A Whiteboard for Every Student: One District’s Innovative Approach to Pandemic Learning Experiences
"Part of our job is to build as much confidence as possible in our kids, to help people see themselves in the best light possible." - RJ Webber, NCSD Assistant Superintendent
Located just outside of Detroit, Novi Community School District serves almost 6600 students. In October, NCSD was named the top district in Michigan for the 2nd straight year by a national research and ranking firm. Novi is home to a relatively low percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, granting the district a certain amount of privilege when it comes to school resources. Assistant Superintendent RJ Webber explains the district’s innovative approach to leadership:
“When you teach or lead with the grace to allow people to be vulnerable and their best selves—to make some mistakes, to move forward and provide that opening—paradoxically what happens is that you find amazing success. And we’re the #1 school district in the state of Michigan not because we believe in drill and kill, test-based culture. We’ve invested significantly in things like mindfulness. We’ve taken the time to trust our teachers to build our curriculum.”
Webber first encountered M.C. Squares products at a small education trade show in Denver in March 2020. He was curious about how whiteboarding tools like ours might be valuable for his students. A week later, Michigan's governor closed all schools across the state. But the seed had been planted. Webber quickly initiated a program to purchase 6600 personal whiteboards from M.C. Squares. A few months later, every single one of Novi's students would find themselves using their own whiteboard and markers as part of their remote learning tools. Here's how that initiative is working out.
Students Need to Feel Included
NCSD is also a diverse community without a single majority ethnic group. The student body speaks more than 55 different languages across the district, and a third of Novi students speak English as a second language. For many of those students, visual communication strategies are essential parts of their educational success.
For a school district to thrive, each student needs to feel like they have the opportunity to contribute to their classroom and community. They must know their teachers and classmates hear and honor their contributions. Webber cites this mission toward inclusivity as one of the driving forces behind the school's decision to purchase a personal whiteboard and markers for each of their students:
"We gave every student a whiteboard because we believe in equity of opportunity. Ideas are equal, but opportunities are not. So how do we provide the platforms so all students can show their ideas?"
At the moment, Novi has a mix of hybrid students who come to the school campus two days a week (48%) and those who are entirely virtual (52%). Whether the students and teachers are gathered together in a physical classroom or logged into a common remote learning space, the whiteboards offer students the opportunity to contribute their answers to class discussion questions simultaneously. At the same time, teachers can quickly scan the students' responses for an immediate sense of how the lesson is going, making sure each student is actively participating and feeling included in the lesson.
Educating With Physical Tools
It's safe to say that the pandemic overwhelmed almost every community in the United States. Even before then, students, teachers, parents, and administrators faced their own set of everyday challenges. But nationwide school closings made it clear that the education system that we all knew had disappeared, at least for the foreseeable future. Webber recalls the pain and shock the community suffered:
"The beginning of the pandemic was about grief. It was disbelief that we're not together. The first month or so, as it started to sink in a little bit, we accepted that we were going to have to find different ways of connecting and doing things. We had to look for other ways to better educate our students and better collaborate with each other."
It occurred to him that the physical, analog learning tools students use at home are just as important as the computers they use to login to virtual classes. It's not a matter of having the newest, most complicated technology in the classroom. It's about having the most effective tools. Novi school district has a history of innovative approaches to teaching and learning experiences. Years ago, they were among the first districts in the state to start outfitting their classrooms with moveable furniture on casters. Now, teachers can use these flexible furnishings to create customized learning environments more responsive to their students' daily needs.
"The whiteboards get people to show, to share, to communicate more. They get us away from the screen."
However, the pandemic has rendered many of those classrooms and furnishings obsolete. Rather than let them sit empty and unused for another school year, the district created a program to share those desks and chairs with more than 475 families who didn't have the means to acquire them on their own. Digital tools, analog technologies, physical activity, and creative risk-taking are essential elements of the teaching philosophies the district encourages.
"I really am a firm believer in the combination of analog and digital. We need to create, ideate, break stuff, make stuff, fail, and try again and again. It's just easier to do so outside of electronics. Whether it's cardboard and duct tape or whiteboards. The whiteboards get people to show, to share, to communicate more. They get us away from the screen. It gets you doodling. It's bigger than paper. And then when I'm done with it, I erase it, and I'm fine. I don't have a piece of paper sitting in a drawer somewhere that I know I'll never see again. I'm not crumpling it up and throwing it away."
The district's decision to provide each of its students with their own whiteboard emerged from a similar impulse. Some of the most common and useful analog tools teachers have in their arsenals are the whiteboards hanging on the walls and standing in the corners of their classrooms. They've been a fundamental part of everyday learning processes for decades. But the pandemic virtually erased them from teachers' lesson plans. Their absence is one of the reasons remote learning experiences can be so disorienting.
"I really am a firm believer in the combination of analog and digital. We need to create, ideate, break stuff, make stuff, fail, and try again and again."
Getting smaller, personal whiteboards into each student's hands is an essential step in returning to even a slight sense of familiarity and normalcy in virtual and physical classrooms. The initiative also allows teachers and students alike to leverage some of their existing whiteboard practices that might still be relevant in these new classroom environments.
Real-time Assessment and Taking Risks
One of the most frustrating aspects of adjusting to learning in a pandemic is that there's no new normal to adjust to. It's scary and disconcerting. According to Anna North at Vox Media, "Experts fear that, for students around the country, the stresses of the pandemic could lead to anxiety, depression, or difficulties with learning." Schools face the challenge of finding ways to address or reduce student anxieties about remote or hybrid learning processes. Webber sees personal whiteboards as one tool especially adept at lowering the stakes in a lot of learning situations:
"I think about the way we're meeting right now. It's much easier for a kid to hold up their work on [a whiteboard] to show their teacher. It's easy to change your answer if what you show is wrong. With a Padlet or Google form, the whole class gets to see a student's answer. It makes it hard to want to take a chance. Part of our job is to build as much confidence as possible in our kids, to help people see themselves in the best light possible. Creativity is beautiful because it's a non-permanent thing. You can ideate and create and then erase it. It's like a low-risk way to be yourself."
This ability to get students participating with confidence and investment is one of the most challenging aspects of hybrid and remote learning. It's also one of the most critical elements of effective classroom management. Webber argues that time is the most precious commodity in our lives, as well as our classrooms. He explains that when a teacher has 30 children in their classroom (or the Brady Bunch checkerboard of a Zoom call), they might ask their students a simple math question like the sum of 9 and 4. Each student writes their answer on their whiteboard. As the students simultaneously share their responses, the teacher glances at the answers as a whole and makes adjustments to the lesson plan in realtime, depending on the whole class's learning progress.
"Creativity is beautiful because it's a non-permanent thing. You can ideate and create and then erase it. It's like a low-risk way to be yourself."
A well-rounded, comprehensive learning experience requires teachers to employ a variety of techniques and technologies. Webber explains that this "formative" approach to assessment is much different than traditional "summative" methods like quizzes or standardized tests. This immediate feedback saves teachers an enormous amount of time and headaches related to testing, grading, and adjusting lesson plans.
Reflecting on the Initiative
There's no such thing as a typical school district. Every community has its own unique community of students, teachers, administrators, and parents. They each have a different set of resources to draw from, and they operate in their particular political environment, too. It's impossible to argue that what works in a suburb of Detroit will also work in my small, rural North Dakota hometown. On the other hand, there are some basic educational principles that appeal to more fundamental human learning experiences. That's why it's so essential that districts share their successful innovations and partnerships as they prepare to return to school. When asked to reflect on Novi's overall whiteboard initiative with M.C. Squares, Webber had this to offer:
"We can amplify the story so we can show other districts what is possible, right? What you can do. To think outside of the box. To add value. To serve learners. To get them away from their screens. To ideate. To show people and kids that it's okay to play, it's okay to think about things and sketch things out."