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!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Thinking about Thinking & Reflecting on Reflection

I am Brooke Sims, a Digital Learning Coach at Coppell High School and I have recently had the honor to work alongside Sam and witness her genius at work. Thank you, Sam, for inviting me to contribute to your blog and offer perspective!

A couple of weeks ago, I was ecstatic to receive an email from Sam asking if I would consider being a thought-partner with her as she designed her upcoming unit. I jumped at this opportunity because I knew I would learn so much from her! As Sam explained in the previous post, we started chatting, collaborating and bouncing ideas off one another and soon her initial idea to incorporate a "making meaning" mural turned into a beautiful and robust learning experience.

Today, I observed Sam's learners as they began their journey to explore and make meaning to uncover "The Big Picture". Last week, Sam and I worked together nightly using Google docs to curate resources she would carefully place into ports.

Haven't heard of ports? 

Educators who utilize ports plan intentionally and understand the goal(s) of their learning experience first. Then, they purposefully plan and design ports for learners to explore based on individual needs and choice. Ports are different from traditional stations because, in contrast to stations, not every individual is required to visit every port and stay there for a prescribed amount of time. Often times, learners are given a self-assessment to reveal areas of weakness and are encouraged to visit ports that would help them acquire the knowledge they need to be successful in their next steps. Furthermore, learners can move freely from port to port and spend as much or a little time as needed at each one. Extremely efficient educators design and house ports in a digital format that can be accessed later, anytime and anywhere.

Sam articulated two goals for the development of these ports as we were planning. One was for her learners to become aware of the value of reflection and the second was for them to identify how they preferred to reflect. Sam utilized a Tackk to house the ports and I love that she varied modalities within each port (videos/articles/infographics) - acknowledging and appealing to the learning styles of all of the learners in her classroom.

As I walked around Sam's classroom today, I witnessed learners engaging in conversations about how they THINK and how they PROCESS. My reflective, introverted heart fluttered with excitement as I watched the "wallflowers" write silently in their notebooks or sketch-note on their iPads. I value reflection as much as I value breathing - I know that sounds dramatic, but in this fast-paced world, slowing down and having time to fully develop ideas is vital.

A couple of learners I talked with me while I was in the room praised Sam on being the first educator to challenge them to think about what it means to reflect with purpose and in a way that is meaningful to them. One learner, Antonia, expressed how excited she was to explore sketch-noting while Tori was excited to know that her dialectical journal could be filled with reflections that meant something to her. She explained that she is required to reflect in many classes, but within certain parameters and she felt liberated to know her journal would now be "hers" alone.

C223 was buzzing with excitement today. I can't wait to go back and witness how the kids' reflections will support the discussions that will take place during the "meeting of the minds" (literature circles) in the upcoming days!

Thank you to Sam and her learners, for teaching me today!


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Design Thinking: "The Big Picture"

Last year, my campus began to implement Understanding by Design (UbD), and this year I have worked hard to grasp the concepts in a deeper, more meaningful way than before.

Since November, I have attended three UbD Stage 1 trainings where I really dug into writing Transfer Goals, Essential Questions, and Enduring Understandings.

At the first training I attended, led by Brooke Sims (@dlcoachbrooke) and Ashley Minton (@AM_MathCoach), the idea that stuck most with me actually had nothing to do with any of these concepts. After each new idea was explained and explored in the training, participants were directed to write a brief reflection and add it to a Making Meaning Mural. The images on the mural all represented different components of the training.

Something about the combination of images, pointed reflection, connections to reflections of others, and the blood flow returning to my legs when I got up to add my Post-Its to the wall made this a meaningful experience for me, so of course I wanted to find a way to use this in my classroom.

When I pitched my idea to Brooke, she jumped on board immediately and began brainstorming ways to bring this into my classroom. Brooke introduced me to Hexagonal Thinking, and after reading about it and doing lots of brainstorming, we came up with a plan that I am so excited to implement!

The Enduring Understandings for this unit will actually span the entire semester, and we will use what we've dubbed "The Big Picture" to work toward these understandings:

Students will be able to independently use their learning to…
  • be empathetic toward the struggles of others both near and far.
  • express empathy toward the struggles of others through effective communication.

We are beginning the unit with Lit Circles. Each Lit Circle will read a historical fiction novel from a list I cultivated. Each group consists of 3-5 learners who have chosen a lens through which to examine their novel as they read (character, setting, conflict, or plot).

Daily responses to the novels will occur in the form of a Dialectical Journal-esque reflection, which you can read about here.

I introduced journal in class today and my kids established their roles within the Lit Circle. Tomorrow my kids will decide what form their personal reflections will take.

Our next big steps will be:

  1. Begin reflecting in the Dialectical Journals, keeping in mind the first essential question (Why do humans perpetuate social injustice on others?)
  2. View a series of ports that expose the learners to different modes of reflection so that they can determine what works best for them as well as explore new ways of reflecting

Brooke and I will be blogging as this process unfolds, and I hope you will join us on our journey in The Big Picture!