George Lucas Educational Foundation Celebrating our 25th Anniversary!
Subscribe to RSS

3 Practices to Promote Equity in the Classroom

Shane Safir

Resilience, Relationships, Re-Imagination
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
A group of young students are painting on paper, sitting outside on large pieces of cardboard laid out on the grass.

I recently observed a classroom where students were presenting history projects to rows of silent and obedient classmates. Though the projects were diligently constructed, I couldn't focus on their content because I was distracted by two facts: only the teacher was asking questions, and he kept calling exclusively on girls to present.

Ten minutes later, I walked into a completely different classroom where students rotated through the room presenting group projects to each other. The teacher instructed his class to "work to understand" the content through discussion, and every voice filled the room.

These two experiences resurfaced a long-held question: What makes for an equitable classroom? While this topic deserves a whole book, here are three simple practices that you can try on to increase the range and frequency of student voices in your classroom.

Practice 1: Use Equity Sticks

Equity sticks are a cheap and powerful way to check your biases at the door. Simply buy a box of popsicle sticks (or index cards, or bookmarks, or anything compact, really), use a Sharpie to write one student's name per stick, and toss them all into a cup or jar next to a second, empty cup for the "used" sticks. Each time you facilitate a class discussion, pull out an equity stick at random and ask that student to share. Once they have participated, toss their stick in the other cup, and keep on doing this until you've cycled through the class.

Orange and green popsicle sticks in red plastic cups on a teacher's desk

Equity sticks keep students on their toes, mentally alert, and poised to contribute. When used routinely, this practice promotes a culture of participation and attention. For an app that serves the same purpose, check out Stick Pick.

Practice 2: Track Participation Data

It's also really powerful to gather data on student participation. To do this, create a simple "equity tracker" with students' names on the left side and a column for each day of the week. Carry it around religiously on a clipboard, and each time you call on a student or someone volunteers to speak, jot down a tally mark. At the end of the week, add up your marks and analyze the data:

  • Who is participating the most?
  • Who is participating the least?
  • What patterns of participation do I see with respect to race, gender, language of origin, learning ability, location in the room, etc.?

Use this data to set a small participation goal for the following week. For example: "Next week, I aim to invite the students with special needs in my classroom to share at least once per day."

A table showing a student's name with tally marks for Monday through Friday


Practice 3: Experiment With Discussion Structures

Finally, the best way to promote student voice is to maximize and vary your structures for discussion. Well-designed discussions shift the talk ratio and the cognitive load from you to your students. There are countless ways to structure student talk, but here are a few tried and true methods:


Each student silently thinks (and maybe also reads and/or writes) about a prompt, text, or question. Students then pair up and share their ideas.

Quote Mixer

Each student is given a different quote or other form of text (this could be an image or graph, for example). Students move around the room, pair up, share their text and response to it, switch cards, find a new partner, and repeat for 1-2 additional rounds.

Talking Pennies

In groups of 3-5, students are given a question or set of questions to discuss. Each student receives an equal number of pennies. Each time someone participates, they must first put one of their pennies into the middle of the table. A student who has used up his or her pennies must wait for all the other students' pennies to be in the middle before speaking again.

Creating an equitable classroom can feel daunting, but I find it helpful to think of small changes that can make a big difference in increasing student voice.

What are some of your strategies to promote equity in the classroom?

Was this useful? (1)
The Equitable Classroom
Learn about the thinking behind and practices for an equitable classroom, where all students are recognized as unique individuals and given access to the resources they need to learn and thrive.

Shane Safir

Resilience, Relationships, Re-Imagination
In This Series
Learn about the thinking behind and practices for an equitable classroom, where all students are recognized as unique individuals and given access to the resources they need to learn and thrive.

Comments (4) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (4) Sign in or register to comment

Temperance J's picture

I enjoyed reading your blog. I use the equity sticks in my classroom and they work great. After reading these practices I have decided that I am going to start tracking student participation. I will definitely be trying the quote mixer and talking pennies activities!

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
Resilience, Relationships, Re-Imagination

That's wonderful to hear Temperance J. Let me know how those strategies go!

Irma Glands's picture

I enjoyed this article so much. It is often hard to get all students to participate .Many times the same students volunteer to share. Using the Equity Sticks could help give all students a chance. I also like the Equity Tracker by using that it will allow me to see who might be having problem completing assignments. These suggestion are very good and I will be using them. Thank for the ideas.

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
Resilience, Relationships, Re-Imagination

Fantastic Irma. I'm glad these strategies feel useful and supportive!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.