Anatomy of a lesson

An art class at a science high school includes math and poetry

Larry Minetti addresses his high school art class at the Collegiate Institute of Math and Science.

It may have math and science in its name, but lately the Collegiate Institute of Math and Science in the Bronx is all about art.

Concerned that students weren’t receiving a well-rounded education, Principal Shadia Alverez decided this year to cut back on support staff — she has just one assistant principal when the student body of 650 would often warrant two — and hire Larry Minetti to teach four introductory art classes.

Minetti has taught on the Christopher Columbus Educational Campus for 17 years, until recently at Christopher Columbus High School, which is in the process of phasing out. Since starting at CIMS in September, he has already landed his students their first exhibition: On Dec. 6, Minetti and his students will hang as many as 200 pieces of student artwork in State Sen. Jeffrey Klein’s office in the Bronx.

But Minetti said he wants to teach students more than simply how to use artistic principles to create beautiful works of art. He always wants students to understand the interplay between art and their everyday lives, including in the other subjects they study.

GothamSchools spent Thursday morning in Minetti’s class, observing as students applied last week’s still life lesson on their own canvases and then speaking to Minetti about his instructional approach. As when we have chronicled other classes in the past, we’ve included the teacher’s commentary in block quotes beneath our observations.

10:08 a.m. Students filed into the art studio, whose walls are hand-painted with inspirational phrases and peppered with student work, and took their seats. In the middle of the room, a still life scene featuring two bottles, a paint can, a lemon, and a green apple was set up against both sides of a wooden board. The whiteboard at the front of the room displayed a hand-drawn replica of the still life scene, with the day’s aim and curriculum objectives written for the students to see.

Mirielle, the student designated as the “folder monitor,” withdraw large portfolios from a shelf in a cupboard and began distributing them to her classmates.

The whiteboard lists the standards covered by the lesson.

10:09 a.m. Minetti greeted each student with a “good morning,” telling them to prepare by taking out their notes from last week and to “unwind a bit.” To set a relaxing mood, Minetti put on some music — Aerosmith to start — and lit a set of pumpkin spice-scented candles.

Kathy Persaud, an 11th-grader, said she appreciates the laid-back tone of the class. “This is probably our least stressful part of the day, getting to see Mr. Minetti,” she said.

10:11 a.m. Minetti noted that even though late bell had not yet rung to start class officially, students should be tackling the day’s “Do Now,” the prompt that many teachers across the city have used to kick off their classes since the Department of Education first mandated the “workshop model” in 2003.

The morning’s “Do Now” called for students to review the key components of last week’s lesson, in which students defined the term “still life” and recorded eight steps for drawing a bottle.

Minetti writes the "eight steps to drawing a bottle" on the board.

10:15 a.m. Minetti called the class to attention and asked for volunteers to define “still life.”  Piecing together several students’ definitions, the class settled on “a foundation of objects placed together to form a composition.”

10:21 Minetti asked the students to take out their notes from the first lesson on still lifes. He held up 12th-grader Jeremiah Crawford’s notepaper — there was a bottle drawn freehand on the top half of the page.

“The first day you walked in I said, ‘Look at that bottle and draw it,’” Minetti told the class.

He asked the class to make observations about the drawing. Crawford pointed out that it was a bit lopsided.

“It’s very difficult to draw exact points,” Milinetti said. “So with the outer shape, it really helps you.”

The “outer shape” technique is key to Milinetti’s lesson on still life, because the technique forces students to draw by looking at basic shapes. The students all started with a plain piece of white paper and a ruler. Following Milinetti’s guide, they measured out three differently sized rectangles on their paper.

Minetti said his approach is to let students try to derive various theories of art on their own.

“I don’t give them instruction in the beginning,” he said. “They do what they think they’re supposed to do and they try and then we do the theory and we learn what we’re exactly working on. Then we see the difference from the first time we did it to the final product.

“I had them draw the bottle on their own. And I asked them, ‘What part of the bottle did they start with?’ A lot of hands went up for the top, some hands went up for the bottom, and the rest went up for the sides. But the reality is you don’t start by drawing the bottle. The reality is you start with the rectangle.

“From the rectangle we can incorporate guidelines and then follow the steps for drawing an actual bottle. We went from just jumping into anything to actually having a plan.”

Minetti demonstrates how a real bottle translates onto the canvas.

10:25 a.m. As students began working individually, Minetti walked around the classroom, pausing to help and answer questions. One student was struggling to round out the bottoms of his bottles, and Minetti helped her measure out half-inch marks that she could connect to complete the shape.

Minetti pointed out that the outer-shape technique he encourages students to use requires a mathematical know-how: The height and width of the rectangle is key to preserving realistic proportion and perspective of the final still life.

“Art can be implemented into any subject,” Minetti said. “What’s the subject we’re using for this? Math. We’re using measurements — we’re bringing math into art.”

Alvarez said Minetti is always making connections to other academic subjects.

“One of the real nice things he’s done is connect with the math teachers and ask, ‘What does an architect do? What does an engineer do? And how does it connect to art?’” she said.

The connections don’t stop with math. Poetry that students wrote and illustrated in a collaboration between Minetti and English teachers adorns the art studio. And Minetti also worked with the living environment science teacher to help students make their science project presentations aesthetically pleasing.

“Everything incorporates art. Art is basically in every subject and it’s all around the world,” Minetti said.  “Especially since we’re in New York City, which is the mecca of the entire world of the arts.”

Minetti helps a student fine-tune her work.

10:34 a.m. Rathkevin Sary, a 12th grader, wanted to make his still life more detailed than the scene laid out in the classroom, something that Minetti encouraged all the students to do.

“Use your imagination. Create from within. Get those emotions out on the paper,” Minetti said.

Sary said he wanted to incorporate a vase with flowers, and Minetti retrieved a book with outlines of floral bouquets for Sary to use as a guide. Sary settled on a bouquet of calla lilies and began sketching.

10:37 a.m. Minetti asked students if they were ready for an “outliner,” a black marker they would use to make their sketched shapes permanent.  Minetti reminded the students who weren’t ready for the outliner that the pencil was erasable, and that they shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Minetti said repeated practice and patience to withstand trial and error — “soft skills” that educators are increasingly being encouraged to develop — are essential to developing skills in art.

“A lot of kids come in and say “I can’t draw, I don’t like art. But it’s not that they can’t draw, it’s that no one ever showed them the proper way to draw,” he said.

10:40 a.m. When several students needed help, Minetti encouraged the students to work together. He praised students who were already offering each other feedback.

Students collaborate on their still life assignments.

Martiz Amonte, a 12th-grader, reached over to point out that a line on Crawford’s piece was not aligned properly. After they discussed solutions, Crawford adjusted one line on his paper.

10:45 a.m. Minetti is an enthusiastic teacher, praising the students’ work throughout the class as “perfect,” “beautiful,” “fantastic,” “spectacular,” and “incredible.”

“This is so exciting for me as a teacher to see the development you guys have,” he said to the class. “As a teacher, that’s like a dream.”

Minetti said he always tries to give good news before adding a touch of constructive criticism.

“I give careful criticism,” he said. “I’m always positive – I always speak positive first, and if there is a little bit of criticism I reinforce it lightly so they understand what to do. One of the girls was struggling with the bottom of the bottle. So I’ll just reinforce what we learned and do a little one-on-one instruction on that particular technique just to help the student get through that particular moment.”

Minetti shows off exemplary work.

10:50 a.m. Minetti gave the class a two-minute warning, encouraging them to finish whatever they were working on.

10:52 a.m. The bell sounded and Minetti called for the students to put their work back into their folders. The folder monitor collected the portfolios and returned them to the cabinet for safekeeping until the next class.

In that session, Minetti said, the students will use shading — a technique they learned for their last project — to turn their sketches into vibrant still lifes.

At a time when advocates warn that the arts have been marginalized by budget cuts and shifting priorities in city schools, Minetti and Alvarez said they hope to expand CIMS’ art program next year. Minetti said who enjoyed and excelled in the introductory course would benefit from electives such as painting and sculpture.

“It’s so healthy to have a class like this because it is an opportunity for the students to create and express themselves on paper,” he said. “And they need this.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”