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.

How I Teach

How I Teach: Work smarter, not harder, says veteran ESL teacher

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Tanya Hill, an ESL teacher at Kate Bond Elementary School in Memphis, tells her students to respond to a question with a thumbs up or down.

After 20 years of teaching, Tanya Hill has a simple theory why teachers stick around.

“Supportive environments,” she says. “Support from the administration and veteran teachers pushing me to be better each year.”

Hill knows firsthand how much that can help. In her first year in the classroom, she confessed to her principal that she felt lost. Thankfully, she recalls, the school leader sent Hill to additional training and let her sit in on veteran teachers’ classes.

“You have to offer support to teachers so they don’t quit,” she says. And “support is not throwing a book at a teacher.”

Now, she frequently mentors other teachers at Kate Bond Elementary School, a traditional school under Shelby County Schools where she teaches English as a Second Language.

Chalkbeat sat down with Hill to talk about what makes her own classroom tick. Her comments have been edited for brevity and clarity. (Be sure to check out the short video from her classroom at the bottom of this page, too.)

Tanya Hill What does your classroom look like? I like to have a print-rich environment. I want everything in my classroom to be a resource. I like it to be useful, not just because it’s cute — though I do have a lot of animal print.

What tools can’t you teach without? Why? You could put me in a closet with paper and pencil and I can teach. But I can’t live without my laptop. I teach a lot with PowerPoint, Smart Boards, a document camera.

How do you plan your lessons? With English language learners, you have to build background knowledge to inform the lesson, so I have themes. Right now, it’s bats: a book on bats; vocabulary about their habitat and characteristics.

I focus on multi-sensory lessons because my students are learning English. It’s the writing and reading [struggle] that usually keeps them in ESL, not speaking. The goal is to get them out of ESL.

What makes an ideal lesson? I’ll hear from another teacher of theirs saying the student connected what they were learning in my class to what they were learning in theirs.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus? I’ll stand on the carpet in the corner of my room and start to compliment those who are doing well listening and paying attention. If I thank one kid, that’s usually all it takes.

I also have an incentive chart. If a student gets five stickers for good behavior, they can pick from my “treasure box.” If a particular student is causing trouble, I’ll sometimes stand by them and pat on their shoulder and continue to teach.

How do you communicate with parents? Well, most of my parents are not fluent in English. If needed, I’ll get one of our bilingual staff to help with calls and send letters. It helps that I have a rotating duty in the morning at the front door to greet parents and get to know them.

What hacks do you use to grade papers? I just grade them. I binge grade at home where I’m comfortable, and maybe watch TV while I’m doing it. “How to Get Away with Murder,” anyone?

What are you reading for fun? Right now I’ve got “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee. I never read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in high school, and I wanted to see what everyone was talking about with the new book.

What’s the best advice you ever received? Work smart, not hard. And sometimes you need to leave your teacher bag at school. You have to disconnect sometimes. If you don’t, it’ll drive you crazy.

How I Teach: Tanya Hill from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.