The Lennard Longhorns
Ruskin sits on the gulf coast of Florida, 40 minutes south of Tampa. Pastel fish shacks, signs for the local manatee viewing center, and an old-fashioned drive-in movie theater dot the main drag; strip malls alternate with acres of undeveloped swampland to give Ruskin a feeling of rapid, if incomplete, change.
Thanks to a recent population boom, the student body of Lennard High School—which serves Ruskin and two neighboring communities—has nearly doubled in the last few years. Today, Lennard serves an ethnically diverse group of more than 2,000 students, some three-quarters of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Many, like Martin, are first-generation college-bound.
During first period on a Monday morning in February, Martin and his classmates settle themselves at tables of four and immediately get to work. At the start of every class, students have “flex time” to check homework or work on quiz corrections or a warm-up problem that builds upon the previous day’s work. Ms. Zunkiewicz circles the room, asking quiet questions to keep conversations moving. “How are we doing here? This is all you’ve got?” she teases. “Talk about it. Think about it.”
The table groups are carefully selected to pair students with complementary strengths and weaknesses, so they’ll be able to support each other effectively. Ms. Zunkiewicz experiments with groupings in the beginning of the year, but once she gets them right, she says, they stay that way.
In many respects, the groups are at the heart of Ms. Zunkiewicz’s classroom culture—and one of her most important teaching strategies. Because besides those quiet, guiding questions—the result of the meticulous planning she does in advance of every lesson and her deep knowledge of both her content and her students’ needs—Ms. Zunkiewicz barely says anything during class. Her students do all the work.
This means Ms. Zunkiewicz’s math class looks very different from her students’ previous math classes. It’s not just that the teacher does less talking. In Ms. Zunkiewicz’s room, students themselves are actually discovering how to do high-level math as they go along, using their prior knowledge, their classmates’ ideas, and their best guesses.
In a recent lesson, for example, students used their prior knowledge of the Law of Cosines to derive the Law of Sines in their groups. Ms. Zunkiewicz used questions about triangles to help them focus on the right information: “What do you have to have specifically from the triangle to use Law of Sines?" Once they understood that they needed two sides and a corresponding angle, or two angles and a corresponding side, she asked, "What kind of triangles would that be used for?" She let them work toward their own organic understanding, increasing the difficulty of the problems they tackled as they built their knowledge.
Developing knowledge organically like that is a different level of challenge than most of these students have been exposed to in math before—and the expectations for the level of understanding they’ll reach as a result are higher, too.
Asked what makes her class different, her students explain again and again that in previous classes, teachers told them, “This is how you do it.” That’s not how it is in Ms. Zunkiewicz’s class.