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Featured Teacher Spotlight: Samara Levy, Sci Academy

At our Data Day in January, Samara Levy, Sci Academy’s Algebra I Teacher, received the distinction of Featured Teacher. Today, we invite you to get to know Samara in more detail, learning about how she approaches data analysis, her commitment to developing a growth mindset in her class, and how she has built strong relationships with kids.

How did you first get into teaching?

When I was a student at Cornell, I worked for Upward Bound as a tutor, counselor, and mentor. I applied to Upward Bound because I was interested in working with at-risk youth. My grandmother was a preschool teacher, so teaching was always something I was interested in, and Upward Bound seemed like a cool way to reach out to a community that I cared about. Then, when I studied abroad in Israel, I volunteered at an Ethiopian Heritage center as an after-school tutor. When I came back to school, I realized I wanted to continue teaching, so I decided to apply for Teach for America.

What has sustained you as a teacher over the past four years?

There are two main things: my own growth, and knowing that my growth is helping kids. There’s one story that really crystallizes this for me. At Teach For America’s Summer Institute, I taught a lesson. When the Exit Ticket [a short quiz] came back at the end of the class, I saw that the student used the method I showed her to solve a problem. I realized that I taught her that! I was able to give knowledge to another person. That’s something that never gets old for me. I love seeing that kids are able to grow and develop because of things that I illuminate for them. The kids also teach me a lot about patience, compassion, and trust. I have learned so much from my scholars. I hope they know that!

What is your favorite unit to teach and why?

They are all so cool! I really like linear equations, and I also like quadratic functions. Linear Equations is a really interesting unit because it’s based off of middle school content knowledge, but it builds with incredible rigor, and it’s so applicable and transferable to many career paths. Quadratic Functions is the first unit we hit where kids hadn’t seen anything like it before. Kids are presented with a challenge where they are acquiring new knowledge every single day. Seeing them rise to that challenge and fearlessly attack it is really a pleasure.

One thing that came out during your teacher feature was how you use data to drive what you do. Can you describe your process?

When I first started teaching, I found myself explaining away the data or making excuses. I’ve realized now how important it is to be fearless when facing the data. I dig into SchoolRunner to analyze the standards that are core to my content, and I search for trends. Data is honest and needs to be treated as such. Once I stopped being scared of what it would tell me and in turn used it to guide my next set of actions, I became more effective. This year, I started to experiment with increased differentiation to reach kids who are struggling with different objectives. I’ll try teaching in a different way with each group of scholars then reassess two weeks later and see if it was helpful.

When talking with kids about data, it’s all about framing. But at the same time, you can’t mask for kids where they are. Don’t lie to them. I get anxious when I need to deliver tough results, but I think that kids have to know where they are. What’s most important is how you allow them to act and the confidence you let them build from that. It’s important to allow your data to ignite a fire in you and in your kids.

What’s something you did differently this year than other years to impact your class?

I started this new team building activity with each of my class periods that really took off! Each of my class periods has a different name—there are the Fish, the Birds, and the Ducks. I decided to choose these teams because of a quote by Albert Einstein:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Because I teach 10th grade Algebra I, some of my scholars have struggled a lot with math in their past. They felt defined by the fact that they were taking Algebra I as 10th graders rather than 9th graders. I wanted my kids to know that even if they have struggled with math their whole life, that’s okay. I gave them a new identity.

I realized that it was important to continue to spiral that message to make it relevant for kids. Every IA cycle, I show them the Einstein quote again, and I reground them in the meaning behind the names.

I’m also really proud of the way math lessons have become more rigorous and conceptual this year. I’m working hard to get kids to articulate and understand the concept behind the lesson before declaring the lesson complete.

What is your key to building strong relationships with your students that can be leveraged to help scholars succeed academically and socially?

Whenever I talk to kids, it is about their future. I try to start building relationships with kids by asking them about their dreams. What do you want to be? Have you thought about what college you want to go to?

I think it’s so important to show kids that you care about them and that you want them to reach their goals. One of my advisees, Shandrea has grown to be incredibly achievement motivated, but she has also grown an overwhelming amount in being a teammate to all members of our advisory and class. When she does something beautiful that has brought me to tears, I show her that emotion because I think that when you show that to kids, you show them that you have a softness inside of you, and that you truly care about them.

I really love the children. They do a lot of difficult things, but they have to know that you love them and that you care. That’s my secret. I don’t have perfect behavior in my classroom every day by any means, but I’ve realized that kids need to know that you have such high expectations for them because you love them. That’s where I have grown the most as a teacher—becoming less afraid to show to kids that I am here because I care about them.

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