Nick Johnson on the ‘wonderful and inspiring young people’ he teaches at Rudsdale Continuation School

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Nick, proud because his advisory won the egg drop competition!

Nick Johnson, Math, music and ping pong teacher extraordinaire shares with us about his students and journey teaching at Rudsdale Newcomer (RN). 

How did you come to teach at Rudsdale’s newcomer program?

This is my 8th year in Oakland Unified, and my second year at RN. Before I started here, I taught for six years in the Home and Hospital (H&H) department (working with students who were medically unable to attend classes at school).

Like Rudsdale Newcomer, the Home and Hospital department falls under the Alt-Ed umbrella, so my supervisor in that job was Lucia Moritz (Director of Alt-Ed). When RN was being planned, Dr. Moritz, who knew that I was considering a shift back towards teaching in a classroom, thought that I would be interested and suggested that I apply. I’m so happy that I did and that I got the job – I really love our school!

What areas do you teach? 

I teach the Algebra and Geometry classes (my credential is in math), and sometimes Econ. On Wednesdays, we have electives and I teach a music class (students can choose between guitar, ukulele, and piano) and also a ping-pong class. It’s great to be able to work with some of the same students I teach in my math classes in a different context with music or ping-pong. Among other things (like being really fun), it also helps us build better relationships, and it’s nice to be able to teach when students get to choose their electives and are usually extra enthusiastic and motivated to learn.

Back when I was teaching in H&H, often working with students 1-on-1, the nature of the job provided the flexibility to work with students on some electives of their choosing in addition to their core academic classes. I would frequently ask students to pick an instrument or a language that they wanted to learn. I wasn’t always particularly qualified to teach whatever they happened to choose, but it was fun to learn things along with students, and I’m really grateful to be able to continue doing things like music and language instruction in addition to math, this time in a classroom environment.

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How does your math class work in terms of the different levels students come in with? 

Of course, in any classroom you’ll encounter students with a range of previous experiences with whatever the subject, but that range is quite large with our students.

This being only my second year working exclusively with newcomers, it’s still a key challenge with which I still have plenty room for improvement. If you ask me again in another year or two I’ll probably have a different answer. That said, for the most part I’m just trying as many strategies as I can, most of which would be fairly standard good practice in any classroom. These include:

  • Including as many visuals as I can come up with on my instructional slides.

  • Incorporating as many hands-on activities as I can find or think of.

  • Bringing in as many capable volunteers as I can to provide individualized attention and support.

  • Allowing for differentiation and choice. This applies both to the level of a particular math task a student feels ready to try (aka “low floor, high ceiling” tasks, which range from very basic to the tricky and subtle “bonus” challenge problems), and also, at times, to what topic a student wants to spend time on at all.  For example, I have many students who are initially unable to tell time on the analog clocks on our classroom walls, and other students for whom spending any instructional time on that would feel insultingly trivial. So on certain days I’ll ask students to choose what they want to work on, or when we do our weekly computer math time, they can pick which topic and level they want to try. This is one of many things I saw when I observed math teachers at Oakland International a few years ago.

  • Strategic L1/L2 use. I speak Spanish, and I use it frequently in class if I feel like a student is on the brink of becoming too confused or frustrated (as many people would attest, math can be plenty daunting in one’s native language). Unlike other newcomer schools like Oakland International, virtually all of our students either understand Spanish, or have a peer in class who speaks both Spanish and their L1 (be it Mam, Jakaltek/Popti’, etc), so direct translation is almost always an option.

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What kinds of activities do you find effective to engage students in math?

I try to make my problems about money or physical measurement as much as possible, and that tends to grab students’ attention a little quicker than just numbers in the abstract. And really, I should (and hope to soon) come up with more real world applications and activities to incorporate into my lessons. That can be a very effective approach, particularly with certain students, and I don’t want my students to be frequently wondering “why am I learning this?” or “when am I ever going to use this?”

However, I definitely don’t think that math needs to always be “real-world” (in the immediately applicable sense) to be engaging. Math can mean simply using logic and reason, and people are naturally curious and generally like to feel challenged, so long as they understand what they’re being asked and aren’t too overwhelmed/intimidated. I have some math puzzles on my desk, like a Rubik’s Cube and the Tower of Hanoi puzzle, and even the most otherwise disengaged students will often wander over and start trying those out, without any motivation or encouragement from me.

Like most math teachers, I’m acutely aware of math’s reputation among the general public. But also like most math teachers, I love math and think that anyone can enjoy it, too. And I think if you show students something that you are genuinely enthusiastic about, they pick up on that. Whatever the problem is, if a student is into it, you can always take it a step further, with drawing it, graphing it, coming up with a rule, extending the problem in various ways.

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Anything else you’d like to share!

I just think that all of the hard work that my very talented and committed coworkers have put in over the past year and a half is really paying off, in terms of RN becoming such a warm and welcoming place, and I think that anyone who visits our campus can feel it. Also our students are just such wonderful and inspiring young people.

In terms of other bright spots, there have just been so many moments of joy and struggle in my classroom that have made me beam. A lot of our students show such growth, and quite quickly, be it in their English or math abilities, or just in their confidence in themselves in a classroom environment. But honestly, the thing that makes me smile the most is the enthusiasm with which some students have taken to learning an instrument or ping-pong. I have a number of students who come in to my room daily at lunch to keep practicing their instruments.

And even more gratifying/surprising, there’s a group of students who get out the ping-pong table almost every day at lunch to play pick-up games in the courtyard, such that it’s now spread to a bunch of students who never took the ping-pong elective. There’s not a much better feeling as a teacher than to introduce something to students and then watch them keep coming back to it on their own, and teach it to others. One of our students who just graduated last month wrote me a letter in which she thanked me for both pushing her in class, and for teaching her ping-pong, because before that she didn’t like sports. It makes me cry every time I read it.

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