Anatomy of a lesson

This teacher uses butterflies and bracelet-making to bring science alive for her students

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Kristin Poindexter helps her kindergarten students assemble butterfly bracelets in her science class at Spring Mill Elementary School in Washington Township.

Kristin Poindexter sits on the floor with her feet tucked beneath her, quietly motioning to the group of students in front of her as they hover over containers of colored beads and a pile of black pipe-cleaners.

The goal is to assemble bracelets keeping with the theme of the day’s lesson: Learning about the lifecyle of Monarch butterflies. Eventually, the bracelets will serve as physical reminders to the kindergarteners at home.

“What’s the first thing that happens?” Poindexter asks the students, holding up the unadorned pipe-cleaner.

“Egg!” the kids reply, thinking back to the story she read the class just a few minutes earlier.

“So these are my eggs, the clear beads,” Poindexter says, sliding one bead onto the bracelet. She continues stringing beads until she finishes. “Now I’m going to squish them all together. Your job is to take this home.”

Students create bracelets to remind them of the lifecycle of a butterfly.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students create bracelets to remind them of the lifecycle of a butterfly.

Chalkbeat visited Poindexter’s kindergarten class at Spring Mill Elementary School earlier this month as part of an ongoing series aimed at learning more about how skilled teachers teach.

Poindexter received one of teaching’s highest honors this year when was named among 213 math and science teachers from across the country to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence. The award comes with $10,000 from the National Science Foundation and a special celebration at the White House.

“Never in a million years did I think that I would arrive at that award,” Poindexter said.

On the afternoon of Chalkbeat’s visit, Poindexter’s class was in the middle of its Monarch butterfly unit. Poindexter said she’s helping her students learn about the lifecycle of the butterflies and why their population is shrinking. She’s also connecting the idea of butterfly migration to migration of people and animals.

“I’m kind of making the segue between animals and people, and what migration means, moving from one place to another,” Poindexter said. “We’ll end up at Thanksgiving about how people migrate and move from different places.”

We spoke with Poindexter after class and included her thoughts in block quotes beneath highlights from her lesson.

1:20 p.m. Sitting with her class gathered in front of her, Poindexter holds up a book: “A Butterfly is Born.”

Slowly, she reads the story, which details how tiny caterpillars hatch from eggs, grow and then form a chrysalis before turning into a Monarch butterfly. As she reads, Poindexter stops frequently to ask the students questions.

“Their tongues help them sip nectar from the flowers,” she reads. “Do you remember what nectar is?”

“Sugar water!” the class choruses back.

“I let them discover it for themselves. I don’t answer a lot of questions. I answer ‘Can I use the restroom?’ and that’s the only question I’ll give a direct answer to. You’ve got to figure it out on your own. They can figure it out.”

1:28 p.m. After the story, Poindexter tells the class that they will be coloring their own life-size Monarch butterflies to send to a classroom in Mexico, signifying how the Monarchs migrate in the fall from the United States to Mexico.

“We’re going to send 22, one for each of us,” Poindexter tells her students.

“I really want them to understand there’s a whole mystery involved with these Monarchs going to Mexico, and scientists don’t even understand why. I also want them to kind of develop a level of concern for the Monarch butterfly because many are getting hit by cars, and there’s not enough milkweed to sustain them. A lot of them lose their little lives on their way to Mexico.”

A kindergartener in Kristin Poindexter's class at Spring Mill Elementary School works on coloring her life-size Monarch butterfly.
PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergartener in Kristin Poindexter’s class at Spring Mill Elementary School works on coloring her life-size Monarch butterfly.

1:30 p.m. Before the coloring can commence, Poindexter tells the class they’ll be learning a song about the butterfly lifecycle, which they need to teach to someone at home for homework. To remember the lifecycle steps, they begin constructing their bracelets.

Poindexter demonstrates how to make the bracelet using a black pipe-cleaner and a small handful of beads: one white for the egg, a black and two yellows for the caterpillar, a green bead for the chrysalis, and a butterfly-shaped bead for the final stage when the caterpillar turns into a Monarch.

Then, she moves on to another tool for remembering — a song, sung to the tune of “Up on the Housetop.” As she sings about the butterfly stages, she points to the corresponding parts of the bracelet.

“First comes the butterfly and lays an egg/Out comes a caterpillar with many legs/Oh see the caterpillar spin and spin/A little chrysalis to sleep in/Oh, oh, oh, wait and see/Oh, oh, oh, wait and see/Out of the chrysalis, my oh my/Out comes a Monarch butterfly.”

“I wanted to give them something physical to manipulate and really cement that in their brain, and the song, to really get that to stick. I promise they’ll come back tomorrow and sing that song that’s stuck in their head.

I’m looking for growth over time. By Friday I’ll be thrilled to death if they can tell me the lifecycle, where the Monarchs go and migrate to, name the milkweed plant. Then we’ll start brainstorming things we can do as citizens of the Earth to help the Monarch butterfly. I originally planned this lesson for a week. This group is so into it, I’m going to have to go another week.”

1:51 p.m. Once the class has finished their bracelets, now safely on their wrists, Poindexter’s teaching assistant collects the freshly colored butterflies.

To finish up, Poindexter gathers the kindergarteners together for one more round of the butterfly song.

“Let’s sing it again,” she says cheerfully.

Some of the kids mumble at first, but by the last verse, they all join in.

Schola Latina

With school board approval, new Detroit Latin School plans to enroll students as soon as next fall

Plans for the new Detroit Latin School involve renovating the former Brady Elementary School building on Detroit's west side.

Detroit students in grades 5 through 7 might start enrolling as soon as next fall in a new school focused on the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.

The new Detroit Latin School, which hopes to eventually serve students in grades K through 12, won approval from the Detroit school board Tuesday night to enter into a 99-year, $1 lease for an abandoned school on the city’s west side.

The school is one of two new schools opening next year as the district makes a play to recruit some of the 30,000 Detroit children who currently commute to the suburbs for school.

When news of the school first broke last month, some critics grumbled that the district should focus on supporting its existing schools rather than opening new ones. The 106-school district has dozens of buildings that are half-full or in serious disrepair. Others wondered why a district overwhelmingly serving African-American students is backing a school that emphasizes European culture rather than building additional Afrocentric schools.

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti says he hopes the Latin school’s unusual curriculum will appeal to families who might otherwise shun the district and will keep students — and the state funds that come with them — in the district rather than see them flow to charter or suburban schools.  

Board members, who approved an agreement for the Latin school in a unanimous vote Tuesday night, said they hope the district will hold the new school to high academic standards and will push to make sure that ancient African cultures such as Carthage and Kush are incorporated in the school’s curriculum along with Greece and Rome. They also called on the district to add Afrocentric programs to its schools.

“I’m pleased with this and excited,” said board member Misha Stallworth. “I like the classics but I also hope that as we continue to look at new school opportunities, we can pursue subjects that are a little more reflective of our community.”

According to an agreement approved by the board Tuesday, the new school will be run by the George Washington Scholars Endowment, an organization founded in 1785 that has opened similar schools in Washington, D.C., and New York.

The Detroit version will be a traditional district school, subject to school board oversight and policies. Teaching staff will be district employees and members of district unions, though some administrators will work for the endowment.

The district will pay for routine maintenance and operations, while the endowment plans to raise money — as much as $75 million — to support the school and to renovate the former Brady Elementary School on the city’s west side.

The endowment, which will operate the Latin School in another district building for two years while the Brady campus is being renovated, has ambitious plans involving a four-building campus in a traditional quad configuration. The campus will include a lower school serving grades K through 6, an upper school serving grades 7 through 12, a science and technology building, a “center for rhetoric and performing arts,” and a dormitory.

The agreement authorizes the school to house about 20 international students in the dorm.  

It’s not clear what happens if the endowment falls short of its ambitious fundraising goals. The agreement approved Tuesday calls for the property to revert back to the district if it is no longer being used as a traditional public school.

Also not clear is what happens if the school struggles academically or doesn’t meet the district’s expectations for serving students. The agreement approved Tuesday largely spells out the financial relationship between the district and the school and doesn’t go into detail about the school’s curriculum or academic policies beyond specifying that they will align with Michigan state standards.

The agreement states that if the district terminates the lease, it would have to repay the endowment for its renovation expenses — a provision that one school board member encouraged the district to reconsider as it negotiates the final language for the lease.

“I would push you to think about the terms under which you can cancel the lease,” said board member Sonya Mays. “There’s a requirement in here that we would have to pay back for the first 20 years. I would hope that we can carve out …. If they don’t meet academic standards or something like that. So just making sure that [repayment] is not sort of a blanket requirement on our end.”

Vitti said the district will require the school to meet or exceed the district average for academic performance.

The Latin school will be open to all Detroit residents but admission will be selective, based on grades and a student interview — not on standardized tests. The school will open initially with just fifth, sixth and seventh grades. It plans to add additional grades once it moves to its permanent building in 2021.

Revisiting CTE

How a new career program has put these Indianapolis students to work as nursing assistants

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Antonia Dove, left, and Shireah Washington are seniors at Crispus Attucks High School.

A few days each week, seniors Shireah Washington and Antonia Dove end their school day at Crispus Attucks High School at about 11 a.m. Instead of spending the afternoon in the classroom, they work as certified nurses assistants at a senior care facility.

The jobs, which come with both paychecks and school credit, are part of a program the high school launched last year to help prepare students for careers in medicine. Six seniors, including Washington and Dove, who trained as CNAs and passed the state exam last year, now have jobs. The program was so successful that about 40 students are studying for the certification this year, according to the administration.

Nursing assistants’ work is not glamorous. For the eight-hour shift, the students take residents to meals, bathe them, and help them change. Some of the labor is strenuous — Dove said it takes upper body strength. Sometimes it’s off-putting — Washington said it takes a strong stomach. On slow days, it can just be a little dull, they said. But ultimately, it gives students a chance to see up close what it’s like to work with patients.

“It’s like stuff you see on TV,” said Dove, who wants to be a neonatal nurse. “You’re just seeing it in real life.”

The CNA program is part of Indianapolis Public Schools’ effort to revamp education for high school students by creating specialized academies that allow students to choose their school and program based on their interests. The academies cover a broad range of areas, from construction to rigorous college preparatory programs such as International Baccalaureate. But the central idea is that high school should prepare students for the careers they want to pursue.

The strategy is part of a career and technical education trend across the state and nation. Indiana is increasingly focused on connecting education and workforce development by encouraging high schools to give students more opportunities to explore careers and pursue internships. And national politicians from across the political spectrum support career and technical education.

At Attucks, there are two academies: health science and teaching, learning, and leading. The CNA training is part of the nursing track, one of four paths in the health science academy. The others are physical therapy, health informatics, and Project Lead the Way biomedical sciences.

Career education sometimes has a negative connotation as a program for students who can’t perform academically, said Mee Hee Smith, career academy coordinator at Attucks. But the health science academy has rigorous programs, she said.

For students to qualify for the CNA program, they must have a 3.0 grade point average, good attendance, and no discipline issues. The state also requires them to pass criminal background checks and health exams before they can begin clinical work with patients.

In addition to allowing them to earn credentials in high school, the CNA program can help “catapult” students into a two- or four-year degree program, Smith said. When students are applying to colleges, graduate programs, and jobs, they will already have experience working with patients and a state credential.

“When Shireah goes and finishes her four-year degree and then applies to med school, she gets to put that on her applications,” Smith said. “The hope is that she uses this experience and uses that to her advantage and maybe gets ahead.”

It’s also a chance to make some money. Students working as CNAs are paid between $11 and $13 per hour, depending on whether they are working early or late hours.

Dove is saving up to pay for expenses at college, like what she will buy for her dorm. Washington has been a little freer with her spending, buying clothes and gear for volleyball. “I just feel like I’m rich,” Washington said with a laugh.

But Washington, who wants to be a pediatrician, also takes her job seriously. “If I was anywhere else, I wouldn’t have had this experience,” she said.

While CTE has been embraced by politicians in recent years, there are some concerns about students focusing on career-specific skills in high school. Some question whether the skills are taught as a substitute for broad knowledge and whether students will have the general skills needed to adapt in a changing workforce. Others raise concerns about whether students from economically disadvantaged families or students of color are being steered toward CTE.

CNAs don’t make great money — the median pay is $12.21 per hour, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. But if students pursue further education, it could open the doors to lucrative, in-demand occupations. Health care is projected to add more than 77,000 new job openings, including about 3,000 openings for nursing assistants, by 2026.

When principal Lauren Franklin took over at Crispus Attucks High School three years ago, the school was a medical magnet on paper. But there were only a few medical courses, and students could not take them until 10th grade, she said. Franklin set out to change that by adding more medical classes to the curriculum and helping students learn what medical careers would be like.

The nursing assistant program is part of that shift. It offers students the opportunity to work in medical settings with patients while they are still in high school. For some teens, it reaffirms their desire to go into medicine. But for others, it can change their perspective. Over the course of the first year, many students decided they didn’t want to continue the CNA training, said Franklin.

“I think people tend to romanticize it,” she added. “There were kids who … go to clinicals and they see blood for the first time, and it’s like, ‘thought I wanted to be a doctor, nevermind.’ ”

Ultimately, Franklin hopes the academies will give students a more concrete sense of what their future holds. “It gives kids that something to hope for and that something to strive for,” she said.