Top teacher: Naperville third grade teacher builds confident students with unique techniques

You'll often find Naper Elementary School teacher Ryan Carrizales - with at least one of his two golden retrievers - visiting a local soccer field or basketball court to watch his third grade students play a game.

It's that kind of dedication - with or without the dogs - his students appreciate.

"Just having those moments and creating that social credibility," he said, "eventually they know you're going to be there and have their back. I'm just a really big believer that the social connection is the driver of academics."

  Naper Elementary School third grade teacher Ryan Carrizales helps Owen Urban, middle, and Will Prueter, right, with a classroom assignment. Mark Welsh/

Ten years into his teaching career, Carrizales has worked hard to create the ideal recipe for building confident, successful students. In his third year at Naper Elementary in Naperville, Carrizales starts developing mutual trust from the first day of the school year.

Once the trust is there, Carrizales believes the sky's the limit for his 24 students.

"There are a lot of personal connections where we really try to dive deep to understand who the kids are," he said. "We want to build a culture and climate where everyone feels comfortable."

Naper Elementary Principal Tracy Dvorchak recognizes the impact Carrizales, 39, has on his students. She believes the trusting atmosphere allows kids to confidently tackle each day.

"Ryan creates a classroom climate that is truly remarkable," Dvorchak said. "He knows that a classroom community must feel safe and promote risk-taking."

Breaking through to a diverse group of students every year isn't easy. Many of Carrizales' activities involve teamwork and working through frustrations together.

His students buckle down on academics, but there's a concerted effort to get them up and moving with "community builders." Carrizales has past high school and college experience with after-school camps, and he learned a bunch of useful activities along the way.

  Naper Elementary School third grade teacher Ryan Carrizales finds unique ways for his students to express themselves, like when they're playing a game of Riverbank in the classroom. Mark Welsh/

He rotates through 10 to 15 activities so they stay fresh, and Carrizales makes sure they're as fun to watch as they are to participate in to keep everyone involved. Some of the favorites are a four-corner version of Rock, Paper, Scissors and Riverbank, a game where students jump in different directions based on what the leader yells.

After each activity, the class debriefs to give out compliments, talk about sportsmanship, highlight students who played well and focus on rules and fair play.

Then it's time to get back to the work of reading, writing and arithmetic. With the lure of more activities, Carrizales has no trouble refocusing his students.

"Their mindset is 'I'm happy. I'm enjoying this,'" Carrizales said. "We can do this in between all the heavy lifting of learning how to solve for area and developing our paragraph writing for our nonfiction piece.

"The academic progress we've made the last couple of years, all of that is secondary to the social and emotional climate and culture we build in the classroom," he said. "These community builders are always earned with positive interaction and support of one another. They have to put in the work to experience them."

  Allowing movement in his classroom is a common way for Naper Elementary School third grade teacher Ryan Carrizales to keep students focused on assignments. Mark Welsh/

Carrizales, who lives in Plainfield with his wife Michelle, was raised in Michigan and received his Bachelor of Arts in English degree from Michigan State University. He also earned a master's degree in teaching from National Louis University.

He spent the first seven years of his teaching career at the Fuller School of Excellence in Chicago. Carrizales met his wife, who's also a teacher in Naperville Unit District 203, while they both were teaching at Fuller, hence, the name of their first dog, Fuller.

Even though he's only been at the school a few years, he's definitely found a home at Naper Elementary.

"We keep things in here relentlessly positive," he said. "We want to have an environment that kids want to race into and don't want to leave."

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Curriculum vitae: Ryan Carrizales

Age: 39

Residence: Plainfield

Occupation: Third year as a third grade teacher at Naper Elementary School in Naperville

Education: Saline High School in Michigan; Bachelor of Arts in English, Michigan State University; Master of Arts in teaching from National Louis University

Past experience: Seven years as a fifth grade teacher at the Fuller School of Excellence in Chicago

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Tips from top teacher Ryan Carrizales

• Take time to explain the "why." I've found this to be especially important within nonacademic situations. It's often not what you say, but how you say it. And that goes for both the adults and students in the classroom.

• More is not better. Conceptually discussing the process rather than focusing on the answer is where we've found our deepest breakthroughs.

• Building connections with parents is paramount. I connect with them on a weekly basis, both with a newsletter as well as texting individual pictures of their kids in our classroom.

• Use positive narration to help cultivate a purposeful yet positive climate and culture in your classroom. This allows teachers to balance the ratio of positive/negative corrections.

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