Why this Memphis educator hates being called a ‘teacher’ and loves ‘organized chaos’

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Biology teacher Chikezie Madu oversees lab work with his students at White Station High School in Memphis. He is one of seven Tennessee educators honored this year with Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a series we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Don’t call Chikezie Madu a teacher. He prefers “facilitator.”

Madu is constantly moving around his biology classroom to foster solution-focused discussions with his students at White Station High School in Memphis. It might look like “organized chaos,” but it’s quite intentional, he says.

And it’s paid off. This year, he was one of seven Tennessee teachers honored with Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the nation’s highest award for teachers of those subjects.

Born in Nigeria, Madu’s path to teaching high school science has been a long and winding one. He taught music theory at a two-year college, then biology and chemistry at a military high school in Nigeria before joining his wife in 2002 in Memphis, where he began teaching middle school. He took a five-year detour as a cancer and genetics researcher at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, but missed mentoring and working with teenagers.

“They just want to learn and find what intrigues them,” Madu says. “I tell people I can’t believe I get to do this.”

In this installment of How I Teach, Madu talks about how he organizes his classroom and encourages students to learn from one another. This Q&A has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Why did you become a teacher?

I delight in the challenge the job presents in coming up with ways of unraveling complex concepts, especially watching youth as their faces light up. Also, I have always cherished mentoring kids and have served in that role since I was in college. Finally, as cliché as this may sound, I was greatly influenced by my high school economics teacher, Mr. Emmanuel Adegoroye.

What does your classroom look like?

It depends on who you ask. To the traditional teacher, I may appear too hands-off. There may be too many students talking (sometimes all at once). It might seem informal with a lot of arguments and disagreements happening, students participating in most of the decision-making process, often cluttered.

On most days, I circulate and facilitate the entire class discussion, allowing the students to learn from each other. I believe that students learn best when they are actively participating in the lesson by explaining, solving, struggling, making mistakes and learning from them.

I couldn’t teach without my ________________. Why?

Visual aids or teaching models.

I use very common materials that students can relate to. For example, a hand-turning whisk may represent ATP synthase (or the enzyme that creates the energy storage molecule adenosine triphosphate) while two zippers stapled together depicts DNA replication.

Almost all students respond very positively to this tactile form of learning. Using common objects to represent intangible phenomenon is a key strategy across all fields of science. Using both hands-on and simulated materials serve as potent learning strategies because the students encounter the materials in their daily lives, triggering reminders of the concepts they learned.

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

It can be frustrating if the student was distracted or was not in school during the early stages of the scaffolding process or does not know the right questions to ask to reveal where he or she needs help. We often figure out what the problem is by either back-tracking to where the confusion originated, asking another student to explain it in “teenage language,” using a different way to explain it, or sometimes all they need is a short break in the middle of a lesson.

I try to prevent that now by frequently checking for understanding every so often, asking the students to re-explain a concept I just did. The nod of a head never assures me that they understand.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Early in my career, I came to terms with the fact that I may not reach every child. But I try to spend some time with them outside the allotted classroom period. Many of them eat lunch in my classroom and we get to talk. I share my background with them. They know a lot about my kids. I give them my phone number, my house number and my wife’s number for them to reach me at any time. They often take me up on that offer. Someone called as late as 1 a.m. I also reveal my vulnerabilities. It’s not uncommon for me to let down my guard and act silly in class by breaking out in karaoke to the latest teen song or dance.

Just like life, adversity often builds strong relationships. A lot of times, a simple question about their struggling grades and expressing some empathy opens the door to a student’s many other struggles.

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

I have often been caught getting upset at a student and misjudging a situation or jumping to conclusions when a student appears to be “lazy,” only to find out that there was an underlying reason like problems at home.

I had a student like this once, where I was certain the student was just not “serious” about academics because they were frequently missing school, not turning in assignments and sometimes falling asleep in class. I eventually visited the home and was devastated at what I discovered.

Measures were taken to help alleviate the situation, and it was amazing the way things turned around. That was a huge learning moment for me. I’m learning daily to get the full story before jumping to conclusions and to determine if there’s anything I can do to help a student from failing the class. The student ended up graduating and going to college and turned out to be the first person to graduate from both high school and college in their family. We still keep in touch.

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.