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Protagonists: Sunni Winkler

The Protagonists series highlights the main characters of our mission: the teachers out there hustling to make their students feel known, heard, and challenged through student-led discussion.

Sunni Winkler, Middle and High School Teacher and Middle School Dean of Students at Allen Academy, Bryan, TX

Hometown Brenham, TX – a small town. My high school graduating class had 350 students.

Favorite teacher growing up: who and why? No surprise, it’s hard to narrow down. My junior year of high school AP English teacher, Tracy Campbell, stands out. I remember several things about her. She really focused on writing and gave me confidence as a writer. She did five minute warm-ups every day where you just had to write, increasing your stamina for sustained thinking and writing. It was the first time I’d really been challenged like that. I also remember doing this “all about me” project where we had so much freedom and creativity – that wasn’t a thing in the AP curriculum, and it was so renewing and refreshing. I think Mrs. Campbell also stands out because she had that classroom culture where she engaged with us a little bit more as humans, versus everyone sitting still and listening. She asked what we thought about things and laughed along with us at what we said. 

Describe yourself as a student in three words Achievement-oriented, conscientious, and well-rounded.  

Current City, School, Teaching Assignments (?) Bryan, TX at Allen Academy. I teach English 6, 7, 8, and 12; I’m also Dean of Student Life for middle school and the middle school student council sponsor. 

Favorite historical figure (or best line from history?) I don’t have one specific one, but I tend to love (no surprise) women who pushed the boundaries a little bit, who nudge us as a society/world in what I consider to be the right direction. Those who stand up when everyone else is silent. 

Favorite literary character (or best line from novel?) I have several, but my go-to is Jo from Little Women. She doesn’t fit, so she has to make her own way, and I love hearing how she navigates that with her family and work. I love her gumption. 

Favorite school supply? I love a good spiral-ring binder. I’m happy when I walk down that aisle. I do so much more digitally, but I still always have one spiral notebook just in case. 

Pet peeve about class discussion? When you can tell someone hasn’t been listening because they’re repeating a question or a point that we’ve already talked about. On the more serious side, where one student, when uncomfortable or insecure, chooses at the start of the discussion to use some belittling humor that shuts everyone down, that is also really frustrating.

Favorite moment of class discussion? I love when students bring up things that I haven’t thought about. For example, if we’re discussing a piece of literature, I love when they notice something about a character or theme that I’ve never paid attention to. Or, with current events, I love when students tell me something I haven’t heard about that we can fact-check or dig into together. That’s partly because I want my students to know that I’m as much of a learner as they are. I want them to see me learning and engaging with content. 

Text you count on to inspire conversation? We did some Notebook Time prompts with (my department) from Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher where the class analyzes an infographic or a graph of the week. Kids have to do a quick analysis of what it says and doesn’t say, then go a little further. They’re thinking: who’s the audience? Who’s the author? We make them dig a little bit deeper, and it brings out really interesting discussions. Kids pay attention to things differently, or they have added information. We did one with reliable news sources. There’s so much information that kids gravitate to different pieces, and it inspires discussion and debate. Kids learn through it and question. I love using those types of visuals and graphics as texts. 

What do you nerd out about? Broadway musicals. I love to sing, and started doing community theatre when I moved to this town to connect and that’s how I met my husband. I love Broadway. I’m also a huge nerd when it comes to board games. My husband and I love hosting a game night with friends – Settlers of Catan or Secret Hitler, a hidden identity game. That’s been a frustrating thing about Covid quarantining, so luckily people are putting together a lot of creative ways to do this virtually. 

What is your wish for this world? I wish that each of us could see every other human as a human, with the same level of value regardless of political stance, skin color, gender, socioeconomic status. I’d love for us all to recognize the humanity of one another and treat each other accordingly. That feels like it would be a great step in the right direction. 

When historians recount 2020+ what will they be especially fascinated by? Maybe the fact that the same piece of information can send us in very different directions and elicit very different responses. Whether that’s something happening in the world and people responding in extreme opposite ways or whether that’s just how we respond to this virus. For example, some schools have never gone back in person, and where I am, even though our Covid numbers are higher than ever, life feels very much like people are trying to do it “as usual.” It feels sometimes like I’m separated from reality, and that there are different ways that people are approaching the same information. 

One prediction for the future of schools? It’s more of a hope than a prediction. But I hope/predict that we will focus genuinely more on learning than propping up systems that we’ve been in for years without questioning. There are a lot of great teachers, and there are also teachers who are still trying to give exams with answers that you could Google, even with kids at home. I don’t know why that’s still a focus. I see a need for foundational knowledge, but don’t be mad if you notice that kids are googling the answers. We’re setting everyone up for failure with that. I hope to see a push for deeper learning; we need more discussion. 

Best advice given to you by a department chair or supervisor? It’s advice and also a book. Gravity Goldberg’s Teach Like Yourself. A mentor and now close friend gave me this book when I was trying to wrestle with teaching like everyone else. I was trying to copy the best pieces of everyone else’s best work. I was shocked when that didn’t work, because I hadn’t filtered it through who I am. I was just trying to imitate. Getting back to: what do I value? What do I want to see happen in each chunk of content, and not make it look like what anyone else does? Being vulnerable when appropriate. “Teach like yourself.” 

Educator-Influencer you count on? First place you turn for classroom advice? That same department head, Elizabeth Martin, who gave me the Goldberg book. She’s been at this school for ten years and knows these kids really well. But she also doesn’t do anything the same way twice. She’s always looking to do things better; she always wants kids to grow more, to push them. I’ll immediately go to her. English wise, I love what Kittle and Gallagher are doing in their materials. They’ve hit upon some really helpful strategies, and they make a lot of their stuff available. Also Catlin Tucker. Some of the stuff she puts online. She does cool things – the one that stands out is this very simplified rubric that you could adapt to use for anything. Some of my other colleagues also always share which I love. 

Better discussions will _______________. Be student-driven. 

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