Peer Observation

Today I went to art class. Administrators encouraged teachers to observe one another, and offered class coverage to allow us to see someone else teach. I picked art teacher Andrea Puentes, because I believe her style is similar to my own in many ways, but I have always wanted to learn more about art. Doing so can improve the way I teach graphic design.

art class

Art teaching giving instructions

The third period class, Pre-AP Art I, was working on plans for a still life drawing. Ms. Puentes gave them several minutes of instruction, tips for how to do a good job, pointers about how to use tools, reminders of their timeline, then let them work. She made a few behavioral redirections, but gave a rationale for them, too (for example, they shouldn’t use their phones because they can’t be drawing at the same time); when two boys tried to hold a conversation during this time, she stopped talking until they stopped.

Once they started to work, the class got really quiet. I call this the “sweet spot” in my own lessons–the moment when everyone knows what to do and is doing it. To help set a mood, Ms. Puentes played music in the background:  she asked the class what type of music they would like. I play music sometimes, but I could do it more consistently.


One of my 8 sketches

I drew! The task was to create 8 sketches of a large combination of objects in the center of the room, in order to determine a focus for a still life drawing. While my sketches were not as detailed as the students’, I worked seriously for most of the period. I felt inadequate to the task, because I had missed prior instruction. This is probably how students feel when they are new to a class, or return from a prolonged absence. Taking the role of a student gives me chances to develop empathy for them. It’s also interesting to see my students in a different environment. One student who struggles in my class is a very good artist, so she shines in art class:  she worked diligently all period, whereas in mine she distracts herself.

art class slide

Art class teacher directions

Being part of art class was a nice change of pace–a good way to spend my conference period. I wish I knew more about art, but I appreciated the opportunity to learn a little more, and I recognized ways in which a few of the concepts (Rule of Thirds, negative space, etc.) overlap with what I teach in Digital Media.



Travel Essential Questions

The Task

Sophomores in Mexico, 2002

Every year since 2001 students at the International School of the Americas have taken trips outside of Texas with their entire grade level. I was on that first (sophomore) trip to Zacatecas, Mexico. As a freshman teacher, I now travel to Arkansas, where all 125 students spend 48 hours at Heifer Ranch to learn about hunger and poverty. We also spend a day in Little Rock. This year our administrators challenged us to create a focus question for the trip. We chose: “If there is enough for all, why don’t all have enough?”

The Work

While at Heifer Ranch, the staff uses the question to apply to food. The freshman team realized we could take the question and broaden it:  If there is enough _____ for all, why don’t all have enough? In the blank, we could write words that would apply to all the places we visit. At Central High, the blank would be filled with “quality education,” at the Clinton Presidential Library, “political power”, at Hendrix College “higher education,” and at Heifer Village/Headquarters, “sustainable resources” fits the bill.

We have always had Guiding Questions on our travel site to give parents a rationale for why we travel to Arkansas. But we have never, until this year, had a formal curriculum for students while on the trip. Circumstances necessitated some rearrangement of our itinerary this year, and we are taking that opportunity to develop more intentional time to reflect on learning during the trip (instead of only before and after). To meaningfully incorporate the essential question into our trip, we are making plans.


To support students in Digital Media as they confront this essential question, I can provide them with a context for what they will encounter. Several years ago, I created a Google Earth lesson that allows them to use technology to explore Heifer Ranch as well as the countries that are represented at Heifer Ranch. The lesson asks them to read about and consider aspects of global poverty both abroad and in the United states. I hesitate to use the exact wording of the essential question prior to Heifer, because the impact of the statement is maximized at the moment it is revealed–at the scarcity lunch on day 1 at the Ranch. Exploring with Google Earth helps students use technology to investigate the world. 

Looking Back to Look Forward

This year’s trip will be fundamentally different from the other nine times I have been to Heifer. Because we have collaborated as a team of teachers to develop a more reflective experience, I believe students will come away with a greater appreciation for the trip. We will be giving each student a mini composition book, with questions to answer and space for writing and drawing. During my post-Heifer lesson, I expect deeper, richer learning. After they communicate ideas in a Microlab, I ask them to choose an “aha” moment to create a VoiceThread.

Another thing we are doing this year is participating in Speak Up, Speak Out. Inspired by the man who created Heifer International, we are inviting students to choose a problem in their community and develop a workable solution. They will present these plans to one another, and the best groups will present at a local competition on December 5.

The new trip curriculum and follow-up activities should enrich the experience for everyone who travels to Arkansas during the 2018 Heifer trip.

S.A.G.E. Learning

SAGE is an acronym for the type of project-based learning we want to do at ISA. It stands for:

  • Student choice
  • Authentic work
  • Global significance
  • Exhibition to a real world audience

Here is a chart in which all my major projects are analyzed according to SAGE.

Student choice Authentic work Global Significance Exhibition of work

choose story,

costumes, lessons

perform a play

communication in groups,

and to audience, stories are

from another culture

perform to 1st graders,

at elementary schools

C-SPAN choose topic make a documentary global current events

submit to StudentCam


Make a 


submit potential topics,

choose a volunteer group,

plan a service project,

organize presentation

work in groups to

design and implement

a service project

developing empathy,

learning how NGOs work

presentations at


Devolved Writing

In October, during Staff Development, the ISA faculty learned about a process called Devolved Writing. I applied this process in my Digital and Interactive Media classroom. I looked at an assignment from the previous year and considered how the writing could be improved. At first, I was at a loss, as seen in my reflection document. I finally decided that the weak point of my assignment was student reflection about the Performance Outcomes (P.O.’s), so I decided to devolve that writing piece.

I created a document, with a very good paragraph, and 3 other paragraphs that were not as good. I printed these out and asked students to put them in order from best to worst. Then, with a partner, they wrote down how the best paragraph was different from the next best, and so on.  This process was kind of rushed, so I created my own list from their suggestions as a reference for their homework. Prior to this lesson, students had written their own paragraphs on the exact same prompt. In class, I asked them how they thought their own work compared to the examples, and for homework, they were challenged to improve them.

For the following 3 days of class, students worked independently on the remaining requirements of the blog post, incorporating new technical skills to document their month-long project.  Since they were self-directed, I used the opportunity to have one-on-one conferences with each student about their paragraphs. I realized that some students had really taken the devolved writing lesson to heart, and created very good pieces. Nearly every student benefited from the conferences, even though many of them were highly intimidated to come to my desk and talk about their work. I learned as much from the conferences as the students did. Overall, I realized that the stumbling block to good writing in this circumstance was a disconnect between their experiences and the concept behind the P.O.

The writing was focused on one section of the Habits of Mind Performance Outcomes. However, the project addressed all sections of the outcomes.  Having spent several days on this already, we were running out of time, so I created sentence stems for students to reflect on the remaining outcomes.  Students are familiar with Data-Based Questions, from their other classes, so I called this assignment “Experience-Based Questions“. The results were FANTASTIC. Students did a great job explaining how their experiences connected to the Performance Outcomes when provided with a bridge between the two. Despite having the same sentence stems, everyone’s answers were specific, diverse, and rich.

Applied Lesson: Surveillance Technology vs. Privacy

The ISA staff had a transformative experience this week when we traveled to the Rio Grande Valley to study the topic of immigration. We met with local law enforcement, border patrol, community activists, elected officials, crisis response volunteers, and federal officials. We encountered many different perspectives regarding border issues. We also spent time with immigrants themselves, who had just crossed the border and received permission for temporary residence while they appeal for asylum.

Now that we have returned, our task is to create a lesson, based on these experiences, for the class we teach. As the technology teacher, I was intrigued by tracking devices issued to the immigrants.

One of the state standards for Digital and Interactive Media reads, “1(H) demonstrate an understanding of legal and ethical responsibilities in relation to the field of information technology”.  The goal of my lesson is for students to take a position on the use of technology by governments to monitor the people within its borders.

In McAllen, Texas, last Monday, I met a young woman named Gina. She was from Honduras, traveling to New Orleans to see her husband, whom she had last seen when their daughter was 2 months old. Her daughter is now 4. A Disney fan who knows how to sing songs from Frozen, the little girl is named after her mother’s favorite character on an MTV reality show.  Mother and daughter moved through the Respite Center together: eating a meal, taking a shower, and receiving donated clothing. Like all the men and women there, Gina wore a security bracelet on her ankle, issued by the US government, which contained a GPS tracking device.

I would like to share this story with my students, and then ask the questions:

  • Does the US have the legal and ethical right to track immigrants with ankle bracelets?
  • In what other ways does government track people, using technology?
  • How does an individual’s right to privacy intersect with the government’s responsibility to keep us safe?
  • Do some people have more right to privacy than others?

Here is the lesson I plan to use in my Digital and Interactive Media Class.

The outcome of this unit will be two-fold: first, each student will create a researched, cited opinion piece about one specific example of the intersection of technology and privacy, and second, each student will write an email to an elected representative about whether the investigated technology should be used by government.

The email exercise allows students to demonstrate a Global Leadership Performance Outcome:

a. Take Action: Act, individually or collaboratively, in creative and responsible ways to contribute to improvement locally, regionally, and/or globally, and assess the impact of the action.

I plan to spend one week on this lesson, as detailed on the final slide of the embedded presentation. I hope this lesson will be an authentic investigation of real-world technology applications, and I look forward to seeing what the students produce.

Borderland Field Work: Conflicting Perspectives

Retreat to the Border, 2015

[Click image to enlarge.]

During the last few days, our faculty had the opportunity to explore the issue of immigration by traveling to the border and hearing from many people with expertise. I recorded over 3400 words worth of notes, and took a few photographs. From my notes, I selected a handful of important quotes (some are paraphrased), which I pasted into an image next to statements that demonstrate a different perspective. I color-coded the quotes and included a key, and then superimposed them on a photograph of one of our rental vans traveling along a major highway in the border region. Despite the conflicts of opinion, every individual we met on our trip showed care and concern for the border people, no matter what their legal status.

3-2-1 Fair Isn’t Always Equal, Chapters 5 & 6

In reading the text, Fair Isn’t Always Equal, by Rick Wormeli, I found out three things.

  1. Tiering is another word for differentiating the difficulty of tasks, in order to meet the needs of students.
  2. Adjusting complexity is one way to tier, but sometimes simply adjusting the timeline will suffice.
  3. Assessments should be designed to be graded quickly and efficiently so students receive timely feedback.

Two interesting things from the readings are:

  1. Frank William’s Taxonomy of Creativity, because I wonder if I could use those ideas for generating service learning ideas, and
  2. the idea of One-Word Summaries, because I can imagine using it in my class to evaluate effectiveness of decisions.

One question I still have about this portion of the book is whether, given options, most students will differentiate on their own in a project-based classroom.  For example, my students recently made documentaries.  Most of them met the standards of the rubric, but the higher-level students created more complex products, and the lower-level students produced very simple work.

Portfolio Plans

At the beginning of each school year, ISA teachers are asked to plan the portfolio entries they hope to include in their course throughout the year.  My document this year looked like this:

It’s now November.  At our professional development meeting on an early dismissal day, we looked at portfolio entries (formerly called blog posts) together and gave warm and cool feedback on the assignments.  I looked at a senior English piece, as well as a sophomore math task.  One thing that impressed me was how the math teacher provided a fill-in-the-blank statement; when students filled in the blanks, using their own work as evidence, they were very strongly demonstrating the performance outcome. That is an excellent example of scaffolding, and I should adopt a similar strategy in my own portfolio entry assignments to tie the student work to the standard.

When I look at my August plan, nothing surprises me. I have done what I expected to do:  have students set up their blog accounts, practice documenting service hours, write a blog about summer assignments, and another about Storytelling.  One thing I have not done is implement a type of badge system for demonstrating proficiency in different areas. I got this idea from the South by Southwest Education conference.  Edmodo uses a badge system, and we are using Edmodo right now, but I’d rather put the badges on the About page of their blog. All I would need to do is create an image and share it with the students that earn it.  For example, there could be a Service Documentation badge, a Video Editing Badge, a Collaboration Badge, etc.

At the moment, students have turned in their Storytelling Blog Posts, but I have not yet graded them. It’s not too late to tweak them, if I need them to be more explicit about how their work connected to specific Performance Outcomes.

New Strategies

Over the summer, the ISA faculty studied The Strategic Teacher: Selecting the Right Research-Based Strategy for Every Lesson by Harvey F. Silver, Richard W. Strong and Matthew J. Perini. We were challenged to use at least one strategy from this book in the first few weeks of school.

One strategy I used, with success, was Concept Attainment.

My goal was to teach my classes about two basic types of fonts. I created a Google Drawing with two boxes and words written in the center. I had hoped to use my Smart board to drag the center words into either the green box or the red box.  That didn’t work, so I just stood at my computer (this year, it faces the students rather than the wall) and clicked and dragged the words.  I did not tell students why one word was going into a particular box–they had to deduce the rules.  After 4 or 5 words, I asked the class to predict which category I should drag the word towards, and they started to understand. When all the words were in place, I asked them to explain the rule.  In every class, several people volunteered to explain the rule. I then elaborated on the history of fonts, from the times of professional scribes to the printing press to the era of the computer monitor and now, high resolution screens. I told them that research shows sans-serif fonts are easier to read on digital devices but serif fonts are easier to read in print.  These rules can be intentionally broken, especially when there is a small amount of text.

To assess the students individually, I required that their next assignment use a sans-serif font. The vast majority of students choose the correct font, but since the default font is a san-serif one, this could have been an accident. If they used the wrong font type, I took off 5 points, and explained the difference again. I will continue throughout the year to require certain font types to reinforce these ideas.

In case you did not know, a serif font has decorative edges (serifs) on the ends of the letters. In the days of professional scribes, elaborate flourishes were prized. Upon invention of the printing press, fonts in movable type were designed to contain almost as many decorative embellishments, but over time they became simplified. Early computer monitors required very simple fonts, because the resolution was poor.  Modern graphic designers mix fonts to create an interesting and visually appealing product.

 I am happy with my decision to use Concept Attainment to teach about fonts. I modified my Google Drawing into a template so it could be used by the entire faculty.  I hope they find it useful, and I also hope I can figure out a way to do this on the SmartBoard in the future.