Supporting Students’ Agency

My students and I were recently asked to Skype into a PYP workshop to share examples of how student agency works in our classroom.

In preparation, we brainstormed everything this year that contributed to students experiencing a sense of ownership over their own learning. In addition to sharing our story with the participants of the workshop, I thought I’d also share the list with you!

So here it goes… a list of ways to support student agency:

What they think…

Setting up the classroom

Student shared that being invited to help set-up the classroom at the beginning of the year helped them to have a voice in decisions about their learning and how the classroom could be set-up to support their learning.

Making decisions together

Students reflected that being able to participate in decisions usually made by the teacher helped them feel like they had a voice. The specifically pointed out our classroom board where they could identify problems, ideas, and questions. The explained how the routine we had each morning going through the board and collectively solving problems, agreeing on ideas and answering questions helped them experience more control over in their lives as students.

Pre-assessments

Students identified the pre-assessments (or time capsules) we do at the beginning of each unit as playing a role in helping them to own their own learning. They explained that the pre-assessments help them know themselves and what they already know and can do before a unit starts. This helps them know where they are and where they need to go.

Choice and Trust

Students shared the importance of choice and trust in feeling agentic. Choice in where to learn, how to learn and who to learn with were identified as factors that helped them have agency in their learning. They also shared the importance of having trust from their teacher to test out different options and space to make mistakes and wrong choices along the way.  It was often experiencing choices that blocked or hindered their learning that had the biggest impact on getting to know themselves as learners.

         

Three-way conferences

Students reflected that our approach to three-way conferences also helped support their sense of student agency. Being able to share their thoughts and perspectives about their own learning first – before hearing from their parent or teacher – helped them feel the sense that the learning is theirs.

Planning their own day

Far and beyond, the one thing that students identified as helping them experience the most agency as learners was the opportunity to plan their own day. This has been a ongoing experiment and has taken many forms along the way – but the main idea is having students write their own day plans.

(I plan on writing a full post about this experience soon!)

Creativity Thursday

One specific version of students planning their own day is Creativity Thursday. Students explained that this provided them with the most ownership over their own learning – because unlike other days when they are planning their days around teacher planned units or school-chosen curricula – on Thursdays they have ultimate choice over not only when, how and where to learn, but also what to learn. On Thursday they are able to truly pursue passions, interests and curiosity of their own choosing.

What I think…

Learning about learning

I believe that investing the first month of school to learn about learning and learn about ourselves as learners set the stage well for students to feel empowered and capable of exercising ownership over their learning for the rest of the year.

Assessment

In addition to pre-assessments, our approach to assessment in general this year has helped students to feel more agency in their learning. Approaching assessment as something you do with students – not to students – has helped them experience more ownership and voice in the process of assessing and evaluating their learning.

Learning Plans

Taking the time to purposefully plan out their learning, based on personal learning goals has also helped students be in charge of their own learning. Taking data from pre-assessments and planning what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn, how they were going to get feedback and how they will know if they achieved their learning goal really put them in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

Learning from each other

Building a culture where students see one another as valuable sources of learning, assistance and feedback has also helped students to be able to take ownership of pursuing learning through multiple avenues – not only depending on the teacher in the room.

Shifting from mandatory to optional 

This year, as much as possible, I have tried to move away from things that are mandatory for students (often decided, organized and arranged by their teacher). I tried to take things that students are usually obliged to participate in, and reimagine a way to make them optional. Our approach to reading buddies is one example of this.

Supporting student initiatives

I think it has been important to try and create a culture of initiative. Whether it is an idea to label to garbage cans, the desire for a height poster or a proposal for a field trip, I believe that honouring and supporting students’ initiatives this year, both inside and outside of the classroom, have help students notice and be aware of their own agency. It often comes at the cost of a “pinterest-perfect” classroom, but it is worth it!

   

Teacher transparency

I think it has also been important that I share my goals to develop student agency with my class. I think there should be no “secret teacher business” and that my students, their parents, my colleagues and administrators can all have a part to play in helping me work towards my goal. Being open and honest about my goals was a great first step, but then taking the initiative to ask for feedback about my goals was really what helped me reflect and grow along the way.

I am by no means an expert on the matter. Just a curious and interested learner who has tried to take risks and reflect in the pursuit of building a classroom that honours student agency. I’d love to continue my journey as a learner and hear from you as well!

How do you respect and support student agency in your classroom?

Supporting Student Agency

My students and I were recently asked to Skype into a PYP workshop to share examples of how student agency works in our classroom.

In preparation, we brainstormed everything this year that contributed to students experiencing a sense of ownership over their own learning. In addition to sharing our story with the participants of the workshop, I thought I’d also share the list with you!

So here it goes… a list of ways to support student agency:

What they think…

Setting up the classroom

Student shared that being invited to help set-up the classroom at the beginning of the year helped them to have a voice in decisions about their learning and how the classroom could be set-up to support their learning.

Making decisions together

Students reflected that being able to participate in decisions usually made by the teacher helped them feel like they had a voice. The specifically pointed out our classroom board where they could identify problems, ideas, and questions. The explained how the routine we had each morning going through the board and collectively solving problems, agreeing on ideas and answering questions helped them experience more control over in their lives as students.

Pre-assessments

Students identified the pre-assessments (or time capsules) we do at the beginning of each unit as playing a role in helping them to own their own learning. They explained that the pre-assessments help them know themselves and what they already know and can do before a unit starts. This helps them know where they are and where they need to go.

Choice and Trust

Students shared the importance of choice and trust in feeling agentic. Choice in where to learn, how to learn and who to learn with were identified as factors that helped them have agency in their learning. They also shared the importance of having trust from their teacher to test out different options and space to make mistakes and wrong choices along the way.  It was often experiencing choices that blocked or hindered their learning that had the biggest impact on getting to know themselves as learners.

Three-way conferences

Students reflected that our approach to three-way conferences also helped support their sense of student agency. Being able to share their thoughts and perspectives about their own learning first – before hearing from their parent or teacher – helped them feel the sense that the learning is theirs.

Planning their own day

Far and beyond, the one thing that students identified as helping them experience the most agency as learners was the opportunity to plan their own day. This has been a ongoing experiment and has taken many forms along the way – but the main idea is having students write their own day plans.

(I plan on writing a full post about this experience soon!)

Creativity Thursday

One specific version of students planning their own day is Creativity Thursday. Students explained that this provided them with the most ownership over their own learning – because unlike other days when they are planning their days around teacher planned units or school-chosen curricula – on Thursdays they have ultimate choice over not only when, how and where to learn, but also what to learn. On Thursday they are able to truly pursue passions, interests and curiosity of their own choosing.

What I think…

Learning about learning

I believe that investing the first month of school to learn about learning and learn about ourselves as learners set the stage well for students to feel empowered and capable of exercising ownership over their learning for the rest of the year.

Assessment

In addition to pre-assessments, our approach to assessment in general this year has helped students to feel more agency in their learning. Approaching assessment as something you do with studentsnot to students – has helped them experience more ownership and voice in the process of assessing and evaluating their learning.

Learning Plans

Taking the time to purposefully plan out their learning, based on personal learning goals has also helped students be in charge of their own learning. Taking data from pre-assessments and planning what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn, how they were going to get feedback and how they will know if they achieved their learning goal really put them in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

Learning from each other

Building a culture where students see one another as valuable sources of learning, assistance and feedback has also helped students to be able to take ownership of pursuing learning through multiple avenues – not only depending on the teacher in the room.

Shifting from mandatory to optional 

This year, as much as possible, I have tried to move away from things that are mandatory for students (often decided, organized and arranged by their teacher). I tried to take things that students are usually obliged to participate in, and reimagine a way to make them optional. Our approach to reading buddies is one example of this.

Supporting student initiatives

I think it has been important to try and create a culture of initiative. Whether it is an idea to label to garbage cans, the desire for a height poster or a proposal for a field trip, I believe that honouring and supporting students’ initiatives this year, both inside and outside of the classroom, have help students notice and be aware of their own agency. It often comes at the cost of a “pinterest-perfect” classroom, but it is worth it!

Teacher transparency

I think it has also been important that I share my goals to develop student agency with my class. I think there should be no “secret teacher business” and that my students, their parents, my colleagues and administrators can all have a part to play in helping me work towards my goal. Being open and honest about my goals was a great first step, but then taking the initiative to ask for feedback about my goals was really what helped me reflect and grow along the way.

I am by no means an expert on the matter. Just a curious and interested learner who has tried to take risks and reflect in the pursuit of building a classroom that honours student agency. I’d love to continue my journey as a learner and hear from you as well!

How do you respect and support student agency in your classroom?

What if?

I started this year with a dream to build a fair, free, democratic classroom where students have agency over their own learning… and to be completely honest, it has been quite difficult. Most days I feel like I am trying to jam a round peg into a square hole. There are so many constraints and structures that run deep within the current system of school, that it has been difficult to circumvent them.

This year I have tried to change my practice to fit within the system, but I’m beginning to wonder if those goals are fully achievable without changing the system itself.

So I have begun to wonder…

What if curriculum, instead of being multiple pages with hundreds of bullets, was simply “find out where students are and help them move along”?

What if assessment, instead of being focused on achievement, measured and celebrated the amount of progress made by a student?

What if school goals, instead of being focused on an percentage increase of reading scores, focused on a percentage increase of love of reading?

What if reports, instead of being written solely by the teacher, were written collaboratively by the student, their family and the teacher?

What if timelines, instead of being based on pre-determined start and finish dates, were driven by students’ learning needs and interests?

What if grades, instead of ranking and labelling with letters, numbers and words, changed exclusively into feedback that advised students about how to improve and where to go next?

What if day plans, instead of being written by the teacher, were written by each student?

What if standardized tests, instead of measuring skills and knowledge, measured how much students enjoy school and find it beneficial to their life?

Sir Ken Robinson urges us that reform of the current system is not enough – it’s a complete learning revolution that is needed. Based on my experience this year I would have to agree. I think that making small shifts within the system is not enough, we as educators need to continue (or for some of us begin)  critically looking at and discussing what parts of the school system are harmful to or a hindrance of student learning. It’s time to stop talking about how best to jam a round peg in a square hole, and time to start talking about how to change the whole itself.

What revolutionary, systemic “what ifs” would you add to the list?

Are we providing “space” for virtual making?

Maker Space is the current hotness. No debate there. I cannot scroll through Twitter without seeing a school’s new Maker Lab, a classroom’s new Maker drawer or an article about the benefits of “Making”. Yet I can’t help but wonder…

Are all “making” experiences being treated equally?

Let’s say someone walked into my classroom and saw my Grade 4 students cutting cardboard, rummaging through tools, using a hot glue gun, and twisting wires together . They would probably be pleased. They would probably say “Wow! Great Maker Space!”

Let’s say someone walked into my classroom and saw my Grade 4 students all on their iPads. But, on their iPads they were playing the game MineCraft. Would they be pleased then? Would they say “Wow! Great Maker Space!”?

A few weeks ago I know I wouldn’t have. A few weeks ago, my understanding of Maker Space was something that existed in actual reality. Then one day last week, when my students were taking a ten minute break to “recharge their batteries”, I made the great decision to ask my students a simple question:

What are you doing on Minecraft?

I was actually blown away! One of my students showed me a three story mansion with over 10 rooms – stables, secret panic rooms, appliances, fireplaces, staircases, furniture – that she had built by herself… brick by brick! She told me about the different materials she needed, and the different combinations that made certain structures. She spent three weeks building it – of her own time. 

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My thinking was instantly challenged and my perspective began to shift. Wasn’t the Maker Movement about the essence of designing, creating and building – not hammers, boxes and ductape. Were those goals not still being accomplished, virtually, through Minecraft?

I began to wonder if virtual making is being held in the same regard as physical making in today’s schools. And if it’s not, why? Is it because as adults we are unfamiliar with virtual maker programs like Minecraft? Is it because as adults we have biases against virtual experiences? Is it because as adults if we don’t understand it, it must not be worthwhile? I know for me, most of the answers -sadly – are yes.

So I will strive to learn. I will strive to become familiar with what my students love and are using. I will strive to become literate in new literacies. I will strive to become more aware of my own biases and my prejudices against things that I don’t understand. I will strive to not value learning in the physical realm over learning in the virtual realm.

And when visitors come into the room, see my students on their iPads and ask “What are your students doing?” I will confidently answer “they are doing Maker Space”.

You lost me at levels and incentives…

A few weeks ago I attended a training session for an online reading product. I arrived open-minded and ready to learn about a new tool to help my students develop their love of reading.

Then words and phrases from the presentation started to buzz around me like pesky bees.

“stars earned for books read”… swat!

“limit their levels”… swat!

“comprehension quiz”… swat!

“pre-made”… swat!

“worksheets”… swat!

“generic lessons”… swat!

Then it started to become worse than buzzing. I was shown how to control what students read, how to restrict how they read and how to send them messages to which they could not reply. Cringe.

Where is the student ownership, voice, agency?

So I began to do a little research on their website:

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Ranking. Control. Practice, practice and more practice. 

Nothing about love, joy or passion. 

The whole time I was listening to the presentation and browsing the website I could not get this poem written by John Locke our of my head:

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I don’t want to do anything that gives my students an aversion to reading or learning. I do not want to make reading a business for them. I want to help them grow their passion as readers.

5 years ago I probably would have jumped on board and signed my students up. I’ve become more discerning since then. I become more informed since then. I’ve become more critical since then. I’ve become more emboldened since then.

Amazing provocateurs like Pernille Ripp, Mark Barnes and Alfie Kohn have challenged my thinking about reading practices like reading logs, levelling, and incentives. They have prompted me to reflect on how the choices I make as a teacher can kill my students’ love of reading. They have forced me to think of myself as a reader when thinking about what I should be asking of students. They have provided me with guidance about how to create a passionate reading environment. They have inspired me to become a reading warrior where I critically think about and advocate against literacy practices and products that negatively impact children. They have inspired me to break the rules.

Yet time remained in this presentation, so I tried to see the potential uses. Here was a website offering thousands of online books. Books… hmmm. I began to wonder about these “books”. So I dug a little deeper.

“professional illustrators who have years of experience illustrating educational material

excerpts and adaptations from literature”

Was this a place where students could access real books or materials for reading instruction?Because those aren’t the same things.

I think my students deserve exposure to good quality literature. I think my students deserve to be free from levelling and ranking. I think my students deserve voice and choice in what they read and how they read. I think my students deserve to develop their love for reading away from prizes, rewards and incentives.

Is there not an app or website where students have access to literature with no levels, no incentives, no restrictions or limitations?

Is so, please tell me about that.

Noticing, naming and not allowing “ready-made knowledge” in the classroom

The first time I came across the term “ready-made knowledge” was when I read the following quote by Seymour Papert:

“The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge” – Papert

Ever since reading that quote I can’t get this notion of providing students with “ready-made knowledge” out of my head. It got me reflecting on my years in the classroom and I realized that like many teachers, I am guilt of providing my students with an endless supply of ready-made knowledge… and not much else. Worksheets, workbooks, textbooks, readers…. Knowledge that has been decontextualized, oversimplified and often sterilized.

Our students deserve better.

This notion of ready-made knowledge reminds me of a picture I came across recently on Twitter.

orange in packaging

Like selling peeled oranges in plastic containers, I am beginning to think that pre-packaging knowledge for students is silly, time-consuming and above all else – completely unnecessary.

This year I aim to shift my search for resources away from pre-packaged, made for school, sources of knowledge. This may have you nervously wondering “Then what will students use to learn?” To answer that I ask you in return (as I have asked myself while reflecting on this idea) “What do the rest of us use to learn?” Answer – tweets, YouTube videos, TedTalks, podcasts, news articles, blog posts, research journals, interviews, documentaries… and the list goes on.

So I’ve begun to curate a list of potential learning resources that could be helpful to support our Units of Inquiry this upcoming year. I started a Google Doc and listed the main concepts for our six UOIs and anytime I come across a tweet, a video, an article, or a podcast this summer that relates to one of our concepts I added a link to the doc. I will continue to do this throughout the year. This way when it comes time for a new UOI I will have a collection of sources of knowledge  to chose from that have not been ready-made for student consumption.

Here is what it looks like so far:

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Are these sources free of bias and error? Absolutely not! But that makes them even more valuable. They provide opportunities for discussions about critical thinking, critical literacy, perspective, sourcing, citations and the like. These are essential skills to be developed because these are the types of sources of knowledge students will be encountering in their real life that they will need to be able to decode, deconstruct, analyze and make informed decisions about… not worksheets and workbooks.

I look forward to letting go of years-worth collections of school-land learning resources and instead replacing them with the same sources of knowledge that people are exposed to in their daily lives. I also look forward to sharing this Google Doc with my students so they can add resources they come across during their inquires too!

What sources of ready-made knowledge have you used in your own teaching?

How do you avoid pre-packaged knowledge in your classroom?

What questions or suggestions do you have for me to stretch my thinking further?

Transdisciplinary Math – An epiphany and a plan!

For the past few weeks I have been helping my teams review their math scope and sequence and decide which math is transdisciplinary and fits within a Unit of Inquiry and what math is better taught in stand-alone units. This process always seems to lead to the same conclusion….

Teaching math in a transdisciplinary way is hard. 

Teachers seem to believe in the purpose and power of teaching math in a relevant and significant context and want to do it… but most seem not too sure about how to do it.

As I get ready to transition back into the classroom in the fall, this is something that has started to occupy my mind as well. How DO you do it? The last time I was a PYP teacher I can self-admit that teaching math within the context of my UOIs was not a strength of mine – in fact, I’m not sure if I did it at all. So naturally, this is an area I want to get much better at. But how? 

And then I had an idea! It hit me this weekend while I was watching BBC’s Africa series.

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Since teaching math in a transdisciplinary way was on my mind, I couldn’t help but notice that every vignette was OVERFLOWING with opportunities for math inquiries!

The average size of a giraffe’s tongue is half a meter.”

“Only one out of 1000 turtles make it to adult hood.”

One million birds migrate over the Sahara each year.”

“Each chick weighs only 20 grams.”

“The adult grows to be 5 times the size of the baby.”

“Silver ants can only survive in the sun for 1 hour.”

Every few minutes there was some piece of information about an animal or a landscape or a natural phenomenon where you needed to understand the math concept being referenced in order to fully understand what was being said. And that is when it hit me! All of the movies, books, articles, graphics etc. we use in our Units of Inquiry probably already contain opportunities for math – we just need to be looking for them and know what to do with them!

So here is my plan for next year!

Step 1- Introduce a text related to the central idea or the central concepts.

As usual, choose (or invite your students to help choose) a resources to explore the big idea in your current Unit of Inquiry. Introduce the text in an open-ended way. Allow the students to engage with the text in a natural and organic way. Read the book. Watch the movie. Listen to the song. Look at the info graphic. Allow the students to enjoy it and ask questions, make connections and offer thoughts. I’m thinking of using a back channel like Today’s Meet to allow students to communicate their thoughts, reactions and questions with their learning community while watching, listening or looking without interrupting one another. You could also provide post-its so students could record their thinking if a device is not available.

Step 2 – Revisit the text with a math focus

The next day, revisit the same text, but this time let students know that they will be looking at the text as mathematicians. Re-read the book. Re-watch the movie. Re-listen to the song. Re-look at the infographic. But this time, stop and pay specific attention to the “math moments”. If the video says “Giraffes’ tongues are half a meter long” pause the video and ask students, “What does that mean?” “How long is that?” “How can we find out?” “How can we show it?”. Any time a number, a measurement, a statistic, a pattern, or a concept is mentioned stop, point it out and explore it.

Step 3 – Follow where it takes you

When you stop to explore the math within a UOI text, be prepared to follow the inquiry. If it takes 10 minutes great. If it reveals other math concepts, skills and vocabulary that need to be explored first, back up and inquire into those. If your students need to bust out some manipulatives, look online, consult other mathematicians – do it! Allow what ever time is needed to explore and truly understand what the math means in that context.

Step 4 – Don’t stop at math! 

After the initial open-ended viewing and the math-specific viewing… keep going! You could apply the same strategy for many different purposes. Explore the same text a third time with a writer’s lens and hone in on the techniques the writer used. Explore the same text with a musician’s perspective and focus on how different segments of music contribute to the message. Explore the same text from an artist’s point of view to analyze colour, line and shape that was used. This would be a great opportunity to connect with single-subject teachers and share some of the texts with them to be looked at and deconstructed multiple times, in multiple ways, through multiple disciplinary-perspectives. Your whole week could be deconstructing one text in different ways for different purposes!

Eventually, I believe you will be able to get to the stage where instead of telling students “here is the math” when exploring a UOI text, you will be able to ask them “where is the math?”.  I also have the sneaking suspicion that if you allow students to document their thinking during the initial, unstructured exploration of the text there will be some math-related questions that are recorded about the quantities, measurements and statistics that are referenced. So you wouldn’t even need to point out the math, you could allow students’ own questions to be the driving force of the math inquiry.

So I challenge you… go back and look at some of your UOI books, videos, graphics etc and notice the opportunities for “math moments” and more!

How do you explore your UOIs through the discipline of math?

What are your best approaches to inquiring into math within the context of a UOI?