Why a teacher at Midwood High traded Lord & Taylor for algebra and geometry

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Wendy Menard

Until 11 years ago, Wendy Menard’s career focused on taking care of other people’s money.

The former finance manager, who once worked as a budget director for Lord & Taylor, decided that corporate work left her cold. As the mother of two New York City public school students, she had always enjoyed participating in the PTA and school leadership team. So when her kids aged out of school, she settled on a new career path.

“I wanted to do something more meaningful,” Menard said.

Now she’s a math teacher at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School with 11 years of teaching under her belt. But Menard has also developed an interest in helping other teachers think about how social justice issues can intersect with math and science education.

Menard blogs about education and has worked with Math for America — a nonprofit that offers fellowships to roughly 1,000 New York City educators designed to help them refine their craft. Chalkbeat caught up with her recently during an MfA workshop she helped facilitate called “Race, Equity, and STEM Education.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Current subject: Algebra 2, geometry, discrete math.

What’s a word or phrase you would use to describe your teaching style?

Hands-on. Conceptual. Interactive. Energetic. I never sit down. I try to teach them bigger ideas rather than teaching to a test, which is a challenge in a Regents-based high school.

What do you do if a student isn’t understanding something?

I try to explain things a different way. I try to redirect students to one another because very often they can explain things in a way that I can’t. And if a student’s really lost, my door is always open and I tell them that daily.

Tell me about how you became interested in talking about social justice.

The first school I was in for five years was in a very high-need neighborhood. And [the inequality] was just so clear to me, especially having kids in the public schools. Like my older daughter went to Stuyvesant and when I went to her choir concerts, I would cry because of the access she had while my students had nothing. And so it just became an issue for me.

So I engaged in the process of educating myself, reading books. I took a workshop with the Anti-racist Alliance on undoing racism. And when I became a member of Math for America last year, I applied to be a part of the racially relevant pedagogy [professional learning team].

What were the things you were seeing in your daughter’s education that you weren’t seeing in your own students’ education?

Resources. Arts — lots of money for arts and lots of choices for arts. And just materials, materials to do things in the school. The vibe was so different. You go into a school that’s a school of high achievement versus a school where everyone is struggling and it feels very different.

How in your teaching practice do you think about social justice?

It’s frustrating, it’s really frustrating. There’s a Regents curriculum and there’s a topic you have to teach every single day. I teach electives every term and the electives are usually for students who are not going on to Algebra 2 or precalculus. So I have a lot of room to teach whatever content I want, and I try to infuse social justice themes into those classes.

What are the main things you tell teachers who might not see the connection between math/science and social justice?

Math in particular is a huge gatekeeper in terms of college. If your students can’t pass a placement exam or an entrance exam, they end up in remedial math when they go to college. And for a lot of kids that becomes a stumbling block that they just don’t recover from.

They end up paying for a class that they’re not earning credit for, and they just fall further and further behind. So that’s the connection right there.

How does that tension manifest in your thinking about teaching?

I can’t know what their lives are like. I’ve lived a life of privilege. So when I look at a child who’s struggling and I’m really frustrated with them, I know that I can’t know what their life is like.

Some kids are open about it, some kids are willing to talk to you about it and they’ll just put it out there. And there are other kids who just come in and they won’t say a word. And I do my best.

Yeah, I’d like to remake the education system — but if I can’t, I’d like to help a few kids.

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?

Aspire Hanley, math, classroom, students
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.