Anatomy of a lesson

A Common Core math class where students "complain with smiles"

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Revamping algebra instruction will take teacher training, curriculum changes, and setting up students early on to grasp more advanced concepts.

Marisa Laks’s geometry students might not have realized it when they shuffled into class earlier this month and grabbed “Do Now” worksheets covered with quadrilaterals, but they were on the cutting edge of the Common Core.

While the city’s elementary and middle schools have already started testing students on the new standards, that hasn’t happened yet in high schools. High school students will take their first Common Core tests this year and, after a recent state policy change, they have several extra years before they must meet the higher standards in order to graduate.

But Laks, the math department chair at Global Learning Collaborative on the Upper West Side, isn’t waiting to teach to the tougher standards.

She started connecting her geometry lessons to the new standards last year, and she also applied to join a group of “master teachers” from around the country who are paid to help fill a free online archive of Common Core-aligned lessons operated by a company called BetterLesson. Eventually, Laks will upload a year’s worth of lessons, some with videos and student work attached.

Chalkbeat spent a morning last week in Laks’ class observing a lesson she created where her students — mostly juniors, with a few sophomores and seniors — use a computer program to “sketch” quadrilaterals. As when we chronicled other classes in the past, we spoke to Laks about the lesson afterwards, and have included her commentary in block quotes beneath our observations.

10:25 a.m. The Do Now sheets asked the students to determine which of the pictured quadrilaterals — a parallelogram, square, rectangle, or isosceles trapezoid — did not belong and why. As the 13 students got to work, and chatted a little, Laks began to pass out laptops to partners.

After a timer sounded, the class discussed the question, which led into Laks’ “mini-lesson” — a review of various quadrilaterals and their properties.

At one point, a girl noted that the other quadrilaterals in the Do Now “look more equal” than the trapezoid. Laks quickly corrected her.

“Be specific. Be precise.”

Laks said one of the Common Core “mathematical practice” standards she most often returns to is, “Attend to precision.”

“I don’t allow ‘that thing,’ ‘that one,’” she said, adding that when students are pushed to use correct names and definitions, they are forced to consider the relationships among concepts.

10:42 a.m. After the discussion, Laks directed students’ attention to the classroom’s electronic SmartBoard. She launched a dynamic geometry software program, called The Geometer’s Sketchpad, and asked students to do the same on their laptops. Then she reviewed the basics of the program.

Laks has her students use the program about once a month. Following the standards, students also use more traditional tools, like compasses and rulers, but Laks said the geometry software offers some advantages. For example, it makes sketching quicker and includes features — such as only allowing students to measure the length of segments, not lines — that reinforce geometry concepts.

One student noted that there were enough laptops for everyone to work alone, but Laks said, “I want you to work together.”

“This way they have to talk to each other,” she said. “It’s all about the language and reinforcing the mathematical language. This really helps them get a conceptual understanding.”

10:49 a.m. In pairs, students used the computer program to sketch figures by following directions on worksheets that Laks had made. The worksheets featured slightly different prompts depending on students’ skill levels, but all asked students to sketch a figure, identify it, and describe its properties.

Some students got right to work, but others seemed stumped. “Miss, I don’t even know where to start,” one boy called out.

Laks' class uses dynamic geometry software called, The Geometer's Sketchpad, to create digital "sketches."
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Laks’ class uses dynamic geometry software called, The Geometer’s Sketchpad, to create digital “sketches.”

The small class size allowed Laks to rotate among the groups. She performed the “drag test” on some of their digital sketches, in which she drags a figure’s vertex with the cursor — if the sides’ new slopes are different, then the lines are not parallel.

During this time, some groups asked basic questions about how to operate the computer program. But others wanted to know what figure they were trying to sketch (a parallelogram or rectangle, depending on their worksheet).

Laks refused to tell them. Instead, she asked them questions about the figures (“Are the sides parallel?”). When one student, senior Hiram Dueño, asked if his shape was a rectangle, Laks smiled back, “I don’t know.”

“Yes you do, you’re a teacher, you’re supposed to know this,” Dueño replied. “You got a degree for this!”

“It’s making students accountable for their own learning,” Laks said. “We’re not giving them the information; they are working to discover it.”

“They struggle with this,” she added. “But I feel that it’s a satisfying struggle. They complain, but they complain with smiles.”

During the group work period, a few students became distracted. One boy put his head down and some girls surfed the Internet.

Laks said management issues occasionally bubble up because students grow frustrated with the more challenging Common Core work. Also, the standards assume strong math foundations that many students lack, she said.

Laks added that group work and technology can steer some students off task, but that the risk is worth it.

“In my opinion, the benefits of enhanced comprehension and learning from their math discussions outweigh the negatives of off-topic conversations,” she said.

11:01 a.m. The timer beeped again and the class briefly shared observations about their sketches.

Then Laks passed out “exit tickets,” ungraded assessments that help her see what students took from the lesson. The slips asked students to explain why rectangles are always parallelograms, but the reverse is not always true.

Laks will eventually post the lesson on the Common Core website, called BetterLesson. She said she joined the lesson-sharing project because she believes in the goal of the Common Core — to prepare students for college through more rigorous instruction — but felt teachers had been given too little training and resources.

“We’re not quite ready,” she said. “I just hope we stick with it.”

As students packed up their things, Dueño still hadn’t identified the figure he had been trying to sketch. He asked Laks again to tell him (“It’s going to keep me up at night!”), but she kept pushing him to solve it himself.

Picking up his backpack to leave, Dueño said Laks’ approach could be frustrating, but it works.

“I learn more on my own,” he said. “It’s more independent than counting on the teacher.”

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.