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How one school fashions geometry lessons from recyclables

This is another story in KPCC's ongoing series, Classroom Core, that takes a close look at how the Common Core teaching standards are playing out in schools in Southern California.

Amid rows of chairs set up in Hawthorne High School's cafeteria, students, teachers and even the district superintendent strut around as they model elaborate, handmade outfits for an appreciative audience.

This is not just a fashion show — it's part of a geometry class.

Math teacher Ding-ay Tadena's students spent several weeks working through geometry problems that they used to create outfit designs with recycled items like plastic cups, newspapers, trashbags and CDs. Out of their effort came frocks, smocks, skirts and other costumes for their event.

Tadena had no background in the arts when school administrators asked her to use visual and performing arts techniques, known as VAPA to teach geometry. Aligned to the new Common Core learning standards, the lessons were devised to engage students in ways that are creative and relevant to the real world.

“Being in the VAPA for one year made me realize things that I thought I was not capable of doing,” Tadena said. “It has put color into a boring abstract math.”

Some advocates of Common Core lessons that integrate the arts also say that students who find subjects like math hard to grasp can learn more easily when lessons are visual and hands-on. Their hope is lessons like Tadena's will spread in school districts across the state, helping restore funding to arts education that in some places was severely cut during the recession.

Centinela Valley Union High School District, of which Hawthorne is a part, has been developing lessons like these as it transitions to the Common Core and the new learning standards with its emphasis on concepts like problem-solving and critical thinking.

Administrator Hatha Parrish, director of federal and state programs, said the school district paired teachers of subjects like math and English with art instructors. This school year, it also invested $50,000 in training teachers on integrating the arts into Common Core lessons.

Parrish said the arts are an effective tool in keeping students' attention while imparting experiences that are applicable to their lives.

Susan Riley, an arts integration specialist who works as consultant to school districts across the country, said California has emerged as a leader in integrating the arts into the new learning standards. She said educators here have been open to change in a way that other states haven't.

"Some states are still kind of trying to put the old mentality into a new box and it's not really working," she said. "Instead, California seems to be taking a look at this and being willing to go out on a limb."

Riley said arts educators' lessons are a good match for the Common Core, and in many ways art teachers have been approaching teaching this way for a long time.

Making of a fashion show

Tenth-grader Alyssa Ochoa helped create a futuristic mini-dress made in part from plastic cup rims. Using geometry, her team came up with a design to make the skirt.

“It was pretty hard at first but when we got the hang of it, it went a bit faster and it got easier,” she said.

Ninth-grader Erika Gonzalez worked on the dress, too, and modeled it during the fashion show

“I was proud to wear it," she said. "It felt like all my team had worked on this one design that I got to put on,” she said. 

What Erika’s describing is another key component of the Common Core standards — collaboration.

Tadena said the fashion show and arts-based teaching has changed the way she approaches her subject. It's helped her students master difficult math concepts, and, she said, made her a better teacher, too.

Hawthorne High has some work to do before it makes the full transition to the Common Core, according to Tadena, but she likes where it’s headed. 

She said she appreciates the academic rigor of the new standards and wants her students to be on par with kids their age all around the country.

“Now, I think, with the content that we have with the Common Core, it's a step up,” she said.

Other stories in this series: