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The wind at their backs

Bronx math teacher creates a climate conducive to learning
New York Teacher
Math teacher Yocasty Diaz prepares students for an experiment.
Jonathan Fickies

Math teacher Yocasty Diaz prepares students for an experiment.

Sixth-graders test out their theory of air pressure.
Jonathan Fickies

Sixth-graders test out their theory of air pressure.

“Go fly a kite” means serious business in Yocasty Diaz’s math class at IS 219 in the Claremont section of the Bronx.

It means learning about shapes and angles, about atmospheric pressure and wind velocity. It means thinking like a scientist.

Before the wind caught her 6th-graders’ creations and sent them soaring above the schoolyard, the kite project had challenged students to imagine, inquire, plan and experiment. They wrote about the history of kites, drew plans based on their research on kite design and built prototypes. And when the box kite didn’t soar like the others, it was back to the drawing board to figure out what went wrong and do more work on area, pressure and lift.

The lessons in Diaz’s bilingual education classroom all revolve around inquiry-based math and science projects. “I take everything from my students’ lives and use it in math because everything that comes along in life is a learning experience,” she explained.

So when she arrives at school after a two-hour car commute, she poses a math problem: I left home at 5 o’clock, arrived at 7 o’clock, and traveled 95 miles. What was my miles-per-hour rate? And for good measure, she tucks in a little map work.

Diaz, one of 19 teachers who received the city Department of Education’s Big Apple Award for 2017, has been at IS 219 for 16 years, six as a paraprofessional and 10 as a math teacher. She credits her success to “great teachers who supported me and allowed me to collaborate with them in my early days and the UFT career ladder that helped me earn the credits I needed to become certified.”

Since weather is so much a part of daily life, Diaz decided to give center stage to meteorology in her math class. Her classroom is filled with students’ models of barometers, thermometers and anemometers (instruments for measuring the speed of the wind), and the students’ journals are filled with research discoveries and solutions to math problems based on their findings. They are quick to report on temperature averages for specific weeks and to explain the effects of barometric pressure and wind velocity, and they use their own models to verify what they have researched.

The class checks its model anemometer with the professional one donated by NASA that is on the school roof. As part of their link to NASA, the students are able to ask astronauts questions about their school experiments.

Students check the thermometer they have outfitted with a protective covering so
Jonathan Fickies

Students check the thermometer they have outfitted with a protective covering so they can read it on snowy days.

During a recent probe into how air pressure works, students, working in groups, did their own experiments to verify what they had read about in their textbooks. Working with empty plastic water bottles and strips of aluminum foil, they balled the foil to half fill the neck openings. With the bottles held steady and level, they blew into the open halves. Not every hand was steady and not every bottle was level, putting the experiment in jeopardy until Diaz circled the room encouraging patience and continued testing. Soon the “aha” of the satisfied scientists led to hypotheses based on their observations of how air pressure in the bottles affected the foil.

Diaz said it’s important for lessons to include tactile activities to hold student interest. She describes her classroom as “a center of investigation, discovery and risk-taking opportunities.”

Chapter Leader Celeste Smith spoke of Diaz’s close ties to her students and their parents. She noted Diaz’s involvement in the school’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs and training; her service as a chaperone on an overnight trip to Boston for a whaling expedition and museum visits; and her years on the School Leadership Team. “She needs to slow down,” Smith joked.

Diaz said she has forged those bonds with students because she remembers how “scary” it was as a teenager to arrive in New Jersey from the Dominican Republic, knowing no English, and to attend a public school with no bilingual education program. She makes sure none of her students experience that sense of isolation.

Citing Diaz’s strong connection to her bilingual students, their families and the community, IS 219 Assistant Principal Calvin Pinkney said, “I have seen students vie with each other to be near her. I have never seen a student reluctant to enter her classroom.”