A school year like no other became the perfect chance for Whitney Walker to take her social studies classroom to the next level at Lafayette High School in Lexington.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Walker’s classroom had been a marvel. Nearly every inch was covered with souvenirs, maps, retro toys, puppets, folk art, kitsch and political signage from both sides of the aisle. Life-size cut outs of presidents and celebrities like Taylor Swift, George Washington, Marilyn Monroe and Jar Jar Binks lined the walls. Flags and campaign signs adorned the ceiling.
There was hardly room for more, but with students learning remotely, the artist had a blank canvas — the desks and chairs.
Walker, a University of Kentucky College of Education alumna and current UK doctoral scholar, had a vision and enlisted help from retired Lafayette librarian Susie Jolliffe and student teacher Mallory Shaw, who is a social studies master’s with initial certification student at the UK College of Education.
Together, they turned the students’ empty desks into a seating chart that would rival an Academy Awards rehearsal. There’s Dolly Parton in the front row, sitting next to Lin-Manuel Miranda. Kobe Bryant studies on one side, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg across the row. Even the cat from the viral “woman yelling at cat” meme is in attendance.
The star-studded class shines in the background during Walker’s daily Zoom sessions with students. Walker developed the class roster and Shaw, her student teacher, created the seating chart, which places Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear between George W. Bush and Michelle Obama.
The spectacle caught the attention of the governor during a recent Zoom session between Walker, Beshear and Lafayette students, where Beshear answered student questions about the pandemic and current events.
Walker joked with the governor, saying he often got caught in the middle of Bush passing candy to former first lady Obama — something the former president has done in real life when the two have been seated together at funerals.
The political and pop culture icons add a bit of fun during an otherwise grim time in the U.S. With the number of COVID-19 cases rising and a return to the classroom seeming weeks or months away, Walker saw a need to add a bit of whimsy to online learning.
“When my students join in via Zoom, many have said they actually feel like they are in the room, and they chime in on what some of the folks in the seats would have to say when we have discussions during class,” Walker said. “I hope that when we return to Lafayette, that our students enjoy the space and it brings them some joy.”
All of Walker’s degrees are from UK — including her upcoming doctorate. She got a bachelor’s in education in 2004, a master’s with initial certification in social studies in 2005 and is finishing up work on her Ed.D. soon.
Walker said her own student teaching experience was monumental in shaping her approach to reaching ALL students, and her cooperating teacher from 2005 continues to be a strong force in her practice. Walker has given back to the college by volunteering to have UK student teachers in her classroom.
“It is important to not only grow in your own teaching, but to team with upcoming and new teachers to give support and encourage them to become young leaders within their classrooms and schools,” Walker said. “I believe social studies, and its branches, are the most imperative disciplines taught in schools. When those students exit their high school doors with their diplomas, all must be prepared to understand and question the world they are walking around in. All will continue to be citizens of their local, state, national and global communities for the rest of their lives. Therefore, mentoring these teachers is a critical piece of the puzzle that is the future of our communities and country.”
Walker teaches ninth grade government, world cultures (a geography elective for ninth-12th grades), and advanced placement human geography (a ninth-12th grade elective). When she became a teacher 15 years ago, she approached her classroom at Lafayette as a space designed for students.
“Knowing my kids come from all paths, I wanted the classroom to resemble a kid’s space, knowing that many kids may not have their own spaces in their homes, and have strived to continue to ensure ALL students are represented in my room,” Walker said.
Walker credits the faculty in her doctoral program, Kathy Swan and Ryan Crowley in the UK College of Education Department of Curriculum and Instruction, for providing rewarding courses and approaches to the teaching practice.
“Teaching is an art, and I think that sometimes folks can get stuck and things get stale,” Walker said. “But I have always been curious about how leading students in social studies can serve them to question and, thus, ultimately motivate them to make change in the world.”
In her doctoral studies, Walker has worked alongside fellow teachers within Fayette and surrounding counties who have become part of her teaching family.
“We are braided together and look to each other for advice and support,” Walker said. “We continue to challenge each other, even outside of the program, to take leaps within our schools and communities.”
The program has also provided the inspiration to challenge her own practice.
“With much support from my school and trust with parents and guardians, I can approach my students with a lens rooted in critical theory, and it has truly transformed the way in which education can unfold. I have had ample opportunity to study, research and lead in other ways outside of this program, from standards development at the state level, to textbook contributions, keynote lectures and the capacity to serve as an adjunct at UK. I am on the downhill to wrapping up this journey, but I have very much already reaped the rewards.”