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

PHOTO: Getty Images

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.

Belittled as a child, this Memphis teacher sets a high bar for her students

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell poses with her Aspire Hanley third-graders. Terrell has been teaching for four years and will move to Aspire East in the fall.

Some 20 years ago, Ginny Terrell’s third grade math teacher called her “stupid.” Now, Terrell laughs as she names her current position: a third grade math teacher.

“I was that kid in school that everybody was like, ‘What’s wrong with her?’” said Terrell who has been teaching at the local charter Aspire Hanley for four years and will teach at Aspire East in the fall.

Terrell was held back in kindergarten and struggled from there on. Luckily, she had teachers that stayed with her after hours to give her the support that she didn’t have at home. At that moment, she knew she wanted to be like them.

PHOTO: Ginny Terrell
Ginny Terrell and her Aspire Hanley students.

As middle and high school loomed, Terrell told herself she had two options: sink or swim. So she worked hard — often twice as hard as her classmates, she said — and eventually enrolled in the University of North Texas in her home state.

During college, which took her seven years to complete, Terrell spent time in New Orleans doing service projects, where she often interacted with local youth. Then, she interned at a Title I school, where she noticed that her fellow teachers were unprepared to handle disciplinary issues, and that the “kids weren’t getting what they needed.” (Title I schools, eligible for certain federal funding grants, enroll a high percentage of students from low-income families.)

“I felt like it was the blind leading the blind,” she said.

That work, Terrell said, prepared her for a career in urban education. After graduation, she signed up for Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher licensing program that places college graduates at urban schools.

“They endure more than I could ever dream of,” she said of her students, 88 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. “… I can relate a lot to their home lives, their struggling in school and their not wanting to even be there.”

In this installment of How I Teach, Chalkbeat spoke with Terrell about why her decision to teach in urban schools was such a personal one. (This Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by really utilizing my first month of school. I really try to use every moment and every conversation to truly understand each of my students. I give them a little survey that is like a Facebook page on paper the second day they are at school. I send home a survey [for parents to fill out] about his or her child and that helps me know even more. I spend time talking with them at lunch, recess, and moments during instruction. I try to observe how they respond to my questions, how they respond to hard situations, how they respond to their peers and how they handle learning. I use morning meeting time to know each of my students by playing getting-to-know-you games and simply letting them do a show and tell.

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

For a lesson on perimeter and area, our class took a little trip to the playground.They counted blocks and other items around the playground and added them up to get the perimeter. My students tried teaching each other and asked questions during the lesson on the playground. They told me at the end of the year that was their favorite lesson because they could understand it. This idea came from reading a book “Becoming the Math Teacher You Wished You’d Had: Ideas and Strategies from Vibrant Classrooms,” by Tracy Johnston Zager. In the book it discusses the importance of including real life examples students can relate to in math and gave multiple examples in other classrooms. I thought that we should use the playground, which will stick with them because they use it every day and they love it!

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

An object I would be helpless without during the school day would be our clip system [moved up and down to track student behavior]! They could see where they were at behaviorally and how they can improve at every moment of the day. I could not live without a behavior system in my classroom. It is the basis of giving students structure and consistency. If you do not have a behavior system that is a well-oiled machine, you will not be able to get to your instruction and plan the engaging lessons. The culture you set, from day one, will drive your classroom.

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

Something that is happening in the community that affects my classroom is the crime rate. I have heard students coming in telling me they could not sleep because of the gunshots or abuse in their homes. Some of the crime happened on our [school] property between parents. This [hurts] student’s ability to focus, and [discourages] parents from coming to the school or even being involved. Students will start following what they see in their community, [so it] is hard for them to learn how to treat their peers or even teachers in a different way.

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

One of my students had a hard time functioning in my classroom. She could not really get along with peers and was sad a lot of the time. I reached out to the mom and discussed what was going on with her. Mom shared with me her life story and what has been going on at home. She wasn’t at all playing a victim or making excuses for her child. She instead asked me for help and support. We prayed for each other and I built a beautiful relationship with that family. It is so easy in the heat of the moment to snap or get angry with a student if he or she is not following directions. It showed me to seek to understand first, then take action. I could have done a lot more damage to the student in the classroom if I did not seek to understand. From that point on, I always make sure I take a step back and understand the situation instead of snap judgements. It taught how I can love each student in the way that will benefit them as future contributors to our society.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job would be not having enough parent involvement. There will be some parents that were very involved and supported the best they can in and outside the classroom. However, it has been difficult for some parents due to working three different jobs, not having enough resources or just not having the mental capacity to support. I cherish their thoughts and their support, so not having that [makes it] difficult to hold my students accountable outside the classroom.

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

I thought I had to dumb down my lessons so other students can learn. It is actually the opposite; having high expectations, students can reach the bar you set. I think I viewed my students as “low” academically, but they are not. Maybe they’re behind, but never low. They are so smart and can do anything you ask. It might take some time and you have to go back, but they are able and more than ready.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Nothing to Prove” by Jennie Allen and “Hope Heals” by Katherine Wolf and Jay Wolf

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

If you think you have arrived in teaching, you need to retire.

Detroit math teacher tends a greenhouse, welcomes parents into her classroom

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Marquita Reese, a math teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, works with students to cook vegetables grown in the school's greenhouse.

How do teachers captivate their students? Welcome to How I Teach, a feature in which we ask great Detroit educators how they approach their jobs. Have a recommendation of someone we should profile? Write us at detroit.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Marquita Reese defies a traditional job title. At the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, an all-boys high school on Detroit’s east side, where she has taught for more than two decades, she is a chef, a gardener, and a meditation leader. Oh, and she teaches math.

Reese headed up an effort to build a greenhouse at Douglass, funded with federal grant dollars. Vegetables grown on the campus are used in cafeterias across Detroit’s main district. When it started in 2016, the program was lauded by Sen. Debbie Stabenow for simultaneously feeding children and teaching about science and nutrition.

Reese spoke with Chalkbeat about the garden, being a woman in the hard sciences, and welcoming parents into her classroom.

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

I graduated from Wilberforce University [in Ohio] with a degree in clinical psychology, but being a psychologist didn’t work out. Wanting to maintain a strong math and science grasp, I enrolled in the school of education at Wayne State, majoring in mathematics and sciences.

I said I’ll do math and science, not really considering that those are two of the most challenging areas of study.

I didn’t realize in retrospect that I was one of the few or only females that had a math and science background in the district. I would go into some meetings and would be one of the only females.

How do you get to know your students?

Students are given a survey and are required to write a short paper about themselves.  They must speak to their expectations and provide some insight about their goals for the present and for five years from now.  This year I included a three-minute meditation in the morning every day. Doing that at the beginning kind of relaxes the setting, and starts to build that trust between you and your students.

You run a greenhouse and garden on the grounds of Douglass Academy, and you also teach lessons about cooking. Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach your students about the garden. Where did the idea come from?

An activity I do before my students set foot in the garden is called colors of the rainbow. You take the colors of the rainbow, but you extend it, so I do teal, tan, indigo. For each color, they have to provide a fruit or vegetable that can be grown in Michigan and they have research their nutritional benefits.

In what region of Michigan can it be grown? When can it be grown, and at what temperature? They present it to the class, and they also have to do a PowerPoint. Then we we go for seed selections or transplants, they understand that some plants can’t be put in the ground at certain times. One year, we actually discovered that we can grow oranges in Michigan.

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

One of the things I felt very passionately about this year was changing the narrative society is putting out, especially looking at melanated young men. I was worried about these young men, their self worth, their self esteem, so I just opened up to them, told them how I’m feeling, and they expressed their views.

It was an emotional time for us all. Being melanated people, we don’t have a good idea of where our ancestors are from, so some of our dialogue is about that. We talk about what we don’t know and what we do know about African cultures.

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

Myself and an English teacher put together a parent group and a student group with all the parents’ email addresses. We’d send a message each time something happened in the classroom, homework or anything else, to the parents and the students.

Then I started getting notes from parents. They said ‘Hey, can we do this too?’

They’d text me like, ‘Hey, I don’t get this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, you can come in and take notes, try to figure it out.’

It became an open door.

It was the SAT year, so they knew the importance of the child understanding the material. They never said, ‘It’s because I want to learn.’ They wanted to make sure that when their child came to them, they understood how to help their child.

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

I thought that the students and families that entrusted their kids to me had the same ideologies, learning style, and background as myself. For some, their exposure and educational experience or support was nothing like mine, so I had to refocus and adjust my teaching style and methods.

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

To be hard, consistent, and fair. As the students learn something new, so should I every day.