Student AGENCY

The word of the week is AGENCY, specifically student agency.  For approximately five years, I have been asking students to reflect on their tests by answering a series of questions that requires them to consider their process of preparing for the test and respond to their errors in content understanding.  Ultimately, the goal is to pause for reflection because without intentional reflection, students will merely look at their grade and move on.  But that’s not where meaningful learning occurs.  The meaningful learning occurs when we look at our mistakes and figure out how to avoid those errors in the future.

I used to ask students to complete a paper and pencil evaluation/reflection of their assessment that asked them to say whether each test correct was correct or incorrect, and why it was incorrect: silly mistake, more studying needed, etc. (Figure 1).  Then, the form asked students to look for patterns in their missed learning targets.  In other words, where do they have trends of missed answers?  Was there one particular term or concept that caused a hang up?  In the various forms of assessment questions, was one concept consistently missed?  Did you miss more in the multiple-choice section but not the fill in the blank section?  This is a more holistic reflection as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 1

Figure 2

The students would then turn these papers in to me, and I would look over them and make adjustments to my teaching.  And while there was not anything particularly wrong with this process, today I had an organic breakthrough that enhanced this whole process tenfold because it was more focused on the students than it was my teaching.

Today, instead of having the students complete the evaluation/reflection on paper, I had them complete a Google Forms version of the same document, which allowed me to view and respond to their feedback immediately, in real time.  I then addressed specific student concerns right away.  For example, one student said, “It would be helpful to me if you would allow us to use scratch paper on the test.”  While this student never thought to ask me the day of the test, I was able to give him instant feedback that he is always welcome to use scratch paper.  Other students identified their weaknesses in the content, and I met with them in small groups of students with similar misconceptions to immediately remedy those sticking points.  The value of this kind of immediate feedback for both the students and me has totally changed this process because it allows for face-to-face acknowledgement and clarification that makes us all better off.

From here, I will give students an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of the content through a test corrections and reassessment process.  This process is catered to specific students based on the results of their original assessment and the feedback the provided on the evaluation/reflection directly following the assessment.  Ultimately, these small changes have drastically decreased my response time to be more helpful to students, and this process coupled with test corrections and reassessment allows students to remedy their mistakes and misconceptions to increase understanding today (and hopefully by the time we get to the final exam at the end of the semester).

"If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em"

As a teacher at a 1:1 school where every student has an iPad, it is not uncommon to have to encourage self-discipline for our students regarding closing the gaming apps on their iPads for the more educational ones, especially during class.  Before winter break, I witnessed and spoke with students about their addiction to the game/app Clash of Clans.  Given the opportune moments over break, I decided I wanted to find out why my students were so incredibly addicted to this particular game.  Boy, it didn't take long.  Given the wait-time of specific investments in the game, coupled with limited resources and an unlimited amount of goals and wishes regarding making one's village better, stronger, and more equipped, this game is the perfect combination of strategy and addiction.  

But something amazing happened by taking the time to learn this game to keep myself generationally relevant and also have another way to connect with my students' interests: I found an incredible educational tool at my fingertips.  Had I not been willing to explore something of great interest to many of my students, I would've missed an awesome opportunity.  As I was teaching myself this game (and frankly becoming equally as addicted as my students), I realized that many Economic principles can be explained and/or illustrated through the use of this game.  Topics and new vocabulary that typically are a boring part of the first unit of my semester-long Economics class suddenly became more interesting.  What better way to explain scarcity, shortage, and opportunity cost than by making students use Clash of Clans as a lens to frame these new concepts?!

As I begin 2016 halfway through my seventh year of teaching, my challenge for myself is to find new and innovative ways to teach the content I have been teaching twice a year (and a few times in summer school) since 2009.  If I'm honest, though, that is a goal of mine every year.  What makes it different this year, is the challenge now includes finding those new and innovative ways to teach content by listening to my students' ideas and interests.  Trust me, you can't imagine my students' faces when I told them on the first day of class that I wanted them to download a game for class.  And this game has become a useful teaching tool that has not only excited me, as a teacher, but has also fostered buy-in and interest from the people in my classroom that matter the most: my students.

Cheers to a student-driven, innovative teaching year!  

Every Teacher Should Be A Student of Something

It somewhat goes without saying that every teacher should be a student of something.  At least in thinking this statement I feel like it’s something I’ve heard before.  However, I think this statement needs some important qualifiers about what is meant by “student.”  

What I don’t mean is that every teacher should be learning, for learning in and of itself does not inherently make one a student—at least not in the formal sense.  Personal explorations driven by intrinsic motivation or continued growth in a content area to remain relevant as a teacher are not examples of putting oneself into a situation where they are a student, subject to the rules, directions, and praxis of a formal teacher.  This is certainly not a criticism of life-long learning.  In fact, I believe learning for its own sake is imperative to not only being a better teacher but also a better human.  This, however, is only to say that being a life-long learner is not what I am suggesting here.  Also, by formal teacher and formal student, I don’t mean traditional.  I’m not necessarily talking about a classroom setting, although that would certainly be pertinent as well.  By formal I am referencing a dynamic between teacher and student in which the student is subject to the decisions of the teacher, be they good or bad, and where there is a direct relationship between the teacher’s pedagogical decisions and the success of the student.  I am unwilling to go so far as to say that this scenario only works if there is more than one student assigned to said teacher, but I think the rationale behind this statement makes the most sense when the situation in which the classroom teacher is in the role of student most closely mimics their own classroom in which they play the role of teacher.

Last spring, I signed up for a six-week tennis clinic at a local racquet club.  My motivation for this was doing something personal for me that looked nothing like teaching, grading, or what I do as my “day job.”  I was looking for something active to do that would bring me some sense of fulfillment and also challenge me to do something new.  The experience was great, so I signed up for another six-week clinic this fall.  Coincidentally, I ended up with the same teacher I had in the spring semester.  Steve, my instructor, without knowing it, has taught me so much about being a classroom teacher that I am indebted to him for challenging me to not only be a better tennis player but also a better public educator.

It is important to note here that although teaching tennis is nothing like teaching Economics in terms of curriculum or pedagogy, the experiences I have as a [formal] student in my tennis clinic remind me of the importance of various experiences for my students in the classroom and the role I, as teacher, should play within those experiences.  My experiences echo sentiments expressed by students to their peers during passing periods and/or on classroom evaluations and reflections: “I need more feedback,” “Mr/s. [fill in name] doesn’t actually teach us; s/he just makes us do activities,” or “Mr/s. [fill in name] never corrected me when I made that mistake in class,’ etc.  One of Steve’s greatest strengths as a tennis instructor is that he gives constant feedback.  There is rarely a ball hit or swung at that doesn’t come with instruction, feedback, and critiques from Steve—all to the benefit of the player I might add.  His feedback is timely so that each tennis student can make immediate adjustments and modifications to their stroke and swing as they go.  The lesson in this for me is that I must give incessant feedback, too.  Even when my students don’t ask for it.  Even when they are doing practice in class and seem to have mastered the concepts.  Even when I know I am going to grade the assignment later.  The students need feedback all the time.  They will be better students and learners when they are able to constantly make small adjustments along the way instead of having to make pronounced adjustments at the end of a major assignment where they have already consistently made a mistake or missed a foundational element that skews their answers on the entire assignment.  

Additionally, Steve does not rush through the foundational pieces of hitting a tennis ball or swinging a racquet or moving one’s feet—even when the drills seem simple and/or repetitive.  Steve acknowledges how critical these foundational pieces are.  Even when students seem to have mastered the foundational pieces, he returns to them in other drills, in subsequent clinics, or in his feedback during games.  The importance of these foundational pieces to understanding the game at large and being a great tennis player require this constant revisiting.  The lesson in this for me is to constantly revisit the foundational pieces.  Repetition through muscle memory (tennis) or memorization until something becomes second nature (Economics) is imperative for certain pieces.  I need to decide what those are and revisit again and again.  This doesn’t even require that much additional time away from the lesson of the day.  Sometimes Steve does this through a quick question (to serve as a reminder) at the beginning of a drill or sometimes the foundational piece is a whole drill in and of itself.  Either way, he never overlooks the importance of these pieces, and I cannot either.  

Lastly, Steve is a great time-manager.  He seamlessly manages group and individual instruction as needed to make sure everyone is able to grow and get better, which is why we are all there in the first place.  Steve differentiates his tennis instruction by having certain (more advanced) players fulfill specific roles at time that benefit both that player and the others he needs to give more specific and individualized feedback to.  The lesson in this for me is that I have to be specific and targeted with my instruction for every student.  I need to have designated roles for students to fill depending on their level of understanding and skill implementation.  This ensures that every student, regardless of entry level, ends up further along than when they started and grows as much as they can in my class.

To the seasoned educator or perhaps even the recent graduate of a teacher education program reading this and thinking these are all obvious no-brainers that I should’ve already known as a teacher anyway, you’re right.  But that’s precisely the point.  Without my experience as a student and being reminded of the benefit to me as student of a teacher employing these strategies, I began to lose sight of why these pedagogical pieces are so imperative to successful teaching and learning and happy students.  I am much happier as a student when Steve is doing what he does best because I know how to make progress, improve, and holistically grow as a tennis player.  As a teacher, Steve freshened my perspective on the work I do with my students each day.  He reminded me that I cannot get caught in the repetition of teaching the same content each year and forget that even though its not new to me, it’s brand new to my students.  He reminded me that it doesn’t take that much time to lock the foundational pieces in for students, and regardless of the time it takes, it’s worth it.  The impact of these professional reminders for me could not have happened through my own individual exploration at the magnitude that they have by being a student.  I had to experience being a student again to understand.  I needed an amazing teacher to refresh my perspective and give me something to continue working toward.

Thanks Steve for teaching me so much about tennis and more importantly making me a better educator for my own students.  You can never know how far your great teaching reaches, beyond your own students and beyond tennis.  I am indebted to you.

In Class as a Teacher-Participant

I have the privilege this semester of having my prep period during one of my colleague Don Wettrick's Innovations classes.  I started sitting in at least once a week and participating in class.  It's a great atmosphere of eager students and a passionate teacher.  If nothing else, it allows me to soak up the positive energy I seek at work to keep myself professionally and mentally happy and healthy.  

Today, Mr. Wettrick had his students give walking white board sessions a try.  A walking white board session involves brainstorming ideas with a small group of people while moving throughout the building.  The students literally rolled white boards around the school jotting down any and all ideas that came to mind as they walked.  (Like I always tell my own students: stimulate the body, stimulate the mind.) I was invited by a student to join his group's walking white board session today, which I happily did.  For me, as a lover of learning, I continue to find so much joy in participating in a class as a student, and Mr. Wettrick's students certainly welcome me into their classroom as an active participant.  But the experience today forced me to pause and really consider some of the positive implications of this experience.

For one, Mr. Wettrick's classroom is already one of a level playing field with student to student collaboration and student to adult collaboration.  The way his students allow me to participate as often as I am able continues to be evidence of this each week.  There is something really amazing about working WITH students.  It reminded me today of the kind of classroom environment I want to have even when I am in the role of "teacher," as opposed to "participant" like I am in Mr. Wettrick's class.  In some ways it is the same reason I got rid of my teacher desk; I want to sit with students when I can.  I want to talk with them like fellow humans.  I want to brainstorm with them and share ideas.  There is a recognition of the humanness of both teacher and student when this happens and a minimization of the power dynamics that are at play.

Another thought that came to mind today is the number of times Mr. Wettrick's students have been able to help me on projects and tasks in the ultimate teacher-student role reversal.  Between getting help finding html tricks to giving student feedback on future instructional ideas, Mr. Wettrick's students have already in a month and a half taught me a lot.  I really have nothing but great things to say about my experience as a teacher-participant in this class.

My next thought this afternoon then centered around this experience as a professional development opportunity.  What if teachers could go into other teachers' classrooms and participate as students periodically?  How might this inform classroom instruction?  How might it foster a more positive teacher-student dynamic?  In thinking of my own social studies classes, I would love to have other teachers participate in class occasionally to challenge the status quo, offer new ideas and suggestions, and participate along with my students.  What a unique experience that could be.  If a follow-up conversation occurred later between the teachers, how might we then be able to use that teacher participant's experience to refine our instruction? Would the focus become less on teaching and more on learning?  There certainly is a place for feedback on pedagogy and instructional strategies, but teachers get that all the time from our evaluations.  How much feedback are we getting from someone participating as a learner?  Even as I write this and continue to hone my thoughts, I really care less about the feedback in some ways.  The power of my participation in Mr. Wettrick's class is getting to professionally relationship-build with the students as colleagues.  The game changes when we are all working toward a similar goal on a level playing field.

Thank you to Mr. Wettrick's block 6 Innovations class for allowing me to participate.  I love just being human together in a space were we can collaborate and innovate. 

This I Geog./Hist. of the World

I am really enjoying the world cultures and world religions unit of Geography & History of the World right now.  We start each class by reading a This I Believe narrative from NPR's podcast series turned books.  The students read a narrative, and then answer the following questions:

  • What does this narrative tell us about what the writer believes?
  • Why does the writer give this value significance in his/her life?
  • Can you relate to the writer?  How so?
  • Do you share the same beliefs or values as the writer?
  • What do you admire about this writer's value(s)?
  • What will you take away from this writer's value(s)?

Our conversations have gone far beyond the content standards to general lessons about kindness, compassion, respect, and treating others with dignity and worth.  I don't recall anyone having these conversations with me as a freshman in high school (although that certainly doesn't mean they didn't happen).  If conversations about values such as these took place in my life as a high school student, they would've happened in church.  I wonder if my perspective on these values might have been different had I learned these values through a lens of being kind to other humans simply because they are human (as opposed to because Jesus taught me to.)  

The students' insights about how they relate to the narratives is quite insightful about who they are as people and where they are on their life journey.  I have challenged them at the end of each discussion to consider how they might be better or changed because of our conversations about whatever the selected narrative of the day might be.  Even asking this question forces pause to consider a bigger purpose in reading these narratives (beyond "so I can learn worldviews").  I invite you to share in this journey with us by checking out the students' takeaways on Twitter.  Search #mswhiteGHW and/or #takeaway to see the students thoughts about what they are learning and taking away from the stories of other real humans who value things like empathy, sacrifice, service, honor, etc. despite their varying religious perspectives.

Things to come:  We are looking forward to a World Views Panel Discussion at our school on 9/22/15, where panelists from a variety of world religions/views come share who they are and what they believe.  Also, as we wrap up this unit of study in a few weeks, be on the lookout for the students' own This I Believe statements in podcast form.  I will post details upon publications.

Purging the Teacher Desk

I am one month in to my seventh year of teaching.  I'm astonished and amazed at how time has flown by.  In my efforts to live above mediocrity and avoid being stagnant (personally and professionally) I decided to challenge myself this year by getting rid of my teacher desk.  This journey began for me by challenging myself to stand at my desk if I was going to be at my desk.  So last year, I bought a tabletop podium to raise the surface level of my desk when I was behind it.  But this wasn't enough for me because I have never forgot hearing one of my administrators give an accolade to another teacher in my first day of meetings at Noblesville High School in which he suggested that one of the marks of an exceptional educator is whether or not they have a teacher desk.  At that point in time, I couldn't fathom not having a place to organize my belongings, papers, files, etc.  But two years into being at a school that is 1:1 with iPads, I found my need and use of paper greatly diminished.  Not only that, but I was finding comfort in my space behind the teacher desk.  Even when I had small groups of students come sit with me around my bulky, L-shaped desk, I found it obtrusive and like a blockade between me and the students, a "me-versus-them" situation.  That sort of situation is exactly what I want to avoid as a teacher.  If I am committed to creating a learning environment where I learn with the students, and we think together, a dichotomous existence with my students cannot be.  Lastly, I feel strongly about not permitting opt-outs in my classroom.  In other words, when I ask a student a question or ask them to share their thoughts, saying "I don't know" can never be a permissible answer.  If my students truly don't know, then my job as the facilitator in the class should be to scaffold questions that allow them to arrive at the answer until they are able to master the skill, concept, and/or thought process on their own.  If I believe that is important regarding answering questions, I need to also believe it is important with regard to how my students spend their time in class.  This requires constant movement and redirecting students when needed.  So I decided to commit to this choice and ask for my teacher desk to be removed over the summer.  I replaced my teacher desk with a rolling podium that holds my computer and/or iPad when needed and allows me to move it with me as a circulate around the classroom.

Reflectively evaluating the results of this choice one month in, I could not be happier with my decision.  For one, it opened up a significant amount of extra space in my classroom.  I adjusted the location of my student tables making my classroom even more student centered.  I almost never sit when I teach, which allows me to have a greater sense of where all of my students are physically and educationally.  I am more awake and alert when I teach because my body almost never enjoys a resting position.  And best of all, I can pull my chair right up to my students' tables and sit with them.  There is a stronger sense of community with my students, and I have a better sense of where each of my students is academically because I am constantly walking by them, sitting with them, and engaging with them.  My students have commented on the absence of a teacher's desk, too.  They've noticed that its much more difficult to be off-task because I am all over the place looking over their shoulder.  One student commented that it is easier to ask questions because they can ask quietly as I make my rounds.  My evaluators have quantified the number of rounds I make in a block and commented on how proximity alone works to redirect off-task students or quiet collective volume.  In many ways, eliminating a teacher desk from the room has made my job easier without necessitating extra prep.  It is a choice I am very glad I made, and wish I would've made sooner in my teaching career.  I challenge others to consider the space and place of your own classrooms and what physical obstructions limit the kind of class culture you want to foster and the community you want to create.

Project Citizen: Getting More High Tech

Its a new semester, which means my Government students will begin another round of Project Citizen public policy proposals.  It is my absolute favorite project in this class because it is the one that gives students authentic opportunities to bring change to their school, community, and world.  This semester is a bit different than the semesters I’ve taught this before, though.  We’re going high-tech by digitizing more of the project, adding a digital citizenship component, and talking about the power in branding and social media.  I’m thrilled to get rolling!


My name is Shannon White, and I teach Government and Economics to high school seniors in the Indianapolis area.  I love my job because in addition to desiring to instill in youth the drive to be active, participatory citizens, I care about social justice and democracy.  These courses offer me the perfect platform to talk to my students, soon to be high school graduates, about how to affect change and minimize suffering in their world.  I am grateful that I live in a place where people’s voices are powerful tools, but I also recognize that the voice of the people in our country has been weakening over time, especially people of specific demographics.  I hope the work I do in the classroom each day is fostering a revival in young people’s voices that will lead to a stronger democracy and happier, healthier world.

In addition to strengthening democracy and increasing social justice, I also value the relationships between schools and communities.  It is was gives legitimacy to classroom instruction.  As frequently as I can, I try to connect my students to community membersoutside school in addition to inviting community members into our school to foster positive relationships between youth and adults, students and teachers from all professions, and the school system at large and the community in which it sits.

Over the next few weeks, I will post updates on Twitter about how my students are going high-tech with their Project Citizen work, connecting with the community, and changing the world.  I invite you to reach out if you are interested in connecting with us.  Also, check out my YouTube channel to see Project Citizen presentations from previous semesters.  Look for us on Twitter @MsWhiteSocStud, #mswhiteGOVT, & #ProjectCitizen.


The Value of the First Day of School Realized

It’s true.  I hate the first day of school.  I have ever since I started teaching.  The first day if full of awkwardness, confusion, and timidity.  And I’ll be honest, I want to just jump right in and start doing stuff.  Additionally, I think get-to-know-you games are cheesy and artificial because often my high schoolers (and adults do this sometimes too) want to share the socially acceptable thing to announce about themselves instead of the most truthful things in an effort to be liked and accepted on the first day.  (This eventually comes out as I get to know the students, but at first you can get such a false sense of who students really are.)  On top of it all, I am a pretty blunt and straight-forward person who can overwhelm and intimidate students on the first day (so I’ve been told by students later in the year).  All in all, I wish I could just start every year on day 2.  Of course, I recognize how absurd this is because starting on day 2 turns day 2 into day 1.  So I’m learning to face the inevitable and with good reason.

My experiences in class today and on a recent field trip with the Innovations Class are challenging my lack of regard for Day 1.  Today, I asked my students to complete peer evaluations for each member of their group on a recent project.  I was speechless as I received multiple questions about the names of students in class.  Literally my students had worked for ~8 weeks on a project with a group of students from their own class, and they never learned each other’s names.  I was shocked and ultimately disappointed in myself as I recognized that this is due to my own failure–not my students’.  The Innovations Class traveled to Silicon Valley and visited places like Google and Facebook, warehouses of collaboration.  In each place, it was clear that many if not most of the employees were strangers to one another.  We regularly observed them introducing themselves to other employees as a way to build community and prepare to innovate and create new ideas and projects.

All of this has made me realize that while I have a positive classroom community and while I have a personal connection with each student, the students don’t necessarily feel that sense of personal connection and community among one another.  This likely means they are still holding very tightly to the cliques and social group stereotypes that exist outside of the classroom.  So here’s what I want to do about it:

1.  I want to reinforce the idea of our classroom being a work space not a social space.  We can absolutely be social in the work space, but we have a job to do and things to accomplish in this space that come ahead of socializing on the list of priorities.

2.  I want to be more intentional about making community where my students are interested in the success of the whole class instead of just their own success.  If we care enough about the success of the whole, then by default each individual will maximize their own success, too.  The converse is not necessarily true.

3.  I want to dedicate more time to meaningful, intentional, purposeful get-to-know-you activities on the first day of school to set a standard early in the semester and keep doing things to build community throughout the semester.  Perhaps get-to-know-you activities won’t feel so artificial if I do them all semester long.

It is very much a part of the real world to have to work with people that we wouldn’t socialize with outside of the workplace and/or don’t get along with.  However, we are expected to be able to work with them in professional community anyway.  Why would I expect any different of my students.  I need to be more intentional about the professional community within my classroom.  I never want to get halfway through a semester again having students working alongside people whose names they do not know.

I’ve got some work to do.  Let the research about meaningful get-to-know-you activities begin!

Ah-ha Moment: The Value of Community

The value of community partners IN the classroom WITH my students has elevated in status for me from “valuable” to “imperative” if we as educators are truly going to implement authentic instruction with authentic assessments.  Authentic performances are not authentic if they are only presented to me as the teacher.  We have to integrate the community.



My Favorite Formative Assessment: Stoplight Cups

Although only briefly mentioned in this awesome article about formative assessment, Formative Assessment: Improving Learning in Secondary Classrooms, the formative assessment that continues to be my favorite and most easily implemented regularly (almost daily) in my praxis is the Stoplight Technique.  While this technique can be varied in a multiplicity of ways, the way I implement it in my classroom is with red, yellow, and green cups (like the kind from a party store) on each of the student tables.  Whenever I want to check for student understanding or level of confidence about a topic, I ask the students to place the appropriate colored cup in front of them and leave the rest stacked in the middle of the table.  Usually, red means “stop! I need help!”; yellow means “slow down! I need clarification!”; and green means “I’m good to go!”.  Then, in a matter of seconds I can appropriately regroup students according to the purpose of class for that day.  Sometimes I pair greens and yellows together to work on a task while I work with the reds.  Other times I give greens an independent task to work on at a high level of difficulty, the yellows a task at a medium level of difficulty, and reds a task at low levels of difficulty.  Yesterday, in a professional development meeting, I learned about the Gradual Release Model of learning.  It dawned on me how well this could fit with the Stoplight formative assessment technique if when implemented greens and yellows work together while I work with reds and then we gradually release responsibility to that only students are working together and then students complete a task independently.  It was an “ah-ha” moment of sorts to find yet another way to easily and flexibly differentiate instruction to maximize learning and deepen my students’ understanding of course content.

The flexibility of the Stoplight Technique is also in how you implement it in the classroom.  I use colored cups from the party store, but one of my colleagues in another department discussed using colored popsicle sticks for her Stoplight Technique.  Another suggested colored squares of paper.  While I love this formative assessment technique, I certainly am unwilling to suggest that it might be the best for every teacher.  I just find that it works best for me.  The beauty of formative assessments and technology integration and literacy strategies is that no teacher has to use them all.  Consider them a buffet of choices from which you can choose.  When I find something that works really well, I continue to use it frequently.  Other strategies and tools I prefer to only use for very specific purposes that are not as widespread and general as the Stoplight Technique tends to be for me.

I hope others I finding new and better ways to formatively assess their students (and I would love to hear new ideas as well).  The value of formative assessment lies not only in the increased depth of understanding for the students but also in the increased satisfaction and fulfillment teachers get from knowing they taught and taught VERY WELL.  As always, here’s to living above mediocrity.  Cheers!