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.

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”