Refilling the Heart during Community Service Day

Head of Upper School Laura Ross reflects on her first Greenhill School Community Service Day.

Whew, what a day! I just returned from doing site visits at nine different agencies at which our students were volunteering as part of the Upper School Community Service Day. I also returned to campus just in time to watch our seniors hugging good-bye their 5th grade buddies from Bush Elementary after hosting them for the day on our campus while the 9th-11th graders were out doing good all over Dallas.

I was struck by something Sally Rosenberg, our Director of Service Learning and Community Service, said to me as we were driving all over town. She said that she plans this day with the goal of our students learning to be “heart smart.” I’ve been thinking about what that means all day. For her, it meant that she wanted to instill a lifelong love of and commitment to service in our students. Upper School Community Service Day is not an isolated incident – it’s the culmination of years of service activities that Greenhill students start in kindergarten when they accompany Mrs. Rosenberg or Mrs. Barnes on trips to deliver Meals on Wheels. I love that part of our curriculum, and I appreciate that goal.

For me, however, I see its value differently. When I observed our students today, I saw them as children – as young people who are still kids in the best sense of the word. I felt like I could see little meters on their hearts filling back up to full. The last few weeks have been stressful ones for the students as they completed their first set of finals for the year. For seniors, it was their last exams of high school, and for ninth graders it was their first. For both of those groups of kids, last week was momentous. I saw a lot of anxious faces and a few tears. I also saw them learning and studying together – cheering each other on as they were walking into rooms and hugging each other as they walked out. It wasn’t all bad (they got to have “dress down days” so that part made them really happy!) but it’s certainly not the easiest time of year. Given that, having Community Service Day right after finals felt right, because I saw them become youthful, silly kids again right before my eyes.

Every place we went the staff members were full of praise for our students and their work. Mrs. Rosenberg told me that every year she tells the agencies to plan twice as much work as they think teenagers will do because she knows how dedicated our kids are. At the end of the day at We Over Me ranch in South Oak Cliff, the farm manager told our students that in one day they had completed two weeks’ worth of work on the farm. I was proud of them, and they were clearly proud of themselves, but I was more excited because we were providing the opportunity for them to learn to be “heart smart” – to remember that the things that fill our spirit aren’t always the things we can quantify.

Encouraging Students to Become Independent Language Learners

Mary Tapia, Upper School Modern Languages Teacher, writes about independent language learning enriches the classroom experience.

One of the greatest challenges a teacher faces on a day to day basis in the classroom is how to meet the needs of students who come with a wide variety of skill and maturity levels. In a single class I may have 9th or 12th graders, and their language experience varies from exposure since Kindergarten to a single year of high school instruction. Thus, like virtually all my colleagues in Modern Languages, I must be creative in order to find ways to engage these students and help them along the path to developing fluency in the target language. Additionally, I myself am a life long learner, and I try to keep abreast of the ways in which the classroom is changing in the 21st century. As a result of all the above, I have been exploring strategies to make my classroom less teacher centered and more effective in meeting the needs of my diverse groups of learners. While I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject of differentiated learning, in this brief article, I would like to share some of the ideas I have implemented to help my students become more independent learners.

First of all, like most Modern Language teachers I already use plenty of group and pair-work in order to increase the opportunity for participation of each student in class. This is an obvious first step in encouraging students to work independently. Also, I have experimented with requiring students to collaborate more often outside of class. By using free online tools such as or chat rooms, students can interact online and present their work to the teacher on the next day. Of course, the teacher must provide clear instructions and a realistic task for such an assignment, but my experience has been that students are happier to practice their interpersonal skills in this manner than they would be to simply write a traditional composition for the teacher.

Another way I encourage my students to work independently is to schedule regular visits to our language lab. During these visits, I make certain that we are not simply doing the same things we could do as a group in class such as group listening to a recorded document. I plan the lesson carefully, post the written instructions on Blackboard, and expect that when the students come to class they will log on and stay focused for the entire period. Each set of instructions is tailored for the level and language, but I do my best to provide a variety of activities which will provide an opportunity to practice interpretative, interpersonal, and presentational skills. Also, I make certain that in addition to the required tasks, there are optional activities at the end so that no one can sit idle. These optional activities include (but are not limited to) visiting the website for Spanish or for French. While my students are working independently, I have time to spend a few minutes with each one individually. These brief but regular conversations help me build a strong relationship with my students and enable each one to ask questions without worrying about what their peers might think.

In my AP Spanish class, I have experimented with letting my students choose some of their own homework assignments. This is a structured project which requires students to reflect on their individual strengths and weaknesses, formulate a goal, and develop a list of tasks specific to chosen specifically to help achieve their objective. My role is simply to mentor them at the beginning, give them feedback along the way, and hold them accountable for what they have proposed to do. Probably the most powerful part of this project is the fact that students have choice about which tasks to perform and considerable flexibility about when to hand them in. There is plenty of research to show that motivation to complete a task increases when a person has had a say in choosing it. Also, the motivation to complete the task increases when there is a clear goal in mind. Too often the student’s goal is to earn a grade, but in this case, I do my best to encourage students to focus on improving a skill, not on a earning a grade.

I implemented a somewhat similar project in my French class last trimester. After completing a couple of free online diagnostic tests for the first homework assignments, each student chose a series of tasks to complete as homework for each lab day. Then, at the beginning of each lab period, I asked each student to write in their journal about what he or she had done the night before and provide some “proof” of what they had done. The journals could be in either English or French, and the proof could be a recording, a written document, or even a screenshot of work done with an online tool such as At the end of the trimester, each student made an oral presentation to the class about what their work had been and what they had learned.

What I have learned from these experiments is that the shift to a student centered classroom can be rewarding for both teacher and students. With creativity and use of readily available technology, my students can and do work well independently. I do not have hard data to prove the degree to which their fluency has increased, but I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the fact that they were more actively engaged than they would have been if I had been standing at the front of a classroom controlling every step of their journey. As I continue to explore ways to encourage independent learning, I have started a blog about my experiences. If you would like details, rubrics, or handouts from these or future projects, please visit

Collaboration Across Campus

Natalia Hernandez, Director of Curricular Programs, writes about how Greenhill students collaborate with each other in class.

Collaboration is a skill; one that is widely recognized as foundational to success in school and eventually the workplace. Last week, as I traveled from classroom to classroom, I witnessed students collaborating from Kindergarten to 12th grade both organically and by teacher design.

Collaboration is everywhere in kindergarten because the students still haven’t conformed to adult constructs of learning. My favorite example was Zac and Betty who worked together to disassemble a discarded computer. Zac said, “You hold it steady so I can get the screwdriver to turn.” Betty answered, “Okay, but then you hold it so I can take this screw out and then we can take the top off.”


In Middle School, Ms. Nihill assigned small groups the task of presenting on either Aphrodite or Hephaestus. Each group was to present a description of their chosen character and then act out an interview that gave the audience more information about the character. I asked one group how they divided up the tasks. This was one student’s answer, “We talked about the things we are good at and then gave each other jobs. When we were finished with our own parts, we talked about it with the group and then made changes.”

In freshman algebra, Mr. Gibson’s students were given problems to complete. Instinctively, they turned to each other as they finished to verify their answers and understand the thinking behind each other’s solutions. When I asked a student why she did that, she said, “Mr. Gibson tells us there are many ways to arrive at the solution. The more ways we understand, the better off we are.”

Collaboration is a necessary skill. Teachers at all levels must engage in active and purposeful teaching of the concepts that lead to collaboration such as negotiation, empathy, listening, disagreeing respectfully, challenging, and compromise. Our students are learning these skills each day – and many of them do not even realize that they are doing it.

Capstones: the Culmination of a Pre-k – 12 Experience

Director of Curricular Programs Natalia Hernandez writes about her role at Greenhill and about Greenhill’s Senior Capstone Program.

Arriving at Greenhill School this year as the new Director of Curricular Programs has been incredibly rewarding both personally and professionally. Personally, I am honored to be part of this amazing school that holds itself to the highest standards and deliberately asks difficult questions to ensure continuous improvement. I have spent twenty years in education hoping to find a place like this. Coming back to Texas after living abroad and in Florida feels like coming home. Coming to Greenhill School feels like coming home to a loving family. Professionally, I sought a role that would allow me to have a broader perspective of the academic program of a school. While I loved being an elementary principal, I was eager to acquire a PK – 12 understanding of a student’s experience. This role does exactly that. I am fortunate to be involved in teaching and learning at all levels at Greenhill School.

One program that demonstrates the culmination of our K-12 experience, and one that I am especially excited about, is the senior capstone. The senior capstone project provides outstanding seniors with time for in-depth exploration and study in a self-selected area of interest. This student driven project requires advanced, independent and interdisciplinary study that culminates in an exhibition of a final product. This year’s capstone projects represent a wide range of topics:

    • Writing, directing, and producing a sitcom
    • Researching areas of dark matter
    • Scientific research on the molecular mechanisms behind higher cognitive functions in humans
    • Writing and directing a short film
    • Detection methods for metastatic breast cancer
    • Designing and creating a low cost prosthetic arm
    • Marketing and producing a fashion museum
    • Writing a bill that would make shark finning and the consumption of shark fin illegal

The outstanding students who have recently presented their first trimester projects to committees of faculty and peers have a wide range of interests and reflect the diversity of our school. However, some aspects of their progress are constant among them. All of these students love learning; they are deeply passionate about their work and enjoy being immersed in their projects. They all see relevance and practical application in complex and abstract concepts. They all have the necessary preparation they need to deal with the barriers, missteps, and challenges that they will face in the project phase of their capstones. Their ability, no – desire, to receive constructive feedback demonstrates an academic maturity well beyond their years. Above all, they are prepared for so much more than their next four years of college. The skills they are honing throughout the preparation and development of their capstones will serve them well throughout their careers.

While student initiative fuels these projects, faculty relationships also play a key role in project outcome. The capstone mentors who support these students strike a careful balance between pushing their mentees to excellence and allowing them to struggle through the ongoing trials of yearlong study. They have truly mastered the art of guidance.

The capstone experience is one I hope to grow each year. I recently spoke to the junior class about the possibility of entering into capstone study as a senior. Many have already approached me with inspired and unique topics of study. The exciting thing about being at Greenhill School is that our potential is as limitless as the ideas of our students.

Being New at Greenhill

Head of Upper School Laura Ross writes about her experiences during her first trimester on campus.

Being new to Greenhill this year, the first trimester felt like a whirlwind of activity. It wasn’t until the Thanksgiving break that I felt I had time to reflect on my experiences thus far. What I knew of the School was from an outside perspective, from my previous lives as a college admissions officer and as an administrator at a fellow SPC school. I sensed from those somewhat limited contacts with Greenhill that the students seemed like they had spark – like they had a strong sense of identity, individuality, and curiosity. What I didn’t know, however, was how that actually happened. What did Greenhill do to foster that spirit in its students?

One of the great benefits of this job is that I visit classrooms every day. I didn’t know what a privilege that would be until I realized that what I would see in those visits. In the last few weeks I’ve visited classes in Vector Calculus, AP Chemistry, Chemistry I, AP Biology, AP Art History, AX 9, Senior Rhetoric, Sociology, Chinese III, AX 10 and Fashion Design, to name a few. There was quite a bit of variety in terms of the way the learning was happening: I saw students counting glowing bacteria on lab plates; I joined students touring major architectural sites in Dallas; I enjoyed a Socratic Seminar run entirely by ninth graders; I viewed group projects with the latest in presentation software (good-bye PowerPoint!); I listened to podcasts with integrated music and interviews; I was inspired by self-portraits modeled after Civil War era photographs; I watched students draw on state-of-the art design software; I observed students taking exit quizzes on their smart-phones; and I observed students using Digi-Pens to take notes for absent classmates. The way the learning happened varied widely from classroom to classroom. But here’s what didn’t vary: the laughing. I haven’t been in one classroom yet where there wasn’t laughter at some point.

The atmosphere in each room was challenging and respectful but also joyous and playful. It reminded me that learning, at its heart, is the joyful act of creating – new connections, new applications, new neural pathways – new ways of looking at and interacting with the world. It reminded me that this career I’ve chosen (or that chose me?), and Greenhill in particular, provides daily reminders of the promise of the next generation of leaders and thinkers. When I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, all I need to do is pop into a classroom and then I remember why I’m here.