“Agency” and the UOI

For any of you playing around with the concept of student agency in a PYP school, you will likely know the stress and struggle of trying to negotiate the interplay between what students want to learn, with what teachers, schools, and systems have decided they have to learn.

Much cognitive dissonance and feelings of hypocrisy stem from standing in front of students saying “You own your own learning! We trust you! Follow your own passions, interests and curiosities!…… buuuuut make sure you’re meeting the learning outcomes that have been pre-determined for you in the units we have designed for you within the timelines we have set for you.

Much frustration also stems from walking around and seeing the students “not doing what they’re supposed to be doing” – regardless of autonomy over where they learn, when they learn, how they learn, who they learn with, how they share their learning… at the end of the day – if you look through the layers of choice –  we are still expecting them to learn what we want them to learn.

So can we blame them if they don’t care as much as we do?

Anytime we as teachers sit behind closed doors in planning meetings and design units for our students and then “hand the unit over to the students” we run the risk of pseudo-agency…. where we are saying students have ownership of their learning, but don’t really.  Or don’t fully.

And although it feels better than the traditional approach to education (because students are experiencing more choice than normal)… it still doesn’t feel quite right. And it makes you very hesitant to use words like “agency”.

Even when my team and I have tried to design a unit that is concept-based with a very open central idea that offers as much content choices as possible, at the end of the day we find that it is still too teacher planned… too teacher controlled… too teacher driven. 

So we’ve decided to stop planning their units of inquiry.

And instead, start helping them to plan their own units of inquiry.

At first we were going start the way many PYPXs start… by showing the students a Transdisciplinary Theme and asking them which part they are most interested in.

But then we decided that was not good enough. So we decided that we were going to try and flip that process.

As our PYP Coordinator says: Child first. Curriculum second. 

We are still in the early phases of planning this process, but we’ve begun to brainstorm some ideas.

Here is what we know so far:

  • We are going to be transparent with our students about our frustrations regarding pseudo-agency within a UOI
  • We are going to share Daniel Pink’s work about motivation and admit that although autonomy is in place, mastery and purpose are lacking (our fault)
  • We are going to take time to support students to identify their passion/purpose/interest
  • We are going to find/develop puroseful processes to help students do this
  • We are going to help students bend the Transdisciplinary Themes around their passion/purpose/interest
  • We are going to go through the process ourselves first
  • We are going to create a student-friendly PYP bubble planner (based around the guiding questions for “Planning the Inquiry” and also “Reflecting on the Inquiry”)
  • We are going to help students to set their own UOI timelines

Is this true agency?

Still, no.

But are we getting closer?

It sure feels like it!

Any maybe that’s the best we can do for now – within the current constraints we have as a PYP school.

(Until we’re ready as a PYP community to critically look at and break the mould of needing “units” in the first place…dun dun dun!)

Wish us luck! 

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Old Habits Die Hard

I haven’t always been the type of teacher I am today. When I think back to my first few years in education, I can admit that I was a super ‘teachery teacher’. Behaviour charts, staying in at recess, rewards&punishments, worksheets, tests… you name it, I did. If you walked by my class you would have seen students silent and on-task – not because they were engaged, because I used me authority and control to illicit compliance.

Over the years I have learned, unlearned and re-learned and as a result transformed into a teacher who now values student agency above all else.

… but every now and then, the old me creeps back in.

Yeaterday was a perfect example:

We are smack dab in the middle of a Unit of Inquiry about how scientific thinking can help us understand humans. At this stage in the unit we were using an “unconference” model, where students are empowered to sign up for help and support when needed.

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Our deadline for literature reviews and completion of methods is Friday and although I have been supporting students all week to plan their days in hopes of meeting this deadline, there were 6 students who were nowhere close.

Feeling all the familiar feelings – the pressure to meet made-up timelines, the need to have all students at the same place at the same time, the need to “teach those kids a lesson” for procrastinating – I told those 6 that their day planning privileges were on pause until their method and lit review was done. I told them they would be sitting with me all day and could only leave my side when they showed me they were done.

Then I went home and all night had this nagging feeling of cognitive dissonance. I knew that what I had said and done was against our Studio 5 mission. I knew that I was infringing on their agency as learners. I knew I was being a hypocrite saying ‘it’s your learning, you own it, I trust you’ and then forcing them to sit with me until it’s finished. I knew that I was taking away their opportunity to fail and learn a lesson on their own. I knew I was using tactics of authority and compliance.

I knew I was back to my old ways of being a teachery-teacher…

So the next morning I shared all this with my students. I apologized. And I told them I was there for them if they needed help and support to meet the deadlines – but it was their choice, as it had been all along.

Their choice if they wanted my help.

Their choice when they wanted my help.

Their choice about how much help they wanted.

And guess what?

Each and everyone of them signed up for an unconference with me – most signed up for all my available unconferneces that day.

And guess what else?

Most of them asked if they could give up their recess to get caught up. Some even chose to take it home at the end of the day to make up for lost time.

I couldn’t have been happier with how things turned out! I spent my day supporting them to meet their deadline – not because they were being forced to, but because they chose to. And that felt completely different.

If I would have stuck with my initial plan, what would they have learned?

– that I say they own their learning, but when push comes to shove, actually I do

– that planning their day is only a privilege and I can take it away anytime I want

– that procrastinating is fine, because someone else will make sure they get things done

Throwing our that plan, and respecting their ownership over their learning, what might they have (hopefully) learned instead?

– that they actually do own their own learning

– that I am here to support them, not control or police them

– that in life when you procrastinate, sometimes you need to find extra time to get caught up

And what did I learn!?

– that those impulses towards control and compliance are deep rooted in my teacher DNA

– that I need to notice when my old habits creep back in

– that if I’m going to talk-the-talk of agency, I better be prepared to walk-the-walk of agency

– that if we always swoop in and pre-emptively save them, we’re stealing their opportunity to truly learn and grow

-that students truly are amazing … when we give them the space and room to be

Student-Written Reports

A while ago I read a blog post asking Should Students Write Their Own Reports? and of course my answer was a resounding YES!

But it was not until this year – where I had team of like-minded educators and the support of leadership and administration – that I was able to put this idea ino practice.

And, spolier alert, it was pretty magical!

In order to dispel the common misconception that initiatives like this one means saying to the students “go write your own reports” while teachers sit back, sipping coffee and browsing their facebook…. I will share with you our process, from start to finish, along with some honest reflections along the way about how it worked and what we will change for next time.

Here is what we did:

We knew that we really wanted students to take ownership of reporting their growth and progress to their parents for the first Unit of Inquiry, however we were also aware that this was likely the first time students had ever done this. So we thought long and hard (and spent many hours discussing) how we could support them in the process of writing their own reports. In the end, we decided to try guiding them through the writing process.

Step 1 – Pre-Writing

First we had students choose two Self-Management Skills and two Social Skills that they felt they developed as a result of our Who We Are Unit. Next,  we used the Visible Thinking Routine “Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate” to help students reflect on the learning expereinces that contributed to their development of each of those skills.

Generate: Students wrote down anything and everything that they had done within the unit.

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Some students went through their Seesaw portfolios and others browsed their day plans to help them remember all their different experiences. They wrote each experience on a small piece of paper.

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Sort: Students placed the learning experiences purposefully on a graphic organizer. The more that learning experience contributed to the development of a specific skill, the closer they placed it to the skill on the organizer. The more it contributed to their understanding of Who We Are the closer they placed it to the transdisciplinary theme in the center of the page.

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Connect: Students drew arrows to show connections: between two learning experiences: between learning experiences and skills: between learning experiences and the transdisciplinary theme etc.

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Elaborate: Students explained their reason for the connections along the arrows they drew.

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Secondly, we set up a Google Form where students could synthesize some of the ideas from the above brainstorm. We set-up the form so students could evaluate to what extent they developed each skill and so they could bring together the different experiences that developed each skill. We also had questions to allow students to evaluate their understanding of the central concepts of the unit, as well as begin to brainstorms their next steps as learners. eol gf

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The Google Form was set-up to auto-format their responses into a Google Doc that they could then refer to when it was time to draft their comments.

Step 2 – Drafting

To help students take their ideas from the brainstorming stage and turn it into comments that would be understood by a reader, we set up a graphic organizer with guiding questions.

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Students then used their VTR and their automatically formatted Google Doc mentioned above to write a first draft of their comments in the boxes.

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Step 3 – Revision

Our big focus for revision, was organization and transitions. Because students wrote four separate responses in the four boxes shown above, we wanted to support them in synthesizing those separate responses together into a coherent piece of writing. So first we had them copy and paste their responses from the boxes, into one piece of text.

Then, we pulled out examples of transition sentences that some students naturally used in their draft and shared them with all the writers.

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Then we colour coded either where we had seen an attempt in their draft to transition from one idea to the next, or where a transition sentence might be needed.

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Step 4 – Editing 

Before we started the editing  process, we used the Golden Circles approach (Why, How, What) to create a class anchor chart about feedback.

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Then students took themselves through a process of self-editing

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and peer editing.

Finally, the teachers gave feedback to students by leaving them detailed and specific comments on their Google Doc. For English Language Learners and students who needed extra support, we sat with them and shared our feedback orally.

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Step 5 – Publishing

In order to also contribute our voice and perspective to the report, the techers then wrote a short paragraph in response to the students’ evaluation of their own learning. We wrote about the degreee to which we agreed and supported the students’ evaluation based on our own observations and assessment data.

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Finally, we posted the final product and Managebac and pushed it out to parents.

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Step 6 – Getting Feedback

We wanted to make sure we gave parents a chance to share their perspective with us about our approach to having students write their own reports. So we sent them a Google Form.

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Here is what they had to say:

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Reflections…

  • it felt so nice to have students take ownership of this process
  • it was the first time I felt like I was doing reporting with students, not to students
  • it helped our students develop their evaluation skills, along with their meta-cognition skills
  • it helped our students see that we are not just “talking the talk” of student ownership, but actually “walking the walk”
  • it was one of the most authentic writing tasks I have ever seen; there was an authentic purpose, an authentic audience and therefore an authentic need for planning, revising and editing
  • this specific process, was a bit too overstructed and as a result, convuluted – in the future we will streamlime to process (specifically with regards to pre-writing and planning)
  • it was SO validating to see that NOT ONE parent wanted to have fully teacher-written reports!
  • it was definitely “assessment as learning” in order for students to evaluate and synthesize their report, they needed to deeply consolidate and reflect upon their own learning
  • moving forward, we need to go through all of the constructive feedback from the parents and figure out how to address  their concerns in order to help them feel that the student-written Evaluations of Learning (EOLs) are even more effective

 

What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of student-written reports?

How do you include your students in the process and product of their written reports?

What feedback do you have for us to help us strengthen our approach to student-written reporting?

 

Do you want to go fast… or far?

I am not a natural collaborator.

Anyone I have ever been on a team with would be able to confirm this fact.

I am passionate. I am zealous. I am idealistic. I am stubborn.

I get a vision in my mind and I have to make it happen.

Even though I am not a natural collaborator, I’m slowing learning how to collaborate – and I must say, it’s been pretty great.

For me, my (slow) transformation can be summed up by this quote:

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Last year, I knew I believed in student agency and set off (mostly on my own) to turn that vision into a reality. That’s not to say I didn’t have an amazing team around me! I had six wonderful teachers who personally supported me and cheered me on, no matter how different or crazy my idea seemed. It’s just that none of them were professionally interested in going the same direction that I was, or to the extent that I was. So last year, I knew where I wanted to go, I went by myself and I got there fast.

This year, I have another amazing team around me. The difference being they are professionally interested in the same things that I am, so I am no longer alone in my pursuit to respect and support student agency – and that has helped me truly learn the power of collaboration. With them I have been able to go much farther than I ever made it last year on my own.

Here are a few examples that have helped me along my journey:

Going fast – last year I knew I wanted to have my students plan their own day…. so I had them plan their own day. Pretty much, right out of the gate! I gave them an empty day plan, and only really made a few slight adjustments to the template over the year.

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Going far – this year I shared my approach from last year. We tested it out, discussed it, revised it, tested it again, revised it again, tried something different, asked for feedback, revised it again. What was once a fairly basic day plan template and process, grew into a more sophisticated template and process of planning, which then transformed into an even more sophisticated template and process for weekly planning!

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Going fast – last year I knew I wanted students to set up their learning space… so I had them set-up their learning space.

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Going far – this year I proposed them same idea, which after many collective brainstorms, turned into a grade-wide learning space re-design. Students conducted research about learning spaces, collected data from their 84 community members, collaborated with students from a variety of homerooms, learned new technical skills (like 3D Floor Planner) put together video proposals and made informed choices about their learning space.

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Going fastlast year I knew I wanted all three voices to be heard equally at three-way conferences. So I made a very basic placemat and had parents, students and myself take turns deciding whether something was a “star” or a “wish”.

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Going far – this year I pitched the same idea to my team…then, the magic of collaboration happened… and we ended up with a Gradual Increase of Responsibility, where students, parents and teachers could share their perspective, in a colour-coded way, which then could be kept and used to set and track personal goals on a day to day basis.

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Starting to get the picture? 

I couldn’t have ever imagined the distance these initial ideas would come to reach. But that’s the point isn’t is? True collaboration is leaving a room with ideas that no one person could have come up with on their own.

… So to those of you educators out there who are like me, you may want to pause and ask yourself:

Do you want to go fast…. or do you want to go far?

Respecting and Responding to Student Voice

My students have been at school for two months now and it is really important to me that I understand how it has been going for them. Ensuring my students have opportunities to share their honest thoughts and feelings about school and me plays a huge part in respecting and supporting both their agency and their humanness for the time they spend in my care.

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This year I structured my questions around the qualities of establishing an inclusive classroom that I learned from an IB training.

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I also included questions to find out what I have been doing well and what I can do to improve.

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Here is a link to a copy of that form if you are interested in seeing it.

It’s always hard to put yourself out there and ask these types of questions. I get nervous every time I read their responses. But I also believe I get better every time I read their responses. So those temporary moments of a bruised ego are worth it because they lead to my growth both as a professional, and as a person.

So in the spirit of vulnerability and shared reflection, here is what I learned and the action I plan to take:

IMG_6459Looking at the quantitative data, I have built some professional goals that I will post in the classroom for students, parents and colleagues to see. I will invite constant feedback from my community to help me work towards these goals.

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Looking at the qualitative data, I will reach out to specific students to find out more. I will invite the 6 students who said they didn’t feel challenged to have a focus group with me so I can dig a little deeper to discover what they need. I will invite the student who didn’t feel listened to or understood to have a one-on-one conference with me to hopefully help us get to know each other better. I will ask the 3 students who do not feel safe what changes we could make to our classroom to help them feel more safe.

I also plan to share this data and my action plan with the parent community. I think they deserve to be included in this process, to know how students are feeling about school as well as the steps I plan to take to address some of their concerns.

How do you encourage and respond to student voice?

What do you ask your students to help you grow as a teacher?

Thinking Scientifically…

A few weeks ago, I shared with you my commitment to putting on my researcher’s hat in order to remain critical about the impact of the initiatives that myself and my team are implementing. 

I also shared with you that I had no idea where to start….

… and then something amazing happened. 

My team and I began planning for our How the World Works unit and we settled on the central idea: Thinking scientifically helps us understand ourselves and others. 

We planned to introduce our students to a variety of research designs, help them choose a research design that would allow them to act on  curiosity, and then support them along each step of that specific research design process.

And then it hit me! If this process we just planned is meant to help our students act on their curiosities in a reliable and valid way, then surely it could work for me too!!!

So now I know where to start… right alongside my students. Their first big decision is choosing a research design that best matches their curiosity… so I guess that’s my first big decision too!

In exploring and reflecting upon the many different methods for approaching research – experimental design, survey design, ethnographic research, action research – I have decided that action research is the best fit.

When promoting the model of action research to our students we explained:

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And that is exactly what I am trying to do:

Problem – students do not have enough agency as learners during their time at school

Possible Solution – the Studio 5 model which provides students with small group support in order to “Choose, Act, and Reflect” as more agentic, independent learners

We know the problem. We have a solution that we think could help. We have put that model into action. Now we just need to track the effectiveness of our initiative.

Next, we will be guiding students to develop an overarching research question as well as sub-questions that support their big question… so I guess that is where I am headed as well!

Supporting Students’ Agency – Take Two!

Last year, was the first year in my career as an educator where I tried to my best to respect and support my students as agentic learners. There were many successes, many frustrations and a whole lot of learning. This year I am it again! Hoping to continue to challenge and change my own beliefs and practices and hopefully do a better job respecting and supporting my students’ agency.

This year I have changed schools and joined a team of like-minded educators, who are also interested in re-thinking education, pushing the boundaries of “doing school” and innovating the PYP. Our initiative is called Studio 5 and it has been amazing to be a part of it so far.

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We are in the process of organizing ourselves so we can share, in detail, what we are doing, why we are doing it – and the part that is usually most appreciated by teachers – how we are doing it. When that blog is up and running I will be sure to share the link here.

For now, I just wanted to take some time for myself to reflect – What approaches have I kept from last year… What have I changed and improved… What new things have I tried… and most importantly how it’s all been going so far.

Morning Cafes

Each morning is a slow start to the day – meaning students can come up to class any time they like between 7:45 and 8:15. During this time all 4 homerooms are open and offer something different and the students roam freely from room to room, building, creating, playing and enjoying each other’s company.

Student Written Rights and Responsibilities

Using the Visible Thinking Routine “Growing Definition” students came up with a list of rights for the time they spend at school.

Student Voice

Providing lots of opportunity for students to voice their thoughts and opinions including using the Visible Thinking Routine “Compass Points” to collect their needs, worries, excitements and suggestions from the first day of school; having an ongoing place in the room for students to document problems, questions and ideas; asking students to complete surveys with honest feelings about school, learning and themselves.

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Student-Planned “Bonding Day”

At the beginning of the year, each grade attends a “Bonding Day” to help students and teachers get to know one another and begin to build a strong sense of community. Instead of teachers planning and running this day for the students, the students planned and ran this day for themselves. This involved researching activities, putting the plans together, testing out their games on each other and their parents, receiving/analyzing/actioning feedback from multiple sources, advertising their game and finally -when the day came – running their activity.

Re-designing the Learning Space

Since we are trying to break through the typical notion of “my homeroom” and create a collaborative culture where all Studio 5 students are learning and working together, instead of having students set up their own classroom, we had the entire Studio 5 student body re-design the whole Studio 5 area. This required having students really understand the “why” of having them design their own learning space as well as having some interesting discussions on planning and making decisions on behalf of a large group of people. In order to make this happen, students connected with others across the grade who shared a similar interest, collaboratively conducted research and collected data, put together a video proposal on Flipgrid and if they received majority support from the community they could put their plan into action.

Inquiring into Learning

We used the Frayer model to tune into what we thought “learning” meant, then we used the process of “Growing Definition” to come up with a shared understanding of what “learning” means to us. We used this definition to create criteria to help us know that learning has happened (can be seen below along the right side of the day plan template). We also spent time thinking about how learning happens and who we are as learners. Finally we “looked for learning” by identifying the learning that had happened over the past weeks – even if we weren’t aware of it at the time.

Building a Culture of Initiative (Not Permission)

I was also cautious not to quash curiosity and any initiative my students were taking to pursue a curiosity or interest. Whether it was building, designing, figuring out if a lime could power a light or how best to make a wad of clay stick to a glass wall… I tried not to stop them or stand in their way.

Planning Their Own Day

I started having students plan their own day the same as I had done last year by giving them a blank template that had the timings of periods and empty boxes. Thanks to collaboration and amazing team members, I was able to fine tune and improve this process. I started to use the MOSCOW method to help students see different priorities for the day and I amended the day plan template to build in space for not only what they were doing, but also why and how. One of the best improvements to the day planning process and template was building in a focus on ATL skill development.

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Inquiring into Reflection

In order to help students get to know themselves as reflective learners, and to become more aware of their reflective preferences, we discussed and experimented with many different approaches to “how” we can reflect as well as “what” we can reflect about. From here students will (hopefully) be able to make informed choices each day when reflecting on their learning. Students are also working towards using their daily reflections to inform the choices they make the following day when completing their day plans.

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C.A.R. Time

The first period and last period everyday is “C.A.R. time” where students are supported by a learning advisor to “Choose. Act. Reflect”. The groups are small enough that the advisor can meet with each student in the morning to offer advice on planning their day and again in the afternoon to encourage deep and meaningful reflections about the day.

Student-Led Workshops

In our Studio 5 model it was important to us that students felt empowered to lead their own workshops for other students. In order to get this process started, students first used the “Gradual Increase of Independence” to reflect on things they can do independently, as well as things they would need to be taught, helped with and things they could teach others. These reflections were then shared in a central place so students could start to see both workshops they might want to offer and workshops they might want to participate in. From there students took initiative to plan, advertise and facilitate workshops on a range of topics.

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Optional Teacher Led Workshops

As much as we wanted students to be empowered to lead their own learning, we also wanted to make sure we were a part of their learning too! So in attempt to move away from the typical mandatory, full class lesson model, we began to offer optional workshops that any student – regardless of which homeroom they were in – could sign up to attend. Workshops ranged from read alouds, to creative writing, to math concepts to tech skills.

Building a Culture of Passionate Readers and Writers

In our Studio 5 model it is important that students are developing their literacy skills – but we want to be careful that this does not infringe on their agency as learners. So we have been focusing more on creating a culture of passionate readers and writers – with the help of advice from blogger Pernille Ripp – focusing on what we can do to help them want to read and write. We try to make books visible, accessible and valued; we encourage students to use and enjoy the beautiful school library; we ensure space for students to share book recommendations with one another; we encourage reading at any point in the day; we invite students to become reading buddies for younger students; and we provide options and opportunities for practical and creative use of language.

Developing Assessment Capable Students

In order for students to be able to lead their learning, they must have access to all the usual behind-the-scenes process teachers engage in. For our first stand-alone math unit we wanted to support students in not only understanding what is expected to be learned by the end of the unit, but also how they could figure out what they may already know. We supported the students in using the “Gradual Increase of Independence” to self-assess where they thought they were for each math learning outcome. But more importantly, we discussed the difference between thinking you know something and being sure that you know something. We discussed the role of providing evidence and gathering feedback from experts to ensure you are on the right track. Some students decided to create a Google Slides presentation to house their evidence and others preferred to collect their evidence in a notebook. Some students used a teacher as an expert, others used an older sibling, parent or peer. As students received feedback from their experts, many of them made changes to the placement of the learning outcomes along the Gradual Increase of Independence.

Parent Voice

Similar to ensuring that students feel their voice is heard and valued, it is equally important to ensure that parents feel their voice is also heard and valued. Sending home a Google form was an amazing way to better understand their child, their family and their perspective on the purpose of school.

Student-Written Reports

I am so excited that our administration supports the idea that if students are truly owning their learning, they should be the ones to write their evaluation of learning report. To help them in this process, we used the Visible Thinking Routine “Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate”. First we had students reflect on everything they had done in the Who We Are unit, then we had them think about how those learning experience helped them develop two self-management and two social skills as well as how those experiences contributed to their understanding of “Who We Are”. From there, students used their concept map to reflect on questions in a google form. Next week, students will then turn these responses into a cohesive paragraph that will be used as their official written report for the Who We Are unit.

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My reflections…

  • it has been amazing to be surrounded by like-minded educators who are also striving to respect and support students’ agency during their time at school
  • approaching these initiatives as a grade level, as opposed to a single class has provided much more opportunity for students
  • having an administrative team and head of school with a similar vision has helped to alleviate some of the fears associated with innovating and taking risks in the classroom
  • letting go of exactly what I did last year has been hard, but the growth and progress from letting go and being open to my team’s ideas and suggestions has been amazing
  • the days are so enjoyable – the vibe is relaxed and free; there is always a buzz in the air filled with conversation and laughter; students and teachers are interacting as partners in the learning process; it all feels very humane
  • the parents have been amazing allies in this process, providing lots of supportive feedback about what we are trying to do and how it has been a positive experience for their child
  • there is still so much preventing us from being able to truly support students as agentic learners – practices and procedures deeply embedded in the current paradigm of schooling limit the type of true agentic environment we dream of
  • I am still a learner… I have much to learn, unlearn and re-learn about how best to work within a system and yet at the same time push the limits of that system

What is your feedback about what we have been trying so far?

How can we continue to improve as PYP teachers in support of student agency?

How have you been respecting and supporting your students as agentic learners?