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One Achieve Teacher’s Mantra and a Stuffed Lion Keeps Students Engaged

It’s no secret that this school year has come with new obstacles that nobody expected, and helping students understand that they can handle challenges can make a huge difference.

Insert Ashley Benson, first-grade teacher at Achieve Charter Academy, who chose a fitting mantra inspired by Glennon Doyle for her class this year: “We can do hard things!” The mantra is accompanied by a chant, “We can do hard things, you can do hard things, I can do hard things” for when she feels they need some encouragement.

“I want them to always know that no matter how tough life gets, they can handle it,” said Mrs. Benson. This is an appropriate way to teach given the new territory that virtual learning has brought to the table.

Mrs. Benson’s class is currently a mix of hybrid and virtual, and she believes that it’s important that students feel a sense of ownership and accountability in both settings, especially during live sessions.

“I will often stop and ask students to answer a question by giving me a thumbs up or thumbs down so I can quickly assess all students’ answers,” said Mrs. Benson. “To encourage ownership of their answer, I will ask them to elaborate in a complete sentence about why they have their thumb up or down.”

She then asks the class if they agree or disagree and why. This allows her to have discussions with students about how it’s OK to disagree with others, as long as they can explain why. She believes this practice encourages ownership in the classroom and builds a healthy community where students feel safe to have their own thoughts and opinions.

“I’ve been very impressed with the kids,” she said. “They’re excited to be back doing some kind of structured school, and they’re doing great with virtual expectations.”

But expectations do not promise an engaged class. Mrs. Benson has found that she has to put on a performance to keep her students engaged. “At this age, especially being virtual, I have to find ways to engage them,” said Mrs. Benson. “I have to be cooler than what’s going on around them, like doing hand movements, singing, or anything I can do to get them to be engaged and remember what they’re learning.”

One of the tactics that keeps her class engaged is the Lucy Calkins Units of Study in phonics. In this method, her first graders have a stuffed lion named Rasheed who is the mascot in their curriculum. Rasheed learns to read with the class, attends all the lessons, and many of the lessons involve him and his name.

“The students love that he is part of our phonics lessons and will often ask me if I forget to bring him out before we start our lessons,” she said. “Rasheed is doing a wonderful job engaging our class in phonics!”

Though Rasheed is a fun element in her class, the most fulfilling part of her job is the relationships she builds with her students. “When I sense students feeling cared for and are excited to be in class with me, it truly fuels me and motivates me to give them my all,” said Mrs. Benson. “I never want them to question their importance to me or our classroom community. Every single relationship with every single student – past, present, and future – is my favorite part of teaching.”

Her success in the classroom hasn’t gone unnoticed. She was recently recognized as a finalist in MAPSA’s 2020 Michigan Teacher of the Year program. Read more about National Heritage Academies’ finalists and semifinalists.

She relies on her amazing teammates who motivate her every day to be the best that she can be for her students, and she recognizes the part that other adults play in their lives. She’s been impressed with how they’ve adapted to the new schedules, classwork, and live meetings so quickly, and she believes that her students have the most dedicated adults supporting their virtual learning.

“Mrs. Benson is committed to providing the best for her students each and every day,” said Jennifer Conley, principal at Achieve. “She brings a true passion for teaching and learning to her classroom. Her students absolutely adore her because of her caring approach, the joy she brings to her classroom, and her commitment to providing the best academic experience. We are so fortunate to have her on our team!”

Keep up the incredible work, Mrs. Benson!