How I Teach: Why one Memphis teacher can’t teach her first-graders without wooden blocks

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Katie Kaplan's show off their Spielgaben creations.

Katie Kaplan knows firsthand how much energy first-graders have.

“It’s hard to imagine asking these kids to sit still at a desk for most of the day,” Kaplan said, motioning to the first-grade students behind her. They’re crawling around on a spacious carpet, creating shapes out of wooden blocks from a toy kit called Spielgaben.

To most, this would look like play time. But it’s actually Kaplan’s favorite lesson of the day, and a regular part of her classroom activities.

Originally from North Carolina, Kaplan moved to Memphis for Teach For America before joining Memphis Delta Prep, a new charter school in south Memphis. The school made home visits a key part of its teacher training before opening its doors this fall.

Chalkbeat sat down with Kaplan to learn more about how she makes hands-on learning work. (Her comments have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.)

What’s your morning routine like?

When my students come into the classroom every morning, the first thing I like to do is give them a choice. They can tell me they either want a handshake, a high five, or a hug. That gives me a feel for how they are doing that morning; where they are coming from. I can tell pretty quickly who is having a good morning and who I’ll need to pay a little more attention to.

We go through a morning meeting where we talk about things like what day of the week it is and the weather. We go through a few literacy rotations [where she reads out loud to her class or has her students read to one another], and then it’s time for Spielgaben.

Tell me about Spielgaben. Why is it your favorite teaching tool?

It’s definitely my kids’ favorite part of the day. They get so excited about what they can can make. It’s been amazing to see the impact hands-on learning can have on first-graders. You can integrate it into every lesson — from literacy to math.

Students talk about different ways to create shapes of numbers.
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students talk about different ways to create shapes of numbers.

Run us through a typical lesson you would create with Spielgaben.

I start every lesson with a challenge. For example, the other day I told the class we were just going to use blue shapes. Today, I told them that we were going to make a number out of the blocks and shapes. From there, I try not to give too much direction. The point is for them to be creative and problem solve.

The students also always work with a partner, and this really builds their communication skills. I’ll do several “turn and talks,” where they will stop building and turn to their partner to talk about what they have built so far and why. Oftentimes, the kids will want to argue about why what they built is better than someone else’s. This is a great opportunity to start to teach them that their opinion matters, but they need to learn how to disagree without hurting someone else.

Besides Spielgaben, what can’t you teach without?

I have a huge heart for reading. It sounds cheesy, but I can’t imagine teaching without my chapter books. I love reading to my students, and they love reading to me. “Reading is power” is a line I say almost daily.

We’ve read five Junie B. Jones chapter books since we started school. I make that into a huge deal, so they feel empowered and excited. If I’m crazy excited about reading, the hope is that they will be, too. At the end of the day I give them “choice time,” where students can choose to read, play, color. It’s amazing how many choose to play teacher and read to their peers. They mimic my movements and phrases. My words matter to them. To me, that’s so encouraging.

Memphis Delta Prep is a brand-new charter school. What’s your advice to teachers starting out at a new school?

You’ve got to keep an open mind. Founding a school is such hard, chaotic work. And there’s a lot of responsibility.

You and your fellow teachers are the school culture. That’s really exciting, but can be intimidating. So, collaborating with your colleagues on the kind of school you want to create is so important. And when a student shows you what he or she has created or asks to read to you, it’s all so worth it.

Detroit math teacher tends a greenhouse, welcomes parents into her classroom

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Marquita Reese, a math teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, works with students to cook vegetables grown in the school's greenhouse.

How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great Detroit educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at detroit.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Marquita Reese defies a traditional job title. At the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, an all-boys high school on Detroit’s east side, where she has taught for more than two decades, she is a chef, a gardener, and a meditation leader. Oh, and she teaches math.

Reese headed up an effort to build a greenhouse at Douglass, funded with federal grant dollars. Vegetables grown on the campus are used in cafeterias across Detroit’s main district. When it started in 2016, the program was lauded by Sen. Debbie Stabenow for simultaneously feeding children and teaching about science and nutrition.

Reese spoke with Chalkbeat about the garden, being a woman in the hard sciences, and welcoming parents into her classroom.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I graduated from Wilberforce University [in Ohio] with a degree in clinical psychology, but being a psychologist didn’t work out. Wanting to maintain a strong math and science grasp, I enrolled in the school of education at Wayne State, majoring in mathematics and sciences.

I said I’ll do math and science, not really considering that those are two of the most challenging areas of study.

I didn’t realize in retrospect that I was one of the few or only females that had a math and science background in the district. I would go into some meetings and would be one of the only females.

How do you get to know your students?

Students are given a survey and are required to write a short paper about themselves.  They must speak to their expectations and provide some insight about their goals for the present and for five years from now.  This year I included a three-minute meditation in the morning every day. Doing that at the beginning kind of relaxes the setting, and starts to build that trust between you and your students.


You run a greenhouse and garden on the grounds of Douglass Academy, and you also teach lessons about cooking. Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach your students about the garden. Where did the idea come from?

An activity I do before my students set foot in the garden is called colors of the rainbow. You take the colors of the rainbow, but you extend it, so I do teal, tan, indigo. For each color, they have to provide a fruit or vegetable that can be grown in Michigan and they have research their nutritional benefits.

In what region of Michigan can it be grown? When can it be grown, and at what temperature? They present it to the class, and they also have to do a PowerPoint. Then we we go for seed selections or transplants, they understand that some plants can’t be put in the ground at certain times. One year, we actually discovered that we can grow oranges in Michigan.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

One of the things I felt very passionately about this year was changing the narrative society is putting out, especially looking at melanated young men. I was worried about these young men, their self worth, their self esteem, so I just opened up to them, told them how I’m feeling, and they expressed their views.

It was an emotional time for us all. Being melanated people, we don’t have a good idea of where our ancestors are from, so some of our dialogue is about that. We talk about what we don’t know and what we do know about African cultures.

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

Myself and an English teacher put together a parent group and a student group with all the parents’ email addresses. We’d send a message each time something happened in the classroom, homework or anything else, to the parents and the students.

Then I started getting notes from parents. They said ‘Hey, can we do this too?’

They’d text me like, ‘Hey, I don’t get this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you can come in and take notes, try to figure it out.’

It became an open door.

It was the SAT year, so they knew the importance of the child understanding the material. They never said, ‘It’s because I want to learn.’ They wanted to make sure that when their child came to them, they understood how to help their child.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I thought that the students and families that entrusted their kids to me had the same ideologies, learning style, and background as myself. For some, their exposure and educational experience or support was nothing like mine, so I had to refocus and adjust my teaching style and methods.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

To be hard, consistent, and fair. As the students learn something new, so should I every day.

How this Indianapolis teacher uses his own learning disability to understand his students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at in.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Erik Catellier doesn’t expect perfection from his students. He expects greatness.

That’s why Catellier, a language arts teacher at Center for Inquiry School 2, also wants students and their families to know about his own challenges: He is dyslexic.

“I have never been able to be the sage on the stage, all-knowing teacher,” Catellier, known to students as Mr. Cat, told Chalkbeat. “I am upfront and honest with my students and my families about my struggles as a learner. I have the fact that I am dyslexic in my email signature.”

Catellier was diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade. Dyslexia is a learning disorder affecting a person’s ability to read and spell.

Growing up, the setback pushed him to learn how to manage his own learning style and establish strategies to be successful. With the help of his own teachers, Catellier was able to understand class material and was reassured that he was a capable student.

That’s what inspired Catellier to help his own students discover their own capabilities.

“In the end, I had a lot of adults in my life that believed in me and made me feel valuable. I found that I wanted to be that for others,” he said. “These experiences planted the idea of teaching as a noble profession in my mind.”

Catellier gives the credit to his learning disability for his ability to adapt to a variety of learning styles and skill levels while also building relationships with students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

PHOTO: Erik Catellier

I don’t really remember a single moment where I decided I wanted to become a teacher. It is just something that I have always felt called to do. When I was very young, I really struggled in school. It took me a long time to figure out how to manage my brain and to establish strategies that would allow me to be successful. I was supported by some amazing teachers who took time out of their day to help me understand not only the material in their class but that I was a capable student and that I was cared for.

In high school, I taught swim lessons and found that I had a talent for helping students overcome their fears in the water and master new skills. I also discovered how amazing it felt when a student mastered a new skill and would swim across the pool for the first time, or jump off the diving board.  

I realized that I had created a situation where that young person could do something they never thought they could. Just like those teachers supported me and helped me see that there was nothing I couldn’t do, I just had to figure out a way that would work for me. In the end, I had a lot of adults in my life that believed in me and made me feel valuable and I found that I wanted to be that for others.

What challenges come with being a language arts teacher with dyslexia?

There are some challenges to being a language arts teacher with dyslexia — usually these always have to do with communication. More and more, the preferred method of communication between school and home is through written communication like emails, newsletters, and text messages. At my school, we even have narrative report cards requiring me to write a paragraph for each student.

My biggest struggle is with editing my own writing. I can’t see simple errors like “from” versus “form,” or “her” versus “here.” But you can imagine receiving an email or report card from your student’s English teacher riddled with little errors does not inspire confidence. I have to go through a lot of extra steps when composing written communications.

What strategies do you use in the classroom to handle your dyslexia?

These steps have been refined over the years as technology has improved, but now every document I write goes through a three-step process. First, I use spell check to catch any simple errors. Second, I use Grammarly to find any mistakes that spellcheck might have missed. Third, I cut and paste it into Google Translate and listen to the computer to read the document.

Usually, if I do this, I catch most of the errors in a document. Unfortunately, I have not found a way to always have enough time to go through this process for everything I create.

How has dyslexia affected you as a teacher?

Whenever I got it into my head that I was some brilliant teacher and tried to control a class-based solely on my encyclopedic knowledge of the English language, I would make some silly error, and all the students would laugh, and the bubble would pop. Instead I had to show students how much I loved the content of the class and that I am always learning and growing, as well. This subject is hard for me as well sometimes, and so we often need to work together to do our best work.

How do you get to know your students?

As a language arts teacher and the “book dealer” of my building, I use books to get to know my students. I talk to my students about what they like to read, and what they don’t like to read. I ask them what their favorite books are, and I share mine with them. I suggest other books I think they might like, and all the time I am getting to know them. You would be surprised how much you can learn about a person when you talk to them about a book that they love.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I just finished “Tuck Everlasting” by Natalie Babbitt, and I am starting “Dread Nation” by Justina Ireland.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

Every year in the fall, my eighth-graders do a unit on banned and challenged books. Students use the American Library Association’s list of the most banned books to select a book they would like to read and then spend the quarter reading and analyzing it. The unit culminates in students making the case that their book should or should not be allowed in a public library.

I love this unit because, as a teacher, it contains all of my favorite things. It gives students choice in what they read and how they express their ideas, and it has a final product that is very connected with something people actually do. I also love the fact that I “trick” students into reading classic novels, like “Catch-22” or “Catcher in the Rye.”

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

I would be helpless without my daily PowerPoints. I have even been known to insert video clips of myself giving instructions when I am absent so students know what to do. The students call them “The Mr. Cat Vlogs.”

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

My principal always says, “Our parents send us the best kid they can every day.” I have worked really hard to remember that. No matter what a student’s circumstance, it is my job to be the best teacher I can be and to support them in every way I can. Often times school is the only place where a student feels seen and cared about. I think it is important to remember this and to try to be the kind of adult the students need and that they can count on.