George Lucas Educational Foundation

What Student Self-Advocacy Really Looks Like

What Student Self-Advocacy Really Looks Like

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Active reading is a critical skill in my history class. My goal is to have students to be able to recall more of what they read during our discussions in the next class period. As a result, I am currently using research in Mind, Brain, and Education Science to see if it can enhance each student’s ability to make more of what they read stick! Reading is often a uni-sensory process. As a result, I make students actively read so they are engaging more of their senses. But how do teachers get students engaged in active reading of sources that the student was assigned?

Using research around intrinsic motivation, I allow students to choose their preferred method of actively reading a primary or secondary source in history class. Students can select from four options and by merely giving them choice the students feel they “own” the reading more.

This said, on an assigned reading of Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War speeches, I received one of the best emails I have ever received from a student. Here is what he wrote:

Mr. Whitman:

I have a question based on your specific instructions for me at the end of class on Friday. For tomorrow’s class, we are to read the documents that you handed out.  At the end of class, you told me to keep in mind how long it takes me to read it and to mark the start and finish times on the lines you drew. However, if I were to read it in a timely fashion, that would mean that I would have to spend precious seconds to write down the most salient points of each page, one of the active reading options, which would mean my reading time would take longer.  For every reading, you want us to actively read based on the option that we chose on that sheet you gave us a couple of weeks ago. I highlighted salient information and, as a supplement, I use a red pen so that I could easily spot those important points in the article, I underlined and starred information that I thought was salient and worth noting. After class on Friday, you said to keep in mind my timing, so I took that seriously and actively read in a way that works for me personally, which I mentioned above, and I wanted to make sure that that was ok with you; because, if you collect our articles tomorrow, I don't want to lose points for my active reading when I did do it; I just did it in a different way that works for me, and so that I would save time in the reading time department.


One of the greatest skills we can teach students is the ability to self-advocate. It is part of our school’s Effort Grade Rubric (email me if you want a copy) and it was a skill certainly on display in this student’s e-mail. As the student thought meta-cognitively on his learning, he recognized his strengths and weaknesses and returned with an active reading option that he preferred. I readily accepted his new option but more importantly, while I hope this would lead to this student recalling more of what Lincoln wrote so many years ago, I was more excited about how this student was developing a strong understanding of at least one aspect of his learning.

How do you teach your students to self-advocate?

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Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Lina Raffaelli's picture
Lina Raffaelli
Former Community Engagement Intern at Edutopia

This is great! Your story loosely reminds me of this quote:
"A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. ~Thomas Carruthers

Obviously this is an exaggeration, as teachers will always be necessary; but it signifies the goal of the teacher to empower their students towards self-advocacy. That moment of self-realization and self-awareness when a student can recognize his or her own strengths/weaknesses and apply that to their learning is GOLDEN! It's especially great when a student (like the one in your example) can acknowledge alternative methods that work best for them and apply those to their work. Thanks for sharing. :)

Glenn Whitman's picture
Glenn Whitman
Director, The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

Thanks for your feedback and I really liked the Thomas Carruthers quote you shared. I think it is very empowering if a student can graduate high school with a strong sense of his or her learning strengths and weaknesses. This is only possible by developing cultures of reflection/meta-cognition among teachers and school leaders.

Amy Conley's picture
Amy Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California

As a senior teacher, I remind my students that about half will never be required to take English again, either by testing out or not going for a degree.

So my goal is not for them to write good papers, but to become writers who know how to critique themselves and revise and drive their own reading and writing progress.

Intrinsic motivation and metacognition put them in charge of their own success. I really appreciate your example!

Glenn Whitman's picture
Glenn Whitman
Director, The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

Thanks for your reply and I agree with students needing to know how to self-reflect on their writing. I actually find myself putting fewer, narrative, comments on student history essays. Instead, I mark areas that need work but ask students to discern what is wrong independently instead of writing it out for them in some red penned narrative. Good luck with your work.

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