Anatomy of a lesson

P-TECH students act as teachers in summer geometry course

Seifullah (left) cuts a paper cylinder into circles to teach P-TECH students at one table for a lesson on how to calculate volume.

All but a handful of ninth- and 10th-graders at Pathways in Technology Early College High School have an ambitious summer goal: to pass the Regents exam in geometry before school starts in September.

To that end, they are enrolled in a six-week long summer enrichment class meant to get them up to speed on the information technology-themed school’s academic expectations and prepare them to take the state’s geometry exam this month. Classes are long — two to four hours each morning — and involve a mix of group projects, drills, homework, and writing assignments.

GothamSchools spent the morning in one marathon math class two weeks before the Aug. 16 exam. As the students worked in pairs on projects, four teachers hovered above, sometimes chiming in with explanations of geometry concepts and sometimes reigning students in when they wandered off-task.

After class, the lead teacher, Jamilah Seifullah, explained how she kept track of the students and what she wanted them to learn. As when we chronicled Ryan Hall’s math class in May, we’ve included Seifullah’s commentary in block quotes beneath our observations.

Seifullah, who taught geometry to a small cohort of advanced math students last spring in the school’s first year, took turns directing the class with Rachel Jamison, an English teacher who is pitching in with math instruction this summer. Jamison is also offering English lessons, but not for credit and during a shorter class period. With the Regents exam approaching, she and Seifullah agreed to combine the classes for longer math sessions, but weave in tasks that build literacy skills.

10 a.m.  Already, 32 P-TECH students had been working in pairs on a major assignment for almost an hour. Sitting at round tables in groups of five or six, each pair was using a computer to put the finishing touches on presentations on various geometry concepts, such as surface area and the isosceles triangle theorem, they would later present to their classmates.

Each presentation included of formulas, definitions, and practice problems. After each presentation, a pair of students at each table moved to a different table to present their projects to other classmates. Students had been teaching lessons to each other over the past week, and on the day we visited, five pairs were presenting.

Seifullah said she picked the concepts to assign based primarily on the Regents exam required for graduation.

“I’ve looked at the most important topics in geometry, as far as the Regents are concerned,” Seifullah said. “I assigned those topics to students and they then worked with me and Ms. Jamison to develop a powerpoint lesson plan. The plans needed to have independent practice, guided practice, as well as homework.”

10:20 a.m. As Seifullah flitted among groups, she paused over one student who was looking up geometry terms on Yahoo! Answers, a website most teachers consider unreliable. Seifullah explained that in her assignment instructions, she directed the class to seek help on more reliable sites, such as the Regents Prep web site maintained by an upstate school district or another site called Math is Fun.

“Every time I come over here you’re on a site that I haven’t recommended,” she said. “I could never verify the information on all the sites out there.”

Most of the students were typing out notes into slides on the computers or writing on notebook paper, but several were listening to music with headphones plugged into the computers. And at the table behind them, a student was reading a comic book.

“[There were] only two or three that I really saw going off task,” Seifullah said. “They’re moving around so often that they really don’t have an opportunity to.

“If they’re working on something independently, some of them ask if they can listen to music. Most of them stay on task because it is part of their grade, and most of them do think it’s important to teach the lesson. They don’t want to get up in front of their peers and not be prepared.”

10:30 a.m. Seifullah told all the students except those who were presenting to rearrange themselves at the tables and return their computers to the class’s cart. Each table would have two lesson presenters, she explained, and the other students would listen to each lesson for 20 to 40 minutes before hearing from a new set of classmates.

“Get ready to take notes,” Jamison told the students. “This is your classwork credit. Don’t just sit and stare.”

Seifullah said the students learn more when she asks them to teach each other.

“This creates that supportive environment, where they are supporting each other to do the best job that they can,” she said. “When they put in even the minimal amount of time to learn what they need to learn to teach, they learn more than if they just sat in the classroom listening to a teacher talk the whole time.

“When I’ve give quizzes after lessons that previous students have taught, the students who taught the lesson have gotten almost every question right on it.”

10th grader Brandon Scott shares his presentation on calculating the volumes of cylinders to a group of students.

10:37 a.m. With their audience in place, ninth-graders Justine Maximilien and Ettienne Durand began passing out worksheets with multiple-choice drill problems called a “Do Now.” Most of the problems had to do with determining and changing the angle measurements of various isosceles triangles, or triangles with two equal sides. The other students copied the definitions and formulas on each slide and then shared their worksheet answers.

Durand said it has been easier to stay focused during the lengthy math lessons than he expected when he accepted his slot at P-TECH, which was his third-choice high school. He said he was intrigued by school’s information technology focus but didn’t initially realize summer classes would be a requirement.

“I didn’t know we were going to do geometry, but I’m okay with it,” he said.

10:53 a.m. At a table across the room, 10th-grader Brandon Scott shared a PowerPoint slide about how to calculate the volumes of different three-dimensional shapes. The “aim” of that lesson, another slide read, was to learn “what are the different formulas for volume,” and answer the question “What do you think volume means?”

Yaayaa Whaley, a math teacher who had been hired just two days earlier, listened patiently at the table. During a lull, she explained the difference between a rectangular and triangular prism to the group.

Seifullah later walked over to Scott’s table and passed around blocks shaped like various prisms and cylinders. She also took out a paper towel roll and cut it into small circles.

“A cylinder is a shape made up of lots of circles, stacked together,” she told the group, using the prop to illustrate the concept.

“I like to give them a real world example,” she later explained. She used other props to make similar points throughout the morning. For example, at other tables she offered the groups hollow cylinders into which they poured bags of uncooked rice to illustrate their different volumes.

11:13 a.m. After the students collected their notes and moved en masse from table to table, and the presentations began again — though it took up to 10 minutes for some groups to get back to work.

As Seifullah and the other teachers watched the presentations, they used grading rubrics to mark the presentations on creativity, the accuracy of the slides, students’ communication skills, and audience engagement.

12:36 p.m. Jamison put up the final task of the day on the room’s SmartBoard: to complete, in writing, three sentences: “In today’s lesson(s), I understood…” and “I could teach someone to…” and “I was productive when I…”

“This is your ticket out of here,” she said, to groans from some of the students. One student refused to write at first, and Jamison led him into the classroom doorway for a private talk.

Jamison said the writing exercises are essential as P-TECH works to integrate writing across its math and science-heavy curriculum, but they are usually not welcomed by the students.

“They are not writing enough,” she said. “This is just another medium for them to explain the process they went through today. As you saw, many of them really have a hard time with that. Many of them were resistant to it.”

Seifullah echoed her concerns. “In technology, you’re expected to read all kinds of documents and eventually to write them,” she said. “They’re being prepared for a career in [information technology], so they have to be the kinds of students who can read, and prepare, and write code.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”