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

The 2017 National Teacher of the Year on the mom who changed how she talks to her toughest students

PHOTO: CCSSO
2017 National Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee.

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.

Sydney Chaffee made headlines recently as the first charter school teacher to be named the national teacher of the year. Getting there, she says, was a continuous process of learning from others — including her students’ families.

A breakthrough moment: meeting with one of her more difficult students’ mothers.

“The way she spoke to her daughter — loving but firm, patient but expectant — was a model for me in how to communicate both love and high expectations at the same time,” Chaffee explained.

Chaffee has taught ninth grade humanities at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. From introducing debate about the Puerto Rican debt crisis to comparing classrooms to colonies, she also relies heavily on storytelling in the classroom.

She talked to Chalkbeat about a few of her most memorable moments — and why hand gestures are key to her teaching.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Why did you become a teacher?

I wanted to inspire the same kind of curiosity and excitement about learning in other people that my own teachers had inspired in me. Plus, I loved school and figured becoming a teacher was the best way to never have to leave.

What’s something interesting about your physical classroom — something on the walls, for example?

I like for my classroom to be colorful and full of words. Right now, my favorite thing about my room is that my students and I have filled one window with colorful stars. On each star, a student wrote “kudos” for another student for their work in this year’s Poetry Out Loud recitation competition. Some of the kudos are for stellar performances or persevering through stage fright; others are for being supportive and empathetic peers. They’re posted as a reminder of what we can accomplish together.

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

Hands. I am a wild gesticulator. I don’t even notice I’m doing it most of the time, but whenever my students decide to impersonate me, their hands go crazy with big, dramatic gestures. So much of teaching is storytelling, and my hands help me tell the story.

Tell us a bit about a favorite lesson. How did you come up with the idea?

My favorite lesson, recently, was a simulation of the Puerto Rican debt crisis that my student teacher and I co-designed. We wanted to help students understand some of the basic economic concepts so they could write about the crisis in a more informed way, but the issue is complex and confusing. We worked together to brainstorm ideas, draft a plan, test-drive it, and revise it. The final lesson, which my student teacher facilitated, was hands-on, engaging, and gave students a solid grasp of tricky content. And it was fun to teach, too.

Collaboration is such an important ingredient in strengthening our practice as educators. I was happy to have the chance to learn from my student teacher’s creative ideas; what we came up with together was so much better than I would have come up with on my own.

What’s your go-to response when a student doesn’t understand something critical?

I like to draw an analogy between what we’re learning and something students can relate to or easily picture in their minds. For example, when we read, early in the year, texts that question whether historians should use the verb “discover” in relation to Christopher Columbus (“Columbus discovered America”), some students have trouble understanding why this is controversial. I ask them to imagine that someone who had never been to our neighborhood before suddenly walked into the school and pronounced that they had “discovered” it, even though we were all already sitting inside and learning.

Or, in learning about colonialism, I do a simulation with students asking them to reimagine the classrooms in our school as separate territories and brainstorm ways that we might be able to get our hands on the resources that another territory possesses. Taking time to describe these concepts and make them tangible for students helps ensure that they “stick.”

What’s something you do to build relationships with students?

I hold them to high expectations, but I also joke around with them and am not afraid to be a little goofy in class. Being silly disarms kids and helps them open up to me so I can get to know them better.

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

I had a student who acted very “tough.” She left class all the time, crumpled up tests, argued. When her mother came in for a meeting, she called this student by an endearing nickname and spoke to her with such gentleness and empathy. She told her that her behavior was not OK, but she also probed to find out what was really going on.

That was such an invaluable learning moment for me. The way she spoke to her daughter — loving but firm, patient but expectant — was a model for me in how to communicate both love and high expectations at the same time. It reminded me that families know and love our students — their children — best in the world, and we have so much to learn from them about who our students really are.

I try to channel that mother now when I’m talking with a student who is really struggling.

What is the hardest part of your job?

This job is incredible and rewarding, but the work is never done. There is never a day where, as a teacher, I will close my laptop at the end of the day, put my feet up, and think, “Well, that’s settled.” There is always more work to grade, more lessons to write, more students to think about: How will I get this one to write a thesis? How will I help that one with reading informational texts?

It’s hard, but I’m not complaining. It is work that I love to do, because it challenges me and allows me to keep learning all the time. I get to reinvent my class constantly.

What advice would you give a teacher starting out next year?

Don’t be afraid to have other people come into your classroom and observe you. The more you can collaborate with your colleagues and get feedback on what’s happening in your room, the more you’ll learn and the more you’ll help your students grow.

How I Teach

This Cherry Creek High School history teacher makes students think twice about how Nazis rose to power

Virginia Clark DeCesare, a history teacher at Cherry Creek High School, in her classroom.

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 Virginia Clark DeCesare, teaching history isn’t about getting students to memorize names and dates. It’s about telling stories.

“It is about heroes and villains, ideas, decisions and lucky breaks,” she said.

DeCesare, who teaches American history as well as an elective class on World War I and II at Cherry Creek High School, was named the 2017 Outstanding Teacher of American History by the Colorado State Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She’s also a National Board Certified Teacher, an advanced credential that requires a rigorous application process.

DeCesare talked to Chalkbeat about how she fell in love with teaching, why she surveys students at the beginning of the year and how she helps them understand Hitler’s rise to power.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I always enjoyed learning about history (my degree is in history) but it was not my initial plan to become a teacher. However, after trying several other jobs after college none of them gave me very much enjoyment. I decided to take a course where I got to observe and teach a few lessons. I absolutely loved it. I love the storytelling aspect of it, the creative aspect of it — coming up with new ways to teach an idea — and that I can continue to learn about the things that I love for my job! After that experience, I went back to school to get my teaching license.

What does your classroom look like?
It is covered with World War I and II propaganda posters. I have a particular passion for this time period and I created an elective course at Cherry Creek High School on it.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ____________ Why?
Books. I have learned so much over the years from continually reading. Every new historical book that I read adds something to the lessons that I teach. My books have allowed me to create a fuller story to tell, and learning history is all about how the story is told.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
I teach a lesson in which I give several groups of students German political parties in the 1930s to represent. Then I give partners particular German citizens to represent. The German parties need to convince the German citizens to vote for them (with very real issues facing them in the early 1930s such as the worldwide economic depression and effects of the Treaty of Versailles).

The German parties are actual parties from the time period (Communists, Social Democrats and the National Socialist German Workers party (Nazi)), but I have changed the names to party A, B, and C and each group chooses their own party names since their actual names would sway the students too much.

After the parties have presented their platforms the students representing German citizens tell about their problems and each party tries to explain, using their platforms, why they should vote for them. We then hold an election in which the students representing German citizens vote for a particular party. Almost every year the Nazis get chosen by the students — of course they do not know until the true names are revealed that they have just voted the Nazis into power. This is an instructive way of demonstrating how the challenges of the times could make a population very susceptible to particular political messages.

How did you come up with the idea?
I came up with this idea after finding party platforms and different German citizens’ views summed up in a book about the roots of the Holocaust. I have found it to be a very effective way to help students understand how a highly educated country of people could allow the Nazis to come to power legally in a democracy. It also helps them to better understand how and why such a country would follow the leadership of Hitler and the Nazis throughout the war.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Right after the first test I meet with any students who are struggling. I offer to meet with them one on one before tests or sometimes several times a week to help them better understand the material. This process has helped many of my students.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I usually try to infuse my teaching with humor. Making kids laugh is usually a good way to refocus their attention.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
At the beginning of the year I ask students to tell me about themselves in a series of survey questions. Questions such as: “What do you do in your free time?” and “What is the most important thing to you?” help me learn about the kids. I also attach a sheet in which they can ask anything they want to about me. I respond to each of these questions with a personal written response. The kids ask me all kinds of things from what I do for fun, to where my favorite place in the world is. This connection between us early on helps build strong relationships throughout the year.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A few years ago I found out that a student of mine lived with his grandmother because his mother was a drug addict and his father had not been around for a long time. The student was acting out in class and not completing assignments outside of class. This experience helped show me that students often have a lot to deal with outside of my classroom and that I need to keep the importance of my assignments in their larger lives in perspective.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I enjoy reading fantasy novels. My favorite books I recently read were Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. I also read a lot of World War I and II history because I like to add to my knowledge about the period and add anecdotes about the time period to my lessons.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
It is not a failure to accept help.