Teacher Spotlight: KIPP’s Nicole Tavera on Making Testing Less Stressful and Science More Fun to Learn

KIPP LA Prep’s fifth-grade science teacher Nicole Tavera and three of her students. (Courtesy of Nicole Tavera/KIPP)

This article was produced in partnership with LA School Report.

Nicole Tavera grew up knowing that education was a priority in her family, but she struggled in school, especially with testing.

Tavera, now a fifth-grade science teacher at KIPP LA Prep in Boyle Heights, said she always had to work really hard in school. But it paid off.

“I am the first generation to graduate from college [in my family], and I am proud to say not the last. I have younger siblings as well who are on that road,” Tavera said. “Education has just been very, very highly important in our family, and so that’s why I chose to become a teacher.”

She was determined to become a teacher in order to help students learn in a fun way and not to measure their learning only on their test scores. “I don’t agree with that because I was never a good test taker,” said Tavera, who grew up in Boyle Heights but moved to Baldwin Park because her parents thought it was safer. She attended school there from fourth grade through high school.

“I remember I struggled a lot in reading, and I think that was something that made me have to work extra hard. I was never a high-performing student, and I hated tests. So I feel their stress because I used to be stressed with these tests.”

Tavera believes there’s “a lot of California state testing” put on students and also nationwide, which makes it stressful for them and for their teachers.

One way she helps her students ease their stress is by pulling them aside and telling them, “OK, let’s talk about this question,” when she knows that they know the correct answer but accidentally chose the wrong one. She reminds them, “This is just your chance to show them all that you’ve learned. And I did my very best to try and teach you all that you need to know. Do not stress about these tests. Just show them how much your brain has grown.”

California uses the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) system, in alignment with the Common Core State Standards, to measure grade-level learning in English language arts and math for students in third through eighth grades and 11th grade. In March, California began its first year of the California Science Tests (CAST) for students in fifth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades, as mandated by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The state testing timeline runs from January through May. There is an interim testing period throughout the year, about every six to eight weeks, to measure students’ progress toward meeting standards before they take the CAASPP tests. Overall, California has 10 types of assessments, but students don’t necessarily take all of them or at the same time. Some of these tests are for English learners, and some are alternative tests for students who have individualized education plans.

The 2018 CAASPP scores, the most recent available, showed that just half of California students scored proficient in reading and 39 percent did so in math.

Tavera says many of her students come to her class reading at two to three years below grade level, so before she can teach science, she has to help them read at grade level, as all teachers at her school do. No matter what subject they teach, every teacher reads with their students for 30 minutes every morning, which helps students get “dramatic gains across all subjects,” she said.

“We read, we read, we read,” she said. “Reading is so important because not only does it help our [English language arts] teacher, but it also helps me in science.”

Tavera started out at KIPP teaching English language arts to first-graders in 2016. But when she began teaching science at LA Prep, she says, it was “eye-opening” for her as she realized that was her calling. Teaching science became her real passion.

She believes science teaches students to think critically, show curiosity, explore their world and discover new things. Her goal is to make that learning process fun. “I want school to be fun.”

She knows science is not an easy subject to teach, particularly among students in a low-income neighborhood with fewer opportunities to learn about science outside of school. But she thinks science is a very important subject because “it’s focused on life. It’s focused on math. It’s focused on reading and ELA, so it just gives them [students] the all-around core subjects.”

“When I’m using labs and simulations and seeing students so excited about science and honestly telling me, ‘I’ve never done so much science before,’ it’s just like, ‘OK, this is where I’m meant to be,” Tavera said. Her goal is to continue providing more hands-on activities for her students: “Just finding ways to make science fun … finding ways to have my students just enjoy my classroom.”

“Science and teaching have just been a passion of mine, and I think at the end of all of this, I hope to be a teacher where my students say, ‘Miss Tavera is someone I’ll never forget.’”

LA School Report asked Tavera about what could be done better and what needs to change in the education system to allow reforms and innovation to take place in the classroom, as well as what keeps her motivated to teach. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What do you currently do in the classroom that is special or unique in teaching science that helps your students be engaged? 

Teaching science has become a passion to me. I think not only because I’m helping students become more aware of their surroundings and how life works, but also it’s really important for me to show them how to think, how to show curiosity, how to explore their world around them and discover new things. A lot of them don’t realize how our life actually works in terms of how a plant grows or chemical reactions and how things change and how we grow. So they’re starting to realize there’s a lot that they don’t know about how life works around them. So using hands-on investigations, even teaching my students how to argue like a scientist.

In preparing and supporting teachers for success, what do you think is the best thing that your school organization, the district or the state could do differently to better support teachers? 

At the school I work for, I can talk about how much support the teachers have in terms of leadership. Our leaders and our managers put teachers number one. They want to hear us out. There is a document that they provide us, and they push us to write down what it is that we need and they will try their very best to get whatever it is that we need. They’re willing to work with us no matter what. When we say we need certain supplies, they will help us figure out a way for us to get supplies if it’s difficult to get it. And they realize — I feel like our leadership realizes that our teachers need to be happy in order for our students to be happy. We have amazing leadership. We’re just one team and one family.

What’s the biggest thing you think needs immediate attention or needs to change in the education system?

I honestly feel our students work so hard and we want to support them in any way. I do feel that there is a lot of testing going on like California state testing. It’s a lot of stress on students and also teachers when it comes to state testing at the end of the year.

So just trying to get them to not be so stressed, because testing basically signifies how much they really know, and I don’t agree with that because I was never a good test taker. As I said before, I was never a high-performing student and I hated tests. So I feel their stress because I used to be stressed with these tests, and in my mind, it’s like I know the answer and I know the subject, but when it comes to taking a test, I stress out. I overthink things and I end up choosing the wrong answer. So I feel like testing does not signify who my students are.

And so I think that’s something that as a state and nationwide, we can work on not putting so much testing on our students.

How easy or difficult was the process for you to become a teacher?

Honestly, I want to say it was a little difficult for me. I’ve never been a high-performing student. I’ve always had to work really, really hard, and I always laugh and tell my sisters, “You don’t have to study as much as I had to study. I had to study so hard just to be able to get that A that I wanted.” I have sisters that just review their notes and then get that A.

So for me, education has been a little bit of a struggle, and I remember I struggled a lot in reading, and I think that was something that made me have to work extra hard. But I think elementary was a tough one. It was in high school when I started realizing, “OK, this is it. This is my time to shine because I know I need to go to college. There’s no if or buts.” My dad and my mom really pushed me and wanted me to be the first one. As the oldest child, I felt like there was a high standard for me. It’s like, “I need to do this not just for myself, but for my parents who didn’t get that opportunity to go to college or even finish high school.” So I was successful and I got accepted to Cal State Long Beach. I concentrated on liberal studies and graduated in 2011. And then I continued on to complete my credentials after that.

When did you know that you wanted to be a teacher?

It was actually my fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, and I think that was around the time where the transition was made from me leaving Boyle Heights and then going to Baldwin Park. Miss Fischer was my fourth-grade teacher. And I think that was a time when I realized, “I think I want to be a teacher. I want to be able to help students.”

What memory stands out for you most from your first day of teaching or your first year? 

It was so hard. I remember the first weeks I cried because teaching and being in charge of these little humans, you have so much responsibility, and getting them engaged is very, very difficult, and when I was explaining that to my family, they didn’t really understand. It’s not easy. Finding curriculum, finding ways to get them engaged in learning and making it rigorous enough for them, it was very difficult, and this is not an easy job. I think I’m finally finding my groove in teaching.

I want to say KIPP has made me the teacher I am and has pushed me. I’ve learned so much these last four years at KIPP. And every year I feel, “OK, this is my best year.” And then I go on the next year, I say, “Wait, this year was even better.” But it was very difficult in the first couple of years.

What are parents doing to help you do your job, or what do you wish they would do to better support you? 

I think having communication with our parents is the most important thing. I think our teachers realize how much we care for their children and having that communication — we all have cell phones, so they can call us at any time, any day. And if they have a question about homework, they will call us and we are there to help them out. Parents also are aware that teachers volunteer themselves to do tutoring after school. So I think they appreciate all the time that we offer our students, they appreciate our hard work, and they show their generosity by working together as a team to be able to help their child. Communication is the key.

Can you share about your students and the community at KIPP LA Prep?

We are about 98 percent Latinx at KIPP LA Prep. I believe we have about 95 percent that are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. I’m very proud to say that the year I joined KIPP LA Prep, it became a Blue Ribbon school, in 2016. We are known as one of the highest-performing middle schools at LAUSD. That’s something I’m really proud about.

We all agree at our school that reading is so important because not only does it help our [English language arts] teacher, but it also helps me in science. I have fifth-grade reading books that are at fifth-grade reading level, and if my students are not at fifth-grade reading, they’re not going to understand what they’re reading about in my science class.

Every teacher, whether you’re a math teacher, a history teacher or a science teacher, we all are accountable for our homeroom to push them to read. So I have stars that represent our sky and every time they pass a book or a quiz, they bring that star higher and higher in our universe. That’s my way of pushing reading. I think because we all push reading, we all see dramatic gains in our students.

Is there anything that you wish people better understood about charter schools or in particular about the school where you teach? 

That’s always a tough subject. To me, education has always been important in my life, growing up and still to this day — that’s why I chose to be a teacher. In my mind, it’s about making a difference, supporting all students no matter what, no matter what school they choose to go to, it’s just giving students the opportunities to become successful, that’s the one most important thing. I think all teachers are teaching for a reason, and that is for our students. And if we can provide an opportunity to help them become successful and get them ready for high school and college, that’s what we’re all here for.

How do you help your students cope with social or academic challenges?

There are times when my students will come in sad or stressed at things that may have happened at home. And what I do love about our school is that whatever may be happening outside of school, they feel safe at our school. There have been times where there are helicopters and students are telling us, “There may be some type of dangerous activity outside,” and they’re aware of that when there is a helicopter flying outside and we have to stay inside. And what’s sad to me is that they’re kind of used to it. But what I love about our school is that we inform them that no matter what, they’re always safe in our classrooms. So I think that whatever may be happening outside where they may be stressed or a situation may happen, they come in with a smile on their faces.

I even have kids who call me saying they’re so sick, but they still want to come to school. And sometimes I have to reassure them, “It’s OK. Stay home. You get better, and when you get back we’ll get back into wherever it is we left on.”

What’s been your best moment or day as a teacher? Your proudest accomplishment? 

It was when I first started teaching science. As soon as I started teaching fifth-grade science at Prep, it was an eye-opener, finding out my calling, that science is for me. I was just excited and knew this is where I want to be now.

What is your main goal or wish for the next school year? 

I think my main goal is just providing more labs and hands-on activities for my students. I see that that’s working for them and they’re learning so much with hands-on activities. I am finding ways to make science fun and providing fun activities for my students, like looking up different curriculums. I use YouTube and interaction websites and find ways to have my students just enjoy my classroom.

I have students who come into my class and just love my class so much that they want to be scientists. I’ve had students who dress as some type of scientist for Halloween, which makes my heart shine so much and I know I’m making a difference. So I hope I am making a difference for my students and help them become successful. Teaching is a very tough job. But we do it because we love it and we do it because we care for our future, and our students are our future.

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