Saturday, July 15, 2017

Saying Goodbye to the Classroom

I didn’t know it at the time, but I recently taught my last group of learners.

A couple of weeks after we dismissed for the year, I took a new job in my school district. Instead of a classroom teacher, I will be a Digital Learning Coach, supporting teachers in technology integration in their classrooms.

Believe me when I say I did not end the school year with any intention of leaving the classroom. I had not even the slightest inkling that when I told my last group of kids to have a good summer! and come visit me next year! that they wouldn’t be able to. Not in C223, at least. I left the school year looking forward to a summer of intense planning for another incredible group of kids - my tenth group of kids, in fact.

But if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that sometimes you’ve got to roll where the wave takes you. And this year’s wave was a big one.

So as I have been coming to grips with what leaving the classroom means, I think a lot about how I’ve spent my nine years in the classroom, and how those nine years - and nine groups of kids - have shaped me.

I think about my first years of teaching, when I was the definition of sweating the small stuff. I worried about who had the right materials for class every day, who turned in every single assignment at the bell rather than five minutes into class, who was respectful (and who wasn’t). I think about the principal who taught me that every child has a name and a need, and how I was only beginning to learn what that really meant.

I think about my first years in this district, when I started to let go of the little things and focus instead on the bigger picture. When I was challenged to build a learner-centered environment, break down the walls of my classroom, and allow learners to construct meaning for themselves. I think about the teacher who taught me that life is 10% what happens and 90% how you react to it, so the perfect lesson plan will only take you so far.

I think about my last few years in the classroom, when I really became the teacher I wanted to be. When every day I asked myself: Who are the young people I’m teaching? Besides English, what am I teaching them about life? about who they are? about who they can be?

I think about this last year especially, asking myself over and over if I would have done anything differently. The truth is, of course I would’ve done things differently. But the things I come up with are mostly me sweating the small stuff (and here I thought I’d move past that!).

When I really reflect on last school year, I come up with more things I wouldn’t have changed than things I would.

I wouldn’t have changed the many, many times we paused class so that someone (sometimes me, sometimes not) could share some slightly off-topic but still completely relevant bit of wisdom. I wouldn’t have changed using the city-wide power outage as an opportunity to challenge the perspectives of my learners in third period who were stuck with me for at least 30 extra minutes. I wouldn’t have changed that I let discussions run longer than planned because we were having such great conversation. I wouldn’t have changed a single moment of time that, on paper, was wasted, because, in reality, those were the only moments that mattered.

I think a whole lot about my last day in the classroom. Would I have done anything differently on my last day as a teacher?

Per tradition, on my last day with all my kids, I read a letter to the class. In it, I told my kids that I’m proud of them and who they became over the year. I told them, one more time, that I love them. I cried. A lot. Even the sixth time I read it. This year’s group was particularly hard to say goodbye to. If I had known I was really saying goodbye to those kids and the classroom, I never would have survived it.

I also talked about the importance of finding your purpose. I shared that teaching is my calling and a teacher is who I will always be. Even though I’m not going to be in my own classroom next year, my calling has not changed. I’ll still always be a teacher. It’s just going to look a little different now, and as I sit here and write this, I know I’m ready for a new challenge.

To my spectacular sophomores of 2016-2017, know that I hear you repeating me when I say:

I’m fired up. Ready to go.

And I sure will miss you.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Moving Toward a Modified Block Schedule

In what may have seemed at the time like a wild three days returning from Winter Break, our school did a "Modified Block Pilot" to allow teachers and students the opportunity to experience what a modified block schedule will look and feel like. Next year we will be moving from a 7-period day to something a bit different:

There will be so many benefits - and, to be fair, challenges - to moving to this type of schedule. But that is not the purpose of this post!

I just wanted to reflect on a few of my experiences with the Pilot to give me an opportunity to think about how my instruction and teaching strategies will need to change for next year.

1. The skinny periods and the block periods will not have an equal number of minutes.

I did the math. The skinny periods will meet for 280 minutes per week. The block periods will meet for either 170 minutes or 255 minutes per week, depending on if we are in an A week or a B week, which means that every two weeks, all of the block periods will meet 425 minutes, where the skinny periods will meet 560 minutes. That's not a small difference!

So what does this mean for instruction? 

It means that we will have to reframe our thinking of courses because even if I teach all English II Honors classes - which is my schedule right now - I will have two very different preps. I will not be able to prepare my English II Honors skinny periods the same way I will prepare my English II Honors block periods.

Surprisingly, where I expected my skinny periods to get a lot of extra instruction during the Pilot, they actually missed out on an entire learning experience. The reason for this was that after teaching a full block, my team and I redesigned the next class period based on what we felt our students needed. That's a pretty normal occurrence. The difference was that we didn't get the opportunity to implement this into our skinny periods because of the time it took to turn over a new lesson.

This gives us a lot to think about as we begin to prepare for next year! Which leads me to...

2. Implementing UbD to its fullest extent will be crucial next year.

Our district is a UbD - Understanding by Design - district. Without getting too technical with it, UbD means that we design everything with an end goal in mind, and create learning experiences to help our students create their own understanding toward those ends.

How will this be important in a modified block? 

There are three major components to UbD. In the first, the enduring understandings and essential questions are designed, and the TEKS we will focus on are selected. In the second, performance tasks are created to align with the first element as well as create authentic assessments aligned across teams. The third is the design of the actual learning experiences that will lead to the big understandings of the unit.

This third element in UbD will have a huge weight in the modified block environment. As the skinny and block periods will have to function as different classes, it will be more important than ever to have a strong bank of lesson plans and learning experiences ready for all teachers using each UbD to pull from. As my campus has focused on deeply understanding and strongly implementing the first two elements of UbD, it will be so important for us to continue our work and push ourselves to work on that third element.

3. Sitting for 80 minutes will not be an option.

Kids sit all day. Like really. All day. And if you haven't tried it, it's surprisingly exhausting. As teachers, we will have to remember even more that it is important to get our kids up and moving during class, and to keep "chunks" of instruction to 15-20 minutes. Otherwise, it won't matter that we have more time with them during the day - they won't be paying attention to what's going on in class after the first 15 minutes of sitting.

4. I'll have time to go to the bathroom during the school day!

I know, I know. But seriously, if you're a teacher, you know - this is a big deal. On the modified block, we will have 12 minutes between classes (versus the 6 we have right now). Our students will have more time to socialize, take care of personal business, grab a snack, and talk to their teachers. 

If you haven't been in school in a while, or on a 7-period day like ours - where it feels like a bell rings and moves us around every 10 minutes - you may not appreciate how much of an impact this makes on you. I often feel like my heart beats faster during the school day than it does when I'm at home. During the Pilot, I had so much time in the passing periods that I even had time to make this amusing video (it amuses me at least!).


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Big Changes This Year

We are only days away from starting the new school year, and, as usual, this week of professional development has brought about a new slew of changes for the teachers at my school. The biggest change for next year, which we learned about last spring, is that most of our teachers will move from teaching five to teaching six out of seven classes. We are losing our team planning period and restructuring team into our conference time every two weeks. We'll be playing in a whole new ball game next year with more kids, less time to plan and grade, and more to grade. We're also rolling out new systems for team planning, new expectations in our grading policies, and it's only Wednesday, so I'm sure by Friday there will be even more changes to process and execute.

BUT. (And as I love to teach my students when we analyze poetry, there's always a but.)

The point of this blog isn't to talk about all of these changes. Instead, I want to commit to five things that all of these changes will not change for me.

5. My feedback to my students will remain timely and specific.

This one won't be easy. Truthfully, nothing causes me more stress than having anything to grade, so turning work around quickly is as much for me as it is for my students. And I'm going to have to be creative and intentional about how this happens, but I have some ideas that I'm pretty excited to try, and some oldies but goodies that I've used in the past. I will not be a paper hoarder this year.

4. My attitude will stay positive.

Charles R. Swindoll said, "Life is 10% what happens and 90% how you react to it." Isn't that the truth? I have no control over the changes at my school. What I do control is my response to these changes. I'm sure there will be days when I have to "fake it 'til I make it," but I am committing to keep my chin up. My husband often drives me crazy when he tells me that "it's all mental," but I know he's right. So no matter how many times I have to remind myself to stay positive, I will. My students deserve the best I can give, and I can't give my best if I'm in a bad mood.

3. I will continue to grow in my craft.

This year is being called the "bridge year." Next year, we're supposed to be going to a block schedule from a seven period day and regaining our team planning period. I do not plan on simply getting through this year. I plan on growing as much this year as I have every other year. Every year brings new challenges; this may be the biggest challenge I have faced as a teacher. But that means I'll have a lot of opportunities to grow, and I can't help but be excited about that.

2. My family will remain my first priority.

There came a point a couple of years ago where I realized that if I continued on the path I was traveling, I wouldn't last ten years as a teacher. Not because I don't love it, but because it was dominating my life. Before I was married, that wasn't a big deal. I could get to school early, stay late, and work well into the evenings and weekends. When I got married, my husband traveled a lot, so not much changed. But then I had a baby. And my daughter deserves to be the number one child in my life. I love my students like they are my own - but they aren't actually my own. My husband now travels far less. He deserves to have a wife who talks to him instead of a wife who grades papers until she falls asleep at the kitchen table. In short, my family deserves to be number one.

1. The center of my classroom will still be my students.

I will not let the stress of a busier day shift the focus away from my students so that I can check things off my to-do list. If I've learned anything in my teaching life, it's that my list will never be empty. There will always be something new to do, and more often than not, several things will be added to the list before I can even begin check off what's already there. The good news is, by some miracle, everything that needs to get done will, in fact, get done. And, on the bright side, I get to work with even more wonderful kids this year. So the top of my to-do list will always say "Focus on my kids." And I'll never check that off.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


I am writing this blog completely physically exhausted and emotionally spent.

Yesterday was #PKD2016 - or PechaKucha Day - for approximately 500 English II students at my school.

What is PechaKucha Day? Read last year's blog post here.

I will keep my post short, but I wanted to mention how proud I am of all of my students - and all of the students involved - for how hard they worked to pull off an all-day event. I found it especially impressive when the kids took initiative throughout the day. Students were constantly approaching me, asking, "What can I do to help?" They took full ownership of the event and truly drove the entire day.

The audience was encouraged to Tweet their support and reflections throughout the event. Read our Tweets here!

Overall, #PKD2016 was such a rewarding experience for all of us!

Though we had 36 learners present today, I want to share a few pictures that are close to my heart.

3rd Place Marcus, Champion Antonia, and 2nd Place Megan showing off some of their Baylor University swag.

My 6th period support squads and finalists. Top left: Trusten, Finalist Nihar, Austin, and Michael. Middle left: Mushkan, Fiona, Finalist Antonia, Isha. Bottom left: Ali, Tristen, Finalist Nate.

My 7th period support squads and finalists. Top left: Darrin, Aaron, Gerald, Finalist Mihir, Conor. Bottom left: Courtney, Finalist Jade, and Sarah.

I'm so proud of this incredibly talented and passionate young woman!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

"The Big Picture" Continues - Hear from My Students!

In this third reflection about the ongoing mash-up of synetic thinking and hexagonal thinking, hear my principal Mike Jasso talk to my students about their experiences with The Big Picture and SketchNotes.

I'll let them do the talking!

Want to read more? Check out the other blogs in this series: 1, 2, and 3

Sunday, February 21, 2016

"The Big Picture" Takes Shape

For the last two weeks, my kids have passed by a large black butcher paper mural in the hallway outside our classroom door that only had one small purple hexagon in the bottom left corner. The hexagon says, "Why do humans perpetuate social injustice on others?"

For two weeks, they've either ignored it or simply noticed that it features one of our Essential Questions. No one asked me why it was there.

On Wednesday, they finally learned why it was there.

On Wednesday, I challenged my kids to come up with an image or symbol that helps them visualize all of the components we've been working on this unit: the historical fiction novel they've been reading, their understandings of social injustice, and the connections between these ideas. Then I gave them a hexagon of their own with the directions to draw this visualization, write a concise explanation of their choice, and to use an assigned color to represent their novel.

Learners color-coded their hexagons to represent the historical fiction novel they are reading.
I enjoyed watching my kids "productively struggle" as they wrested with what would be the best image and how to fit everything they wanted to draw and say on a relatively small space.

Austin, Trusten, and Michael discuss what images they plan to draw on their hexagons.
Tori looks up a picture of a burka before drawing on her hexagon.
Megan and I discuss her plan for her hexagon.
Courtney utilizes her Dialectical Journal and a brain image search to complete her hexagon.
Camila outlines her hexagon in pink to denote her novel choice, Love in the Time of Cholera.
Once they were satisfied with their hexagon, learners brought their hexagon into the hallway, where I instructed them to post them to the wall. The first hexagons connected directly to our Essential Question.
Stephanie and Kristin are some of the first to place their hexagons on the wall.
More connections begin to take shape as more hexagons are added to the "Big Picture."

The real magic began as more hexagons were added to the wall. I told my kids to find a place where they could connect their hex - whether it was that the visual connected in some way to their symbol, or the explanation resonated with them, or maybe they both discussed the same social injustice.

Watching all of the connections being made was like watching a huge puzzle coming together.

Rohan reads the wall to find where his hexagon will fit best.

I am blown away by what my kids came up with. Below, you can see a series of three connected hexes, each featuring a different symbol - a mousetrap, a fishnet, and a claw machine - that represent the idea that the United States Draft during the Vietnam War restricted individual freedoms.

"The Big Picture" at the end of day one.

When my kids came to class the next day, I asked them to go back out to the mural and take a picture of their hexagon and the ones connected to it.

They were then directed to add a new Dialectical Journal entry that explained why they chose to place their hexagon where they did, and to make new connections to hexagons added after they placed theirs on the wall. I modeled the process with my own hexagon (pink). The "sexism" hex outlined in purple was where I made my initial connection, and the grenade hex outlined in purple is my additional connection.

I initially connected to Tori because her hex talks about the injustice of sexism, in the case of her novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, it is the oppression of women, and as a mom to a little girl, this is an issue close to my heart. I want JoLeigh to know that she can do big things, and nothing - not her gender, size, age, anything - can stop her if she works hard to achieve her dreams.

I have no made an additional connection to Roy's hex, which shows a grenade for his novel The Things They Carried. The grenade symbolizes the weight of expectations on soldiers in war. I feel that symbol can represent the weight of societal expectations imposed on women, and I know that I will have to teach my daughter to fight against societal perceptions of beauty, weight, ability, and appropriate roles for women. These things and others will weigh on her, must like expectations of survival weight on soldiers.

I am so excited about some of the connections my students were making. They never cease to amaze me with their creativity and ability to make complex and unexpected connections.

I hope you are enjoying coming on this journey with my students! My next post will delve further into the Dialectical Journal and you'll get to hear from my kids themselves. My principal will also be making an appearance!