Anatomy of a lesson

In a Bronx English class, new standards and a centuries-old poem converge

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

One bright afternoon this week, Catherine Miller’s 31 sixth-grade honors students sat inside a dimly lit classroom in the north Bronx and analyzed a 16th-century love poem. Its opening lines glowed on an interactive whiteboard at the front of the room: “Forget not yet the tried intent / Of such a truth as I have meant.”

The truth at The New School for Leadership and the Arts, or M.S. 244, the public middle school where Miller teaches sixth and seventh-grade reading and writing, is that the Common Core learning standards have transformed instruction over the past few years.

Miller now pushes her students to dig past the surface of challenging texts, like the poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt, and unearth their buried meanings. In the process, she says she’s made the standards her own. She selected the poem herself, for instance, and used it to supplement a publisher’s curriculum that is heavy on nonfiction.

The Common Core “is very much what you make it,” Miller said. “It can be your friend or foe.”

Chalkbeat spent Monday afternoon observing Miller’s reading class as part of our ongoing look at how the Common Core is reshaping instruction. Miller will join two other middle school teachers on a panel Thursday to talk about how the standards are playing out in their classrooms.

As when we’ve chronicled lessons before, we spoke with Miller after class and have included her thoughts in block quotes beneath highlights from the lesson.

12:58 p.m. As students opened their well-worn readers notebooks, Miller explained that the day’s lesson would explore the way writers use repetition to develop themes. In poetry, she added, repeated words are called a refrain.

A student went to the whiteboard and underlined the poem’s refrain, “Forget not yet,” then the class brainstormed other texts they had read with refrains. Next, Miller cut to the crux of the lesson: Why would Wyatt repeat those words?

“Remember, it’s not enough to tell me something repeats,” she told the class. “The real skill is explaining why there’s repetition — that’s what’s impressive.”

Miller said the purpose of the Common Core literacy standards is to prod students past a basic comprehension of a piece of writing to a more sophisticated study of the way authors assemble texts in meaningful ways.

That shift has been apparent on the state exams, Miller said, which for the first time last year assessed students’ command of the new standards.

“I remember on previous state tests, it was ‘Identify the metaphor,’” she said. “Now it’s, ‘How does that metaphor function and what’s the larger purpose of it within the piece?’”

Last year, when citywide passing rates plunged on the new exams, more than half of Miller’s sixth-grade honors students saw their scores improve over the previous year and a third of her students earned 4’s, the highest possible score.

1:38 Miller turned the class’ attention to “Watcher,” a poem about Hurricane Katrina by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Natasha Trethewey.

As Miller had students write responses to the poems in their readers notebooks, she prodded them to include examples from the text.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
As Miller had students write responses to the poems in their readers notebooks, she prodded them to include examples from the text.

Miller had chosen the first poem mainly for its use of the word “yet,” which was the subject of a recent grammar lesson. But she pulled in “Watcher” because it connected to their reading unit about natural disasters.

Before students tackled the text, Miller asked them to write and recite a few key vocabulary words from it. Then the class debated whether each word carried a positive, negative, or neutral connotation.

One girl argued that the word “looting” had a negative connotation because it suggested that people had taken advantage of chaos. In discussing the word “debris,” a boy referenced an article the class had read about space junk.

Besides previewing vocabulary in difficult texts, Miller also gives some historical context or has the class read related articles to gather background information. (In this case, they had already read about Hurricane Katrina.)

The point is that before students can analyze texts, they have to make sense of them, Miller explained.

“Without comprehension,” she said, “there will be no questions answered.”

2:09 Miller told the students to read the poem and underline instances of repetition. Then she asked them to reread it and jot down questions it provoked. She modeled this by writing a few questions on the board.

Miller modeled writing down questions that came to her as she read a poem.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Miller modeled writing down questions that came to her as she read a poem.

Next, the class drew charts in their notebooks with columns for the stanza number, textual evidence, and significance. The class had decided that the poem’s repetition centered on a character who watched New Orleans reeling after the hurricane.

Together, they found evidence of the repetition, then split off into pairs to document more. One boy and girl debated whether the focus of the final stanza was the character watching for remains or the speaker watching that character “bear the pain” of loss, as the boy put it.

The students knew to back up their arguments with examples from the poem, not their own experiences or opinions. As one student, Di’Anna Bonomolo, noted, “Ms. Miller doesn’t like first person.”

Miller explained that many of her students had previously learned to preface statements about texts with statements like, “I think,” but that the standards called for evidence-based assertions.

“You should be able to prove what you think,” she said, “so you don’t need to say, ‘I think.’”

Miller asked the students to fill in the significance column of their charts for homework: What was the point of all those moments of watching? As they do with most texts, the class would return to the poem the following day to dig for more meaning.

“It challenges you,” Ian Reyes, 11, said after class. “We’re trying to get deep inside the poem.”

Hear Miller and two other middle school teachers explain how they teach reading under the Common Core at a panel discussion co-hosted by Chalkbeat and the Bronx Library Center. The event is Thursday, May 8, at 6 p.m. at the Bronx Library Center.

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.