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 students’ birthdays are the perfect icebreaker for this award-winning Tennessee teacher

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin gets a hug from one of her students after the announcement that she was one of two Tennessee teachers to win a Milken Educator Award.

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.

Paula Franklin’s students describe her teaching style as “relaxingly engaging.”

Maybe that’s because she starts out by building relationships with her students, then begins to introduce the content in her Advanced Placement government class at West High School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Since she took on the course, enrollment has doubled. And more than 80 percent of her students exceed the national average on their final AP test scores.

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last year, Franklin was one of two Tennessee teachers chosen by the Milken Family Foundation for their prestigious national teaching award. The honor includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

We spoke with Franklin about why she became a teacher, how she uses birthdays to build relationships with her students, and why campaign finance reform is her favorite lesson to teach. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

My high school AP Biology teacher, Mr. Wheatley, was my inspiration. He cared about his students as people first and whatever we learned about biology was secondary. As a result, I learned a lot of biology, and a tremendous amount about myself, for which I am forever grateful. I work every day to provide the same type of environment to my students. I try to teach them about themselves through the lens of civic education. I want my students to leave my class not only more confident in their knowledge of our government, but also as inquirers and risk-takers who are equipped to ask questions and find the answers.

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

I spend the first two to three days of class using Kagan class-building strategies to get to know my students and to get them to know each other. I can always make up time for content later, but the time spent building a classroom culture at the beginning of the year can’t be made up.

Another of my favorite things is finding out my students’ birthdays to celebrate them with the class by asking them three questions: Are you going to drive? What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment,? What do you hope to accomplish before your next birthday?

This allows me to spotlight my students and have them think critically about themselves and their goals. I have asked these same three questions for years, and students have started coming to me on their birthdays after they have left my class to share their accomplishments and goals.

What does your classroom look like?

I love to display student work in my classroom, both from my current and former students, so my walls are pretty well covered in posters and art. I think it’s important to make a classroom into a reflection of the students who learn there and goes a long way toward building community.  I arrange the desks in small sections of rows so that I can easily get to all the students to provide support on a difficult concept or assignment or encouragement to stay on task.

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

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen surprise Franklin with her award.

Google Drive! I am a huge reflector and save all of my lesson materials and reflections on my Drive. That way, I can easily access previous lessons and see how to best adapt them for my current students or the current social-political climate.

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

One of my favorite lessons to teach began as my absolute least favorite: Campaign finance reform. The first couple of years, it went terribly. Students didn’t come away with an understanding of campaign finance but were more confused than when we started.

I am big on incorporating technology in my classroom, but for this lesson, I have them write down the original limitations of campaign finance and then cross them off in a different color as we learn about repeals. The action of crossing an item off of the list and annotating with the case or law that repealed it really sticks with them. This lesson is one of my favorites because I get to teach a relatively small amount of content over a class period, students get to work in groups and really wrestle with the content, and they have the opportunity to share their understanding with the whole class.

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

I try to figure out what it was about the lesson they did not understand. I can usually do this by reviewing data from a quiz or test or other assessment or just by asking them. I spend a lot of time in my class focusing on how to ask and answer questions to encourage my students to be advocates for their education both in and out of my classroom. After I figure out what I need to remediate with my classes, I do my best to come up with an example or analogy that is relevant to them. If that doesn’t work, then I ask a colleague how they teach that topic and try that. I am constantly looking for new and different ways to teach content that my students typically struggle with so that I am prepared to switch it up if my plan isn’t working.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It is OK to leave it on your desk; it will still be there in the morning. You are not a bad teacher for needing time for yourself.

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

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.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski 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.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

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 always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”