Having once found science dull as a student, this New York City teacher now strives for a more engaging approach

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When Seth Guiñals-Kupperman was a student at New York City’s Bronx High School of Science more than 20 years ago, he remembers not being impressed with his teachers, despite the school’s elite reputation.

His science classes were “relatively dry” experiences where teachers wrote facts on a blackboard — sometimes with a joke or anecdote about a dead white man — all for regurgitation during an exam. The teaching didn’t seem much more inspired at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Guiñals-Kupperman studied physics, linguistics and philosophy.

“I remember making myself a promise to show my former teachers what they could be doing to captivate their students one day,” Guiñals-Kupperman said.

Now a physics teacher at the Brooklyn Latin School — one of the city’s elite specialized high schools — he’s making good on that promise. Guiñals-Kupperman regularly works with other educators to improve their teaching, and he was recently recognized by Math for America, a non-profit organization devoted to elevating math and science instruction, for his influence on the profession.

Seth Guiñals-Kupperman

In this edition of “How I Teach,” Chalkbeat caught up with Guiñals-Kupperman about how he approaches science instruction, and why he thinks it’s so important for teachers to ditch the traditional models of teaching the subject.

This interview had been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you become a teacher?

I think it was inevitable that I would be a teacher because both my parents were public school teachers in the high schools of New York City. I tried a few jobs growing up, but nothing else really fit.

I love science, but most science jobs seemed quite lonely. I enjoy working with people, but there aren’t too many jobs where you can both do science and work with people…outside of medicine, and I never liked biology. When I was in high school, I remember loving physics, but it felt too often like my high school teacher was the one having all the fun, and we were focused too much on getting right answers, not discovering anything for ourselves. I became a teacher to show him and other science teachers how to do more than just talk to students from behind a desk.

What do “engaging” educators do?

Some of it has to do with the role you think the teacher and student play in the classroom — are you the “sage on the stage” or the “guide on the side”? And some has to do with the role traditional science classroom structures play. One workshop I once gave at Math for America was on the role science experiments played in physics class. In the traditional science classroom, you begin by telling students various facts, having them practice these new truths, and often carry out a lab “testing” the facts.

But of course it’s not a test, since the students know what the outcome is supposed to be. In fact, there’s a way to get the lab wrong! This is both bizarre and a-scientific. An experiment can only be called such if you don’t know the outcome already. Instead of conducting these confirmation labs, a teacher can switch to a discovery lab: nobody knows what will happen (though everyone has ideas, assumptions and expectations). There are curiosity, investment and a community of learners all able to check in with each other — i.e. scientists!

Do you use different approaches when you’re teaching teachers as opposed to teaching students?

I can’t say flatly “no,” but the approaches are surprisingly similar. Teachers hate being lectured to about how they shouldn’t lecture. They also want to walk away from an experience with something they can use in the classroom tomorrow.

So when I deliver a workshop, most of the duration is spent in “student mode” — i.e. we are modeling a real classroom environment. Of course teachers will approach it differently and have different questions than students do, but as long as a facilitator provides space and time for participants to think through implementing these methods, they will walk away from the experience very likely to give it a try.

What does your classroom look like?

Students always work in groups, so no matter what the furniture situation is, there will be kids sitting together. I suppose the only really distinguishing features will be whiteboards and markers (and erasers). I keep these 2-foot by 3-foot whiteboards for student group use.

Using student-group whiteboards can help transform your classroom from a pressure-cooker race to complete a worksheet into a collaborative activity in which teams of learners support each other. One other note is that using student whiteboards will make your classroom less quiet. But it’s a productive noise.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

Pretty much every experiment in science is one in which the “correct answer” is that there is a relationship of some sort between two variables. But there are so many key examples where two things that seem related aren’t actually related at all. Instead of telling the students that more massive objects fall the same way lighter objects do (which can be demonstrably false due to air resistance), I don’t just demonstrate it; I make them run an experiment.

Each group drops eight objects with different mass, and they measure the falling rate. When it comes time to graph a trend, half the groups inevitably get a slight upward trend, and the other half get a slight downward trend.

Then a few kids ask, “Wait, so maybe these things are just not related?” It gives us a great opportunity to discuss how humans — and all animals, really — are born pattern-seekers, even where no patterns exist.

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’m not crazy about students doodling on the whiteboards they receive, but what they draw can be a window into their own interests and an opening to a conversation. Some kids will teach each other a language, like Chinese. “This is how I write my name and this is how you write dragon.”

I try to write something I know like moon () or sun (), and they will smile, tell me I have completely the wrong stroke order, or got something else wrong. They’ll feel empowered because they get to play teacher to my fumbling student and are appreciative that I am trying to learn something associated with their identity.

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

One year I made it my mission to have at least one phone call with every student I taught. I was most of the way there, but I had a couple I didn’t quite get to. There was one kid, Lee, who by the time he reached junior year was never an A+ student in any of his classes but never failed a thing. He was soft-spoken, diligent, and enjoyed working with friends.

When I asked Lee about why I never got an answer at his home numbers, he explained that both his parents were deaf. Later I learned that his parents each knew four languages: American Sign, Taiwanese, Taiwanese Sign and Chinese Sign.

There had never been a reason for Lee to have his home called: he essentially slipped between the cracks. It was then that I learned two things: 1) astonishingly, the NYC [Department of Education] has both spoken and sign-language interpretation services; 2) kids on every academic level can slip between the cracks, have challenges, difficulties and whole stories behind them, whether or not they distinguish themselves in your classroom.

As a teacher at a specialized high school, what kinds of conversations is the school community having about the mayor’s proposal to increase racial diversity at those schools? What kinds of learning opportunities come with a more diverse school or classroom?

Two schools I taught at happened to be among the most diverse specialized high schools in the entire city: High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering, and The Brooklyn Latin School. They remind me of what I valued about my own attendance at Bronx Science in the mid 1990’s: diversity. Prior to attending a magnet school, I had never met kids from Queens, I never met anarchists, atheists, Muslims or queer youth.

In my little neighborhood bubble, I might have known a few kids from different backgrounds or socioeconomic classes, but it was a tiny subset. I think a major strength of a high school can be the — often mind-blowing — realization that there are kids from places, with backgrounds and lived realities far away from your own, who deserve the same rigorous, challenging environment where you can collaboratively nerd out about engineering, calculus, Chaucer, the Cuban Revolution and irregular verbs. I think one of the greatest cultural strengths of major cities is their diversity; I relish opportunities to give our specialized high school students that strength.

Most New York City students don’t have access to physics classes — what do students miss out on when they don’t have access to physics?

People have said mathematics is the language of physics; physics is the language of engineering, and we live in an engineered world.

Physics explains how your phone works, the bus, train, airplane and car you ride in, and why buildings and bridges are built the way they are. Also physics represents a way of knowing: One complaint by students is often that physics is too mathematical. But another interpretation can be that physics shows you how math can be used to solve problems, manufacture cars, rockets, explain tackle football, ballet and building construction.

What’s the best teaching advice you’ve received?

In my first year as a teacher, I gave my first homework assignment, collected it and graded it over the weekend. It took me all weekend. When my mentor teacher saw it and saw how hard I had worked to make corrections on such a tiny assignment in the grand scheme of the year, he gave me advice: Don’t work harder grading an assignment than your students did completing the assignment.

Since then, I’ve striven for assignments that are never busywork, but demand the maximum thinking on the part of the student while making it clear for me what they have right and how to remediate what they don’t.

Are you reading anything for fun?

I went to a talk at Math for America by Cathy O’Neil where she (kindly) autographed my copy of her “Weapons of Math Destruction” book. I’m re-reading that with my wife and thinking about how to apply lessons of it to our lives and our students.

Don’t just help students graduate. Prepare them for what’s next, says high school teacher

Sharon Collins at a New Heights Academy Charter School graduation with students.

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.

When Sharon Collins found out that some of her students who were strong academically in high school had dropped out of college, she realized more could be done to prepare students for success after they graduate.

An environmental engineer-turned-teacher, Collins has taught middle school math and nearly every high school math subject. Currently teaching seniors at New Heights Academy Charter School in Harlem, Collins tries to ensure that her students feel supported and prepared after they leave her classroom by continuing to meet with and advise them as part of OneGoal, a program that helps teachers become mentors for students during college.

On top of that, her school models their classes after college courses to get students used to a university structure. And to continue growing as an educator herself, Collins works with Math for America as a co-facilitators on a peer learning team. Here, Collins shares how she engages students and pushes them to enjoy math and continue learning.

What’s one way you build strong personal relationships with students?

I teach seniors, so at the start of the year I meet with each of them individually. It helps me know them as people and as learners. I ask them about the future, about college, about possible careers. Where do your interests lie? It’s important know their feelings about math. We have a four-year math requirement, whereas there is normally is a three-year requirement in high schools. My goal is always for the students who hate math to like math by the end of the year — I show them how math relates to the world around them. I also get to know them through going on senior retreat and spending time during lunch period to open classroom. Once you put in that extra time to show that you care, they will put in more effort.

What does your classroom look like?

When you walk in you’d see student projects everywhere. You can see calculus students building roller coasters, board game designs made by the statistics class, who invite 8th graders to come play them to show them that math is fun. In pre-calculus, we do “Shark Tank,” where students come up with idea for product that will help them get money or help humanity and build prototypes of them. I have students from previous years come and serve as the judges. My classroom always has students coming in. Even during 9th period, which is when they can go home, they love to stay, and they get tutoring or just come and talk to me about what they’re thinking about college.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now and how are you addressing it?

Something in general is the intensity of the anti-immigration bias because the student population is 95 percent Latino at my school and that it had an impact on Washington Heights. One way to help with that is with this program I’m involved in called OneGoal, a program where you become a mentor for students in college to help them graduate. In it, we have the space to talk about these issues and just have individual conversations, in particular with undocumented students —just letting them know that they have a safe place here.

But in regards to policy, the issue in high school of not focusing on college is an issue. The goal of high schools is more on graduating students rather than what the next step is for them. That’s how I got involved with OneGoal. I mean, students graduate, but it was interesting seeing who graduated and who didn’t. Even students who were really strong academically sometimes didn’t graduate. I attended a workshop that helped students through college. It’s not all about academic challenges, it’s the social-emotional part too. So OneGoal starts in high school and follows students through the first year, providing them mentorship and support. So over the past year my focus has been going through that transition with students. It can be overwhelming. Their academics go at a faster pace, and its difficult transitioning from teacher to mentor. But it helps so much and college readiness is something that high schools need to be more focused on.

What does your grading style look like and what hacks do you use?

At New Heights, we changed grading style last year to make it more similar to what college looks like. There’s homework and classwork but they don’t count for grades, so this was a big flip for students since now it’s exam based. If you don’t do well on an exam, though, you can retake it. You can do test corrections, or in humanities you can write a paper to bring up the grade. That was a big switch, and I still feel like homework is important to make sure students do well on an assessment. So if you want to retake the test you have to do all of your homework and classwork, to show that there’s a connection between the homework and the testing. But in my class the summative assessments that are a big part of the class are the projects. We do about three to four per quarter. They’ll submit one and publicly present to class or school administration, and they have a rubric they can look at to see which areas they didn’t score high on to be able to resubmit it for a new grade. It’s all challenging because it’s a whole new way, but we want to show them the process of modification.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Show unconditional love to all students. The influence of a great teacher lasts a lifetime. I was the first one to go to college in my family, and most of my student will be too. The amazing teachers I had and their confidence in me and what I could do was transforming.

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

To get students attention, I have this saying “Tres, Dos, Uno, Namaste,” and that’s kind of the keyword where they know to come together. I love doing yoga and at the beginning of every yoga class my teacher says “the light in me sees the light in you.” Students face challenges, with poverty and tragedy. I try to make the classroom a positive space. I greet them at the door, I high five students. Learning should be fun, and that’s something that I want to associate for them. So namaste, that’s the word that they associate with me.

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

One thing I do is I have students work in small learning teams — so what happens is I’ll give a formative instruction, see who’s struggling, pull them aside to work with them on the content during a project. Something that I tried last year was having a co-teaching model —so students would teach students, and sometimes they just feel more comfortable doing that. It might just click more, because their peers can relate the materials to things they know about. Another thing is that I always give students my cell, so that they can text me at any time. Sometimes I’ll get a text so late at night. I won’t give them the answer but I’ll help them, I’ll ask them questions to make them think about the problem a different way.

How this Colorado English teacher connected with a mom everyone said was impossible

PHOTO: Steve Debenport | Getty Images

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.

It was the start of the semester and Ted Halbert, an English teacher at Brighton High School north of Denver, had been warned. The mother of one of his students was extremely hard to handle, the other teachers said.

But Halbert didn’t wait for problems to flare. Instead, he contacted the boy’s mother early on, outlining his hopes for the teen and establishing a pattern of email back-and-forth that lasted through the year.

Halbert talked to Chalkbeat about his rule of thumb for communicating with the boy’s mother — and all parents, why he feels heartbroken when district tax levies fail, and how he uses a Metallica song to explore an anti-war novel with his students.

Halbert is one of 48 educators nationwide selected for the 2019 National Education Association Foundation Global Learning Fellowship. The goal of the program is to help teachers develop the skills to understand and act on issues of global significance.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

Teaching is my second career. After graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in communications, I spent a year as a student with the international, cross-cultural, and performance-based organization Up with People. It was an incredible experience for me. I loved learning about the world and being in the world with diverse people and living with host families (I have lived with more than 140 host families on four continents). I was hired by Up with People and spent nine years with them — the last three as general manager. But, the organization ceased operations in December 2000 and I was out of a job.

I got a job working for Girls Inc. of Metro Denver as the director of new business and marketing but didn’t love it. But after school the girls would come to our facility for classes and I immediately figured out that I loved being around the learning environment and the learners.

And then, Sept. 11, 2001, happened. That day I made a vow to myself to make the most of my life and not wait for change. The next day I quit Girls Inc. and told the president that I was going to become a teacher. And so I did. I was 33.

How do you get to know your students?

From the first moment they walk in my classroom I do two things: First, I welcome them personally, by name, every day. Second, I try to find out something unique and interesting about each and every student and ask them about it as often as I can. This is an intentional process and must be considered carefully because there are some students who want to hide — they don’t want me to engage and interact — but I refuse to let them and eventually, we create a positive relationship based on growth and trust (and laughter).

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

Before reading the incredible novel “Johnny Got His Gun” by Dalton Trumbo, we listen carefully to Metallica’s song “One,” which was partially inspired by the movie based on Trumbo’s book. We draw what we think is thematically happening in the song, and pull lyrics as evidence to back up our ideas. This gets them engaged and excited to read the book. I mean, if Metallica wrote a song about it, right? So cool.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

Cool socks.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

The refusal of the local community here in Brighton and the 27J area to support education through bonds or mill levies is absolutely maddening. Our textbooks are 25 years old. Our technology is outdated. Our rooms are packed with kiddos and when the bell rings at 7 a.m., some of them are barely awake. It truly takes the entire community to ensure the complete education of our young people and when a community does not step up, it breaks my heart. There is serious inequity in how we value our young people and something needs to be done about it. Regardless, I welcome every kid with enthusiasm and work my hardest so that they get the best education possible.

For the record: We have passed some bond issues, but only after making drastic decisions like split schedules (when 9th and 10th grades come early in the morning and 11th and 12th grade stay later) and pack our classes with kiddos. These actions wake up the community for a while so we can pass bonds so we can build new schools and facilities. Makes me sad … These kiddos are so amazing and they deserve better from their community.

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

I had a boy in my room and I was warned that his mom was “crazy” and impossible to manage. People who had the student in their class in other years would roll their eyes and wish me luck.

I reached out to her immediately and set up a relationship with her with very specific guidelines and goals. The goal, obviously, was the academic growth of her son, but I also made it clear that it was my goal that he have fun and be engaged, and want to come to class. Right off the bat, this impressed her and we were off to the races. The other goal (and this is so important when working with individual parents) was that our email communication would not take longer than 20 seconds to create and send. I’m rather serious about this with parents. I will keep in touch with them on an individual basis, but it must be concise and honest. The mother and I built a great relationship based solely on the health and success of the child. We had an incredibly successful year. The other teachers would grumble and complain, and I would just smile.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Understanding why education and young people and teachers aren’t more valued by our society is by far the most difficult part of my job. My students are the economic drivers of our future and deserve the best we can offer them. Where are the adults? Where are the politicians? Where is the support?

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

My biggest misconception was that the students would be difficult to manage. I was wrong. They are wonderful, curious, funny, smart, and engaged and they give me hope. It is society and the community not supporting us that I didn’t expect.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I am always reading multiple books, usually one fiction and one non-fiction. Right now, I am inhaling Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” (wow) and “The Bounty: The True Story of Mutiny on the Bounty” by Caroline Alexander.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Teaching is about relationships. Build the relationships and they will come.