Tom White offered himself up to students at Lynnwood Intermediate School. If they would sell enough raffle tickets for a school fund-raiser, he'd let them stick him to a gym wall...
Tom White offered himself up to students at Lynnwood Intermediate School.
If they would sell enough raffle tickets for a school fund-raiser, he’d let them stick him to a gym wall with duct tape during an assembly. The kids met their goal, and White good-naturedly watched the assembly with his limbs pinioned to the wall, his body about 5 feet off the floor.
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Another time, a gifted singer in his class was too nervous to perform alone for a school talent show. White stood on the dark stage with the boy, accompanying him on guitar.
Last week, the 43-year-old White traveled to Washington, D.C., to be honored for excellence in teaching and advocacy for the profession. The Mountlake Terrace native his father was longtime City Manager Bob White was one of five finalists from among 34 state nominees to receive a $10,000 prize and compete for the National Education Association Foundation Award for Teaching Excellence.
“Tom’s a great teacher,” said Lynnwood Intermediate Principal David Koyama, who added that White regularly shares his experience and strategies with other teachers trying to improve their classroom skills.
White was nominated for the award by Edmonds Education Association President Dan Wilson, who said that in addition to designing challenging classroom lessons, White is active in the teachers union, advocating for support and funding of public education at the local, state and national level.
Last week, White was at work, holding the attention of 16 boys and eight girls through a math lesson that introduced fractions through geometrical shapes. The potential for mischief seemed high as the fourth-graders each grabbed handfuls of rubber bands and stretched them across a square grid of 25 nails.
But White also had these students as third-graders. Laurel Hansen, a classroom assistant who was seated at the back of the room with a table of boys, whispered, “They wouldn’t dare.”
Indeed, the kids worked diligently under White’s guidance to find all the possible ways to divide a square into equal fourths. Students noted each combination on a worksheet, then returned to the grid to stretch the rubber bands in new ways.
“I’m like a sponge in here,” Hansen confided. “He teaches from the heart. The kids want him to teach them through college.”
One at a time, a few students were invited to the front of the class to show off their more inventive solutions: triangles inverted two and two; interlocking L’s; a board that was divided half into squares, half into triangles.
When one boy suggested a division that resulted in one noticeably larger shape, White asked: “Is this a fair way to divide it? If this were cake, would everyone get an equal share?”
The students chorused, “Noooo!”
The boy adjusted the grid to make four equal areas, and White led the class in a round of applause.
After class, White explained that his goal was for the students to recognize and explain how to divide an area equally, an activity that helps them visualize fractions and prepares them for the geometry of angles in coming years.
“I wanted them to recognize there are lots of ways,” he said.
When White plans a lesson, he said, he has three or four objectives. He looks for students to make steady progress and at night reassesses where they’re at and what he wants to accomplish the next day.
“I’m a pretty goal-oriented person,” he explained. “The challenge is to balance individual needs with moving the whole class forward.”
Lynnwood’s Koyama dated some of White’s deliberateness to 2000, when he was among the first group of Edmonds School District educators to attain National Board Certification, a demanding process akin to earning an advanced college degree.
“The National Board caused him to become more reflective of his practice. It caused him to become more intentional,” Koyama said.
One of White’s innovations, adapted from Japanese teachers, is the lesson-study-plan process. Small groups of teachers spend up to two months planning a single lesson. One teaches the class while the others observe the students and the learning that takes place.
The teachers then review the lesson and talk about ways to make the teaching stronger.
“It’s not about developing one perfect lesson but really about all the talk that emerges about teaching and the craft of teaching,” Koyama said. “That’s the power of it.”
White said the biggest challenge for him as a teacher is the current emphasis put on testing and the single high-stakes test the Washington Assessment of Student Learning that his fourth-graders will take in spring.
He recalled the boy who stood at the front of the room earlier that day, confronted with a shape that was clearly not equal to the others.
“Did you see how poised he was, how he was rethinking things in front of his peers? The grace with which he accepted that was remarkable, but that’s not something that shows up on a test.”
If teachers spend all their time testing, that energy comes out of teaching.
“Teachers know that,” he said.
Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or email@example.com