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April 20, 2021 | Abby Liu
We’re running a new video interview series so that you can get to know our Middle School faculty. We hope that you enjoy learning more about them!
Abby Liu: Hello, I’m Abby Liu, Director of Marketing Communications at Mustard Seed School. I’m here today with Sam Choi, who is our eighth grade homeroom teacher. And also, he teaches a lot of subjects. so, Mr. Choi, why don’t you tell us what you teach?
Sam Choi: Currently I’m teaching seventh and eighth grade pre algebra and algebra, and I’m also teaching social studies for sixth, seventh and eighth. And that entails history, but also ethics, civics, and other social studies.
Abby Liu: Alright, we’ll get started. Thank you for being here and helping us to get to know you a little bit better. Why don’t you tell us what you studied in college?
Sam Choi: So this should be an easy answer, but I have a fairly long answer to this, so bear with me.
So my public high school started experimenting with AP classes, and they allowed everybody from freshman year to take AP classes, as many as we wanted. So I took all the AP classes that were available, so much so that I was able to go to college almost as a junior. So the first two years I took as many classes as I wanted. I just took a bunch of different classes. So I took classes all the way from like Russian literature to organic chemistry, not knowing what I wanted to do. But then by the time I got to my final year my advisor told me–I don’t even know this was a thing– but after a certain number of units, your newer units replace your older units of credits college credits. At least in my college it was a thing. So what would happen was I was gonna start losing my credits towards classes, so I wouldn’t have enough units to actually graduate with a specific major. So I asked them what was the fastest way for me to graduate. What was the class that had the most credits so I could graduate this year? And they said history. So I only had two more history classes to take to major, so I ended up majoring in history with minors in literature and biology because that’s where I had a ton of credits.
Abby Liu: So you’re a renaissance man.
Sam Choi: Or just wasn’t able to plan very well.
Abby Liu: We’ll go with Renaissance man. So you have all of these things that you’re interested in, what is it that you most enjoy teaching in terms of content?
Sam Choi: I love teaching everything. I think content at this point has become a secondary, like it’s so personal. I love the students and being with the students.
The content itself– I find everything so interesting that I get interested in whatever we’re covering.
But I mean, history, as that’s something that I’ve been enjoying teaching and math and science, those are all content. But I also like literature. I like teaching, talking about books. So when we do advisory groups, and we get to talk about books, I like that. The only thing I probably couldn’t do are ones that require skill like music and art. Things that I don’t actually have skills for. But on the other content I just love teaching, all these other things.
Abby Liu: That’s so great. Can you tell us about a moment when a student was challenged beyond what you were expecting in class? What did their work look like and what was exciting for you about that as a teacher?
Sam Choi: So, we have students, I mean unfortunately school is not in a vacuum. I think some students are able to separate school from everyday life. Or they have the luxury of doing that or everything is just that they’re given this opportunity where school is the thing they get to do 9-5 and then that’s it. And then there are students where life kind of intercedes, and there are things that happen. And there’ve been plenty of students who have come through who had obstacles outside of school, outside of learning that encroached upon school like day to day.
Just not having the time to do the work, or not having the space to do the work or the mind being young, it’s hard being a teenager to begin with. It’s hard being that age to begin with and then having all the other things, whatever– maybe family or whatever issues coming in. It hinders your work or hurts your work and you know that’s been– that looks different for different students. But sometimes it means that students don’t turn in the work that they need to do. We have to come up with special circumstances for students to help them to not give up and not just get frustrated. But to help them realize that parts of life, as they come into their schoolwork, we can work with them with this and help them come up with strategies to overcome this. Or strategies to incorporate this because that’s just something that they’re going to need. Unfortunately, they have to learn it earlier than other students, but it’s just something that we’re all going to have to do anyway to balance everything out.
And I don’t know if “excitement” is the right word, but helping students or being part of their life, is one of the reasons I want to teach. I want to be a teacher. I didn’t want to just be the person that teaches them how to do the quadratic equation or teach them how to do these things. I wanted to be there and help them with things that may be more personal.
And you know growing up I went through many of the same things. Life wasn’t always easy and it interjected into schoolwork and stuff like that. I try to help students understand that and try to use my past to help them.
Abby Liu: Yes, It sounds like you have a real heart for the student who’s struggling, and the work that’s happening beyond the classroom is the whole child work. All the parts of their lives that they’re bringing to school–that they can bring their entire authentic self to school, even if they’re struggling.
Sam Choi: Yes. You said that better than I could.
Abby Liu: I love that. So much a part of who we are as a school is serving kids exactly where they are, and giving them what they need. Well of course we’ve been thinking a lot about Universal Design for Learning and diversity, equity and inclusion. What’s something that you’ve tried in your classroom as a result of the work that we’re doing to study UDL or Universal Design for Learning?
Sam Choi: So one of the key things that we’re been doing is giving students different options for assessments. So whether making a video or writing an essay or doing a multiple choice question or for anything that’s helping them figure out what’s the best way they know how to express their learning, rather than trying to give them a one size fits all kind of way. And I think that’s something that I’ve definitely grown as a teacher. To be perfectly frank, it’s much easier to give them one test because that’s all I have to grade: either a multiple choice question or give them a short answer–whatever. I can just create that. But then what’s become obvious is that all students don’t express the learning the same way. Which means that I’m not doing them justice, because I’m not really testing them for what they know. I’m just testing on if they know the way I want them to know.
Abby Liu: If they can take the test.
Sam Choi: Right. Which is different. So I think that’s really what UDL has really opened up. It’s helped me see the students learning more authentically.
Abby Liu: That’s great. So that actually leads us to the diversity, equity, and inclusion question. So what’s an action that you’ve taken in your classroom to better honor and celebrate the diversity that’s there, whether it’s neurodiversity or some other kind?
Sam Choi: Yeah, I mean, once again, the assessment I think is for the neurodiversity, just for the different kinds of learners. But specifically for this month, for Women’s History Month, I had students create slides celebrating a different notable woman for this month, for our morning meeting. We’ve been discussing a woman who’s contributed to society or has done something. And last month it was Black History Month and we celebrated by learning about people who contributed to society. So I think trying to do stuff like that, where we learn more about people of color who have contributed positively and showed excellence.
Not only people of color are also open to diversity like women and such. Just doing more of that because I think, especially as someone who teaches social studies and history I’m awfully aware that I teach a lot of European history. And I still have a mental block when trying to get out of that. I don’t want to completely abandon it because European history is important. But supplement it or to at least show more than just that side of the equation.
Abby Liu: Right. So to take what we’ve been saying about or how we’re examining our curriculum, and trying to broaden it to be inclusive of a lot of different cultures and peoples.
Sam Choi: I think that representation is important and being able to see ourselves in whatever we’re studying is important. And then just hearing our stories. I want to make sure that when we’re learning history or learning in general, that we are able to show all sides of it rather than just the one curated side that’s the easiest to teach. Or the one that’s the most comfortable.
Abby Liu: Right or the one that got recorded. That we know of. That we find the many other sides and perspectives.
Sam Choi: Yeah.
Abby Liu: What motivates you and inspires you as a teacher?
Sam Choi: I think at this point in my teaching career it’s mostly the students. I think when I started off it was probably, I had a little bit of, “I’m gonna teach these kids and I’m going to make a difference in their lives and I’m going to be this, I’m gonna do all this, which is still something I’m not going to turn my back on.
But just knowing the students and seeing them grow up. Teaching at a small school like this, you have the opportunity to see students grow up and come back. To see them as young adults. It’s amazing. It’s amazing to see how [Mustard Seed School] has impacted them. Or how like the ideas, and just what they grow and who they grow into. Yeah, but I see that and that always inspires me.
Abby Liu: To embrace the knowing and caring.
Sam Choi: Yeah.
Abby Liu: Is there anything else that our family should know about you?
Sam Choi: No. (laughs) I’m really bad. I do roll with these questions because I’m good at answering questions. I would be a horrible hype man for myself. I’m not very good at talking about myself.
Abby Liu: You’re about to be your– your wife is about to be the incoming head of school. So that’s something.
Sam Choi: Oh yes.
Abby Liu: And you’re the parent of two Mustard Seed students as well. Which I’ve been there, too. Mine are alumni. You know them well. Alright so I’ve got my quick questions.How long have you worked at Mustard Seed?
Sam Choi: This is my 14th year, and my 25th overall in teaching.
Abby Liu: Wow. It’s my 14th year, too. What’s the last book you read?
Sam Choi: The last book I read was a children’s book because I read books to my boys every night. The last book I read for myself, which was I think like September, because it’s been a while, but it’s Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.
Abby Liu: What’s a show that you’re watching right now or that you’ve recently enjoyed?
Sam Choi: I’ve been really enjoying all the Disney plus shows. So, WandaVision and the Falcon and the Winter Soldier, just mindless– I’ve watched way too much TV during the pandemic. I’ve gone back and re-watched every show. I’ve watched quite a bit. I’ve also watched all the Docu series.
Abby Liu: Yeah, I think all of us are sort of in the same boat with all the watching. Alright. I’m gonna ask you what the historical figures since you said that you’d be up for that. If you could have a conversation with a historical figure, who would it be?
Sam Choi: Well I’ve almost always said that St. Augustine would be my answer whenever I’ve heard this question. And St Augustine still would be it probably. But I recently saw the movie Judas and the Black Messiah. I would love to sit down and talk with Fred Hampton. Yeah, that would be fascinating to me.
Abby Liu: We just need to get a time machine. What’s the first thing that you’re going to do when the pandemic is over at least the or at least the major restrictions lifted?
Sam Choi: I’m going to go running without my mask. I can’t remember the last time I’ve gone running without my mask. I know people put it on the chin and I just can’t do it. Just, psychologically, I can’t do it, so I always wear my mask. I can’t wait to breathe freely when I run.
Abby Liu: I’m with you on that with the stairs at Mustard Seed School. I get all the way up to the third floor and I’m just sucking in mask. Favorite dessert?
Sam Choi: Cheesecake. Any kind of cheesecake.
Abby Liu: Name a band or artist that you enjoy listening to.
Sam Choi: Regardless of what I’m listening to I always go back to the Beatles. Like I sometimes listen to the 80s and 90s, listen to something like that but then it always goes back to the Beatles somehow.
Abby Liu: Classic. And then what’s item one one item that will always be in your fridge?
Sam Choi: Well, it’s not in my fridge because I rarely keep it chilled, but Diet Coke. I always have Diet Coke in the house. Yeah, always.
Abby Liu: You and Dr Smith. That was her answer, too. Thank you so much for taking the time to help us get to know you a little bit better. And we’ll be seeing you around school.
Sam Choi: Alright. Thank you!