087: Hexagonal Thinking in ELA, The Ultimate Guide




Hexagonal thinking is a rich new way to inspire discussion. Now, if you're like me, high school geometry was about as appealing as high school cafeteria beef stroganoff, and you're not too sure about this whole math-English crossover thing.

Don't give up! Hexagonal thinking is a really unique way to get kids thinking about connections they might never otherwise make.

When you give kids a series of ideas on hexagons, and ask them to connect the cards into a web with clear reasons for each connection, you get them thinking critically, debating, giving evidence, and basically, lighting up a whole bunch of parts of their brains. Each card could connect to six others, or just to one or two. Every person in every group will have a different concept of how things could connect. There will be no right answer.

Awesome.

(Psssst.... I'm popping back into this post to let you know I've just created a free digital hexagonal thinking toolkit for you, to make it easy to put this fabulous strategy into place this year no matter whether you're online, in person, or a hybrid of both). You'll find easy student instructions, examples, and three beautiful digital templates inside. Subscribe to my weekly emails below and this kit will be the first thing I send you!)






So, you might ask, how will I manufacture dozens of hexagons? How will I grade such an ambiguous process? What exactly will I tell my students to inspire them to do a good job? What kind of discussion is this a good fit for? How big do the hexagons have to be? Will I need some kind of special paper or hole punch?

Well, my friend, I've got a lot of answers for you. I've been obsessed with brainstorming ways to make hexagonal thinking work for you lately, and I've compiled everything I've come up with into this post, which I'm boldly naming my ultimate guide to hexagonal thinking in ELA. I hope it's helpful.

Read on for the full post, or listen on the podcast player below or on Apple PodcastsBlubrry, Spotify, or Stitcher.




Let's kick things off with a quick introductory video. Forgive me for my shaky selfie work on the intro - let's just say when your four-year-old has the stomach flu, you've just got to do what you can. I'm sure you understand.




Hexagonal Thinking: Basic Play-by-Play

To do a hexagonal thinking activity, you need to have a series of hexagon-shaped cards featuring ideas. Let's say you were doing a discussion of 1984. Your cards might have characters from the novel, a few bits and pieces about George Orwell's life, some connections to the art and history of the era, and some connections to things going on today. You could create these cards, or you could give blank hexagons to your students in groups and let them create them.

I suggest you give blank pages of cards to each group (here are the ones I designed) and have them create and cut out their own hexagons within the categories you've given. So each group will create five or so hexagons in each category and cut them out. You might want to ask them to add a quotation and/or drawing or other form of illumination to go with the word(s) they put on each card.



Once the students have their hexagons, they need to begin discussing how to connect them.

Here’s an example of directions you can give to your students at this point: 

“Once you have your set of hexagons, it’s time for your group to begin making connections between them. Your conversations now will be about showing how and why you think the different ideas and options connect. Everyone will see things differently, and that’s OK. Just keep talking until you find the connections that stick. Use the text to give evidence to each other for why you think your connections are strong ones.

Each hexagon can connect to up to six others. Arrange and rearrange until you feel you have the strongest hexagon web in place that you can. Then begin explaining your connections with connection arrows, writing in why you have created intersections between key hexagons.

Everyone in the group will contribute differently. You need to have people listening and moving pieces to create the web, people cutting out and filling in connection arrows, people debating, people asking questions. That's OK.

By the end of your discussion, you should have an interconnected web of concepts along with at least eight clearly explained connections. Please put your final product in a place that's easy for others to see so we can do a gallery walk at the end.”



Now it's time for your students to work. As they create their webs, walk around and observe and help. Remind them to lean on text.

When the work is done, snap a photo of each group's web. Let everyone circulate. Perhaps ask each group to share several of their most intriguing connections. You could use this as a springboard to a writing project or a class discussion the next day.

*This activity hits nearly every element in the 6-12 Common Core College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening. (Check out p. 48 here if you need this documentation).

More Ideas for Generating Hexagons

Of course, you may want to try some other options for creating hexagons. Several educators have recommended the Solo Hexagon Online Generator to me, which allows you to input your key ideas quickly and populate sets of hexagons for quick printing.

Another option is to laminate hexagons, turning them into mini dry erase boards. While it's a bit of work up front to cut them out, you can then use them throughout the year with dry erase markers, just wiping them clean at the end.

You can find five pages of blank rainbow hexagons available as a free download  here in my TPT shop. Simply print, laminate, and cut out. Have students help you wipe the hexagons clean after a discussion (don't wait!). A little cleaner will make it easy if you wait too long.




It doesn't matter a whole lot how big your hexagons or, or what color they are, or if you cut them out or your students cut them out. In the end, it's the ability to shift them around and connect ideas in different ways that will matter. So whether you make your own sets, you have students make them, or you do some of both, you can't go wrong. If you want a special hexagonal paper puncher, use your 50% off Michael's coupon on it! If you want to create an electronic version and save paper, awesome! If you want to print with beautiful colors on cardstock, I hear you! Just don't spend hours of your weekend cutting and creating unless you really want to, because you can get lots of help with the process from your students.

Grading Hexagonal Thinking

There are a few ways you could grade hexagonal thinking. You could have everyone write a short reflection at the end about their contributions, and grade that. You could use it as a springboard into a writing assignment, asking students to explain and argue for key connections from the discussion, then grade that. You could have students present about a key connection on Flipgrid. Easy.

But I want to suggest a slightly more complex option too. Recently I interviewed Sarah Fine, a researcher who studied deeper learning across America. One of her findings was that we rarely ask students to truly collaborate in our core subjects, so we don't really create a culture of interdependence among them. They don't get to use their individual gifts to contribute to a final product created by the team, although that is often what real-world projects look like. Instead, we favor what she calls "lockstep learning."

So maybe for hexagonal thinking, you grade the final group web. And you talk to the kids about how their different strengths could allow them to contribute to the final product.

Maybe some kids are super brainstormers, coming up with lots of great terms and ideas for what to put on the hexagons. Maybe one or two students in the group are great at lettering and drawing. They could create beautiful visual representations of the terms and ideas.  Maybe some students shine at leading discussion. Maybe some are natural at making spatial and visual connections, and can help move the hexagons around as they listen to the group. Maybe some are excellent listeners, and can be filling in and placing connection arrows based on what they here from others. Maybe some are good mediators, who can help find common ground and calm down heated debates when discussion gets intense.

If you go this route, I really think it's worth discussing in advance what project teams are like in the workplace, and how people contribute in different ways. Then, at the end, you might let kids write a short paragraph about how they contributed based on their own strengths and skills, and whether they were happy with the way the group dynamics turned out. 



Hexagonal Thinking Discussion Ideas

There are so many ways to use hexagonal thinking! I imagine you could use this for almost any form of discussion, across many disciplines, but here are a few ideas for your English classes.

At the end of a novel, use hexagonal thinking to find connections between key characters, themes, symbols, connected ideas from history and art, and current events.

Before reading a novel (or series of poems or short stories), use hexagonal thinking to explore connections between ideas that will be coming up and things going on today to help students begin to prepare for what they will read and sharpen their interest.

After watching a Ted Talk, take the key concepts and stories/examples from the talk and put them on cards along with related examples and themes from works you have read.

Collaborate with a partner in another department to connect ideas from what your students are learning in English to what they are learning in art, history, or science.

Before writing a paper, ask students to put key ideas, examples, and argument possibilities onto their own cards, then create a connected web as a prewriting exercise. For visual kids who like to tinker and build, this may be really helpful, a kind of offshoot of the writing makerspace concept.

The possibilities are pretty endless, as I think you'll see once you get going with hexagonal thinking. Below, you'll see part of a hexagonal web connecting a student-friendly version of the ELA standards to skills they will need in various careers, perfect to put up on the wall to help students remember the context for what they are learning and why they are learning it.



Hexagonal One-Pagers

One way to add depth to the hexagonal thinking activity is to layer a bit more into the hexagons themselves. Simple text works, but as I mentioned, you can also ask students to add a quotation or a drawing, or use interesting lettering to bring out the meaning and make the word more memorable on the card.

You can take it a step further by having students create hexagonal one-pagers. With this activity, the creation of the hexagons takes a bit longer. You divide students into work groups, and give each group a category of types of things you want covered. For example, characters, themes, style elements, connections to current events. Then you ask them to come up with a list of elements for their group, and each choose one to make into a hexagon-shaped one-pager.

You can either give them a list of elements that you'd like in the one-pager (quotations, analysis in their own words, imagery, etc.) or let them come up with their own list of what would make a good one-pager. How specific you get probably depends on how familiar your students are with one-pagers as a concept.


These hexagonal one-pagers cover the novel, All the Way Down, by Jason Reynolds. The left hexagon portrays a style element, the middle one is a character, and the right is about a theme. The connection arrows come last, as in any hexagonal one-pager activity. (By the way, connection arrows could also be post-its, or if you tape the hexagons to a chalkboard or whiteboard, they could be written right onto the surface).


These mini-hexagons cover the novel, The Outsiders. The left covers a key symbol, the top right is a character, and the bottom right is a connection to modern life.

I've created templates in two sizes and instructions for the hexagonal one-pager activity over on TPT.  Or you can create your own using the shapes tool in Powerpoint.

One of my favorite things about hexagonal one-pagers is how striking the final display looks. Consider having your classes put their final products up on your wall for your final gallery walk, and leaving them up for a while.




9 comments

  1. Thank you for these ideas. Your ideas changed my Friday lesson. I'm off to the copy room. It's going to be a Fabulous Friday with Hexagons!

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    1. I'm so glad this was helpful, Sally! That's just wonderful to hear.

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  3. I think this will be a great way to elevate my students' critical thinking skills! Thank you for this resource.

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    1. I'm so glad it's helpful to you! Thank you!

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  4. I can think of so many ways to use this! I think it will be especially helpful for having students synthesize ideas from one text to another. Thanks~

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    1. That's great to hear! Thank you so much for letting me know.

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  5. Is there a pdf with these instructions given here?

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  6. I'm so excited to try out Hexagonal Thinking tomorrow in my class. We'll be looking at terms related to "The Lottery" and "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas."

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