Getting Students Excited About Learning with Choice with Tanya King
December 20, 2022
Getting Students Excited About Learning with Choice with Tanya King

There’s little worse than being told what you have to do, when you have to do it, and how. And especially when kids are involved, they’re pretty good at digging in their heels and refusing. Ask any parent or teacher!

But we’re still telling kids what they have to learn, how they have to learn it, and when. We’re doing a disservice to them and, frankly, to the teachers who have to follow the prescribed curriculum.

Thank goodness teachers like Tanya King exist. Teachers who are using data and proven strategies to break the mold and truly get students excited about learning. Tanya, an award-winning 6th grade teacher in Washington state, champions the idea of letting go of control and letting students lead their own learning.

And what she’s doing works! With kids regularly making two school years’ of progress while in her care, they’re no longer missing school or checking out mentally because they’re bored or uninspired. She takes inspiration to the next level.

Listen in to find out how Tanya is doing it differently!

About Tanya King:

Tanya King, also known as Mrs. KB, is a 6th-grade teacher in the Edmonds School District. She is in her 22nd year of teaching, holds a BA in Elementary Ed, Special Education K-12, a Masters in Integrating Technology, and is National Board Certified. It is her mission to empower students to become lifelong learners and instill within them a belief they can reach any goal he/she sets for him/herself. By teaching students to believe in themselves and take ownership of their learning, her students know they can tackle any task. Students come to school because they have to; Mrs. KB has created a learner-driven class and kids come because they want to! Her mottos? Be the Captain of your Own Destiny! Live Limitless!

Jump in the Conversation:

[1:30] – Award winning teacher
[1:59] – Extraordinary is “extra ordinary”
[2:18] – How Tanya became a learner-centered teacher
[3:10] – Fitting in the box doesn’t work as a kid or a teacher
[3:20] – Lessons from rafting through the Grand Canyon
[4:22] – What it looks like in Tanya’s classroom and the joy of controlled chaos
[7:52] – Benefits of teachers letting go of control
[11:03] – Data points that show student growth
[15:42] – Kids aren’t sure how to approach this new environment
[16:46] – If we’re not willing to try to change things, no one will make the change for us
[17:45] – A few ways to shift away from rows to something more student-driven
[18:18] – If you don’t have a why behind what you’re doing, find a different way
[19:35] – Turbo Time
[22:26] – The passion Tanya brings to learner-centered classrooms
[23:05] – The best thing about working with tweens
[24:43] – Tanya’s Magic Wand
[26:28] – Maureen’s Takeaways

Links & Resources



Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at Education Evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education, evolution, micro school coalition, and co founder of active, I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast. Please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:08
Hi Tanya it is so good to have you here.

Tanya King 1:11
Thank you. It’s really exciting to be here with you.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:14
And listeners. today I’m chatting with local sixth grade teacher Tanya king. And this innovative teacher, Mrs. KB taught my stepson over 10 years ago,

Tanya King 1:26
It was 10 years.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:28
Isn’t that crazy? That is crazy. Where’s it gone? So I was really thrilled to see her picture on the cover of our local newspaper as one of the two teachers in Washington State to be inducted into the 2022 curriculum associates, extraordinary educators program. So Tanya, you are here today to remind us while people are so worried about schools and educators of the great teaching that is happening in our schools, and also so that we can take a look at extraordinary.

Tanya King 1:58
Yes, I sometimes think of extraordinary is extra ordinary. But I do think the pandemic brought up a lot of concerns with families, when they finally got to see and experience working with their kids at home.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 2:13
Absolutely. So how did you get your start as this learner centered, learner driven educator,

Tanya King 2:23
oh, I was never a sit and get kind of a kid. I was even worse, sit and get kind of a teenager. So I actually left high school early and went and did the Running Start program. Because I knew I wanted to teach working in preschool in my early parts of my career, you have to be hands on. And kids learn the fastest, the more involved they were. So we built rain forests in the classroom, and we painted the ground with sand for the ocean. we immersed ourselves into learning and I always said when I become get my own classroom, I’m gonna do this in my own classroom. And then I became a teacher and realize that that’s not how education works in our current system. I tried fitting in the box of education. But it didn’t work for me as a kid. And it sure as heck didn’t work very well for me as a teacher. But honestly, to answer your question, I went rafting through the Grand Canyon with teachers about my second or third year of teaching. And during that time, I learned some important things. One, you cannot fight the river, the river is going to go. But you can captain the boat through the rapids and get everyone through. But we all have to work together. And I kind of just grabbed on to that. And then my teaching style developed from there. And the more I tried, the more kids seem to enjoy coming to school and the more they enjoy coming to school, the harder they seem to want to work and it just made learning back to what it’s supposed to be fun. Exciting. And then we saw growth. Yeah, cuz a lot of people are concerned about test scores, and I get that I guess.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 4:12
Mm hmm.

Tanya King 4:12
But if we want to move test scores, it’s not me that does it. It’s the kids that do it.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 4:18
Absolutely. So what would we see if we walked into your classroom?

Unknown Speaker 4:24
Right now chairs up in a very tired teacher, but you would come and this year you would see desk in a quasi modal kind of a format in the classroom. You could see round tables, standing tables, you will see chairs, chairs with wheels, yoga balls with others. On the bottom, you will see kids doodling on top of a whiteboard table with fitting and camping chairs download. Each one of my students are individuals and so my classroom is a fit for one child It’s available for every child to find how they fit in this environment. So we move seats, if you are not agreeing with someone today, tomorrow, sit with someone new and try out a different kind of a learning experience, if you will. The real world when you grow up, they expect you to be able to work with lots of different people. Yeah, in the classroom, we lock kids into these specific spaces. So I’ve just decided to tear those down. And if I can’t have a school that has these ideals, then my classroom would be our home. And it has these ideas.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 5:35
I love it. A phrase that was used about your classroom that I also remember, as a mother was controlled chaos. Does that sound about right?

Unknown Speaker 5:46
Yes, yeah. So we have a specific hour of the day that is controlled chaos. And sometimes it is self directed by me. Where I give the kids a challenge or a task, or it is choose your adventure. We started the same way. I give them two choices of items and what we’re working on. And then I say, are you ready kids, and they all salute me and go I captain. And then they begin to work in the chaos part is that my job is to know what all 26 of them are doing at every moment during that hour. And then I field questions. So I might get a math question. Can you show me how to find the surface area of my box? Absolutely. Do you remember how to do this? And then right after that, it will be a writing question. I’m stuck in the ending of my story, can you give me some ideas or someone still took my pencil Can you tell, but it’s just this popcorn fast pace, it’s a little loud. When the principal walks in, I used to be really nervous. Because if you walk in and don’t know what you’re looking at it, you would be concerned, they’re not swinging from the rafters, but they’re engaging in their own learning. And they’re taking care of things they need to work on. And they’re self directed. And because sixth grade and Edmonds is the last before Middle School, that’s a really essential skill is to know how to push yourself to get things done. So it’s an opportunity for them to practice every single day. And some days are awesome. And some days, I have to turn off the lights. And we need to sit down and remember how we behave in a large community, but their kids, that’s a part of them learning and growing. That’s the expectation. So controlled chaos is particularly one of my favorite times during the day. We call it Adventure Time. And it is each child is on their own adventure and pursuing their own learning sometimes.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 7:44
So Tanya, to have this adventure time, you have to let go of control. And I know a lot of teachers, the kids are on the same page. And it’s everybody’s in sync, and this is the opposite. Why do you let go of the control? And what benefits do you see?

Unknown Speaker 8:00
You know, I kind of go back to the river idea. I love movie references. One of my favorite movies, is he says, I am only one part of this journey. My job the riverboat captain’s job is to know they’re part of the river, I need to send these kids on, I don’t have to be in control at all times. This isn’t my adventure. This isn’t my learning path. This is theirs. And they need to start to learn how to be in charge of their own learning that comes with student choice. And that comes with student voice. But in order to truly embrace student choice and student for voice, I need to get out of the way. I’m there as a guy, and as a support. And I redirect if I see things going the wrong direction. But students are capable of moving themselves forward. If you think of infants, nobody puts an infant in school to teach them to rollover, or to sit up or to crawl or to walk. These are things we learn naturally in our environment. I just believe that kids continue to learn that way. And I provide them with a natural environment for them to stand up and for them to fall down. And for me to reach out a hand and help move them along. And that means I’m not always the boss.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 9:20
Yes, yep, that is a letting go of control. But I mean, we see that we see in Montessori, we seen a lot of programs when kids have this choice, that they really are empowered. And then we don’t have kids that graduate and say yeah, I learned how to be good at school. Your kids are good at self direction and that transfers to life to jobs to everything.

Unknown Speaker 9:42
Yes, I have students who I was told, you know, they don’t really show up every day. So don’t be concerned. You know, we’ll take them through the process. And I thought, wow, we can’t be okay with that. And a student. What the same student looked at me yesterday and said, you know, I didn’t come to school hardly at all last year. I said, Really, you show up all the time here and he goes, Well, I’m learning. And it’s so fun. And I like being here, I fit in here. This is like, my second home. And I was like, well, good, because you’re like my third kid, or my fourth kid or my 26th. But we’re family. And, you know, learning is scary. You know, you have to think about it this way. We’re asking kids to step into a new environment, sit down trust, a total stranger, to help them get ready for life. That’s the big ask. But if we switched it, and said, Hey, I’m your coach, I’m here to work with you to guide you to help you get to the next level, the next part of the river to the next captain of your ship, then it changes everything. It’s amazing. It’s amazing to watch.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 10:53
Absolutely. And the award cites that there is data that shows your model is working. So it’s not like a free for all. And maybe they’re learning maybe not talk to us about some of the data points that show student growth.

Unknown Speaker 11:07
So we I’m in school district I’ve adopted i Ready diagnostic and their math and reading program, the diagnostic I really liked, because as a teacher it, it provides me with usable information. Whereas other assessments we’ve used just tells me a grade level, or just gives me basic data. But it doesn’t tell me this child needs addition and subtraction, this child is missing phonics skills, those are things that I can be actionable about using that data, I then basically kind of create an individualized plan for every student in my classroom. Before conferences, we have a data chat, and we sit down and we look over we talk about what do you need to do to move your data to change your data? How are you in control of this data? Then they present that at conferences, and my students run their conferences, and they share their data and what they’re going to do. And they tell their parents the role they need to play to help them reach their goals.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 12:06
Wow, empowerment?

Unknown Speaker 12:08
Yes, yes. And they feel good doing and parents at the end. There we say the kids say, Do you have any questions the parents like? No, you’ve actually answered everything I was thinking about. Because the kids are in charge of that learning. So what does that look like on my data? I think we all hope to make 100% one year’s growth with our students every year. I think on average, I recently learned from a colleague that across the United States, teachers are actually averaging closer to 50% growth, which means every student walking in, there’s a large percentage, they’re only making a half of yours growth, which means they’re always chasing this invisible line that keeps moving. Where you can’t catch that. In my classroom, it is not unusual for a student to make 150% growth 200% Growth, my median growth for last year was 225%. Which means that I have kids who have come in chasing that invisible line for data, who leave me closer to actually being at grade level, if not at grades up. Wow. Last spring, I had two students who started two to three years below in reading and math. When I shared with them their final data data point that they had made it to grade level and not just early grade level, they hit right where we want them to be before they leave me. One went outside and he just started yelling at the top of his lungs. He looked like Rocky and he was just arms in the air, dancing in circles, punching invisible villains. And then the young lady who had the experience just started crying. She said I never thought I could be smart. And I said you’re have always been smart, you’re just finally tapping into it. So the growth in the room is been tremendous. So I keep tweaking little things to see what this gives me more growth. Could I handle this? This year? I have a very challenging group, significant kids between k three. And before your listeners ask how do you get to sixth grade at a third grade level? Let’s just keep in mind, these kids went out with COVID. And third grade, if they were behind in third grade didn’t make any growth learning from home or online. That’s how you get to sixth grade at a key one 2/3 grade level. But do I leave them there? Or is it my responsibility to try and help them get closer so that they can leave and go to seventh grade closer to our grade level? That makes sense? So we’re doing some things and we’ve seen some games and kids are high fiving and they’re here every day. They’re here every single day and they don’t want to leave early. They make their parents bring them back after a dentist appointment and saying no, I have responsibility Yesterday, school matters to them. They’re doing school school is not being done to them.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 15:06
Wow, I love it, you’ve created such a sense of belonging and agency that the kids are empowered and want to be there. That’s, that’s beautiful. And I know I’ve railed against the assembly line industrial model. That the opposite, if this is invigorating, and if this is giving them hope and giving them opportunity, I think that the factory worker style does the opposite. I think it sucks the souls that have kids, and you’ve probably seen some things to compare to,

Unknown Speaker 15:40
oh, students come in in September, and they’re not sure what to make of me. They’re not sure how to approach this environment. They’re used to all the desks being set name tags, morning work, I don’t know, anybody who gets off of work sits down and immediately starts paying bills. When we get home. When we greet our family, we pet the dog, the cat, we say hello to our significant other our children. Maybe we ponder what we’re gonna have for dinner. But in a classroom, you walk in, and there’s an assignment waiting for you on your desk, like, at what point in time, do ya say hello to my teacher and, and be welcomed into this environment. And if you’re not strong in that subject, that means I’m starting my day with the thing that just makes me feel the least value. Like it breaks my heart, I don’t want to, I am not on here to bash what teachers do in our classroom, I know that we as educators, have been educated to educate in the factory style. Yep, that’s what we have been trained to do. But I am on here to try and encourage teachers to make a change that if we ourselves aren’t willing to say that this isn’t working, and change things, no one’s going to make the change for us. Because if they were going to make that change, they would have done it during the pandemic. That was a beautiful opportunity for every single school district across the country to say, timeout, let’s try something different. The country will forgive us because recovering, we’re recovering from a pandemic, let’s try something different. But we were in such a hurry to get back to this factory style, prison learning environment. And it breaks my heart. But I love coming to work and being in my classroom, I have found similar kindred soul teachers to collaborate with. It’s just been a great year and curriculum Associates has spoiled me rotten.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 17:40
As you deserve my dear. So if a teacher is listening, what are a few ways they might be able to shift away from everybody in rows learning on the same page to something that is more student driven, and welcoming?

Unknown Speaker 17:59
The first thing I would say is let go of the work on the desk first thing in the morning. It’s what is it for? Actually, I take that back. I went to a conference recently, and it really impacted me. And I give any teacher who’s listening this lead with your why. If you can’t answer the question, why you are doing this, maybe you need to reconsider what you’re doing. Why do you have morning desk work on their desk? Is it because you need them quiet first thing in the morning? Explore that spin time diving into? Why does your classroom look the way it does? Why do you put up the same anchor charts year after year after year? Are they necessary to the kids use them? But I think if we start asking ourselves more of why do we do things, I think we’ll start to see what we can let go up. The big thing I would also say is have some fun. Learning is exciting. It’s fun. You go on a road trip with your family and you stop off. And the brown sign tells you everything you want to know about this amazing location. And then you talk about it and you engage with maybe you search it up. Do you look for pictures of it, you show your friends when you get home you talk that’s learning. Let’s all work to get excited about learning instead of it’s something we have to do.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:28
Absolutely. Tanya, I want to shift and get to know a little bit about you before we wrap up. So I have some turbo time questions. Are you ready?

Tanya King 19:37
I am ready.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:40
Awesome. What is the last book you read?

Unknown Speaker 19:43
I read the Hawthornes trilogy which is a young adult novel. Think mystery trapdoors, secret passages and of course a little romance because I need a little romance in my life. And I also read because I need to read adult books cultivating genius which you was a great text about bringing community back into your classroom and how all children come to you limitless. We’re the ones that put limits on them. Powerful? Yes.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:13
How about two inspirational folks you’d love to meet.

Unknown Speaker 20:17
One would be Marva Collins, when I was a kid, there was a ABC special that came out about how she wanted to disrupt how the school system worked in Chicago. And growing up in Chicago, in that school system. She was my idol. I wanted to be a first school. I wanted to understand the world. And I thought when I grew up, I’m going to be a teacher like her, and I’m going to start my own school. So definitely Marva, Collins and Oprah, as a woman of color. Growing up again, in Chicago, seeing another woman of color on the TV doing the weather was just, it was amazing to me, and then watching her grow, to build her own empire, which just gave me hope that I too, can then reach that dream that Marva Collins told me was possible. So I would love to be well Marva Collins is passed on but I would love to be Oprah.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:11
Guess. Yes. How about your favorite place to travel?

Unknown Speaker 21:15
Obviously, anywhere with my kids. They’re currently eight and 11. They are the best people to travel with. They wake up with no expectations of what sounds good. They go with the flow. They don’t really complain a whole bunch. And they’re easy to entertain, or they entertain themselves. So we’re just been a couple trips a year, Oregon coast on the beach. We spent Fourth of July in San Francisco, just because it was really great. So anywhere I take them because they always remind me that traveling does not have to be painful. It’s supposed to be fun. Yeah, supposed to be a vacation. Yes. What’s a pet peeve of yours? Oh, my pet pee. Ah, you know, kids are failing. And you just need to fill in the blank. Other people telling us that kids are failing and what we need to do to help them. Listen, it’s very basic to factories though working only helps a few. How about we change the system? My phone looks different than it did 150 years ago, but classrooms the latest thing? I don’t understand that exactly.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 22:25
What is the passion you bring to learner centered

Unknown Speaker 22:28
classrooms? I I truly love my job. My students are pretty convinced that I must drink a lot of coffee to be sad and Susie aspects back early in the morning. And honestly, I wake up thinking about how we’re going to tackle this or approach this or I’m going to check in with this kid. You know what this kid’s getting a prize because he read one word and he can’t read it all. But he read one word today. You know, I just I love what I do. And I love seeing them. Learn to love to learn. Yes.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:04
What’s your favorite thing about working with tweens?

Tanya King 23:09
They’re weird.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:11
Yes, they are

Unknown Speaker 23:13
great, like Dinner, dinner party conversation. But the biggest thing is you get glimpses of the future with them. You know tweens are still open. They’re not quite jaded yet, as sometimes teenagers are. They’re not even stuck in their ways yet. They’re still hopeful and excited. And so I see all of these possibilities when I work with tweens dores, my future their future, the world’s future. I see the next president I see the next CEO or the next writer. Yeah, it’s amazing to watch it and then to wonder, and then the later see what happens. Yes.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:55
And what’s something that most folks don’t know about you?

Unknown Speaker 23:59
I am an introvert. I am super comfortable hanging out with any group of kids. But I get sometimes a little quiet a little shy around adults. Because I just don’t understand sometimes why adults behave the way they do kids I do. Adults I don’t always get it. So some people take that will sometimes tell me that I might seem unfriendly. I’m just quiet and introspective. But once I get to know someone and like in this scenario, I’m feeling very comfortable. We’re chatting. A crease you can’t shut me up. Love it.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 24:40
So Tanya, I am handing you a magic wand and I want you to make learning amazing for sixth graders for students around the world. What are you going to wish for?

Unknown Speaker 24:57
I am going to wish that At our school districts would be open to partnering with different models, I am going to wish that I will be able to open my own program, I want to call it limitless. Because I believe that’s what kids come to us, us is limitless. And I want to I want the state. And I want this country and every parent to have a choice of what kind of classroom, maybe they their child would thrive in this kind of environment, maybe their child needs this type of environment. Maybe they need this type of environment. I would wave a magic wand and ask that everybody open their eyes about the possibilities that we could be doing an education, instead of fighting to get back to what honestly has never really worked before.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 26:02
Mic drop. Thank you. That is amazing. And you are trailblazing for others. Keep up the amazing job and thank you for being our guest today.

Unknown Speaker 26:14
Thank you so much for having me. This was very nervous. It was fun. It was good.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 26:29
Tanya was amazing. As a sixth grade teacher for my stepson who had moved up from Texas, I remember being in her classroom and the dynamic shift of how she would work with one group and then send them off on a project and pull in another group. And there was no sense of oh, this is one level of student or another. It was just group and conversation and project all mixed together, and a delightful flurry of student driven learning. I think we can all learn a lot from playful preschool and Montessori models. When we give students options with structuring guidance. They are so capable of learning through their interests. And kudos to Tanya for working within a very set structure. Yet without fighting the river, and remaining the captain of her raft.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 27:27
We recently had student led conferences at my micro school Lead prep, and the students guided the conversations like they do in Tanya’s conferences. Our students also really enjoy going to school and attendance has increased from previous middle and high schools that the students attended. And that shouldn’t be surprised. I know as a human when I feel welcome. I want to go back. When we make our students feel welcome. They want to come back. No surprise that Tonya has been inspired by Marva Collins and determined to create this limitless learning opportunity for her students from the start. And it’s definitely no surprise that she has won this national honor for helping her students become empowered, self motivated, successful learners with happiness and fun as key ingredients. Yes, there is much hope in our schools, especially when we open the door on classrooms like Tanya’s thank you for being a part of the education evolution.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 28:47
I know how challenging it is to make changes inside your own school or community. I’ve spent years working with schools around the world on creating learner centered programs. And it always struck me how much schools were able to get done with the right tools and guidance. If you’re ready to make changes like this in your own school, let’s talk and put together an action plan. Visit for a free 15 minute call. And let’s see if we’re a good fit for more work together. Thanks again for listening. To support the education evolution. Subscribe so it lands in your podcast app gets out to more decision makers. Then rate and review it. For more information in shownotes go to Education evolution listeners. You are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen heard, valued and thriving. We are in this together and we need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. Thank you for listening Signing off. I am Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.

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