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.

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.

New Standards

Tennessee updates science standards for first time in 10 years. New guidelines stress class discussion, inquiry

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Fourth grade science teachers Lamarcus Marks, of Rivercrest Elementary, and Angie Clement, of Bartlett Elementary, test out a lesson on kinetic and potential energy at Arlington High School, one of 11 statewide sites where Tennessee teachers are training for next year's new science standards.

How can a wolf change the river? Why doesn’t a cactus have leaves? Why can’t you exterminate bats in Tennessee?

With new state science standards coming to classrooms next fall, these are the kinds of questions students will explore in their science classes. They’ll be tasked not only with memorizing the answers, but also with asking questions of their own, engaging on the topic with their teacher and classmates, and applying what they learn across disciplines. That’s because the changes set forth are as much about teaching process, as they are about teaching content.

“At the lowest level, I could just teach you facts,” said Detra Clark, who is one of about 300 Tennessee educators leading teacher trainings on the new standards to her peers from across the state. “Now it’s like, ‘I want you to figure out why or how you can use the facts to figure out a problem.’”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Detra Clark, a science coach in Shelby County’s iZone, demonstrates a sample lesson for sixth grade science teachers.

On Wednesday, Clark — a science coach for the iZone, a group of underperforming schools that Shelby County Schools is looking to turn around — unpacked for her peers, who gathered at Arlington High School, a key component of the new material: three-dimensional modeling. Under three-dimensional modeling, students should be able to do something with the content they learn, not just memorize it.

In recent years, Tennessee students have performed better on state science tests than on their math and English exams. But state science standards for grades K–12 haven’t been updated since 2008. By contrast, math and English benchmarks have undergone more recent changes. To give the stakeholders time to adjust, results from next year’s science test, the first to incorporate the new standards, won’t count for students, teachers, or schools.

At the training session, Clark, standing before a room of sixth-grade science teachers, held up a chart with the names of woodland animals, such as elk and deer. Under each name, she tracked the population over time.

“At our starting population, what do we see?” she asked.

“The deer, it decreases again because it’s introduced to a predator,” a teacher responded.

“More resources, more surviving animals” another teacher chimed in.

“How can we explain what happened in year two, when we’re dealing with students?” Clark asked the group.

“The population went up,” a teacher said.

“They start to reproduce!” another teacher interjected.

Clark nodded.

In another classroom, this one composed of kindergarten teachers, Bridget Davis — a K-2 instructional advisor for Shelby County Schools — clicked through a video of fuzzy critters, each paired with a close relative, such as two different breeds of dogs.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
In a teacher training session on Wednesday, kindergarten teachers highlight the three dimensions of three-dimensional modeling, a key part of new state science standards.

She encouraged the teachers to ask their students what traits the animals shared.

“The first thing they’re going to say is, ‘Well, one’s big and one’s small,” she said. “What we really want them to say is, ‘Well, their fur is the same color,’ or, ‘Mom has a patch of black hair here and the baby doesn’t.’ We want them to look at detail.”

She added, “We want them to get used to being a detective.”

The science standards that have been in place for the past decade fulfills the first dimension of three-dimensional modeling.

Doing something with that knowledge satisfies the second dimension, and the third dimension requires teachers to apply to their lessons a “cross-cutting concept” — strategies that students can apply to any subject, like identifying patterns or sequences.

Under the existing standards, a student may not have been introduced to physical science until the third grade. But starting next year, Tennessee schoolchildren will learn about life science, physical science, earth and space science, and engineering applications, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through high school.

“I do believe that this is the best our standards have ever been, because of the fact that they are so much more detailed than they have been in the past,” Davis said.

About a thousand Shelby County teachers made their way to trainings this week, which were free and open to all educators. Several administrators also met to discuss ways they can ensure the new standards are implemented in their schools.

As with anything new, Jay Jennings — an assistant principal at a Tipton county middle school and an instructor at Wednesday’s training — expects some pushback. But he’s optimistic that his district will have every teacher at benchmark by the end of the 2018–2019 school year.

“We talked before about teachers knowing content, and that’s important,” he said. “But what we want to see is kids knowing content and questioning content. We want to see them involved.”

He reminded other school leaders about last year’s changes to English and math standards, a transition that he said was challenging but smoother than expected.  

“Teachers are going to go out of their comfort zone,” he explained. “But it’s not changing what a lot of them are already doing.”