Teaching to learn: High school students teach each other physics


Kelsey Paulino


Physics (Applicable to All)

Denver Center for International Studies - Montbello

To use co-teaching to help studdents:

  • Master rigorous physics content through deeper engagement and analysis of the material and demonstrate mastery by teaching the content.

  • Develop more advanced critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and oral/written communication skills. 

  • Create a more open classroom culture through learner collaboration and empathy building. 

Relationships and Culture, Learner as Lead, Teacher as Facilitator, Learner Collaboration, Demonstration of Learning



Kelsey Paulino is a ninth grade teacher lead at the Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello (DCIS-M). As a teacher lead, she helps disseminate new practices and training to the other educators working with the ninth grade. She has been teaching for six years and is completing her fourth year at DCIS-M, where she teaches physics. 

In her 9th grade physics classroom this past year, Kelsey has been letting her students take the reins. After introducing a new physics unit, she asked her students to teach it to their peers. In doing this, she hoped to see students master the content, collaborate with peers, and teach each other concepts that could be applied to real-world situations. She also wanted to help students develop an academic mindset by increasing their confidence in their knowledge and understanding of the content. 

Kelsey learned this new practice by participating in Growth Through Connections, as all of the team leads at DCIS-M participated in this program this past year. When asked why she was personally interested in this work, Kelsey said:

"I’m half white and half Pacific Islander. Seeing the discrepancies in education and the inequities amongst just my family, personally, growing up, and the trajectories that some of their lives have taken because of that inequity got me interested in [education].”


In examining the characteristics of schools that have made significant gains in student achievement, researchers have verified what most educators already know to be true: the quality of the relationships within a school community makes a big difference. Although a seemingly obvious insight, building deep and authentic relationships with students is not always easy, especially when educators and learners have not shared similar life experiences.

The goals of the Growth Through Connections (GTC) program are to increase student engagement and academic acheivement by training and supporting teachers in developing culturally competent, strong, and healthy relationships with the students they teach. Anchoring discussions and learning in Dr. Christopher Emdin's book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y'all, Too, GTC helps educators build strong relationshipps wih their students and provide them with engaging, culturally relevant learning experiences aligned to Colorado's academic standards. Participants identify, unpack, and address their biases and other barriers that prevent them from connecting with each student. Teachers then develop strategies to create rigorous, culturally relevant lerning experiences that foster a love for learning. 

What is co-teaching?

Co-teaching flips the classroom model so that students are responsibile for their classmates' learning. The teacher equips the learners with sufficient resources and support to build their background knowledge of the lesson. Rather than passively absorbing facts, learners take personal ownership of the material and convey the content on a level that their peers understand. The student instructor gains and retains more knowledge than when the teacher delivers the content and their peers are more likely to debate the material and ask questions because they feel more comfortable and open interacting with classmates. 

In his book For White Folks who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y’all Too, Dr. Christopher Emdin describes this practice in more detail:

“The fundamental principle of co-teaching in reality pedagogy is that the neo-indigenous student is the expert in the best way to deliver information to others who are a part of their culture; the more opportunities students have to both teach and learn from their classmates, the better off they are in regards to understanding content.” (Emdin, 2016, p. 99)

The classroom environment is livelier and more inclusive when students co-teach. Learners are aware of other learners and their needs and respond with empathy as they experience the challenges of teaching firsthand. They actively contribute to their classroom culture and identify and solve problems constructively with support from the teachers when needed.

“Co-teaching may also mean that the students spend a significant amount of time talking to each other about the content and are encouraged to do so. This process leads students to be more comfortable in the classroom and creates opportunities for them to participate in the classroom in a way that makes it easier for them to authentically disclose their academic strengths and weaknesses.” (Emdin, 2016, p. 100)

“In the classroom in which co-teaching was practiced, the students were noticeably more open about their academic challenges and willing to work with their peers within the classroom. The energy in the class was different. Students moved freely from seat to seat, speaking to each other about content. They spoke at a higher volume with more passion when they communicated with each other and their teacher, rarely ever asked to be excused from the classroom, and demonstrated an obvious level of comfort with each other and with the instructional content.” (Emdin, 2016, p. 100)

“One thing I noticed is that it really increased engagement for students I felt like I’ve never really been able to truly engage. It was interesting to watch them take on this leadership role in the classroom and interact with other students who were still learning in the classroom. I’ve learned a lot about them and how they like to be addressed.”

-Kelsey Paulino

How did you implement co-teaching?

Kelsey helped her physics students master the content through a series of activities, worksheets, and labs. Next, she broke the material into sections and provided students with her previous lesson plans and materials so that they could teach the content. She asked them to present the information, provide a tool for students to capture notes, and create an engaging activity to help teach the content. Students surpassed her expectations, creating high quality labs, games, and interactive worksheets that helped the class master the material. 

How have students responded?

Kelsey has seen student engagement increase as a result of co-teaching. Students seem to feel more empathy towards their peers after going through the process of presenting to their classmates. Co-teaching resulted in higher quality work and higher mastery of content, which allowed Kelsey to move to the next unit without re-covering any of the material her students taught. By trusting students to teach each other, she was able to help them believe in themselves as learners; they became more committed to working on the content and producing high quality work. 

What challenges emerged?

Kelsey found it harder than anticipated to let go of some of the power and control, particularly in her louder classes. However, she noticed that her louder classes were the most engaged. She also found that some students were uncomfortable with their increased power since they rarely got the opportunity to be leaders in their classes. Another challenge was that the process was time consuming. Since students needed class time to work on their lesson plans and then teach the content, it took longer than usual. Because there is pressure to get through content quickly, Kelsey wants to either condense the process or give students more material to cover.

What advice do you have for other teachers?

Kelsey advises teachers that co-teaching can feel like more work at the beginning of the unit. However, as students engage with the content, the teacher acts as the facilitator as students start taking ownership of their learning. She's noted that implementing these practices has changed the dynamic between her students and herself and is helping students see the value of their education. 


Kelsey's Reflections


Kelsey reflects on her co-teaching, noting that the culture of the ninth grade class shifted after she implemented this practice. Students became more engaged and there was more trust between students and teachers.

“I think GTC is a fantastic way to [increase student engagement]. It’s this idea that students are taking their outside world and their connections and the cultural pieces that they’re experiencing every day and bringing it into the classroom and finding a way for the content and the material to meet their everyday living experiences. [...] How different a student can view themselves and their education when they see themselves there or see their culture represented, and they feel like they’re wanted at the school. Everything changes, from their willingness to participate to their academic success."


Coach Reflections


Zach Serrano, the Dean of Culture at DCIS-M, reflects on how Kelsey's classroom culture shifted. He noticed that she emphasizes relationships and incorporates her own background and personality into the content. 

"In her classroom, it feels so radically different and the kids’ attitudes don’t show up in that jaded and disconnected way. That is a testament to how she connects with kids. She’s teaching physics, but she teaches it through a relational model."


Lynn Hawthorne, an Innovation Partner with the Imaginarium, worked with Kelsey throughout the GTC work. She reflected on her practices:

"Kelsey's willingness to try co-teaching is grounded in her belief that students are capable of directing their own learning. She learned that when students were given choices, the learning was greater. All co-teaching groups were able to communicate the most important concepts in ways their peers could understand and retain."


Special thanks to...

Kelsey Paulino, Zach Serrano, DCIS Montbello and the Janus Henderson Foundation for engaging in this challenging work to close our persistent achievement gap and to help every student succeed.

Report by Molly Baird, Danna Ortiz, and Sophie Gullett.

Emdin, C. (2016). For white folks that teach in the hood ...and the rest of y'all too. Boston: Beacon Press.