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

Prayers, precision and push-ups: A special ed teacher puts his unusual background to work in the classroom

Caleb Asomugha embraces his students while on a field trip.

Caleb Asomugha’s professional life has taken many turns. He spent time exploring his faith in seminary, is a member of the Army Reserve and ran his own fitness business as a personal trainer.

Asomugha’s latest venture: Teaching special education at Academy for Young Writers in East New York, where he is halfway through his first year. Now, he uses prayerful patience and military precision to execute classroom lessons — and he isn’t afraid to hit the floor for push-ups with students who need to get their energy out.

“That just helps them refocus,” Asomugha said. “Kids like to move. They get bored sitting in one place.”

Asomugha made his way to the classroom through New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification pathway for new graduates and career-changers, and has been mentored through NYC Men Teach, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to draw more men of color into the education profession. Asomugha and a fellow teacher recently landed a grant through NYC Men Teach to create an honors program that will expose students to different career options and link them with young professionals for mentoring.

Asomugha co-teaches math, science and band, along with an “enrichment” class designed to help students work on reading and math skills — all in an integrated sixth-grade classroom.

Here’s how he works with his teaching partners to meet the needs of his students with disabilities, and how Asomugha draws on his varied life experiences while in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was a personal trainer doing pretty well, and I just felt that I was not doing enough in life to give back and to leave an impact. So I decided to get into teaching in order to fulfill those inner desires to inspire kids, specifically from low-income communities, to be able to achieve greater in life.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

We put a stack of 50 note cards on different students’ desks. We told them they had 10 minutes to build a structure that reaches 16 inches high, and they were only able to use a certain amount of tape. [The structure had to] support the weight of a teddy bear for 10 seconds.

The students, they quickly were doing their thing. And a lot of their structures, when we went around and tested it, were not able to maintain the weight. So after that, we had the students investigate. We had websites pre-loaded for them to research different structures and what contributes to their strength.

After their investigations, they had an opportunity to refine their design. We retested it and I would say about 90 percent of their structures supported the object for the time limit. Afterwards, we had the students reflect on what they did and we reviewed vocabulary.

I got that idea from a professional development seminar from Urban Advantage, a program that helps teachers strengthen their science instruction.

You have to collaborate with four different teachers to plan your lessons. What’s that like?

I have the opportunity to share a trusted relationship with each of these teachers that gives me the liberty to either offer insight on their teaching practice or have them offer suggestions to mine. However, this does not come without its challenges, [such as] making the time to meet with four different teachers throughout an already busy week.

My role specifically is to modify content for students with learning disabilities or who need information broken down a little more. In these instances, I sometimes prepare a breakout location within the classroom or in a separate classroom where students who need further assistance (not just students with specific learning disabilities) can come and receive a slower paced, more detailed lesson that may include visual cues, manipulatives [like blocks or other props] and activities. Also, because I am a traveling teacher, which means I travel to most classes with my students, I have a better sense of what lessons will engage the students best.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

From my experience, students usually lose focus with the lesson when they are either fidgety, tired or bored. In these cases, my go-to trick to re-engage that student is to take them outside and give them an opportunity to get their blood flowing. Sometimes it’s a water break and other times I’ll do a light exercise with them if they choose — push-ups, jumping jacks.

However, if it is the rare case that the entire class is off, then I will give them a quick brain break. In this 3-5 minute period, I will have them either do a fun class activity, a breathing exercise or a quick game. This time is also really critical for me to take a mental assessment of why the students are disengaged. Sometimes, I will have to add quick tweaks to the lesson or modify the length of the student work. In most cases, each of these strategies work.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? 

One way that I am able to build relationships with them is with my boxing club. A lot of my male students are in that boxing club. We have forged a great relationship and obviously that carries into the classroom.

In any after-school club, a lot of teachers and facilitators will find the students are a little more relaxed and a little more able to be open with their coaches … I have some of the richest conversations with kids after school, just because it’s their time to be competitive, their time to engage in teamwork — and they look to me for advice as a coach, and not just a teacher. It just opens up the levels of trust.

I also take advantage during lunch, as much as possible, to go down with the kids and talk about how they’re doing. I’ll ask a student, “What’s going on? How was school today? What’s on your mind?” A student will tell me either they’re good, or this-or-that is bothering them, and what should they do about it. That’s such a vital opportunity for me, because that can be a time where I can add an intervention right on the spot, before it escalates into something more serious.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

My cell phone, because I’m always in contact with parents. I have a lot of my parents’ cell phone numbers programmed in my phone — and vice versa, they have mine. Much of my success thus far has been because of parent engagement. I try as much as possible to stay in contact with my students’ parents.

Can you think of a time when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach?

I have tons of those, but there is one from recently. There was one student who we had been having a lot of trouble with. This student not only was being very disruptive in class, but the student would often come to class late. We tried a lot of times to get in touch with the parents, but it turned out that both parents worked a ton and they weren’t able to come up to the school for a parent conference.

Me and another teacher decided to go on a home visit, and that was a really great time because we were able to sit with the parents and the student, and get down to the root of why the student’s behavior is the way it is. We were able to, all together, set goals for the student — goals for which the student was able to add input.

After that meeting, that student’s behavior has become a ton better.

Most of the success I’ve experienced as a first-year teacher is because of parent engagement. That has been my go-to as a teacher.

How I Teach

When the class is off-task, this fourth-grade teacher knows it’s probably time for Justin Timberlake

PHOTO: Cynthia Rimmer
Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, works with students.

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.

For Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth-grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary in Granby, building relationships with students is one of the best parts of the job. She eats lunch with them, reads to them, asks about their hobbies and attends their out-of-school events when possible.

Rimmer is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I love helping kids: to learn, to reach their goals, to realize their dreams, to help them to develop into the people they are capable of becoming.

I had several teachers growing up that made a big impact on my life, but none was more influential than my third grade teacher, Ms. Deanna Masciantonio. She not only taught me about space and fractions, but more importantly, she taught me how to communicate and resolve conflict, and how treat friends. She made us feel special and valued. I still carry her lessons with me today.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a warm and organized space where everyone can feel comfortable learning and working together. Student writing and artwork is displayed on the walls and there are a variety of seating options where students can go to work independently or collaboratively in partners or in groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Sense of humor. Teaching children can be overwhelming at times. It is important to be able to take a step back, remember what is important, and enjoy the moments we have with these incredible young students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Last year, my teaching partner and I worked with our physical education teacher to create a project where students researched topics related to the Coordinated School Health Standards. While the students created their projects, I was able to address a variety of English Language Arts standards, as well as working on the students’ technology and presentation skills.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I have tried to create an environment where students are encouraged to take academic risks and mistakes are celebrated. When someone doesn’t grasp a concept, we work together to understand things in new and different ways, making sure to address the student’s variety of learning styles.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
When individual students are talking or off task, often times they simply need a quick pat on the shoulder or a friendly reminder to refocus. Some students may need a quick brain break or a few laps on the exercise bike to get back on track.

When the entire class is off task, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Often times the directions were unclear, or the students were being pushed too hard, and we all need to make time for a brain boost. But sometimes, we just need to stop and dance. Our favorite class dance break this year is Justin Timberlake’s, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” After a few minutes of singing and dancing, the students are ready to tackle the most challenging math problems.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Building relationships with students is one of the most important and one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. Talking to the students, having lunch together, telling them about myself, reading to them, getting to know about their interests and hobbies, and letting them see that I am a real person all help build healthy relationships. I also try to attend the students’ outside events whenever possible, which I’ve found goes a long way in creating a trusting and long-lasting relationship.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In one memorable meeting, a parent requested that I move her son into a more challenging reading group. Although test scores and classroom observations didn’t dictate this switch, the parent shared some struggles that the family had recently dealt with that she felt were holding her son back from doing his best.

After I changed her child’s grouping on a trial basis, the student began to flourish. He developed more confidence and began to work harder, quickly becoming a role model and a positive leader. Parents love their children and want what’s best for them. When we take the time to partner with parents and understand where they are coming from, great things can happen.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullay Hunt. I enjoy reading the books my students are reading so that we can discuss our excitement for the stories together. I recently started My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I enjoyed his book A Man Called Ove and I hope this book will just as charming.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
About 20 years ago I was considering pursuing another career. A trusted friend and mentor advised me to re-enter the teaching profession. I can’t thank her enough for that wise counsel.