How I Teach

In divisive political times, an East Harlem government teacher strives for nuance

PHOTO: Courtesy photo/Skylyn Torres
Steven Serling, wearing a New York University shirt, poses with seniors wearing gear to represent the colleges they've committed to attending.

Some teachers might prefer to avoid politics in the classroom. Not Steven Serling.

As a government teacher at Park East High School in East Harlem, it seemed impossible to ignore the polarized debates that bombard his students on social media and the nightly news. So, along with a fellow teacher, Serling came up with a series of lessons to help students search for nuance in a world of bombastic soundbites and firey tweets.

“The media and politicians, they’ve been very partisan, and we want to lump things into ‘this-or-that, black-or-white,’” Serling said. “We wanted our students to understand we are human beings who live on a spectrum.”

In class discussions, students explored how they felt about issues such as the death penalty or abortion, and researched the stances of candidates and political parties. When an online quiz revealed many of his students were politically aligned with the presidential candidate Jill Stein, some were surprised to learn there were parties outside of Democrats and Republicans — which led to a lesson on the Green Party and Libertarians.

Along the way, Serling hopes his students solidify their own principles — and gather practical knowledge about how government affects their lives.

“I try to make it as practical and real life as possible,” he said.

In an email interview, Serling explained why he has students write their opinions before discussing them, how he turns the city into a classroom, and what he learned by dropping a former student off at college.

His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

How has the current political climate affected how you teach?

As the political climate has become more polarized, it is easier to take one side or another without actually investigating or understanding the nuance. It is important for me now more than ever to make sure that I check my own political beliefs at my classroom door and engage in discussions and lessons which explore those nuances for my students to grapple with and explore their own political beliefs.

What tips do you have for encouraging and leading productive class discussions, especially when the topics you’re covering can be so polarizing?

A good academic discussion takes time to build. It starts with building a classroom community in which there is trust and respect from the start of the year.

[One]strategy that helps is having them write their response first before engaging in a verbal discussion. It allows students time to think through their beliefs, what evidence they could present, and grapple with the nuance prior to the discussion. It gives them more confidence to speak, knowing they have thought it through in writing, and they can refer to their paper if needed while they are speaking.

What’s the hardest part about getting teenagers engaged in government and politics?

Teenagers have opinions on everything, but they seem to have a ‘that’s just the way it is’ mentality and often choose not to engage in government and politics outside the classroom. It is important to me to keep my lesson as relevant as possible to their lives and present examples of government and politics at work within their community.

I have taken my students to two “Ethics in Action” forums sponsored by New York Society for Ethical Culture. The first was on climate change and the second was on police-community relations [and featured] Police Commissioner James O’Neill.

We have in the past partnered with New York Supreme Court Judge Fernando Tapia and brought the 12th grade government students to engage with the many [professionals] who help make the Bronx Court run. After the trip, many students who admitted they get tense walking past the building felt more at ease.

I will say that an unintended consequence of the recent political scene is that, the more polarized it has become, the more engaged our students have become. Students, more than ever, have been asking questions about things they have seen in the news or on their social media feeds. Many alumni have messaged me with pictures of them attending the Bernie Sanders rally in the Bronx or different protests this past year.

What does your classroom look like?

I like to think of my classroom as NYC. When we can’t go outside for a particular experience, I try and bring that experience into the physical classroom. When learning about the first amendment, we have had a former Young Lord member Iris Morales come in and speak about her experience in the 70’s organizing in East Harlem on issues around economic and social justice.When exploring the workings of criminal and civil trials, we have had an exoneree from the Innocence Project come and speak.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

YouTube. I often use YouTube to show quick visual or auditory clips to help provide context to a lesson. It brings a snapshot of the outside world into the classroom.

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

I do try and be cognizant if the student is off task because they are unclear of the directions or material, if they are being distracted, or if they just need a break as they have been sitting through multiple classes with only a three minute passing.

If… I notice they need a quick break from the content, I often use YouTube to play a clip of a song that I like, which they then call “old people” music (which is sad, because I don’t think music from the 90s is old). It generates a laugh and a quick discussion about the song or artist and then we can go back to the lesson.

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

It starts with having a welcoming classroom where everyone is recognized in some way. Be it a high five at the start, a quick check-in, or a general shout-out. I make a point to listen and ask follow-up questions when students speak.

Also, I am okay with allowing them to hear my opinion on certain government topics and current events when asked. It is humanizing and builds trust when you can hear the teacher’s opinions, personal accolades, and struggles.

I also build relationships by being involved outside of the classroom. I coach bowling, I make a point to go to at least one of each sporting event, chaperone trips, dress up during theme days and generally keep my office door open for drop-in conversations. Over time, these experiences build relationships.

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

I offered to take an alum up to college his freshman year. When I went to pick him up, his entire family including grandmother and little siblings came out to help pack the car. They hugged and we left.

His mother called me the next day to express how thankful she was for taking her son up, who was the first to go to college. She went on to express how ashamed she was that she couldn’t do it, listing numerous reasons, from her not having her drivers license and to taking care of her mother and younger siblings. She went on to say that is one of the reasons she wanted him to stay in the city for college.

This experience helped me approach our seniors a bit more empathetically, while being able to ask some questions to get answers that students may not want to express upfront to help have a more honest conversation with themselves and their parents.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Never forget to listen and learn from your students; they are the best teachers.

How I Teach

Why this Memphis history teacher seeks to create a ‘calming slice of Africa’ in his classroom

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Torian Black, 30, teaches African-American history at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis.

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.

Torian Black felt excluded as he grew up in Memphis City Schools, and he hopes he can help his students of color feel better about themselves and their school than he did.

Black, 30, teaches African-American history at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis, a high school run by one of  Memphis’ highest performing charter organizations. He grew up in Memphis City Schools and graduated from White Station High School, but Black says he doesn’t look back on that time fondly.

“My experience as an African-American male student being educated at White Station High School was one filled with prejudice, uneasiness, and an experience in which I had to seek refuge,” Black said.

“It was an experience in which I was always ‘the other’ in the classroom and was never intentionally brought into an inclusive space,” he said.

Black wants to give his students a much different experience than he had in high school. The majority of students at Freedom Prep are students of color.

We spoke with Black about how he incorporates African history into his classroom — complete with instruments and tapestries — and why the Black Power movement is his favorite lesson to teach. (This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Why did you become a teacher?

My experience at Howard University, a historically black university, taught me who I was and what I should have been taught at a much younger age. It was an experience in finding my own identity through education. I wanted to be sure students who looked like me would not only receive an experience free of the ailments I experienced growing up, but would also receive a transformational experience that would positively impact their lives for generations.

What does your classroom look like?

I sought to create a calming slice of Africa in my classroom. There are African instruments, plants, and tapestries of African fabrics adorning my room.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Black incorporates African instruments, plants, and tapestries into his classroom.

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

There is a unit I teach that solely focuses on the Black Power movement. I walk students through where the Black Panther symbol came from: the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Mississippi, which fought for black political rights in 1966. We discuss the rise of the Black Panther party in California in the 1960s and how it connects to the civil rights movement.

This is definitely the most anticipated unit among students. All too often, we are looked at as second-class citizens. The perspective that matters most in life is how we see ourselves.

A survey I conducted at the beginning of the year revealed that our students still think of themselves as inferior in many ways. The “doll test” conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark identified this feeling in African-American children more than 50 years ago. Unfortunately, not much has changed today in the way black and brown children think. When students learn and see people like them serving as examples of strength and self-determination, they see what they can do themselves.

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

I sought to recreate aspects of Africa in my classroom. So, I often use music from African instruments in a call-and-response fashion to get their attention. Djembes, shekeres, and thumb pianos are some of the instruments I use.

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

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Black started teaching at Freedom Prep five years ago.

Every interaction with a student is an opportunity to build a stronger relationship. First, it’s important to establish a strong warm, strict classroom culture that is positive, urgent and requires critical thought. It’s important that students see who we are as people. I include stories of my childhood, pictures of my family, and examples of the mistakes I have made throughout life in my lessons.

For teachers, building relationships with a group of students comes first.  Then, all downtime activities — transitions, lunchtime, or after school— are perfect times to build stronger individual relationships by just asking questions you would ask of anyone you would genuinely like to connect with,  know, and understand.

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

Recently, a parent of a student I teach informed me that they chose Freedom Prep high school because of me. She said she heard of my reputation for infusing love and joy in my lessons, she heard of my desire and commitment for students to love themselves and their identity, and she trusted my ability to grow her child academically. This parent already was looking into Freedom Prep, but once she heard of what I brought to the table, that’s when she made her decision. To entrust another person to educate your child is a weight as heavy as the mountains because the educator has a strong hand in shaping each child’s path to their destiny. To know that I had that impact on even one parent meant that my work, the long hours, and the stress are worth it and I am walking in my purpose.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet” by Ta-Nehisi Coates as well as “The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America.”

How I Teach

This Colorado teacher admitted she didn’t know all the answers – and students responded

PHOTO: Hero Images | Getty Images
Girl using laptop in classroom.

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 this series here.

When a new student arrived in her class at Cherry Creek High School, computer science teacher Jocelyn Nguyen-Reed tried hard to make her feel welcome and supported. But as the year wore on, the girl withdrew and Nguyen-Reed began to wonder if her overtures were making any difference.

That spring, she discovered what a big impression her efforts had made when the student’s father called to ask for advice on how to help his daughter. The teen, he said, believed Nguyen-Reed could help her with anything.

Nguyen-Reed talked to Chalkbeat about what she realized after that phone call, how she discovered her passion for teaching, and why she tells students she doesn’t know all the answers.

Nguyen-Reed is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

The summer before my junior year in college, after a having tough year and burning out in my pre-med track, I took a summer position as a camp counselor in a two-week STEM program for high school students. As a part of the job, I was the teaching assistant for a chemistry class. I was so nervous while I was setting up the first lab. I kept running all the different scenarios in my head trying to make sure it wouldn’t be a complete disaster! To my delight, the first lab was a great success and the “high” I felt following the first day on the job made me I realize how passionate I was about teaching and education. The camp was the first time in a long time that I had been so excited to get up in the morning to do something.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?
I think the biggest misconception was that I had to be the expert at everything all the time. My first year teaching, I had been assigned to teach two levels of computer science when I had very limited computer science background. I prepared as much as I could over the summer, but was terrified coming into the year because I knew students would ask me questions I wouldn’t be able to answer.

I decided to be upfront with them and invite them to ask questions, but to allow me room to find out what they needed when I did know the answers. It turned out they appreciated this approach more than I expected. The unexpected perk was that students were more empowered to try to figure out the answers and we often worked as a team to get to the bottom of whatever problems they encountered. It taught me the importance of authenticity in teaching and that modeling the learning process is extremely valuable..

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of the more fun lessons I teach is sorting algorithms in my AP Computer Science course. An algorithm in computer science is simply a step-by-step process for solving a problem. In our everyday life, sorting is one that comes up all the time — sorting your phone contacts by name or sorting your search results by relevance. In this lesson, we explore ways to sort data quickly and efficiently.

I usually start with a silly story that then poses the problem of sorting some set of papers or punch cards. I might talk about how programmers once programmed on punch cards, so tasks that are simple to code today took many, many punch cards to code in the past. “Imagine you had a stack of 1,000 punch cards,” I might say to my students. “But then you trip on the steps, and they are everywhere! … Now what?” Students start by brainstorming their own ideas for how to sort them. I then focus on just a few and use students in my class as “lists to sort” to demonstrate each one. Students usually enjoy the interactivity of the lesson.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I will usually try to tackle this in two ways: I’ll use his or her peers to help or arrange personal one-on-one help. My students usually have a table partner with whom they have ample opportunities to work. I usually remind them that no matter the task, their jobs are two-fold. First, make sure they understand the concepts. If not, then their job is to ask questions (of their peers or me). Second, make sure their partners understand the concepts. If they don’t, their job is to explain the concepts to them. If a student is still struggling, I’ll reach out and try to make a plan/time with them to make sure they get caught up.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
At the start of the year, I ask students about their strengths, weaknesses, needs, interests, and the things about which they are excited or worried. During the year, I periodically ask them to write to me how they are, what’s going well, what’s not going well, and what they need from me. I always enjoy getting to read what they write and responding to each one. It is especially nice to hear from those who are more shy or quiet in class. Otherwise, I just try to meet students with a smile and ask them about what’s happening in their lives each day, or follow up about something they told me some other time.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In my first couple years teaching, I felt the need to be everything to everyone all the time, and I worked countless hours trying to make my lessons as engaging as possible. I had a student who was new to the community at the start of the year, and I made extra effort to make her comfortable. As the year continued, I noticed that she started to change -— her image, her attitude, etc. I had a good relationship with her, but she seemed to withdraw a little bit and I wasn’t really sure how to help her. I gathered that her home life was stressful, so I continued to be kind to her and let her know I was there for her.

I received a surprise phone call that spring that really changed my perspective on the effort I was putting into my job everyday. It was her dad asking me for input on how to help his daughter. “She seems to believe that you can help her with just about anything,” he said in his voicemail. From that moment on, I realized that my efforts to care for my students will never be wasted, and no matter how tired or overwhelmed I feel, care and kindness will always be worth it.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Currently, I’m working my way through “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” by Dana Goldstein. I am only about 10 pages in, but I’m enjoying it so far!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Take everything one step at a time. I have a tendency to take on a lot at once. I have high expectations for myself, so I can overwhelm myself easily. It is a nice reminder that not everything has to get done NOW. Some of it can wait, and even just doing a little at a time can go a long way.