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.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.