Erica Marcus ASpotlight Interview

Read below to learn more about Third Grade Teacher Erica Marcus's approach when designing math curriculum, her incorporation of social emotional learning into her classroom, and some of her favorite units to teach!
Can you tell me about your professional journey into teaching?
I studied Greek and Roman mythology, culture, and art in college; that was my passion. So, I decided to start my career by working in museums. I interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum at Eldridge Street, and then I finally got a job at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. I worked there for five years, helping with submissions, project management, and curating. I learned a lot from this experience – including the fact that I don’t love sitting behind a desk all day.
 
I found myself constantly going into the Education Department at the museum to mention things I thought would be good for the education programs. After a while of lingering in the Education Department, I decided to go back to school, to get a second master’s degree, this time in Education. My mom was a preschool teacher, and I think teaching is just in my blood. She passed away before I decided to be a teacher, and I like to think I am carrying on her passion and dedication to the field. So, now I have a Master in Museum Studies and a Master in Education from Bank Street. I did my student teaching in both public and private schools with a wide range of children then landed my first real teaching gig at The Dalton School. I stayed there for three years before moving to Allen-Stevenson to be a third-grade teacher.
 
When I interviewed, I knew that this would be the right fit for me. The first thing that struck me about the School was how kind everyone is in this building, from René Rivera at the front desk to seeing Jenn Zimmermann, Assistant Lower School Head, First and Second Grade, in the hallways. When I interviewed, I initially met Kristin Filling, Assistant Lower School Head, Third Grade, and Stephen Warner, Lower School Head and immediately felt like I had found my place.
 
What do you like about working and collaborating with the Third Grade Team?
I just clicked with everyone when I visited. I could tell I was a good match with the Third Grade Team in terms of personality, humor and organization. When I met Third Grade Teacher Cate Campo for a visit in her classroom, one of her students asked, “Are you best friends?” Our grade team functions as a unit. I feel very blessed and fortunate to have that because that does not happen at every job.
 
Every Monday and Wednesday, we sit down as a team – actually on Fridays and on Thursdays too. We are really collaborative and are constantly bouncing ideas off each other and talking about what’s coming up. Kristin Filling is in charge of reading. I lay out the math. Cate Campo and Katherine Callahan, Third Grade Teacher, are responsible for language arts. Chris Brozyna, Third Grade Teacher, oversees social studies, which I love talking to him about because it’s also a passion of mine. Just because I’m setting out math doesn’t mean that my teammates can’t provide their own input and create combined units along with me. We try to collaborate a lot between classrooms because the boys want to see their friends in the other classes, and it’s a good way to freshen up a lesson and bring a new group of kids together.
 
How do you teach your classes differently because you are teaching boys?
Everyone always told me that teaching all boys would be different, but I’ve taught boys in the co-ed classrooms and didn’t think it would be such a change. But it is. It’s a totally different vibe and energy. With boys, you have to incorporate much more movement. I create every lesson with boys’ needs in mind. I try not to speak for the whole lesson, and we almost always do something hands-on or move around the room. If I do have to talk for a longer period of time, I make sure that I do a brain break. Those things are at the forefront of my mind.
 
I think that is a distinct advantage for boys to have an all-boys education. Educators can focus on the specific needs of boys. In co-ed classrooms, they might not get the same number of brain breaks or as many opportunities to release energy. Here, we can cater our teaching style to their specific needs. Working at an all-boys school is certainly never boring. My students keep me on my toes.
 
Can you describe one of your favorite curriculum units?
The Oregon Trail Journal is one of my favorite units. I actually had Director of Educational Technology Marissa Zelmanowicz help me find the old MS-DOS version of the Oregon Trail computer game that I used to play in my classroom as a child. I love that this project is fun and creative and combines social studies with language arts. The boys make a journal and we burn the edges and stain the pages with teabags to make them look old. The boys really get into it.
 
How does social-emotional learning (SEL) play a role in your classroom? Can you describe some of the lessons? Why is this important?
I love our social-emotional learning curriculum in the Third Grade because we are really collaborating and are not just relying on one person to form the unit. Ms. Callahan has been the driving force behind our SEL curriculum and came up with a lot of the ideas, and every year we add new things as a team.
 
Last year we added a section on “celebrating our differences.” We talk about what is on the surface that people can see, like when you observe the top of our "iceberg," and what is underneath our surface that people cannot see. We realize that there is so much more that you cannot see than what you visibly observe.
 
Social-emotional learning is a very important part of our curriculum. I have a kindness box and on Friday we read acts of kindness out loud for “Feedback Friday.” Everyone writes something down that they notice during the week, like “James opened the door for everyone.”
 
But, just because we have it scheduled on Fridays does not mean that we do not address it every single day during morning meeting or if something comes up. If something does arise, we want to address it immediately. While we have an established curriculum, it is very flexible based on what is currently happening and needs to be addressed. For example, a boy once made a comment about being “normal.” So, I decided that this should be a topic for discussion. What is normal? Another topic that came out this year is what is the difference between bullying and teasing. So, we made a lesson about that. Others have included positive self-talk and perseverance.
 
SEL is a nice way to address things that come up in the classroom and to get the boys to share what is going on in their lives. We try to incorporate tons of hands-on activities. For the perseverance unit, they had to build a bridge with five people using five materials. The next day, I threw a wrench in their plans to force them to rethink their approach and persevere through the problem together.
 
Looking forward, I want to start a book bag initiative similar to what the Kindergarten does with their book-a-day program but for First through Third Grades. The books would highlight social justice or social studies curriculum. The boys would bring them home and read them with the adults in their lives. I think that would be a great way to tie SEL to the home.
 
Are there any fun traditions, or a passion of yours, that you incorporate into your classroom curriculum?
I am a huge Olympics fan. My favorite math unit is the math Olympics at the end of the year. I wish we could hold it in February when the Olympics are happening, but it focuses on measurement and our measurement unit is at the end of the year. This unit is very interactive and keeps the boys moving and is a fun way to keep our learning going until summer. I come up with four Olympic events that the boys have to do using measurement. During social studies, Mr. Brozyna has been working on a mapping unit where the class goes over fractions and measuring down to the 1/16 of an inch. I am taking that unit and expanding on it to show how many practical, real-work applications of measurement there are. We also tie it in with “Mr. America” by representing Team America at our Olympics.
 
Every year, the Third Grade holds a debate on school uniforms, which is the first of many debates they will participate in at A-S. What do you think is the importance of this unit? Why do you think Third Grade is a good age to begin debating?
The debates are an introduction to persuasive writing and stating opinion as fact. It is not flowery; it is to the point. They have to do research and then synthesize that information to come up with solid facts and examples. On top of that, we are also teaching public speaking. The boys are introduced to the skills involved in public speaking in Second Grade: make eye contact, look at the speaker, and stand up tall. In Third Grade we really hammer that home. We watch a debate video and critique it. We ask: What are you noticing? What are you distracted by? Using the video is also a good way to highlight debate terminology and to exemplify what the “dos and don’ts” are in a debate. A huge “don’t” is making fun of someone – that’s called ad hominem. They took these rules so seriously, and I honestly think this is one of the best debates that we have had. They did so well with the points they made and how they made real-world connections to what is happening in our community and our world. One of the boys asked about the transgender community with regard to school uniforms. I thought that was a very poignant comment. The debates are a way to highlight their voices and what they believe in.
 
“Mr. America” is a wonderful culmination of the third graders’ study of America, and alumni frequently cite it as one of their most cherished memories from their time at A-S. What do you think is special about this tradition?
“Mr. America” ties in so many different components and is such a fun celebration for the grade. It is the culmination of their social studies unit. It incorporates persuasive and perspective writing that the boys have been working on this year. It ties in public speaking too.
 
This social studies unit starts in January and runs through the end of the school year – that is a significant length of time for these boys. During the unit, they go in-depth when studying the regions of the United States. Mr. Brozyna leads the unit. He goes beyond just teaching state capitals; he teaches the boys what the highest points are of every state, how many miles are between one state capital and another, and which rivers flow into which cities. They know more bodies of water and state information than I ever learned in school.
 
So, when they get assigned their own state to represent, they are just brimming with excitement to show what they know. They write a paragraph about their state to read aloud during the performance and some of the boys really get into character. They put on accents and include jokes and sarcasm. Their voice truly comes out in those pieces. All sorts of fun dances are incorporated that they have to practice for weeks and weeks before the show.
 
Allen-Stevenson structures social studies so that the boys start by thinking about their selves and then keep moving out into society and the world. This movement outside of the self is developmentally appropriate because they’re now starting to have more perspective about the world apart from their lives and think more about others. Last year, they studied immigration. This year, we are branching outside of the self. We are bringing in history like the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. The boys have to think about the big moments in our past. What has shaped our nation? What will shape our future? We also talk about activists who have made a huge impact in United States history as part of our reading curriculum designed by Ms. Filling.
 
“Mr. America” ties in so much. We continually try to think of ways that we can connect it to every other unit. I love it! I hope it doesn’t change.
 
You take on the primary role in developing our third-grade math curriculum. Can you tell me about that?
I was asked to take on the role of developing our math curriculum, and I got the ball rolling by spending the summer working on it. When I came back in September, I had the whole thing mapped out.
 
I remember my math classes growing up as being very dry. The teacher did not explain concepts and it was a lot of memorization. When I went back to school to get my Master in Education, I realized that there are more exciting ways to teach math. I break it down to help the kids understand it in a way that they are getting a true number sense and also applying the math to the world around them. You can show them that there are real uses for math.
 
We do math investigations in class where the boys are tasked with figuring out how to solve a problem on their own. We turn them into investigators and have them ask important questions, show their thinking, and get engaged in their projects.
 
One project was on ages and timelines. We had the boys track their family’s ages on a number line timeline to understand the concept of constant difference. You and your mother will always be the same distance apart in age, no matter how old you are. It is constant. It is never changing. So, they were able to use their own families as a context for learning. They came up with four to seven family members, pets included! They then showed their age comparisons for all of these other family members.
 
Another activity we tried was a grocery, stamp, and measuring strip investigation where we focused on the concept of multiplication. We talked about how grocery stores organize their fruit in boxes or on shelves. It is an early concept in multiplication. Instead of counting by ones, we have the boys counting by groups. This approach forces them to think in terms of grouping and be more efficient. It is a totally different way of thinking from what we all learned and experienced in school growing up. We do a lot of mental math strategies. No teacher ever told me that a nine could be a ten if I needed it to be. So, we are trying to teach them efficient strategies so that they don’t have to write out the algorithm and do all of those steps. They can change the numbers mentally and solve in seconds.
 
I always want to show my students that we are constantly learning and growing. Just because I am a teacher does not mean that I am not also learning. Learning is a lifelong endeavor and I want to impart that to my students.
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Allen-Stevenson’s distinctive “enlightened traditional” approach educates boys to become scholars and gentlemen.