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Creative Commons / Mary Newcombe

How I Teach: Jonelle Hinchcliffe’s recipe for getting high schoolers excited about geometry

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

Welcome to How I Teach, where we ask great teachers how they approach their jobs — and what’s inspiring them outside of school. You can see other pieces in this series here.

More than a decade ago, Jonelle Hinchcliffe traded a career in advertising to become a New York City teacher. She hasn’t looked back.

Now, Hinchcliffe teaches geometry to high school students at Westchester Square Academy in the Bronx using the “flipped” model. In a flipped classroom, students are expected to spend time at home watching videos that introduce key concepts, and class time is then devoted to critical thinking or group exercises.

She won a Big Apple Award and the Empire State Excellence in Teaching Award for her work this year. She also participates in the city’s model teacher program, opening up her classroom to other educators.

What’s a word or short phrase to describe your teaching style?

Engaging. Collaborative.

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

Rushed! Greet colleagues, organize room, set up ‘do nows,’ pass out student folders, and open up the room for students who need to watch last night’s video. I greet students at the door five minutes before the first period bell rings so we can start early.

What does your classroom look like?

Colorful! Artsy. I like to teach geometry through art projects that use geometry theorems, constructions and tools. All our artwork hangs on the walls.

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

ShowMe. I use it to create videos every night for my flipped class. My students don’t get homework. Instead, they watch a video I record in preparation for tomorrow’s class. They take notes on the video and then come into class ready to practice their new ideas. There is no direct instruction in class.

How do you plan your lessons?

I look at the standards and organize them into a curriculum map. (This is fairly easy in math, since ideas are sequential and build upon each other.) Then I group topics into units that are about three or four weeks long. I wrap proofs into every unit.

Daily lessons surround a topic or theorem that I want kids to understand. Since they are exposed to the idea the night before in my video, my ‘do now’ must bridge that content into the new work. Two problems from the ‘do now,’ and we’re ready to collaborate into the day’s work.

What makes an ideal lesson?

I know I have planned an ideal lesson when the majority of the room understands it, and I can get to every other student in the room to explain it if they don’t understand.

Also, a lesson has flowed perfectly if I provided all the appropriate steps and information in the video the night before. Then they have that information in their notes, so they can help themselves in class!

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

I sit down with them and find another way to explain it. I have little white boards that I carry around the room, and we use those to re-explain and to have kids practice a bunch of times until they get it.

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

Again, I sit with them. If I have to, I’ll hold the pencil while they tell me what to write. Eventually, when we get our focus back and energy redirected, I’ll pass the pencil back and stay with them until they really seem reengaged.

How do you communicate with parents?

I email every one of my parents every night to let them know there’s a new video. They love it. I also email them every time there is a test or project due, and to remind them about parent teacher conferences. If email is insufficient, I will call home to keep them informed.

What hacks do you use to grade papers?

Scantron sheets! Swap-and-grades, where kids grade each other’s papers, too.

What are you reading for fun?

The last book I read for fun was “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Take the job seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.