How I Teach: A science teacher’s method for pushing past ‘I don’t get it’

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

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.

Casey DePasquale’s foray into teaching was supposed to be temporary.

She joined Teach for America a decade ago with the hopes of learning about medical issues in underprivileged communities, and eventually applying that knowledge as a doctor. Instead, she got hooked on teaching and never left New York City classrooms.

DePasquale teaches high school science, including an Advanced Placement course, at Urban Assembly School for Emergency Management in Lower Manhattan. She is working on her second graduate degree: she already has a master’s in secondary education and is a candidate for another in school leadership. Still, DePasquale finds time to mentor other teachers — a role she has taken on for the last five years.

A word or short phrase to describe your teaching style:

To teach well, you must also learn. To learn well, you must also teach.

What’s your routine like when you arrive at school?

  1. Arrive at 7 a.m.
  2. Coffee.
  3. Re-read and put final touches on updated lesson plan with my co-teacher.
  4. More coffee.
  5. Print lesson plan and materials while coordinating logistics with my co-teacher.
  6. Set up classroom for the day while listening to Acoustic Morning on Spotify.

What does your classroom look like?

An overwhelming amount of labels! I want my classroom to be a predictable, student-oriented place where every item has a home. It’s also hard to miss our turtle, April.

What apps/software/tools can’t you teach without? Why?

Google Drive! Having PowerPoints, Docs, and spreadsheets that update in real time that students can “view only” is huge for making mid-day changes, and incorporating student input and relevant, current information.

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

In the first month of school, I push students away from “I don’t get it,” because I can’t look into their brain and find out where they got lost. Instead, I ask students to go through their work again and star where they lost understanding. Is it a word? A phrase? An example?

Asking students to reflect upon where they get lost helps me better decide how to redirect them. At least half of the time, re-reading something does the trick and teaches them to be more self-directed.

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

I generally prompt them to ask me a question about something we’ve learned. If the question is relatively on track, it brings them back.

What hacks do you use to grade papers?

Find a rubric template that works for you and tweak it to use with different assignments. Write one strength and one piece of feedback – anything more is too overwhelming for me and I find that the student loses focus on the feedback anyway.

What are you reading for fun?

“Brilliant Blunders” – a book about mistakes made by some of our greatest scientists.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Admit when you’ve made a mistake with a student. The teacher is not always right.