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.”

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.