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

Why this Memphis teacher asks her students to create a mixtape every year

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Natasha Wilkins is a history teacher at GRAD Academy Memphis, a charter school in the state-run Achievement School District.

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.

During her African-American history classes, Natasha Wilkins asks her high school students to answer this question in a “free writing” exercise: “Who is responsible for educating the public about injustice?”

The students type away while listening to R&B singer R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest,” which isn’t uncommon. Wilkins has made a point of integrating music into her classroom at GRAD Academy Memphis, a charter high school within Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Her class culminates with a “Hip Hot History” project, a mixtape produced by her students, who write the lyrics and record their songs in a studio to share their learning.

When asked how she answered the writing prompt, one student said that, thanks to Wilkins, she believes that she is responsible for educating the public about injustice. “I think understanding injustice has a lot to do with understanding history, real history,” the student said. “We can’t care about something we don’t know about.”

That’s the goal of Wilkins’ class:  To help her students, most of whom are black, understand the history of their ancestors and to have fun while doing it.

We asked Wilkins to explain more about her teaching style and how she helps her students “own” history.

Why did you become a teacher?

Of my friends from high school, none of my black male friends graduated from or even made it past their sophomore year of college. I was deeply frustrated by the realization that there was a system in place that left young black men feeling inadequate to pursue their educational goals, and I took the offense personally. I joined Teach For America with the desire to disrupt this cycle. 

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A mural hangs on the wall in Wilkins’ classroom.

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a space designed to inspire and affirm. There is student work that lines the walls and quotes designed to push my students to think beyond what is in a textbook. I think a big part of my classroom is also what is not present.  I very intentionally did not put up many images of people from the past. I want my students to view history as not just acts and individuals from the past, but an ever-evolving story of which they are a part.

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

I tend to reframe it in terms of their lives. For example, I related the Civil War to gang warfare, and the division of the North and South leading up to the Civil War to a dating relationship gone bad. Putting the lesson in terms of things my students can relate to gives them confidence in the classroom and affirms that learning is for them, not just something that they do in a school, in a classroom.

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

At the beginning of the year, I do a short unit exploring what history is and how what becomes defined as “history” is determined and recorded. My students explore their perceptions of history and then are given the opportunity to record a story from their lives (also available on SoundCloud) in a project called Our Stories, Our Voices.

I explain to my students that we are all a part of history and that each of us deserves the chance to tell our own stories in our own voices. In this project, I allow my students to tell their stories how they perceive them, in their dialect, in their reality. This is essential to building relationships because it gives my students the space to be themselves, but it also gives me insight into what makes them who they are and the joys and pains that they bring into the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

In 2015, I was engaged in a heated discussion with my World History honors class about the inequalities in the education they were receiving versus what I received in my predominantly white high school in Illinois. I was explaining to them why I was giving them the assignments I did, and why I taught the way I did, because that’s what my teachers did and it worked for me.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Wilkins says the goal of her class is to apply history to daily, lived experiences.

It was during this conversation that one of my more reserved students yelled out in frustration, “But this ain’t Springfield, Ms. Wilkins, and all of that Springfield stuff don’t work for us out here in Memphis. We’re different.”

This was a pivotal moment of realization in my teaching. It was in that moment that I finally heard my students and their frustrations and I realized that I needed to step back and learn from them just as they learned from me.

Describe Hip Hot History. Where did the idea come from, how do you implement it in your classroom, and why has it been a success for your students?

The idea for this project actually started as a joke. In class I would often play instrumentals and rap about history or getting back on task, to the amusement of my students. The students started asking me if I was going to drop a mixtape soon and I told them I would. One day, one of my students asked if the class could be on my mixtape and from there Hip Hot History was born.

This project is the capstone project my students complete at the end of the year. They are given the choice of writing a song, spoken-word piece, or creating a documentary film telling the story of blacks in history. They are given full creative license to create their piece with guidelines on how to choose the topic and the length of the piece.

How I Teach

Harsh realities of growing up poor pushed this Colorado teacher to connect with her students

Teacher Natalie Mejia, right, with students from Atlas Preparatory School on "Nerds Rule the World" day last fall.

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.

Natalie Mejia, a math teacher at Atlas Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, knows the challenges many of her students face. She grew up poor in Los Angeles, navigating an education system that didn’t reflect her culture or background.

It’s the reason she’s determined to show her seventh- and eighth-graders how much they matter.

“They won’t care what you know, until they know that you care,” she says.

Mejia 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 believe our kids deserve to be surrounded by people who love them and believe in their tenacity to succeed. Growing up low-income in Los Angeles exposed me to many harsh realities that motivated me to pursue higher education. Additionally, as a first-generation high school and college graduate, I can relate to the adversity my children face on their pursuit to learn and navigate within an institution that wasn’t built with their social or cultural identity in mind.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is split into three sections — pink, blue, and orange. In the pink section, eight students are receiving direct instruction. In the blue section, eight students are reviewing prerequisite skills for upcoming lessons and in the orange section 16 students are working on online lessons on the Khan Academy website. The students rotate every other day through the sections so that all 32 scholars are working directly with me, in pairs, or independently to master the content.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ____________. Why?
My smart board. I absolutely love the white board in the classroom because it makes it easier for students to follow along as I teach. Additionally, the colored pens allow me to differentiate or emphasize notes within the lesson.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I enjoy teaching my students our statistics unit because this is the place where they can be the most creative. My school takes a traditional approach to learning. However, in this unit students are encouraged to create their own statistical questions and gather data. This unit I believe allows them to personalize the learning and justify their thinking.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If a student shares that he/she doesn’t fully understand a concept or demonstrates gaps on the three-question assessment they turn in at the end of the day, I do any of the following:
– Provide one-on-one instruction before school, during lunch, or after school.
– Modify the upcoming lesson to provide better scaffolding and support.
– Pair the student with someone who’s mastered the concept and can serve as a peer tutor.
– Follow up with parents directly about how they can support the student at home.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
My strategies vary from class to class and student to student. If one or two students are off task, I am more private in my approach to redirect their behavior.

If an entire section in my class is off-task, I walk over and provide a countdown to get their attention. Once I have their full attention I restate expectations and narrate positive behaviors.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
First and foremost, I approach my students and my work with the utmost humility and appreciation. I tell my students early on and often how much I love them and how their presence brings joy to my life.

I continue to demonstrate my commitment to them and their education by establishing academic and social goals for the year. I challenge them to be present in class and to own their learning environment by supporting one another. In addition to our time in class, I try to attend our students’ games and family events in the community. In doing this, I can foster deep relationships with my students and their families. Collectively we work throughout the year to be advocates for their students’ academic and socio-emotional success.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I met Mr. Senior in the summer of 2011 in Baltimore. He was a single father of two middle school-aged boys and attended our pre-school conference. This meeting was an opportunity for us to check-in as student, parent(s), and advisors prior to the start of the school year to establish academic and social goals for the year. Throughout the year, Mr. Senior demonstrated unwavering commitment and love for his children through his active participation and involvement in our school.

His persistence in advocating for his children challenged the unknown bias I had toward fathers being passive participants within education. We’ve stayed in touch over the last six years and it’s such a pleasure to see the joy and pride he has for his sons and their long-term success.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I am currently reading “Drown” by Junot Diaz. It is a goal to immerse myself in more Latino/a literature.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
A few months ago, I was reading, “The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Principal in a Tough Community is Inspiring the World” by Nadia Lopez. In her text she wrote, “This is not a Third World country. This is real life in the United States of America, and the qualities in these kids that frustrate teachers are the very same ones that help them survive every day.”

Her sentiments resonated with me because I love and respect my students’ ability to face the adversity with authenticity and courage. Approaching my work with this mindset inspires me to be the best mentor and educator for my students and their families.