Within two months, seventh-grade students at John S. Martinez School will construct walk-through planetariums from cardboard and plastic — an ambitious engineering project that will cap off the next academic quarter’s new teacher-developed curriculum.
That upcoming assignment was one of four fresh projects discussed at a peer review session this past week, as faculty members hunkered down to restructure and redevelop their entire curriculum during Martinez’s first full year as a magnet school.
Through a three-year, $11.7 million federal grant (at four schools), the teachers are planning units that relate to the school’s new themes of sea and sky, laying the groundwork that will give Martinez its identity for years to come.
Writing the new units takes hours of extra time that the federal grant funds. As was clear in Tuesday’s feedback session, it’s because the teachers have a lot to do. They need to make sure the units they’re crafting together cover all the national standards, cut across subject areas, integrate project-based learning, and get kids excited about real ways their lives are changed by the water and air around them.
“We don’t normally have time to work with one another and talk about what’s going on in classrooms,” said Alyssa Basso, one of the two magnet resource teachers who help connect instruction to the school’s theme. “Some districts say, ‘This is your curriculum and your script.’ When you have a binder and you don’t have the time to look at what all the other binders say, that’s when [educators] become weak. [At Martinez] we have the time to discuss what we’re teaching and to think how can they relate.”
When the third quarter starts in two weeks, kindergarteners will race wooden cars downhill, first-graders will make sundials and moon calendars, and third-graders will invent a product with magnets like snap-on jewelry in a Shark Tank competition, the teachers said in their pitches.
Those forthcoming lesson plans at Martinez represent a good example of where the school district as a whole is headed. In interdisciplinary projects, aided by technology, students are increasingly learning by doing. That’s happened occasionally in the past, at events like the Science Fair or History Day, said Will Clark, the district’s chief operating officer, but Martinez, a school that embodies the challenges of urban education, is being particularly proactive.
“It’s really a delicate marriage of individual school identity and district best practices, and Martinez is a good example of that,” he said. “They’re taking what they’re trained on and then tweaking and adjusting it for the practical reality in New Haven. They’re not waiting for someone else to tell them.”
Martinez, a predominantly Hispanic elementary school in Fair Haven where over two-thirds of the students come from low-income families, has been designated as a “focus school” by the state. That’s because, for several years now, math scores among its high-needs students have contributed to an achievement gap. For the next year, the Independent will be following the school’s efforts to exit that status, as it builds on past progress in unifying school culture, grapples with the intensive needs of the Elm City’s kids, and revamps the curriculum.
Reaching for the Stars
On Tuesday afternoon, teachers sat in a wide circle and looked over packets of information from their colleagues. With a half-hour for each grade, the presenters explained why they created the unit, answered questions, heard feedback and responded with more ideas.
The six instructors for seventh grade came up with the planetarium idea, they explained, because it touched on multiple subject areas. And after talking it over, they realized the idea could tie together even more from the students’ past year.
Here’s how: Their science class would teach them to define a problem of building a domed structure, then use an engineering process of planning and prototyping to figure it out. From math class, they’d apply pre-algebra to measure out the difference between their scaled blueprints and the actual structure. And the interior designs of the constellations would be informed by mankind’s long history of looking at the stars, which the students should understand from reading “The Lightning Thief” in English class, from talking about how the heavens were seen by the Greeks and Romans and by Galileo and Copernicus in social studies, and from revisiting Aztec astrology and Cortes’s invasion in Spanish class.
After touring three planetariums, younger students will get to vote on which one they like best, said Tina Taylor, the science teacher for seventh and eighth grades.
Amy Paolini, the English teacher for third, fourth and fifth grades, applauded that element of participation as a lesson not only in astronomy but citizenship too.
Justin Aiello, the social studies teacher for seventh and eighth grade, said he couldn’t believe he didn’t think of that until Paolini mentioned it. He’d been “so concerned” with Greco-Roman ideas about the planets and stars that he’d forgotten to connect the project to the invention of democracy that students reviewed earlier in the term. “I’m so glad you said that,” he told Paolini.
Larissa Spreng, another magnet resource teacher, pointed to that exchange of ideas as a demonstration of “bridging the the gap so that every classroom essentially teaches everything.” Even though the staff’s divided up by subject matter, rather than grade level, kids shouldn’t think, “I’m going to English class. I’m going to learn grammar and write a research paper,” Spreng explained. “They should go to classrooms that incorporate every content area.”
They’ve done that in the first half of the year with first-graders’ protests about trash in Beaver Pond and studies of New Haven’s light pollution, as well as eighth-graders’ construction of racing boats that sailed across the pool as if they were explorers on the way to the New World.
Creating Classroom Autonomy
While there’s no test scores yet to back up the strength of the new magnet curriculum, Martinez teachers said they see their students more engaged and feel personally fulfilled by owning what’s taught in their classrooms. That’s particularly true for some “outliers” who succeed at the group projects while struggling with more traditional classwork, several teachers noted.
The curricular changes underway at Martinez are happening, in some form, across the district, Clark said. “Every school has the freedom to adjust and tweak some of the elements of where their staff is,” he said. But at Martinez, “it’s not just something that’s done for technical, evaluative purposes. It’s more about that teacher’s growth and the team and how that’s impacting students.”
To be sure, the staff still doesn’t have a free pass to teach whatever they want. “There’s a balance. We do have standards from the district, Common Core, and Next Generation Science Standards, and we have to work within those confines,” Basso said. “But to have the autonomy to decide what happens in your classroom, that doesn’t happen everywhere [in other school districts].”
That’s in part due to a decision by Principal Luis Menacho to allocate professional development time, like Tuesday’s peer review, to revamping the curriculum. Schools have more of that flexible time banked, Clark added, due to extensions of the work day in the last two union contracts.
Basso said the federal Magnet School Assistance Program (MSAP) grant also helped immensely, giving teachers time and training to outline a year’s worth of lessons and reaching out to experts to fill in the gaps. The district’s won two MSAP grants, which are designed to create “authentic STEM experiences” with a focus on cultural diversity, Clark said. Totaling $26.7 million, the money goes to nine schools: Martinez, Bishop Woods, Clemente and West Rock until 2019, as well as Edgewood, Davis, High School in the Community, East Rock and King Robinson until 2022.
At Martinez, the federal grant paid for one Lawrence Hall of Science-developed curriculum on outer space, and more help with lesson plans comes from partnerships with the Yale University Observatory, the Mystic Aquarium and the New England Air Museum. The faculty also get guidance from two in-house magnet resource teachers, who helped them apply a Columbia University template to plan out the arc of each quarter.
They couldn’t do it without bringing in trainers from the Connecticut Science Center, paying for extra days over the summer to tweak the curriculum for English language learners, supplying every student with a device and funding plenty of field trips, Basso added.
Once the MSAP money runs out, the district will continue to send an extra $100,000 annually to Martinez to keep the programs going, and the Martinez’s status as a magnet school should net it some extra money from the state for any suburban students, according to an application that went to the feds.
But even without the extra dollars, Basso added, traditional public schools can shift their pedagogy to get the same enthusiasm from their students and staff.
“It’s inquiry-based, student-centered learning, where students are taking accountability for their own knowledge. That can happen anywhere,” she said. “Management is a huge piece, learning that controlled chaos is okay. As an administrator, if I come into a classroom doing an inquiry-based investigation, I’m not going to see them lined up in rows, sitting quietly. We should see kids on the floor, on one-to-one devices in the corner, kids talking and dialoguing about things.
“It takes a courageous conversation to realize we’re not here to tell students what to think but to teach them how to try to arrive at an answer,” Basso added. “And that doesn’t cost a thing.”