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.

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.

testing testing

McQueen to convene third task force as Tennessee seeks to get testing right

PHOTO: Creative Commons/timlewisnm

For a third straight year, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will convene a task force to examine Tennessee’s testing program in the wake of persistent hiccups with its TNReady assessment and perennial concerns about over-testing.

McQueen announced Monday the members of her newest task force, which will assemble on Dec. 11 in Nashville and complete its work next July. The group includes educators, lawmakers, and parents.

At the top of the agenda: evaluating the first full year of TNReady testing for grades 3-8 and the second year for high schoolers, the latter of which was marred by scoring problems for a small percentage of students.


Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over TNReady


The group also will look at district-level “formative tests” that measure student progress to help teachers adjust their instruction throughout the school year. The goal is to support districts so those tests align with TNReady and the state’s newest academic standards.

The transition to online testing and concerns about over-testing will be on the minds of task force members.

This marks the first school year that all high schoolers will take TNReady online since 2016, when a new platform buckled on its first day. State officials are more confident this time around under a phased-in approach that began last school year with 25 districts. (Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019.)

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Candice McQueen

On over-testing, McQueen has highlighted 11th-grade as a concern. The junior year of high school is intense as students explore their post-graduation options while taking the ACT college entrance exam, the state’s end-of-course exams, and for some, Advanced Placement tests. All are high-stakes.

McQueen told Gov. Bill Haslam earlier this month that the upcoming task force will seek to strip away tests that don’t align with Tennessee’s priorities.

“We’re looking for testing reductions … but also setting a path toward (our) goals, which is a new test that’s aligned to new standards that really matter,” she told Haslam during budget hearings.

During its first two years, task force work has led to a number of changes.

Recommendations in the first year resulted in the elimination of a test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as the shortening of TNReady tests for math and reading.

In the second year, the task force contributed to Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law and slimmed down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders.

Members of the third task force are:

  • Candice McQueen, Tennessee commissioner of education
  • Sara Morrison, executive director, State Board of Education
  • Sen. Dolores Gresham, chairwoman, Senate Education Committee
  • Rep. John Forgety, chairman, House Education Instruction and Programs Committee
  • Rep. Harry Brooks, chairman, House Education Administration and Planning Committee
  • Rep. Mark White, chairman, House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee*
  • Wayne Blair, president, Tennessee School Board Association*
  • Barbara Gray, president, Tennessee Education Association
  • Dale Lynch, executive director, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents*
  • Sharon Roberts, chief strategy officer, State Collaborative on Reforming Education*
  • Audrey Shores, chief operating officer, Professional Educators of Tennessee
  • Gini Pupo-Walker, Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and senior director of education policy & programs, Conexión Américas*
  • Lisa Wiltshire, policy director, Tennesseans for Quality Early Education*
  • Shawn Kimble, director, Lauderdale County School System*
  • Mike Winstead, director, Maryville City Schools
  • Jennifer Cothron, assessment supervisor, Wilson County Schools*
  • Trey Duke, coordinator for Federal Programs and RTI2, Rutherford County Schools*
  • Michael Hubbard, director of performance excellence, Kingsport City Schools*
  • LaToya Pugh, iZone science instructional support manager, Shelby County Schools*
  • Bill Harlin, principal, Nolensville High School, Williamson County Schools
  • Laura Charbonnet, assistant principal, Collierville High School, Collierville Schools*
  • Tim Childers, assistant principal, L&N STEM Academy, Knox County Schools*
  • Kevin Cline, assistant principal, Jefferson County High School, Jefferson County Schools*
  • Kim Herring, teacher, Cumberland County High School, Cumberland County School District*
  • Jolinea Pegues, special education teacher, Southwind High School, Shelby County Schools*
  • Stacey Travis, teacher, Maryville High School, Maryville City Schools*
  • Josh Rutherford, teacher, Houston County High School, Houston County School District*
  • Cicely Woodard, 2017-18 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, West End Middle Prep, Metro Nashville Public Schools*
  • Virginia Babb, parent, Knox County Parent-Teacher Association
  • Jennifer Frazier, parent, Hamblen County Department of Education*
  • Student members will be invited*

*new members