How I Teach

Why this teacher hopes her voice is still working by the end of the day

PHOTO: Courtesy Lisa Lee
Lisa Lee, center right, leads a discussion at Wheat Ridge High School. Lee was a teacher of the year finalist.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

If Lisa Lee’s voice is gone by the end of the day, she believes she has failed her students.

It is the students, not the teacher, who should be doing more talking during class, Lee said.

Lee, a 29-year veteran who helps run the Gifted and Talented program at Wheat Ridge High School, was one of six finalists for Colorado’s Teacher of the Year 2017.

Read on to learn how she decorates her room each year, what website she uses to plan lessons and what she thinks makes a good lesson.

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style: From my students: Exuberant, spontaneous and different, with a focus on personal connections

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?
I come in at 7 a.m. to prepare for the day. I answer emails, get lesson materials ready, and meet with students/parents/teachers as needed. First period begins at 7:25 a.m. Second period is my only planning period of the day. While teachers in our school have two plans, our program is growing so much, we gave one period up this year to accommodate the numbers We have no regrets even though we never get everything done. I typically am here until 6 p.m. everyday.

What does your classroom look like?
It is entirely student focused and student driven. The walls and ceiling have quotes painted on them by students (an annual beginning of the year freshman project), we have a piano, three couches, and no student desks – only tables. We do not use overhead lighting – only lamps, which are all over the room. We have 10 desktops for student use, and the cutest bunny ever!

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?
I love my SmartBoard! We use it for so many things. I’m moving more and more away from paper lessons to shared documents and lessons on Google. I frequently use Power Point, Excel, Microsoft Publisher, and PowToon. Here are a few websites I frequently use because they offer a variety of different information. Our elective is focused on development of the whole student, so we plan our lessons with that in mind:

http://www.rinkworks.com/brainfood/p/latreal1.shtml
http://www.corsinet.com/braincandy/riddle1a.html
http://www.mensaforkids.org/
http://creativitygames.net/
http://www.cnn.com/studentnews
http://www.teachertube.com/
http://www.history.com/
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/teachers-resources/
http://mentalfloss.com/

How do you plan your lessons?
We are so fortunate because there is no prescribed curriculum for the program. We have been able to totally create it, based on the needs of our students. My co-teacher focuses lessons on juniors and seniors, and his emphasis is job shadowing, college preparation, and “adulting.” I focus lessons on freshmen and sophomores, with both grades being a project-based curriculum.

Freshmen work on student choice projects with facilitation from me as needed. Sophomores focus on service learning, and their projects are geared to meet that focus.

We open class with a thought-provoking, student-created and presented lesson, so the planning behind that involves a lot of front-loading and modeling at the beginning of the year. They come to us to discuss ideas for their openings as needed. We frequently use parents as experts, based on their fields of expertise (chefs, volunteer coordinators, architects, engineers, CPAs, artists, musicians, astronomers, engineers, etc).

What qualities make an ideal lesson?
Student engagement! In my opinion, the best lessons are the ones that do not involve me being the main source of knowledge. I find that if I get out of the way and let students explore and learn together through discussion, debate, Socratic Seminars, etc., the lessons are so much richer and have so much more value. If my voice is giving out at the end of the day, I haven’t been as effective a teacher as I want to be.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I conference with students on a daily basis, and am constantly checking for understanding and whether or not I need to clarify something. I also provide our lessons on Google Docs, so students are able to access information if I’m not right there with them. And of course, I address things as they come up in the moment.

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
Check in! There may be something totally unrelated to my class — it usually is — that is causing the issue. I usually do this one-on-one. Students are people with lives outside of my classroom, and if I don’t acknowledge the impact that life has when they come to my class, I am doing them a disservice.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?
Emails and phone calls are my most common communication choices. I also send home fliers with information as needed, and include important details on our website. We have two major events every year, and I rely heavily on parent volunteers to help, and I find that as time goes on they become friends as well as parents of my students.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?
So many times papers go home with me, and never make it out of my car! I am using Google Docs more and more. They give me the opportunity to peruse for work being turned in before I sit down to grade each item individually. I utilize mentors a lot — upperclassmen sit with those in lower grades and go over work before it is submitted so they can make corrections before it is turned in to me for a grade. I use same-grade peers in much the same way. After 29 years of teaching, I still haven’t found a way to keep grading papers from consuming me at various times throughout the school year. My philosophy is that if it’s important enough for them to take their time to complete, then it’s important enough for me to take my time to grade.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of thrillers involving lawyers. I’ve just completed the Scott Pratt series featuring Joe Dillard, the Robert Bailey McMurtrie series, and am currently reading a Robert Dugoni book. I drive 35 miles one way to get to work, so I listen to a lot of audio books as well. And if it has a ‘Harry’ and a ‘Potter’ in the title, it is devoured quickly! (Side note: I apply to Hogwarts every year, but am afraid that my Muggle blood has kept me from being considered. I won’t give up, though.)

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Embrace the glorious mess that you are.” Period.

How I Teach

How a Manhattan statistics teacher works social justice and Donald Trump into her classes

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Jeremy Wilburn

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Math class seems like an unlikely place to have a conversation about politics. But in Kari Ostrem’s statistics class, students are as likely to talk about the latest twist in the presidential election as they are about sample size.

That’s by design. Ostrem teaches at Vanguard High School on the Upper East Side. She’s also a master teacher with the fellowship program Math for America, which includes training on how to integrate social justice issues into math lessons.

The vitriolic campaign season has given students plenty of fodder for discussion, and has even changed the way Ostrem handles politics in the classroom. Here’s how she builds lessons and why she isn’t afraid to talk frankly with her students about Donald Trump’s most explosive statements.

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What does your classroom look like?

Students are always primarily discussing ideas with each other in groups of four to five around tables. I try to mirror the kind of communication skills I think they will need in the future: examining an idea from an article, a video, or the textbook and then conferring with their group on how to make sense of the mathematics.

How do you plan your lessons?

I start by thinking about what I need them to know by the end of class that they don’t already know now, and then I ask myself why they would care about that. I think humans learn best from stories, so as much as possible, I connect that idea to a story. In statistics this fall, it’s fairly easy with so much news about the election and how polls are conducted.

From there, I try to set up a paradox for them to resolve or some other problem that compels them to answer. I might show them two presidential polls from Maine, one that shows Trump is up by 2 percent and one that shows Clinton up by 3 percent, as the start to a discussion on sampling.

At times, I tell a story, such as the following when we studied lurking variables: “Community Board 11 noticed that the more Mr. Softee trucks were out in the park, the more crime there was, so they decided to ban all Mr. Softee trucks. What’s the problem with this conclusion?”

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand something?

My son tried to teach me Pokémon this summer and was exasperated when I could not recall what Squirtle is when he evolves, despite him telling me a hundred times. So I definitely keep in mind that the curriculum we teach is not necessarily what is learned by our students.

I think of my job as a teacher as meeting students where they are, so I first ask them what they do know about the idea. Sometimes I ask for a question, and if they can’t come up with one, I’ll ask, “If you did have a question, what would it be?”

When I figure out where they are, I imagine another way to describe the idea, maybe with a visual or another story or an analogy to a previous math topic. I often use other students to help with this because they often can identify the point where their classmate didn’t understand faster than I can.

Your statistics class starts off each year with a writing assignment. Why do you structure your class that way?

My statistics class is taught from a social justice lens, so I start the year asking them to describe an idea they care about deeply and why. We discuss in class that this could be racism, LGBTQ rights, workers’ safety, or anything else that motivates them to make the world a better place.

As a white teacher of mostly kids of color, it’s important for me to know what they value and for them to know that this classroom is a place of inclusion for all students. I never place a minimum on how much they need to write, but I never get less than a page in response.

I then try to find an agency in New York that focuses on the issue that they describe, connect them with the agency, and have them base their semester project on an inferential statistical question that the agency helps them form.

For example, some students wrote about domestic violence to start the year, and they worked with Violence Intervention Program [a local nonprofit also known as VIP Mujeres] to design a survey that answered the question of whether or not an undocumented person would be less likely to seek legal help in a case of domestic violence.

How do current events, such as the presidential election, shape what happens in your classroom? How do you see your role as a teacher in those situations?

Any election provides plenty of material for a statistics class, but this election also addresses many of our social justice concerns. There is a story every day about some group of people who have been offended or forgotten in this election cycle, and that has motivated many of our student projects.

We have a group working with the New York State Youth Leadership Council, which addresses the hurdles undocumented students face in paying for college. These students started out just reacting negatively to Trump’s characterization of immigrants from Mexico, but, with the help of NYSYLC, are now focused on how to make positive change by advocating for the DREAM Act.

In each of the previous elections in my 19 years in education, I have kept my political leanings to myself. I think my job is to present the policy differences in candidates and help students design statistical surveys to compare two groups of people in a project they design.

While I started this way when covering the primaries last spring, Trump’s candidacy changed that. I do not hesitate to call out either candidate now on language that disparages a group of people. Trump receives most of my commentary because I do not want my students to think that it is OK to, for example, speak about women in the way he has. This is not a question of politics, but a question of right and wrong.

How I Teach

On snow days, this Colorado teacher uses YouTube to keep his class moving forward

PHOTO: Courtesy Jeremy Beckman
Teacher Jeremy Beckman leads a math lesson at his Colorado Springs school.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Jeremy Beckman uses a combination of high-tech gadgets and old-school face-to-face communication to connect with his students and their families.

A high school math teacher at Discovery Canyon Campus High School, a Pre-K-12 International Baccalaureate school in Colorado Springs, one of Beckman’s tried-and-true methods for connecting with parents is to attend their kids’ basketball games and band concerts. On snow days, he teaches his AP Calculus class from home via YouTube so the students don’t miss any lessons.

Beckman was a finalist for Colorado Teacher of the Year. We asked him to share his wisdom about lesson planning, paper grading and re-engaging students who’ve lost focus.

 

One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style: Engaging.

What’s your morning routine like when you first arrive at school?
I’m fortunate that my kindergarten son attends school on the same campus where I teach, so when I get to school, we usually review his vocab lists and get him ready to go for the day before he walks down to his end of campus. After that, I usually do a quick game plan and rundown of what lies ahead for the day and what challenges my students will have with the content we are going to discuss. After that, I check my email just to make sure there are not any changes to the schedule for the day.

What does your classroom look like?
I have 36 desks arranged in pairs, hundreds of senior pictures of former students on the walls, a large drafting table in the front, and numbers on the back board for students to check problems they need help with. I have a plethora of posters from IB, speech and debate, and ones students have made over the years that cover the wall and make the room somewhere kids will want to learn. I use a document cameras on the drafting table to project the lesson while still looking at the students so I can see their reactions and facial expressions while they are going through each lesson.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?
YouTube Live: I record and broadcast class every day on the internet. It has dramatically changed what happens when students miss class or there is a weather day. Students can watch class live, even ask questions, just like they were present. When class is over, it automatically uploads the lesson to YouTube seamlessly. They can watch examples again with explanations at home. For snow days in AP Calculus BC, we have class live from my house to their screen at home, and we don’t lose a precious day before the exam.

How do you plan your lessons?
In reverse. I plan what objective I want students to be able to do by the end of the lesson and make examples and questions to match that objective.tudents have a small quiz every day in class, with work on previous skills embedded in daily activities.

I try to anticipate what the students will struggle with during each lesson and create questions to help them run into more challenging parts before they are working on practice. Lastly, I try to find different levels to help students who already have the concept go deeper, and help students who are struggling break the content down into smaller pieces.

What qualities make an ideal lesson?
Students ask really detailed and engaging questions. I can always tell how the lesson is going based on the quality of questions the students ask. If they are really detailed and make me think, I know the students are engaged and learning. If they are really basic questions, I need to go back and work through the material again.

Other qualities are that student data exceeds my expectations! I give a small, daily assessments about yesterday’s material. It’s always good when every student shows they got it.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Questions, questions, questions. Just like a doctor ask questions until they understand what is wrong, I work to diagnose exactly where the misunderstanding started. It takes time, but once we understand where things went awry, it’s more likely that strategies like different explanations and working another example will be more successful.

The key to this is establishing right from the start of the year that they feel comfortable and safe asking questions. For most of them, asking a question is a risk-taking adventure, and we need them to be responsible risk-takers. I not only encourage students to ask questions, but I expect them to ask questions. I tell them I am in the business of asking questions, and smart people get smarter when they ask what they need help with.

What is your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?
I use questions as the key to this one also. Instead of asking the class in general for questions, if I see a student losing focus, I will ask them, “What questions do you have?” It gives lesson feedback and also re-engages them to the learning process.

How do you maintain communication with the parents?
Two ways, in particular. The first is using remind.com. Parents don’t like surprises and love to know what is coming up in a class, and remind.com allows me to send information to their phones without having to give out my personal number. I can send worksheets, test answer keys, test reminders, and let parents know general class announcements.

I also started using the calendar sync feature of smart phones to sync my classroom website calendars with parents’ phones. Most parents use their calendar to keep track of their work lives and this speaks to their language.

The second way is being present at a variety of school functions. I have found that meeting parents at informal situations like basketball games, band concerts and plays is a great way to develop relationships that make communicating with them easier and more productive.

What hacks or tricks do you use to grade papers?
Gradecam. It’s an amazing website that turns a document camera into a multiple-choice and numeric grading device. I don’t love multiple-choice questions, but we live in a multiple-choice world, and this allows the students to bring their answer sheet up to my document camera and get instant feedback on how they did. It’s especially useful in the formative feedback setting because it allows students to see which ones they got wrong and go back and correct them instantly. There is no moment kids are more excited to learn how they did on an assessment then the second they turn it in, and this allows me to take advantage of that excitement in the classroom. Students can be more self-servicing using Gradecam and I can work more on helping them than managing paperwork.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Tom Clancy’s Full Force and Effect. I love the Jack Ryan novel series and love how he weaves in history into his fictional accounts of a U.S. secret agent. The whole series is a real page-turner, and I really look forward to new ones coming out.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I was coaching my first basketball game ever and I was sitting on the bench frantically writing out my lineups and plays to call because I was nervous and didn’t want to forget anything. This big guy came up behind the bench and put both hands on my shoulders and said, “Coach, from what I’ve seen in warmups, you want to know the key to your team winning today?” Of course, I nodded. He replied, “Score more points than the other team!” Turned out he was my AD’s dad!

While I laughed it off at the time, during that game I realized I put so much effort into perfecting little details, I had forgotten the big picture goal. This applies daily to teaching. We have so many little details to take care of: grading, entering grades, emails, absent students, meetings, lesson plans. It’s so easy to get caught up in the details that you forget the big picture of why you got into the profession. Teaching can be exhausting, but we can’t forget why we chose it. I chose it to inspire kids to accomplish goals they didn’t even know they could. And it’s great to be reminded on days when the stakes are higher and time is short of what the big picture in education is: our students’ success.