the shelf I never knew I needed. Books by Ann M. Martin. The Babysitters Club. She told me I would really enjoy them and that it was perfect based on my reading level. This simple act gave me the confidence in her that I could trust her judgment and that she would always be in my corner when I needed her. 

Fast forward to the winter. I was out playing in the snow with friends, too far from the school to hear the recess bell. I walked into the classroom 20 minutes late (it felt like over an hour to me). I felt bad for not following protocol and not paying closer attention to the bell, I knew I would be in trouble. However, it got worse when the blue board came into play… 

The blue board was a public shame. It was a big board with two columns and everyone’s name running down the left, white side. When an individual did something wrong (like come in from recess 20 minutes late), their name was moved to the other side of the board, the blue side. No one wanted to be on the blue board. But walking into my own fate, my name was moved for the first, and only time that year, and my soul was CRUSHED. I felt like my whole relationship and trust with my beloved teacher had shattered in seconds because of one mistake I made. 

Slowly throughout the year, the trust was rebuilt and I truly loved my teacher and the relationship I had with her, but I always held the blue board moment in the back of my mind. I held it so close that at the end of the school year I said to myself, “Someday, I’m going to be a teacher, and I will never use a blue board. That’ll show her!” 

Fast forward even further to my experience as a pre-service teacher. Many college classes spoke of clip charts or “shame boards” and it solidified in me that what my teacher did in first-grade was wrong. I had a small run-in with a clip chart in a different classroom, you can read about the experience here.  During this very brief time of using a clip chart, I still held my resentment for my teacher’s use of the blue board in my heart. I knew how much it affected me, and I truly did not want that for any other student I taught. 

A few years later after I had graduated with my teaching degree and did my long term sub job in a first-grade classroom, I unexpectedly ran into my past teacher while on vacation. I sat and spoke with her for an hour and told her about my experience subbing the same age of kids that she taught for years and years. I asked her advice on certain situations, how she would have handled some of the harder kids I had to teach, and ultimately thanked her for being such an influence on my life, especially for helping me keep my love of reading. I never mentioned the blue board, because even though it was still something that I thought about often, I held no resentment 20 years later. 

But in the conversation, she said something that really stuck out to me. She said:  

“I didn’t teach in a time of educational blogs and information readily at our fingertips, learning new teaching methods took a lot of searching and dedication. I made a lot of mistakes and I worry that I negatively affected the kids that I taught. But then I hear from you the successes you’ve had and it makes me feel better, so thank you for sharing.” 

I found this so interesting that she spoke these words to me since I had not brought up the negative interaction I had with her. I held these words close and silently forgave her for putting my name on the blue board years and years ago. It also made me think about my own interactions with children. 

How have I negatively affected students? 

What positive interactions have I had? 

Also, how many more of my past teachers and professors out there are beating themselves up because they weren’t the perfect teacher every day, and could use an encouraging message from past students? 

Teachers invest their whole heart and soul into educating human beings and often focus on the bad days and interactions. Let’s all take a minute to remember that even if you made a mistake, you’re still a great teacher, and your students still love you. 

You’re doing a good job. 

Talk, Sing, Read, Write, and Play!

If you do a quick search on this blog of “talk, sing, read, write, play” you’ll find multiple articles I’ve written on the subject. I’ve referenced it many times, but I’ve never dedicated a post to truly defining what it is and what they mean. They are pretty self-explanatory, but let’s really break it down. 

Why do I use these terms together? These are the basic fundamentals for early readers. Reading begins long before preschool or kindergarten, and it’s through our interactions with them that these building blocks are put in place. 

“The power of literacy lies not just in the ability to read and write, but rather in a person’s capacity to apply these skills to effectively connect,  interpret and discern the intricacies of the world in which they live.’

-3P Learning

Talk– Talking with children builds vocabulary, tone awareness, and teaches them how to create and use sentences, and more. Talking, discussing, pointing out, and having conversations with kids teaches them all of these important skills. 

Sing- Singing words in songs can drag out sounds, making it more clear to younger ears to how the sounds work and are pronounced. The rhythms are catchy and easy to remember, and rhyming helps kids see word relations and sounds. 

Read- Obviously reading begets reading. It’s important for them to see words on the page and how they flow and work together. Read road signs, food labels, menus at the restaurants. Words are everywhere! Spending positive interactions reading with children creates a love of books and reading at a young age. 

Write- Writing doesn’t mean write out words and sentences. It means scribble, draw, and create art. These scribbles eventually become circles, squares, and lines, which then turn into letters, words, and sentences. 

“A child’s scribbles are precursors to adult calligraphy.’

– Briana at Carnegie Library of Pittsburg 

Play- Play is a child’s work. Play is where kids learn, grow, and develop. It is the most important task they can do as a child. Whether it’s for reading, writing, speaking, math, social skills, science, history, or more, PLAY is where they work. Read more about play-based learning here. 

Next time you’re overwhelmed by teaching your child letters or words or want them to have better literacy skills, please remember and go back to the basics. 

Talk. Sing. Read. Write. Play. 

Feature Friday: Hannah Giles

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 Hannah Giles. Hannah teaches first grade in Idaho. She received her education at Brigham Young University of Idaho. Here’s what Hannah has for us today! 

What is your favorite thing about teaching first grade?

“First grade is my favorite because my students are still excited about learning! They are so sweet and come to school with smiles on their faces no matter what they have going on outside of school. It’s really fun being around their positive attitudes every day and their energetic personalities!”

What made you want to go into teaching?

“I have always loved working with children and helping them learn new skills, so it was only fitting that I go into education! I have a  degree in early childhood education and special education, and I always enjoyed being around my uncle who had special needs when I was younger. My interactions with him inspired me to get the special education part of my degree, even though I currently teach in a general education classroom.”

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

“I would highly recommend “The Bad Seed” by Jory John and Petel Oswald! This is a great story about a seed who has a bad experience which makes him a mean and bitter seed. No one likes to be around him because of the way he acts towards the people around him. In the end, he learns that it’s okay to have bad days but it’s not okay to treat the people around you poorly! There are two other books by these two authors called “The Good Egg” and “The Cool Bean” which are also great!”

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

“I wish that someone would have told me that it’s okay for a lesson or activity not to work and to keep trying new ideas. You’re not going to reach every single student in the same way, but that’s only because they are all different! Students will remember more of how you made them feel in the classroom and the relationships you build. After the relationship is built, the real learning begins!”

Who influenced you most to choose a career education? 

“I had several teachers while growing up who influenced my choice to go into education! Michelle Watson taught me in fourth and sixth grade. She was an amazing teacher in the way she delivered lessons as well as the relationships she built with her students. I always knew that if I became a teacher, I would want to be just like her!”

What are the benefits you’ve seen in collaborating with your team of teachers? 

“I work in a school that has a Spanish Immersion program and I have a partner teacher who teaches Spanish to our first graders for half the day while I teach English! Then we switch and do it again with the other half of our students. It is a small school, so we are the only first grade teachers, and I could not do it without her. She is an amazing teacher, and I have learned so much from working with her. She has taught me behavior strategies that have helped with some of the most difficult students. Collaboration is so important in teaching, and I lucked out with the best partner!”

How has teaching in a rural area affected your teaching, both positive, and negative?

“Teaching in a rural area has its pros and cons. The community is small, so it’s nice to know most of the parents and families that live there. The town I teach in has a very low SES which makes the kids there very humble and appreciative of everything. They are amazing kids! The main downside is that there are several students who come from hard home lives. Some of the students only eat the food they receive at the school, and it breaks my heart! Overall, I definitely prefer teaching in a small, rural school even with the negative sides of it.”

Thanks, Hannah for your great insight. I think it’s always fun to explore the point of view from a rural teacher because those are the schools I grew up going to. Come back next week for our next Feature Friday to hear from another Idaho teacher! 

There’s A Lot Going On In The World. But We Can Do This.

I apologize for being somewhat distant from this blog for a few days. I try to post as regularly as I can, usually Monday, Wednesday, and Friday each week. People like consistency!

Lately I’ve been processing so many different situations and emotions.

How I personally can change my home and my community to support Black lives matter. Here are a few books we added to our home that was a small step in the right direction.

My feelings on opening schools this fall considering the COVID-19 pandemic, and worrying about my kids’ colds they’ve been fighting. Something that didn’t cross my mind as worrisome until a pandemic brought added anxiety into everything.

Keeping all of my teacher and administrator friends in mind as new rules, regulations, processes, information, etc., come out regarding the next school year, and finding ways I can support them.

Considering whether or not it’s a good idea for me to go back to substitute teaching considering the risks.

How well positive reinforcement is working for my daughter’s behavior right now, and how much my own attitude, anxiety, and feelings rub off on my kids. An important thing to remember during such a roller coaster of a year.

Processing the information being shared on child trafficking and deciding how and where I have the ability to help.

It’s not secret that in the education world and our children’s lives are surrounded with uncertainty and scary situations. Teacher’s across the nation and the globe are up at night thinking, planning, worrying, and more. Parents are doing the same.

But deep breaths everyone, WE CAN DO THIS!

Where are your thoughts and feelings in all of this? What are your feelings on going back to work and sending your kids back to school? What are you doing to cope with the uncertain times?

Feature Friday: Kimberly Andersen

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 Kimberly Andersen. Kim has plenty of experience when it comes to education. Here is a rundown of everything she’s taught and for how long. 

“I have taught Kindergarten (1.5 years), 3rd grade (0.5 years), 2nd grade (4 years), 5th grade (2 years), Special Education – Both HS and ES Mild/Moderate and Severe (4 years), and I have been an administrator for 6 years.  I have done some of these things overlapping each other because of my unique experiences at my current school, so my total years as a licensed educator are 13 years.”

She has endorsements in Elementary Education, Early Childhood Education, Literacy, Special Education, and Administration.  She is also in the process of completing her Instructional Coaching endorsement. Here’s what Kimberly has for us today!  

What is one of your favorite ways to utilize technology in the classroom?

“I think technology has a place in the classroom, especially when paired with intentional instruction.  I think young children should know how to use technology in a way that provides them with access and connection.  I especially like using a variety of resources for presentation models.”

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

“I absolutely adore children’s books so it is really difficult for me to choose only one.  Right now I love “The Snurtch” by Sean Ferrell because it provides an opportunity for conversations about empathy, disabilities, social-emotional learning, compassion, and self-regulation.”

How have books helped you in your teaching?

“Books are such an easy way to engage students in a narrative, a concept, or an experience.  I love using books as a way to provide access and expansion of ideas, but I also love using books as a way to help children connect with their feelings and the experiences of others near them.  When we connect ourselves with a good book, we find belonging.  I also believe that books help children understand how to talk about things that they might not know how to talk about otherwise.  A good book opens discussions and pathways for new thinking.”

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

“I wish someone would have told me that teaching is hard and that the difficulty I was facing was normal.  I would have loved validation that I was in the fight of my life doing the very best anyone could have done.  I would have loved for someone to validate the hours I was putting in, and the thought I was developing, and the difficulties I was facing.  I would have loved for someone to tell me that it was all going well and that I wasn’t causing any damage to my students through my own learning.”

How have you seen education change in the years you’ve taught? 

“I have seen education change a lot over the last 13 years. I think the most poignant change for me has been the changes in how children engage in ideas and learning. I have seen a need to change the presentation of concepts in ways that tap into the vivid, quick engagement students are exposed to in their lives (TV, video games, tablets, phones, streaming, etc.).  There is a lot more exposure to instant gratification than when I first started teaching and so we have to not only incorporate some of those strategies, but also teach strategies for waiting, listening, self-regulating, slowing down, and being patient.”

What are the benefits you’ve seen in collaborating with other teachers, both as a teacher and as an administrator? 

“Collaboration is such a key part of teaching effectively in this day and age.  I believe that two (or three, or four, or five…) heads are better than one in most cases, as a teacher and as an administrator.  One of my favorite ways to collaborate as an administrator is by planning and implementing room transformations with some of my teachers in their classrooms.  I get the opportunity to model strategies and concepts I teach about (engagement, rigor, effective planning, hands-on learning, inquiry), while also connecting with students through being in a classroom again, and regaining empathy for the work of being a teacher on the daily.  I have seen this create positive culture and climate in my building as well as increase the level of instructional effectiveness amongst my faculty.”

How do you use student voice in your classroom and what outcomes have you seen from it? 

“I am a big believer in student committees, class meetings, and inquiry-based teaching.  I believe that when students have a voice and choice in their learning they are more engaged, retain more, and learn authentic methods for life-long learning.”

If you could give one tip to special education teachers, what would it be?

“You are not alone!  The most effective special education teachers work intentionally with other educators, community members, and parents to provide the best services for students. There are others who can help you and guide you, but you are also capable of more than you think you are!  You are a valuable part of a collaboration to help others know they are not alone in this work as well.”

What are your favorite resources that help you support your teachers as an administrator?

“I love Audible for learning about current educational ideas and practices.  I love to recommend that teachers spend time listening to books (that way they can multi-task!) when they want to grow or develop in new ideas.  I am constantly finding new books to listen to and new ideas to try from good books!”

“I also love to direct teachers to research-based sources that support new ideas.  I believe it is important to access valid educational research for creating intentional change in a school.  I use a lot of research from the ERIC database, What Works Clearinghouse, and Evidence for ESSA.”

Thank you Kimberly for your insight! Come back to Feature Friday next week to hear from Hannah Giles, an Idaho teacher. 

It’s Summer, Take A Break Teachers!


Who is ready for a good, long summer break after that school year? Is anyone else filled with worries about your students after such a rough spring? Maybe miss them because you weren’t able to say your goodbye’s before you left? Scenarios of next year play out in your head about your past students and how they will do advancing to the next grade, as well as your future students and how you will handle the lapse in the curriculum. 

*deep breath* 

I know it’s worrisome, but we did it. We all made it through. Now, it’s time to relax. I know, it can be hard, but here’s some ideas of how you can (somewhat) take your mind off of school for a time and enjoy your summer break. 

Read a book! No, not your math curriculum book. A book of your choosing that is fun. If you want an easy, fast read with some juicy drama, try The Selection Series by Kiera Cass. It’ll give you a few days of distraction because you’ll be so sucked in it’ll be all you can think about! 

Visit the beach, the lake, the pool, and get in the water! Swim with your kids, your nieces, and nephews, your grandkids, whomever it may be! 

Go hiking, or go for walks around your neighborhood. 

Check-in on other teacher friends. Laugh about the fun times you had with your students, both in the classroom and on Zoom! 

Pick up some new (or old) hobbies like sewing, crafting, biking, sailing, or building. 

Start or work on your Twitter or Instagram, or any other social media! 

Read teacher memes to keep you laughing. 

Take a stroll on a local scooter or bike share, but bring the Clorox wipes!! 

Summer can make or break teachers. We can think and plan, never giving ourselves a break, hoping to make next year less stressful, but it can also do the opposite by not giving us the time we need to check out. This summer especially, given the current circumstances. 

Take a breather. Take some time. Enjoy your summer! Stay safe and wash your hands!