Anatomy of a lesson

In a Bronx English class, new standards and a centuries-old poem converge

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

One bright afternoon this week, Catherine Miller’s 31 sixth-grade honors students sat inside a dimly lit classroom in the north Bronx and analyzed a 16th-century love poem. Its opening lines glowed on an interactive whiteboard at the front of the room: “Forget not yet the tried intent / Of such a truth as I have meant.”

The truth at The New School for Leadership and the Arts, or M.S. 244, the public middle school where Miller teaches sixth and seventh-grade reading and writing, is that the Common Core learning standards have transformed instruction over the past few years.

Miller now pushes her students to dig past the surface of challenging texts, like the poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt, and unearth their buried meanings. In the process, she says she’s made the standards her own. She selected the poem herself, for instance, and used it to supplement a publisher’s curriculum that is heavy on nonfiction.

The Common Core “is very much what you make it,” Miller said. “It can be your friend or foe.”

Chalkbeat spent Monday afternoon observing Miller’s reading class as part of our ongoing look at how the Common Core is reshaping instruction. Miller will join two other middle school teachers on a panel Thursday to talk about how the standards are playing out in their classrooms.

As when we’ve chronicled lessons before, we spoke with Miller after class and have included her thoughts in block quotes beneath highlights from the lesson.

12:58 p.m. As students opened their well-worn readers notebooks, Miller explained that the day’s lesson would explore the way writers use repetition to develop themes. In poetry, she added, repeated words are called a refrain.

A student went to the whiteboard and underlined the poem’s refrain, “Forget not yet,” then the class brainstormed other texts they had read with refrains. Next, Miller cut to the crux of the lesson: Why would Wyatt repeat those words?

“Remember, it’s not enough to tell me something repeats,” she told the class. “The real skill is explaining why there’s repetition — that’s what’s impressive.”

Miller said the purpose of the Common Core literacy standards is to prod students past a basic comprehension of a piece of writing to a more sophisticated study of the way authors assemble texts in meaningful ways.

That shift has been apparent on the state exams, Miller said, which for the first time last year assessed students’ command of the new standards.

“I remember on previous state tests, it was ‘Identify the metaphor,’” she said. “Now it’s, ‘How does that metaphor function and what’s the larger purpose of it within the piece?’”

Last year, when citywide passing rates plunged on the new exams, more than half of Miller’s sixth-grade honors students saw their scores improve over the previous year and a third of her students earned 4’s, the highest possible score.

1:38 Miller turned the class’ attention to “Watcher,” a poem about Hurricane Katrina by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Natasha Trethewey.

As Miller had students write responses to the poems in their readers notebooks, she prodded them to include examples from the text.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
As Miller had students write responses to the poems in their readers notebooks, she prodded them to include examples from the text.

Miller had chosen the first poem mainly for its use of the word “yet,” which was the subject of a recent grammar lesson. But she pulled in “Watcher” because it connected to their reading unit about natural disasters.

Before students tackled the text, Miller asked them to write and recite a few key vocabulary words from it. Then the class debated whether each word carried a positive, negative, or neutral connotation.

One girl argued that the word “looting” had a negative connotation because it suggested that people had taken advantage of chaos. In discussing the word “debris,” a boy referenced an article the class had read about space junk.

Besides previewing vocabulary in difficult texts, Miller also gives some historical context or has the class read related articles to gather background information. (In this case, they had already read about Hurricane Katrina.)

The point is that before students can analyze texts, they have to make sense of them, Miller explained.

“Without comprehension,” she said, “there will be no questions answered.”

2:09 Miller told the students to read the poem and underline instances of repetition. Then she asked them to reread it and jot down questions it provoked. She modeled this by writing a few questions on the board.

Miller modeled writing down questions that came to her as she read a poem.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Miller modeled writing down questions that came to her as she read a poem.

Next, the class drew charts in their notebooks with columns for the stanza number, textual evidence, and significance. The class had decided that the poem’s repetition centered on a character who watched New Orleans reeling after the hurricane.

Together, they found evidence of the repetition, then split off into pairs to document more. One boy and girl debated whether the focus of the final stanza was the character watching for remains or the speaker watching that character “bear the pain” of loss, as the boy put it.

The students knew to back up their arguments with examples from the poem, not their own experiences or opinions. As one student, Di’Anna Bonomolo, noted, “Ms. Miller doesn’t like first person.”

Miller explained that many of her students had previously learned to preface statements about texts with statements like, “I think,” but that the standards called for evidence-based assertions.

“You should be able to prove what you think,” she said, “so you don’t need to say, ‘I think.’”

Miller asked the students to fill in the significance column of their charts for homework: What was the point of all those moments of watching? As they do with most texts, the class would return to the poem the following day to dig for more meaning.

“It challenges you,” Ian Reyes, 11, said after class. “We’re trying to get deep inside the poem.”

Hear Miller and two other middle school teachers explain how they teach reading under the Common Core at a panel discussion co-hosted by Chalkbeat and the Bronx Library Center. The event is Thursday, May 8, at 6 p.m. at the Bronx Library Center.

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.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.