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.

How this Indiana teacher helps hospitalized students transition back to school

PHOTO: FS Productions / Getty Images
Nurse talking to girl in hospital bed

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.

When Sara Midura meets her students, they’ve often just gone through a crisis.

As an educational liaison at Riley Hospital for Children, Midura is both a teacher and an educational advocate for patients in the Simon Skjodt Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Unit. She helps them keep up with schoolwork and transition back to school once their hospital stay is over.

“Many times, the students who come to us are either slipping through the cracks or seen as having huge ‘behavior issues,’” Midura said.

Her work includes easing the anxiety of a student returning to school; partnering with the family, school, and treatment team to make sure a student’s behavioral health needs can be met; and finding a “go-to person” at school who understands the student’s situation.

Midura, who was recently named one of the top 25 finalists for 2019 Indiana Teacher of the Year, talked to Chalkbeat about how she supports hospitalized children and how the lack of mental health resources in schools can affect students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

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

I decided to be a teacher in kindergarten — I loved my teacher and loved school, so it felt like a no-brainer to my 5-year-old self! I proceeded to force my friends to play school with me in my basement and made lesson plans during days that I stayed home sick. I toyed with other ideas for professions through my K-12 education, but solidified my desire to be a teacher as a camp counselor during my high school years.

How do you get to know your students?

Since I only have my students for a short period of time, I try to capitalize on the time I have with them by having them fill out a “school profile,” which really serves two purposes. Since the first time I meet the kiddos is almost always their first day on the unit following a crisis, I know that they are not functioning in their prefrontal cortex and are in crisis mode. They understandably are typically shut off, so the school profile is a great way for them to easily and safely let me get to know them a bit. It starts a good rapport, and I can always connect to something in there. Then each day I just make sure I check in with them, always reminding them that I am their advocate. We talk about school, life, and anything else. It can be easier to get to know them since they are in such a small group setting of up to 10 kids. This is my favorite part of the job!

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

I am certified in Applied Educational Neuroscience (I took a nine-credit hour graduate course at Butler University with Lori Desautels), so I run a group on my unit every week called “Brain Club.” In this, I teach students about their brains, stress, emotions, and how the coping skills we teach them in their therapies and on the unit are truly brain regulation strategies. We talk about the different parts of the brain, which ones we function in where, our amygdala and fear, and so much else! The kids typically love brain club and are so engaged!

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

My iPad! Between playing music — I cannot work in silence! — looking up information to help students with their assignments, and using the different educational apps to fit all of my kids’ needs, I bring my iPad with me everywhere.

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

Mental health resources, or the lack thereof in many districts, greatly impact what happens inside my classroom and on my unit. There are many schools that are so underfunded and lacking resources, leaving staff burnt out. In my mind, this creates and unsafe environment for my patients returning to school. My patients need a school staff that can understand mental/behavioral health.

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

The first really challenging case that I had was a few months into me working on the unit. We had a very high-achieving student who was going through some intensive setbacks, and the student’s dad was extremely concerned about school. I assured him that we would be able to “fix” everything with school and ensure that it went back to his expectation of normal, but that ended up not happening. This experience taught me that I cannot ever promise any outcome, but I can promise families that I will be with them each step of the way to ensure that education matches the treatment needs. This has changed my approach to speaking with families.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Navigating all of the different school systems and cultures during such a short hospitalization period can be very difficult when discussing behavioral health needs. I have my patients for about a week typically, so trying to provide enough support and education to patients, family, and school staff can be very challenging. I often feel like I don’t have the capability to serve schools as well as I would like to with supports! It is also difficult to not know how my students are doing after they are discharged — I wonder about them so often.

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

I’m not so sure that this was a misconception rather than an underestimation, but I really did not comprehend until I got into teaching how huge of a difference a teacher can make on a child’s life. Now what I know about the brain and mental health is that one positive, intensive relationship with a teacher can absolutely change the course of a student’s life — it’s amazing to watch.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

This is very nerdy of me, but I loved reading books that relate to behavioral health, so currently I am reading “Life Without Ed,” a book told from the perspective of someone who battled an eating disorder. I work with many kids with eating disorders, and it is such a terrible, heartbreaking disease that I greatly misunderstood before working on my unit.

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

The best advice I received about teaching was to “fill your four circles consistently.” One of my amazing professors from Butler, Theresa Knipstein Meyer, gave a lecture one day about how crucial self-care is for educators. She showed us the theory of the four circles, where you have to consistently be taking care of different aspects of your health for the circles to be balanced and keep “your fire within” ignited. I think that it is so easy for educators to pour their entire hearts and souls into teaching only to get burnt out, and I have had to be conscious about taking care of every aspect of my life. This makes me a much better teacher and person, and I am so grateful to have learned that.

For this Detroit teacher, math is about teaching ‘what makes something true’

PHOTO: Michael Chrzan
Michael Chrzan teaching math during Math Corps, a summer program at Wayne State University.

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.

Asked what he teaches, Michael Chrzan says “mathematics.” Because in his classroom at Henry Ford Academy, a charter high school in Detroit, math is more than the calculations you need to tip a server or balance a budget. Chrzan, a third-year teacher, sees the abstract reasoning skills of mathematics — the proofs and deductions — as tools to help his students develop a firmer grasp on every aspect of their world.

This is just one of the ways he is unusual. A Teach for America alumnus, Chrzan also went through a traditional teacher training program in college. He is a African-American male math teacher in a country that produces far too few of them. And remember the Pokemon Go craze? He still plays.

Less than a week before Chrzan is to be honored as Teach for America’s teacher of the year in Detroit, Chalkbeat spoke with him about his dealings with parents, the toughest parts of his job, his social media habits, and how he finds  “greatness” in every student.

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

I’ve been teaching in some capacity — teaching or tutoring — since high school. I was a teaching assistant at a summer camp at Wayne State called Math Corps. I caught the bug for teaching there. I did that for three summers. I knew at some point in my life that I would get back into teaching. In college, I took a couple of computer science and math and education classes. And the computer science classes were fun, but I was like, this is just a hobby.

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

I taught geometry the last two years. It’s really a beautiful class because it’s the only class in high school where kids do the work of professional mathematicians. It’s the only class where they do proofs. So we get to have a really rigorous conversation about what makes something true, which is really important in our society right now.

Every year I pull in examples of deductive reasoning from outside of mathematics too.

One of the things I’m going to try this year is bringing in a Supreme Court decision and talking about the deductive reasoning that shows up there.

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

I had a conversation with a very young student’s mother who had the frame of mind that he was responsible for himself.

I was calling to talk about some issues that I’d seen on his homework, and just about getting it completed. That’s a really important part of the learning, that independent practice. And she was very much of the mindset that I needed to have that conversation with him, not her. It was not her job for him to get that done.

It changed how I discussed things with him because it got a much deeper understanding of what he has to deal with outside of these four walls.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The hardest part is motivating students. There are some students who have a really long history of messaging that they’ve gotten from schools, of the kind of person and students they are. I try to reverse that. You plant a seed when you’re the one teacher who’s telling them something different, but sometimes you don’t get to see that seed bloom in one year.

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

That I was ready for it. I did a lot of pre-professional teaching things. In college, I went to New York for two summers and taught in a program called Breakthrough. I did student teaching. I did Teach for America. I was like, I’ve got to be ready for this, I’ve got so much more experience than most people do when they enter the profession.

I was not ready. There’s is nothing that will prepare you for day in and day out being responsible for your kids’ learning.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Children of Blood and Bone,” by Tomi Adeyemi. It’s possibly one of my favorite books of all time. As a millennial, I’m very into social media. I will typically lull myself to sleep on Instagram. And I’ve gotten back into Pokemon Go.

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

There are two. I can’t decide which I like better. The first would be, ‘don’t take anything personally.’ That really helped me understand that if I’m having a management issue with a kid, it may not have anything to do with me, that’s probably a kid who needs help. And that pairs up with assuming the best of my students. They came to class because they want to learn, and maybe something got in the way. I try to find their greatness, whether it’s math or otherwise. That’s a more human way to see students, and it opens them up to new things, like trying difficult mathematics.