Prayers, precision and push-ups: A special ed teacher puts his unusual background to work in the classroom

Caleb Asomugha embraces his students while on a field trip.

Caleb Asomugha’s professional life has taken many turns. He spent time exploring his faith in seminary, is a member of the Army Reserve and ran his own fitness business as a personal trainer.

Asomugha’s latest venture: Teaching special education at Academy for Young Writers in East New York, where he is halfway through his first year. Now, he uses prayerful patience and military precision to execute classroom lessons — and he isn’t afraid to hit the floor for push-ups with students who need to get their energy out.

“That just helps them refocus,” Asomugha said. “Kids like to move. They get bored sitting in one place.”

Asomugha made his way to the classroom through New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification pathway for new graduates and career-changers, and has been mentored through NYC Men Teach, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to draw more men of color into the education profession. Asomugha and a fellow teacher recently landed a grant through NYC Men Teach to create an honors program that will expose students to different career options and link them with young professionals for mentoring.

Asomugha co-teaches math, science and band, along with an “enrichment” class designed to help students work on reading and math skills — all in an integrated sixth-grade classroom.

Here’s how he works with his teaching partners to meet the needs of his students with disabilities, and how Asomugha draws on his varied life experiences while in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was a personal trainer doing pretty well, and I just felt that I was not doing enough in life to give back and to leave an impact. So I decided to get into teaching in order to fulfill those inner desires to inspire kids, specifically from low-income communities, to be able to achieve greater in life.

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

We put a stack of 50 note cards on different students’ desks. We told them they had 10 minutes to build a structure that reaches 16 inches high, and they were only able to use a certain amount of tape. [The structure had to] support the weight of a teddy bear for 10 seconds.

The students, they quickly were doing their thing. And a lot of their structures, when we went around and tested it, were not able to maintain the weight. So after that, we had the students investigate. We had websites pre-loaded for them to research different structures and what contributes to their strength.

After their investigations, they had an opportunity to refine their design. We retested it and I would say about 90 percent of their structures supported the object for the time limit. Afterwards, we had the students reflect on what they did and we reviewed vocabulary.

I got that idea from a professional development seminar from Urban Advantage, a program that helps teachers strengthen their science instruction.

You have to collaborate with four different teachers to plan your lessons. What’s that like?

I have the opportunity to share a trusted relationship with each of these teachers that gives me the liberty to either offer insight on their teaching practice or have them offer suggestions to mine. However, this does not come without its challenges, [such as] making the time to meet with four different teachers throughout an already busy week.

My role specifically is to modify content for students with learning disabilities or who need information broken down a little more. In these instances, I sometimes prepare a breakout location within the classroom or in a separate classroom where students who need further assistance (not just students with specific learning disabilities) can come and receive a slower paced, more detailed lesson that may include visual cues, manipulatives [like blocks or other props] and activities. Also, because I am a traveling teacher, which means I travel to most classes with my students, I have a better sense of what lessons will engage the students best.

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

From my experience, students usually lose focus with the lesson when they are either fidgety, tired or bored. In these cases, my go-to trick to re-engage that student is to take them outside and give them an opportunity to get their blood flowing. Sometimes it’s a water break and other times I’ll do a light exercise with them if they choose — push-ups, jumping jacks.

However, if it is the rare case that the entire class is off, then I will give them a quick brain break. In this 3-5 minute period, I will have them either do a fun class activity, a breathing exercise or a quick game. This time is also really critical for me to take a mental assessment of why the students are disengaged. Sometimes, I will have to add quick tweaks to the lesson or modify the length of the student work. In most cases, each of these strategies work.

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

One way that I am able to build relationships with them is with my boxing club. A lot of my male students are in that boxing club. We have forged a great relationship and obviously that carries into the classroom.

In any after-school club, a lot of teachers and facilitators will find the students are a little more relaxed and a little more able to be open with their coaches … I have some of the richest conversations with kids after school, just because it’s their time to be competitive, their time to engage in teamwork — and they look to me for advice as a coach, and not just a teacher. It just opens up the levels of trust.

I also take advantage during lunch, as much as possible, to go down with the kids and talk about how they’re doing. I’ll ask a student, “What’s going on? How was school today? What’s on your mind?” A student will tell me either they’re good, or this-or-that is bothering them, and what should they do about it. That’s such a vital opportunity for me, because that can be a time where I can add an intervention right on the spot, before it escalates into something more serious.

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

My cell phone, because I’m always in contact with parents. I have a lot of my parents’ cell phone numbers programmed in my phone — and vice versa, they have mine. Much of my success thus far has been because of parent engagement. I try as much as possible to stay in contact with my students’ parents.

Can you think of a time when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach?

I have tons of those, but there is one from recently. There was one student who we had been having a lot of trouble with. This student not only was being very disruptive in class, but the student would often come to class late. We tried a lot of times to get in touch with the parents, but it turned out that both parents worked a ton and they weren’t able to come up to the school for a parent conference.

Me and another teacher decided to go on a home visit, and that was a really great time because we were able to sit with the parents and the student, and get down to the root of why the student’s behavior is the way it is. We were able to, all together, set goals for the student — goals for which the student was able to add input.

After that meeting, that student’s behavior has become a ton better.

Most of the success I’ve experienced as a first-year teacher is because of parent engagement. That has been my go-to as a teacher.

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.