There's a lot of constructive collaboration in Carissa Sugden's fifth-grade classroom.
On a recent morning, students are reading Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl selections, or E.B. White's timeless "Stuart Little" in small, mixed-level groups.
Each member has a job -- one summarizing, another recording questions, and the "word wizard" boosting their collective vocabulary.
"It's a great way to build community and fluency in their reading," says Sugden, who has taught at El Monte Elementary School for seven years, and was recently named one of two Teachers of the Year in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District.
"My ideal is to have students working together to function in a way that they're not going to feel stressed," she says, noting how group instruction mitigates a student's reluctance to pose a question.
"Eyes front," she says instructing her students via a microphone as a means to transition to the math lesson.
Sugden wrote the grant that funded such amplification in each El Monte classroom, having gleaned that children's hearing is not fully developed until age 12 or 13, she explains.
"Backs straight," they respond in unison.
"I want to wake you guys up a bit," Sugden says of her choice to change the sequence of problems to solve.
She has set the bar high, and her students are eager to meet the challenge, surrounded by wall-posted motivators like "Let's use our brains," and a reminder that "Listen and silent are spelled with the same letters."
There's a currency system of fines for decreased test scores and failure to meet goals, and earning potential for better performance on schoolwork.
The incentives go well beyond prizes and stickers, with invitations to join a lunchtime book club, to participate in math competitions, or to take part in popular afterschool activities, like auditioning for the twice weekly 60-member glee club -- modeled after the TV show -- or the alternative, just come-as-you-are karaoke.
"I reward academic success with more academic opportunity," says Sugden, who earned a master's degree in education with an emphasis on curriculum at Cal State East Bay. "I saw a real change in the students. They're at school and ready to be here."
It is part of her push to have students take more responsibility for their own learning and to be intrinsically motivated, which is reinforced by linking their learning to a real relevance in their daily lives.
The lesson often begins with her sharing a personal story, and then students decipher how that relates to the curriculum for that day.
"It's a bond we're forging in the classroom," says Sugden, whose passion for teaching stems from her childhood.
"I remember sitting in class and being amazed ... to see the experiences these teachers had planned for me," she recalls.
"I realized as a teacher I could always be at school. It's like being able to play everyday at work," adds Sugden.
And, says Principal Christina Boman, that's typically a 10-hour day, noting Sugden's added role as academic adviser for the school's free CARES program, which provides afterschool enrichment, such as homework assistance, computers, arts and crafts, gardening, and sports and fitness.
"She has a rapport with students that makes them gravitate to her and want to learn at a high level," Bowman says. "Not only is she an excellent teacher, the students like her, and that's a winning combination for high student engagement."