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 70s 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.

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 [email protected].

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.