This award-winning Colorado educator teaches computer gaming (Shhh, it’s actually math)

PHOTO: Gerard Launet | Getty Images
Hands of children playing a video game.

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.

What students may not realize when they sign up for Jennifer Moriarty’s video game programming courses at Denver’s CEC Early College high school, is that they’re actually signing up for math.

To Moriarty that’s what creating a video games is all about: “solving a massive and fun math problem.”

Moriarty talked to Chalkbeat about what turned her into math-lover, why she builds forts with her students, and how off-task behavior is like a canary in a coal mine.

In 2017, Moriarty was selected as a state level winner for the national Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

PHOTO: courtesy of Jennifer Moriarty
Denver teacher Jennifer Moriarty, left, with a student.

I didn’t really like mathematics until college calculus, when I fell head over heels in love with it. I had this amazing professor who focused on its beauty and magic, and all of the sudden I was smitten. I wanted to help more people feel the same way about it.

What does your classroom look like?

Fun and funky. Computer desks are clumped in groups to help facilitate collaboration, and we have chairs with wheels to encourage kids to move around and help each other. We usually have the overhead fluorescent lights off, instead relying on strings of blue LED lights that wrap around the room and a few gentle lamps to help set a relaxing mood. We have an assortment of odd items, including an old piano, a skeleton, and a few video game systems.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

Sticky notes! Even though we’re a high-tech classroom, we use this low-tech tool for a variety of tasks because they get kids on their feet and moving around. They’re great for “parking lot” and “word wall” posters, as well as for making notebooks more interactive. I’ll also write math problems on stickies, and students will take them to the whiteboard to solve with a partner. Students use them on their project planning posters, by breaking large projects into smaller tasks and moving them back and forth from columns labeled “to-do,” “working on,” “stuck,” and “done.”

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

It’s too hard to pick, they’re all so fun. Creating a video game is really just solving a massive and fun math problem, so as soon as students have enough skills under their belts to begin working on projects, the class just flies. I love the bugs that kids’ code will sometimes have, like a PONG ball that bounces off invisible paddles mid-screen, or Pac Man ghosts that go haywire. These episodes usually give us all a good giggle, and are always fun and interesting opportunities to figure out what happened with the math to cause the problem.

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

I want and expect kids to not understand all my lessons fully. I want students to be thrown into projects where they don’t know how to complete all the required tasks, and then use their problem-solving skills to work through areas that confuse them. It’s important that students become comfortable making lots of mistakes and collaboratively struggling through tough and frustrating problems.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I see off-task behaviors, like cell phone use or long off-topic conversations, as canaries in a coal mine. They point to some underlying problem with the environment. Are kids bored? Are they stuck? Do they not understand the purpose of a project? Usually just walking around asking those questions will help me figure out the problem.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

We do a lot of culture-building activities at the start of every semester — everything from building forts to physical challenges. I also usually ask a tough get-to-know-you question as kids walk in the door each class. Finally, video games! I open my classroom during lunch and after school for gaming, and often get quite a crowd. I can kick my students’ butts on a few games, which gives me a bit of street cred.

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

I recently started doing tons of home visits, and I’d say that in doing them, my perspective about home visits themselves has changed. I now feel that if I’m really struggling with a student, it’s the ultimate way to show that I care and to get to know them better. I also love home visits because of the food. On one occasion I had beans and homemade fry bread and learned Navajo string games. Another time I had “mild” enchiladas that were so good I finished my plate despite the fact I was almost in tears from the spiciness.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“La Belle France: A Short History,” by Alistair Horne.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

When I was a struggling first-year teacher, my mentor, Kerri Schultz, came into my room and looked at my chalkboard after a failed attempt to teach the quadratic formula. I remember her explaining that I needed to break my steps into smaller, bite-sized pieces. I still use this framework when I plan my lessons: How can can this idea be broken down into bite-sized steps? It’s also something I require of my students — They need to be able to describe their processes in bite-sized steps as well.

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.