Holli Colburn is a literacy specialist who works in Denver Public Schools. She uses engaging visual content and relationship strategies to push her students towards literacy success. A teacher who “loops” with her students year to year to help produce optimal results for her elementary students, My Black Colorado sat down with Mrs. Colburn to find out more about her career and methods to provide access for all students.
MBC: What roles have you held in education and how many years have you been an educator?
Holli Colburn: I want to start off by saying thank My Black Colorado for taking time to speak with me! I have been a teacher in Denver public schools for 22 years. I love what I do. I’ve held the role of fifth grade teacher probably the longest, maybe nineteen of my years have been all fifth grade. Now, for the last six years, I’ve done fifth grade and fourth grade. It has been a great opportunity for me to loop with my students because I watch them develop for a year in fourth grade in reading and writing and then they come back as my fifth graders. What an honor and a privilege in having an opportunity to see kids grow by having them two years. I see kids come to me immature academically but leave me confident, sound, and just ready to conquer the world! The whole child develops academically and socially. I really get to see kids leave well-rounded when I have had them for two years.
MBC: Wonderful! Looping is such a critical move that schools can make for teachers to be able to have students for more than one year; you can definitely kind of direct their growth in so many ways. Thank you for sharing that with us. Why did you decide to become an educator?
Holli Colburn: You know, I became an educator because in fourth grade I was blessed to have a phenomenal educator named Ms. Andrea Deann Holmes. Andrea means so much to me. I spoke to her yesterday! We talk all the time. She retired after thrity-two years in the district. She inspired me; as a fourth grader, I only had one African-American teacher. Ms. Holmes was not only a phenomenal educator, but she taught me to have confidence in myself. It was the first time in my life I saw a black woman other than my mother or my grandmother that stood for excellence, and she reminded me that “hey, you could be anything you want to be.” She was a perfectionist; she wanted your handwriting to always be your best. She wanted you to articulate your thoughts clearly, and she said there is power in clear communication. She taught us how to love ourselves and most importantly Ms. Holmes taught us that if you can’t say anything nice, say nothing. She just inspired me.
I also had a seventh grade teacher Ms. Owens. I talk to her as well. She was in education about 45 years! She was the first mathematician I had; math is not my thing, I’ll be honest, but she did instill confidence in me, and I was doing algebraic equations and trig in 7th grade and was a mediocre math student prior to coming to her. I ended up being her top student. What I noticed was that just by her believing in me and would say, “Oh, no, that’s not acceptable. I can’t take that you don’t know. You don’t know how to do this or you don’t understand. What does that mean? How can we do solution-focused?” She taught me to be solutions focused. I just had teachers who fed into me, another teacher I had was Ms. Cathy Nunn at Montbello High School– another phenomenal educator. She taught history teacher who was excellent. She just said, you know, you can do anything you put your mind to, and she always told me I’m planting a seed in you. Those teachers inspired me to be a teacher myself. There is power in seeing a teacher who looks like you!
MBC: You spoke a little bit about how your teachers have influenced you to become an educator, so I know you have used some of their beliefs and put them into your own practice. What are some of the beliefs that guide the work that you do every day?
Holli Colburn: You know, I look at my parents and my grandparents, and they always taught me that a parent is child’s first teacher. I love that old saying that it take the village because it truly does. I think that being in this pandemic time that we’re in, you know, we have a lot of parents that are not happy. They have to, as they say, deal with their own children. How could you deal with your own children? Those are your babies. I love your baby as they’re my own, but they’re not my own. I give my students what I give my own sons, but my son get a little more because I am mama. I just think as parents, we have to really just nurture our children and love on them because it is our number one priority to make sure they’re nurtured and cared for, so they have the basics in life like reading, writing and math to be successful in life.
I believe in no-nonsense nurturing. I believe that teachers have to set expectations very high, but I also believe in differentiation to help them get there. I’ll elaborate on that a little more–I want everyone to be able to write in paragraphs by the end of the year, but everyone can’t there at the same time. I had one student who was deaf in one ear. She would pay attention to my my mouth so she could always understand what I was saying. She couldn’t get there as fast, but she did get there. I might say something like, “Today, you’re going to write an essay on how the protagonist in House on Mango Street overcame adversity” and some of the kids would say they didn’t know what to write. So, I would give a sentence starter to give them a few words. When I do that, I am scaffolding. I’m giving you a little bit of help support and then as time goes on, I wean them off. My English Language Learners sometimes come to me needing those certain supports. You’d be surprised that by October after seven or eight weeks of intense language arts instruction, these kids are able to say, “Hey! I don’t need that anymore!” and I also relate to them, you know, you gotta be a teacher who addresses audio needs kids have. I do a lot of rap to engage my kids. I believe that learning cannot be mundane. It has to be exciting!
MBC: That’s amazing! Last question–at the end of your career, what do you want to be remembered for in yor work as an educator?
Holli Colburn: I want to be remembered as an advocate, who was empathic, who gave back to her community who was not just satisfied with helping oneself. It’s important for me to go back into my community and help those who are struggling. I also work with a lot of student teachers. I’m going to have two this year. I’ve had about six student teachers in my career. Many are doing well. I just really looking forward to seeing young people have a hunger and a thirst to want to be teachers. I enjoy seeing my former students go back and help somebody else. Education, especially for people of color, is the road to success, and it’s something that no one could ever take away from you. It opens a lot of doors. It gives you an opportunity to have choices. If you don’t have an education you are always going to be working for someone and you’ll never you know your creative ideas. You won’t have as much opportunity to express those ideas. Get an education and then go back and help somebody else. You can become anything because the sky is the limit!
MBC: You are so inspiring and a true literacy practitioner. Thank you for all of the things you do for our children and for our community!