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.
By his own description, Gregory Grambo’s classroom is often a “wild” place to learn.
Grambo has taught science at Louis Armstrong in Queens since the middle school first opened its doors 41 years ago. His style is simply to give students lots of equipment — but not much guidance. The goal is to let students lead their own learning and make their own discoveries.
“It’s constructive chaos,” he said. “You can hear them down the hall.”
His students seem to like it that way. The veteran educator recently won the Star Teacher for Excellence in STEM Education award from WNBC after one of his own students wrote in to nominate him.
In addition to science, Grambo serves as the school’s activity coordinator and oversees the audio visual department, both of which, he says, give kids other outlets to explore their own passions and stay out of trouble.
“They might not want to be in college to be an astrophysicist. They might want to be on Broadway, doing lighting,” he said. “I tell them they’re here to learn for themselves.”
Even after more than four decades at the same school, Grambo says his classroom has been a place of constant change. He often thinks up new lessons, and is constantly reflecting, often with the help of his colleagues, about how to improve his craft.
Grambo suspects he’ll be at his job for a while yet — even as thoughts of retirement crop up time and again.
“Once in a while I think about it,” he said. “But then I think, ‘What would I do at home?’ I love doing this.”
Here are Grambo’s thoughts about building trust with students, what parts of the job are still hard, and his favorite lesson to teach. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?
Going to high school, I took chemistry for three hours every day for three years. I was good at it but I really like to draw and paint. I was torn between what I wanted to do as I became an adult. In college I got a degree in fine arts and chemistry with a minor in education.
I thought I would become an art teacher, but there were always layoffs in that area, and I knew I was good in science. I knew I could teach science just as you would teach art: with hands-on manipulatives that would lead to a mess, and that would turn into discovery, and then into learning. I began my career as a science teacher.
How do you get to know your students?
We play games, like passing a ball back and forth and saying our names aloud as the ball moves. I have dyslexia, so learning names is difficult for me. We also sit in groups and talk about school and home.
Whenever we need more help in working as a group, I find that group games become helpful. Groups help people learn to rely on each other, build trust, and build a bond of friendship. As the children learn to trust each other and learn to trust the adults around them, we begin to understand why the child might not have been able to finish that assignment, or whether they have a quiet place at home to study for that exam that the teacher thought was so important.
When you make yourself available and you really learn to listen and hear people, they will learn to trust you.
Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?
When we talk about simple machines, I have them build roller coasters from pipe insulation and marbles. When I wanted them to understand how to write out a procedure, I did a demonstration on making tomato sauce and did exactly what they told me to do — and it got really messy, really fast.
‘Cut the tomato,’ and out came a saw. ‘Smash the tomato,’ and out came a hammer. Then, when they write that I should dice the tomatoes, I like adding small white dice to the sauce because they are easy to see.
Then their instructions become more specific as to the size of pieces I should cut, and what to cut with. Writing a clear, specific procedure or set of instructions is important to the budding scientist — and it takes much of the mess away.
What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?
We just renovated our schoolyard so that it would be a public park when our school was not using it. Since our community is crowded and full of apartment buildings, a place for children to play and grow is important. My students spent over six months planning this new schoolyard. The design and plan came completely from them.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
We have had children that wound up in jail and others who became glacier scientists. I constantly ask myself, what happened in their life that made such a difference, and how can we help to put them onto a better path?
Part of my work at the school is to be the student activities coordinator and to help out with the audio visual department. I know when I see someone who needs a place to be and is constantly getting into trouble — sometimes being yelled at is better than being ignored — I ask them to help out on AV. In AV, that person will make some new friends and learn a new set of skills that no one else in the school will have. It may be possible that if we pay more attention to those who need it the most, they will learn to do the most difficult tasks on their own and then need the attention the least.
What part of your job is most difficult?
When children can’t do what you ask of them because they need to take care of brothers, sisters, and other responsibilities, and they have no time for themselves.
In one class I had a student who left school, went to pick up his brother at day care, then went home to relieve the worker taking care of his grandmother. He then cooked and took care of everyone until his mother came home at 11 p.m. I guess there wasn’t a whole lot of free time for homework.
We get a small stipend to use in our classroom for scissors, glue, and other classroom supplies. Many teachers use that money to purchase items for students who cannot afford anything.
What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?
The school day lasts about seven hours and ends at 3:00 p.m. when you leave the building. When you arrive at home, you are constantly grading and redoing lesson plans to make them better for the children’s discovery and learning. This goes on for hours, so the seven hour day stretches on and on.
How would you describe your teaching style?
I teach science and technology like you would teach art. I have lots of manipulatives, give them a task, do not explain how to get to the end result, and allow them to discover a path of their own. They may not come to your same ending and may find out something completely different along the way — that is what scientists do.
It sounds like your classroom is a very busy place. How do you check for students’ understanding throughout all that bustle?
I love to have the children write in notebooks. An open book quiz will show me how well they write out their notes. I use exit tickets which could be a one- or two-question quiz, sometimes I use “plickers” to ask questions and they hold up their plicker card for a response.
The plickers are a unique, printed card that identifies them. Holding it in different directions can represent a different response to a question. I can use my phone to scan the cards all at once and see the responses. If everyone knows the answer to a question, I do not need to go in that direction. If no one can answer the question, I have a place to start that day.
It sounds like you trust your students to move around and talk a lot, which could lend itself to misbehavior. What are your techniques for keeping things on track and under control?
Staying on task is not easy for everyone. Each group is responsible for helping each other notice when they stray off task. There is nothing like hearing, ‘We just finished our group project, and a classmate did not do his or her share of the work.’
We have contracts for group work and write in our notebooks each day what we accomplished that day and what we will try to accomplish during our next class meeting. Students keep track of what they are doing and what other members of the group are doing. Each day, students are given a few minutes to discuss their notes and finalize the day’s work.
What are you reading for enjoyment?
I read lots of magazines and, it may sound crazy, but I am always reading the PDF of a manual for a new piece of Audio Visual equipment or computer part. We just purchased Sling Studio that allows me to live stream an event to Facebook. I learn it, I work with the children on it, then I allow them to stream concerts and shows on their own.