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.

Chalkbeat’s newest newsletter is made for teachers. Sign up here.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Josue Bonilla, 13, left, gets a high five from his teacher Wendi Sussman, right, after completing a hard reading lesson in his multi-intensive special education class at STRIVE Prep charter school in Denver in 2016.

We’re about to launch another newsletter over here at Chalkbeat, and this one is especially for teachers.

The newsletter is a spinoff of our interview series How I Teach. Over the past year, our reporters have already introduced you to a Memphis teacher who uses Facebook Live on snow days, a government teacher in East Harlem tackling debates about race and the presidency, a Colorado Springs teacher who helps students navigate parents’ deployments, and dozens of other educators from across the country.

Our goal is to share realistic snapshots of what life looks like in classrooms today, and make sure you don’t miss the tips and tricks those teachers have passed along to us. (Our goal is definitely not to provide any more professional development or pat answers about successful teaching.)

In the newsletter, we’ll also include stories we think might be especially useful to teachers, including our take on new research and thoughtful pieces written by educators themselves. And we’ll use this newsletter as another chance to bring you into our reporting — letting you know what we’re working on and how you can help by sharing your own experiences.

Ann Schimke, the Colorado-based reporter behind some of our award-winning coverage of early childhood issues and many How I Teach features, will be your guide.

Interested? Sign up below. And for those of you keeping track, we now have local newsletters for each of our bureaus — Chicago (where coverage is launching soon), Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, Newark, New York City, and Tennessee — plus a national newsletter and a Spanish-language newsletter out of Colorado.

‘Mathonopoly’ and basketball: How this Memphis teacher uses games to teach math

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Yomyko Clark, in her first year of teaching at Aspire Hanley Middle School, says she has taught several game-based math lessons throughout the year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

In a classroom in Memphis, sixth-graders are hard at work creating their own version of Monopoly.

Dubbed “Mathonopoly,” students are prompted to design a board game that incorporates 15 math problems. After several class periods of strategizing, the students take turns playing each other’s games.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Clark helps her students design their game of “Mathonopoly.”

Yomyko Clark, in her first year of teaching at Aspire Hanley Middle School, says this lesson is one of several game-based math lessons she teaches throughout the year.

“Our students pay attention when they are having fun,” Clark said. “Do many of my kids associate ‘fun’ with math? No, but my goal is to help them see how math is a part of everyday games that they love.”

Clark, 25, grew up in Memphis, graduated from East High School, and went on to study social work at the University of Memphis.  She found her way to the classroom through a teacher training program with Aspire Public Schools, the national charter operator that runs Hanley as part of Tennessee’s state-run school district.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

My inspiration to teach derives from working with children for several years throughout my college career. I started in social work, but I realized that I wanted to work more closely with kids. I wanted to be in a classroom. I chose to teach because I want to be an example to children that they can succeed and accomplish anything that they dream. My goal is to encourage children to feel self-sufficient in their own learning skills.

How does your own education experience impact you as a teacher?

I graduated from East High School, and I had one teacher there who really changed my life. She taught English, and she was so hands-on in her classroom. She showed me how engaging education could be. And she had this mother’s love. If you were failing her course, you better believe she was going to talk to your family. But she also wasn’t going to give up on anyone.

Now, I try to tell my kids, “I’m your mom. You’re my babies, and I’m going to fuss over you, but you’re going to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?

One of my favorite lessons to teach is ratios with percent. I love this lesson because it deals with comparing different quantities.

Most of my students love to throw balled up paper in the trash like they are playing basketball. So, to teach this lesson, I incorporated a paper basketball tournament where students played “basketball” with the trashcan and balled-up paper. As a class, we kept a record of how many shots students attempted versus how many shots made. We’re able to create different percentage ratios from this.

What’s makes this lesson work — like the Monopoly game — is that it’s fun. Students are engaged the whole time; they’re cheering on their classmates as they shoot baskets. But they’re also shouting out the ratios we calculate. They’re learning, and they don’t even know it.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

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PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Clark teaches 6th-grade math at the middle school run by Aspire Public Schools.

To get the class attention when students are talking I use a call and response. For example, If you can hear my voice, say “Oh Yeah!,” and the students will respond “Oh Yeah” and get silent.

We also have an incentives system at our school — where we can give students “bonuses” and rewards. If I student is modeling great behavior, I point it out to the class and mention that they’ve earned a bonus.This really works well because students have really bought into receiving bonuses and earning incentives.

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

One day after work, I saw a student walking in the hallway around 4:45 p.m., which was after dismissal. The student informed me that she missed the bus and didn’t have a phone to contact her parents. With no hesitation, I gave her the phone. The student could not remember the number so I called a number in her file. I was able to speak with the grandmother and the grandmother did nothing but refer to the student as dumb and stupid because he/she missed the bus. Saddened for the student, I was able to understand why he/she was soft spoken and very sensitive when given a behavioral redirection. This situation opened my eyes greatly and made me more vulnerable to the student’s feelings. It changed the way I interacted with her in the future.