How I Teach

How one Brooklyn teacher found the perfect job — by checking the wrong box on an application

Deirdre Levy didn’t set out to teach students with special needs. In fact, she says, she fell into her current role by accident, when she checked a box on her New York City teaching application saying she’d be comfortable working in District 75 — without realizing it was the city’s stand-alone district for children with disabilities.

But in the five years since, Levy has grown passionate about her students at P.S. 369K in downtown Brooklyn. This year, she’s teaching fourth- and fifth-graders on the autism spectrum.

“With a neurotypical child, it’s easy to get the expected answer,” she said. “With my students, every day it’s surprising to see what strengths they have and how hard they work.”

That’s partly why Levy, a Queens native and former New York City Teaching Fellow, wanted to hold a science fair. She asked her students to pick topics that interested them — and they did. One chose to grow plants; another wanted to see how a motor powered an electric fan; a third was determined to figure out the best way to cook rice. “I thought it was cool that it showcased all the things they really loved,” she said. “No project idea was denied.”

Levy got the materials she needed, including medals for the science fair winners, by posting her requests on Donors Choose. A program called Science Everywhere matched each donation, ultimately spending $500,000 nationwide in small grants to teachers like Levy.

Her class worked on their projects for a month, Levy said, adding math and writing activities to the science. On the day of the science fair, the students’ families were invited into the classroom, and the school’s psychologist and occupational therapist judged the projects based on appearance, content knowledge and enthusiasm (the electricity project was a big winner).

“I think that it’s important for each student to know how to question things that occur in everyday life,” Levy said, reflecting on what they learned. “How to conduct a procedure, develop results and come up with their own conclusions.”

Here’s more on how Levy approaches her job. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Chalkbeat: What does your classroom look like?

Levy: It is a 6:1:1 classroom — I have six students and two paraprofessionals that assist the students. We have stations, where students rotate to learn multiple skills within the school day. Every 15 minutes they rotate. So today, my station worked on punctuation. One para had a reading station. And the other one was spelling and phonics.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

I think it takes at least four weeks to get to know someone. I try to find out what their interests are because students really appreciate when they are listened to. I also think that it’s important to have a warm and strong demeanor. I love to have a silly time with my students, but I also hold them accountable for their actions.

How do you keep your students on task?

I never want to embarrass a child for off-task behavior, but I want to make sure that they understand the concepts that I’ve taught.

I try to center my work on positive reinforcement. The students can earn points and that leads to rewards. Like if they get 50 points, they can watch movies, go to the gym or go to a “girls club.” We make sure they earn points rather than penalizing them. We’re all motivated by things we want to do.

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

In the beginning of the school year, one of the social workers for one of my students came up to me and told me that my student was one of six children at home with no father. I quickly understood why she had a hard time turning in her homework.

I told her that if she had any issues completing her homework, she had to come to me so that we could work on it together. But I let her know that she was still responsible for turning in her homework on time. Regardless of the circumstances at home, it’s important to teach children how to take responsibility for their own actions.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Work hard and be patient with yourself. I have always had high expectations for myself and sometimes I got frustrated if things didn’t go the way I planned. I realize now that good things always take time. That’s why it is important to work hard, but to recognize that things will eventually fall into place when they’re ready to happen.

How I Teach

For this Pagosa Springs math teacher, mountain biking and ultimate frisbee hold lessons, too.

PHOTO: Andy Guinn
Teacher Andy Guinn with his students during a trip to Moab, Utah.

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.

A couple years ago, Andy Guinn was about to take his Pagosa Springs Middle School students on a mountain bike ride in Utah when a hiker offered an unsolicited opinion: The kids should be in school not at a state park. The government was going to hear about it, the hiker warned.

The criticism made Guinn, who teaches mountain biking and ultimate frisbee electives in addition to eighth-grade math, second-guess himself. Were the outings a waste of time and money?

Shortly thereafter, he got his answer. The parents of a student contacted him to say what a difference the mountain biking class had made for their son. He’d gone from a kid who hated school to one who’d finally found his niche.

Guinn talked to Chalkbeat about the parent feedback that reaffirmed his belief in outdoor trips, his meatball math lesson and how he brings life to his windowless classroom.

Guinn is one of 20 educators selected for the state’s new Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I grew up swearing I would never be a teacher because so many members of my family were teachers. I remained stubborn until grad school when I realized that I really enjoyed being a teaching assistant and working with students. Three years later, I was in a teaching program getting my license.

What does your classroom look like?
My room is the ugliest classroom I have ever been in. It has cinder block walls, no windows, and orange carpet. I almost didn’t take the job because it was so awful. Luckily, everything else about our school is phenomenal. I have pictures all over my windowless walls from our Adventure Learning trips to Moab and Los Alamos as well as day trips to our local ski area and hikes in the mountains that surround us. They remind me how important it is to allow students opportunities to explore, spend time outside and learn beyond our academic standards. They also remind me how lucky I am to live and work in such a beautiful place.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Dogs. They make me smile after a bad day. They keep me active and healthy during busy times of the year. They remind me that it takes a lot of training to make a habit. But most of all, they remind me to be patient with my students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
I steal a lot of stuff from Dan Meyer (http://blog.mrmeyer.com/). His Three Acts are fantastic and go over really well with students. One of my favorites that I adapted was his meatball lesson to teach students about the volumes of spheres and cylinders.

Originally I just used his videos, but I wanted to add in a classroom demonstration. I didn’t think I could logistically pull off a pot of meatballs for each class so I had to come up with something else. I decided on a cylindrical glass filled almost to the top with water. I tell the students we’re going to see how many marbles can fit into it without it spilling over. I raise the stakes by telling them we’ll be dropping the marbles in with their phones stacked around the base of the glass. They tend to get really engaged at that point.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
This is one of my favorite parts of teaching because I will never be done figuring out new ways to explain things, new ways for students to experience the material and new ways for students to show me what they’ve learned. I’ve found that having other students share their strategies can show both me and the confused student a new perspective on a problem. It’s also a great way to get a glimpse into the mind of someone who is just learning a concept, which is a perspective I no longer have.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
We count to three in different languages. They repeat each number after me. Through the years, students have asked to teach the class some new languages so I have about six or seven I use now. Our school has also embraced physical activity breaks in the classroom as a strategy to keep engagement and focus at a high level throughout a class. I love these and can really feel a difference in the energy in my classroom when we use these.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I start the year building relationships with students for a week while we work on problem-solving skills. We also take our whole 8th grade class to Moab, Utah, for a four-day camping trip where I get a lot of opportunities to get to know students outside of the classroom. When they see me roll out of my tent with some crazy bed hair, a lot of them let their guard down and are willing to work even harder for me in the classroom when we get back.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In Moab a couple years ago, my mountain biking elective class was going for a ride at Dead Horse State Park. A visitor to the park approached a couple of my students and asked them why they weren’t in school. They replied that they actually were and that they were about to have their class along one of the trails in the park. The visitor wasn’t happy at all and told my students he was going to to write to the government to complain. I felt bad for my students and I started to question if the class was really a good use of time and resources.

The week after we got back from the trip, a parent contacted me to tell me what a positive difference the mountain biking class was making for their student. They told me that their son had never wanted to go to school until this year, had never put in much effort into his classes and had always felt like his teachers disliked him. But with the mountain biking class, their student found motivation to come to school, a place where he could excel, a chance to feel comfortable around his classmates and me, and a chance to get some of his energy out in a positive way. It was the perfect timing as it reconfirmed for me the importance of providing students with these types of opportunities in school as ways to build relationships with students and improve their academic performance at the same time.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just started “The Book of Joy” by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Adams. I got to see them speak together on a panel when I was in college and I still vividly remember how giddy and happy they were up on stage so I’m excited for the book.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
“Mr. Guinn, why do you have those games in your classroom if you’re never going to let us play them?” — one of my former students, talking about the board games, cards and dice I keep on a shelf in the corner. It reminds me that sometimes what we all need is just a day to have some fun.

Struggling Detroit schools

The story of Detroit’s schools is much more nuanced than many people realize. Here’s how we can cover it together.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit's west side often manages jam-packed classrooms of 37 kids or more. Her students have no music or art or gym. “They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said.

Ever since my husband and I announced to friends and family three years ago that we’d made the somewhat-impulsive decision to sell our apartment in Brooklyn and move with our two small children to downtown Detroit, we’ve been confronted with the same persistent questions:

Erin Einhorn
Erin Einhorn

“You live in Detroit” we’re asked, with a tone of skepticism and, frankly, judgement. “And you have kids?”

The questions are rooted in the perception that the schools in Detroit are so awful that no decent parent with other options would reasonably choose to live in this city. It’s a perception I know is grounded in some deeply concerning conditions in Detroit schools, including many of the issues I’ve covered as a reporter for Chalkbeat. I’ve written about the Detroit teachers and families who alleged in a federal lawsuit last year that the conditions in Detroit schools are so deplorable that they violate children’s right to literacy. I’ve spent time in classrooms where a teaching shortage has meant 37 first-graders packed together all day without a break for music, art or gym. And I’ve seen the heartbreak on the faces of students and parents who’ve learned that the charter school they’d chosen would be closing, leaving them to scramble for another school in a city where choice is abundant, but quality is rare.  

I appreciate the concern from friends and family who are worried about my children, but the truth is that my kids are going to be completely fine. My husband and I have a car and accommodating jobs that enable us to enroll our kids in any school in any neighborhood  — options that poor transportation and the uneven distribution of schools have put out of reach for far too many kids. And, as it happens, we found a great public school right in our own neighborhood where our oldest child now walks every day to kindergarten.

The truth is that the story of Detroit’s school is much more nuanced than most people realize. There are serious challenges — no doubt about that — but we’re not going to be able to address them until we stop asking each other what we’re going to do about educating our own children. We need to start asking what we can do to make sure that families in every neighborhood have a shot at a decent education. That’s what we try to do at Chalkbeat. We aim to tell the stories of teachers and students and parents, to put a human face on challenges that would otherwise be difficult to understand. We look at what’s working in our schools and what urgently needs to change.

This school year marks the first full year that Detroit’s main school district will be led by a new school board and superintendent. And it will be Chalkbeat’s first full school year since we formally launched in Detroit last winter. We hope to grow this year, adding another reporter to help us expand our coverage of early childhood education, special education and other matters crucial to the city’s future. And we’ll continue to cover the important issues affecting Detroit children and the way they learn.

We can’t tell these stories without you. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, join our community by submitting a story tip, giving us feedback or making a financial contribution. Contact us at [email protected], follow us on Facebook and at @ChalkbeatDET. And, please, keep reading!