Thursday, June 23, 2016

Introduction - A Little About the School

I was part of Montclair’s Leadership Development Institute for which we were asked to take on an action research project that interested us with the aim of renewing education and bringing about change. A third grade teacher at my school was also part of the LDI and we decided to do our project together. The following experience is only for my 4th grade class.

Before going into details about the project, I would like to provide some background information about my school and classroom to better understand our situation. I exclusively teach 4th grade math. There are three 4th grade homerooms and the students rotate throughout the day. I have each group for two periods for a total of 100 minutes of math.

I work in a Title 1 school where more than 90% of the students receive free breakfast and lunch. The school has around 570 students with grades ranging from Pre-K to 8th grade. In each grade level, there are either two or three homerooms. The school had changed it’s lunch period schedule than from last year. Instead of having three lunch periods, it was reduced to two. Each 50 minute lunch period is further divided into 3 parts to provide a rotational schedule so that all students will have equal amount of time.

During the lunch periods, each class follows a 16 minute rotation for advisory (time with the teacher), lunch (occurring in the cafeteria) and recess (outdoors or in the auditorium). There was also a change in the lunch provider. Lunch last year came in prepackaged, frozen individualized portions. The cafeteria staff had to heat up the frozen packages and serve each grade level. This year, food was “catered.” Food was made at a different site and delivered to the school ready to serve.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Problem - Lunch Passes

The teaching staff at school had discussions on how 16 minutes for lunch was too rushed for the students. The vice principal had countered our concerns with, and I paraphrase, “they eat very quickly, if you give them more lunch time, fights will start.” As teachers, we were given a very specific schedule. My fourth graders had recess first that started at 11:04 and at 11:21am, they were to have lunch and I was to pick them up at no later than 11:37am for advisory. When I would come to pick up the students, they would almost all still be eating, or in the process of unwillingly throwing out their food. Sometimes I would come down when they had gotten their lunches late, and I was given the signal to come back 4 minutes later to pick them up.  

In the new calendar year, some of my students started asking if they could come up for lunch. To prevent favoritism, the first person to ask would get a blank pass and anyone else wishing to come up would have to get their name on that pass. Within the first week of doing this, I noticed that the students would come up closer to 11:30am which meant they would have only around 5 minutes to eat, since I would start heading down at around 11:35 to guarantee that I would be at the cafeteria ready to pick up the students for advisory by 11:37.

A student joined me for lunch who had to finish her lunch while heading back to the cafeteria to be picked up for class.

During lunch time I started to ask them why it was taking them so long to get their lunch. From there the stories started. It didn’t matter who was coming up - the stories were consistent - they almost never got their lunch at 11:21 which meant they would never have the full 16 minutes since pick up time was almost always 11:37. As a teacher, I was feeling helpless and empathetic, because the students overwhelmingly loved the catered lunch compared to last year’s frozen prepackaged ones. They had real chicken, salads, and pasta dishes instead of lukewarm frozen meals, but because they did not have enough time to eat, they ended up throwing away food that they still wanted.

They also told me stories of how because they did not have enough time to eat, they tried to grab a few last bites before the teachers would come to pick them up for advisory. I have witnessed, and the students have told me, of instances where an administrator grabbed food from the students’ hands and threw it out because lunch time was over even though they still wanted a few last bites. The students also told stories of eating over the garbage bins as they were ushered to line up.

Students trying to get one more bite of their lunch before lining up for class over a giant garbage can.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Proof - Collecting Data

Most of the students that came up for lunch were from my homeroom and when I asked whether it was the same for the other two classes, they said yes. Instead of taking their words alone, I decided to take some math time to discuss the lunch/recess situation. Were all three homerooms getting 16 minutes of recess? Were they getting 16 minutes for lunch? The answer was a resounding “no” from all the 4th graders.

If the students were not getting the 16 minutes for lunch and recess as scheduled, how many minutes were they getting daily? We had the discussion that if they were to talk to the principal about their problem today, the principal would say according to the schedule, you have 16 minutes to eat which is plenty. The students were upset and said they weren’t getting the 16 minutes. How could we prove that they were not getting their 16 minutes? Data.

We created a list of reasons why data is important when trying to prove a claim. In each homeroom, a student was assigned to collect the data on how many recess minutes and lunch minutes they received each day. There are two clocks - one by the entrance to the playground and another right outside the cafeteria doors used by the data collectors to make sure all three homeroom times were consistent.  

Students' list of why data is important

After three weeks of data, I made a photocopy of the data sheet so that everyone in the homeroom would have a copy. 

Because there were so many data points, we used a graph to help organize the trend - a line plot (I strategically picked the line plot for the classes to display our data because line plots are part of the 4th grade Common Core standards.) We looked at the data and discussed how to set up our line plot. We used three different colors to represent the data points from the different homerooms. The line plot was also on big paper so that everyone could easily see it. After we plotted our information, groups were formed to come up with a graph name.

A student adding data to the line plot.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Data analysis - what the data tells us?

After several weeks of collecting data, we regrouped. Each student got a copy of their homeroom’s raw data sheet. We went over the data sets to make sure the “Minute Elapsed” column was accurate. After pulling random names from sticks, students came up to the board and plotted how many minutes elapsed for their homeroom on an aggregated line plot.

After all three homerooms’ data were plotted, students broke up into groups to discuss the line plot from two angles:

  1. Patterns about specific homerooms
  2. Trends in fourth grade

Below are some of the trends discussed in all three homerooms:

Homeroom 201's Data Discussion

Homeroom 301's Data Discussion

We discovered that homeroom 200 had the most consistent time. The three homerooms talked about whether that was actually the case and according to the other students, the data wasn’t accurate. We went on a tangent about the importance of good data and why Torres (the data collector) put 16 minutes elapsed for most of the days. Some of the students said, Torres was being lazy and really didn’t look at the clock at the wall and just put down the minutes that was on the schedule. After that informative discussion, Torres promised to do a better job.

Homeroom 200's unreliable data.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Class discussion - the story behind the data

We had collected data and discussed what it indicated, but had not gotten to the “so what” part? After seeing our two line plots with all the data from all three homerooms, we sat down and went back to our original question - why is it important that we have a longer lunch and recess period. Why isn’t the 16 minutes enough?

Fourth Grade Line Plot:  4th Grade Recess Minutes

Fourth Grade Line Plot:  4th Grade Lunch Minutes

We broke up the discussion into two parts - first recess, then lunch. For each rotational period, we had two main concerns to address:

  1. Why are the 4th graders not getting the full 16 minutes lunch/recess?
  2. Why isn’t 16 minutes enough for lunch and recess?

Each homeroom separated into groups and came up with at least 3 answers for each question which are compiled below.

A list why of 16 minutes of recess is not enough.

A list of why 16 minutes for lunch is not enough.

It seemed like there was a consensus among the three groups. Recess was cut short because the teachers do not drop off the students on time and they lose several minutes lining up against the wall to begin play for recess. Lunch time gets cut short because they get in late from recess and because they are still excited, the 4th graders get moved to the end of the line which means they get their lunch last.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Presentation - The Big Day

Leading up to the presentation day, due to time constraints, I asked for 7 volunteers from my homeroom to present to the principal. Lots of hands went up and I picked one/two from each group. The presentation set up was very simple. All the ideas that had been discussed were put together on Google Slides. The students self selected which slides they wanted to present and went home to memorize their information.

The day finally arrived during the last week of school on a Tuesday at  9:00am. The principal wasn’t aware of this project and was just told that the students had prepared something. She came in and sat in the middle of the class while the 3rd and 4th grade students presented their data. The students did an amazing job! They had obviously gone home and studied their slides and were very confident in their arguments. At last, we finished the last slide and the principal started asking her questions. The students referred back to their premise and used the anecdotal notes shared in class. [See the video below for the whole presentation and questioning.]

Friday, June 17, 2016


After the presentation, the 4th graders were extremely relieved and anxious. They were glad that it was over.  One student in particular told me, “Ms. Hong, you were right, Ms. Gearhart did ask us very tough questions.” They felt disappointed because they didn’t think they were successful in the endeavor. I comforted them by saying they presented as best as they could and at least they had tried.

Two days later, the school year ended and summer break began.

Thursday, June 16, 2016


We were supposed to meet with the principal after the students presented to discuss the proposed schedule to accomplish extending lunch and recess time to 25 minutes each. Due to the chaos of the end of the school year routine, we didn’t have a chance to meet. The school year ended and the teachers left feeling like the kids, we tried.

A week after the last day of school I got an email from the principal,

“I am planning on increasing the recess time to 20 minutes thereby increasing lunch to 20 minutes.  That will also allow teachers to receive a 40-minute lunch.  I watched the video several times and 20 minutes will accomplish our lunchtime goal.”

WE DID IT! We were able to convince our principal that 16 minutes for lunch and 16 minutes for recess is not long enough. Although we didn’t get the full 25 minutes we asked for, the third and fourth graders were able to make a case for the entire school to extend the lunch and recess time by four minutes!