Student Agency vs. Reading Instruction

It is no secret that this year I have been trying to create a classroom culture that respects and supports’ my students’ agency in their journey as learners. One of my biggest challenges this year has been figuring out how traditional approaches to reading instruction can fit within a model designed to help students take back ownership of their own learning.

I’m currently completing my MEd capstone on student agency and in my research I came across a very provocative quote from Mary Chapman (an early learning expert at UBC) and I can’t seem to get it out of my mind:

“At the end of the day, if they don’t like reading and writing and they don’t do it unless they are forced to… what’s the point?” 

If my students only read and write when they are forced to read and write… what is the point, indeed.

So naturally one of my fundamental goals this year has been to create a culture of passionate readers and writers – with the help of much advice from Pernille Ripp. But moving from helping students learn to love reading… to helping students become better readers, is where I feel the waters start to get a little murky.

When I think about the commonly accepted approaches to helping students become better readers through the lens of student agency I begin to question some of our approaches. There are currenlty many common approaches to reading instruction under the microscope by many teachers – reading longs, mandated home reading programs, etc. – all of which I agree with. However, in addition to critically questioning these approaches, my learning tension tends to extend to other strategies for reading instruction – namely traditional approaches to guided reading.

When I think about guided reading through the lens of making students better readers I can see  benefits. But when I think about guided reading through the lens of student agency I can see red flags. In traditional approaches to guided reading the teacher chooses what, when, where, why and how the student reads. So I wonder, where is their voice and ownership in this activity? And how does this impact their love of reading?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not under the misconception that children magically learn to read and we as teachers don’t have a role in helping that to happen. But if I think back to the quote about students only reading when being forced to read, and how a lack of agency in the process likely contributes to this, then I begin to wonder…

How can we get the benefits of guided reading without sacrificing students’ agency in the process?

I have no magic answers, but I do have a few ideas about some possibilities….

I think a first step is shifting the culture of forced feedback to found feedback. Currently, we are giving students feedback about how to become better readers – whether they want that feedback or not. Which begs the question, how effective is unsolicited feedback. If we are telling students how to become better readers, and they don’t care – how much action is being taken based on that feedback? Again, don’t get me wrong I respect and recognize the neccessity and power of feedback in the learning process, I just wonder if there is a way to help students want to gather feedback, instead of just giving it to them.

I think order to create that culture of “gathering feedback” we need to start by asking the question “who owns the learning?” In a traditional approach to guided reading the teacher is doing the learning to the student. The locus of control rests with us as the teacher. We are making all the choices about why, what, how, when and where. The students merely shows up when we tell them to, reads what we tell them to, does what we tell them to and thinks about what we tell them to. They may be “active” in the sense that they are reading, speaking, thinking, and sharing, but they are not “agentic” in the sense of experiencing ownership over their own improvement as a reader. I think until this transfer of ownership occurs we can’t expect students to seek out feedback about how to improve.

I’m not saying scrap all approaches to reading instruction or stop guided reading altogether. I’m just saying that I think it’s time we reinvision these approaches. I think we need to be careful that our best intentions to create strong readers – aren’t creating strong readers… who only read when forced to. I think we as educators need to be asking questions like:

How can we empower students to know themselves as readers so they make informed choices about how they can improve?

How can we give ownership back to the students so that they are signing up to be part of a guided reading session?

How can we get the benefits of reading instruction without compromising student agency? 

How can we create better readers and writers without creating readers and writers who only read and write when forced to?

My hopeful vision for the future of literacy instruction…

I am currently working on my MEd at Nipissing University and loving my current course “New Literacies: Making Multiple Meanings“. We have spent 10 weeks inquiring into traditional literacies, new literacies, multiliteracies, digital literacies, multi-modalities and beyond!

And now, for our penultimate assignment, we have been asked to share our vision for the future of literacy. I have chosen to focus my vision on the future of literacy instruction in schools.  I have chosen to share my vision here, publicly with all of you, in hopes of stimulating a conversation about the future of literacy instruction beyond the four (virtual) walls of my online classroom. I have chosen to share my vision through words, images, screenshots, inforgraphics, memes and videos.

So here it goes….

I hope, in the future, students are encouraged to express their ideas and communicate through multi-modalities, using words, images, movement, sounds, videos, emojis, gifs, symbols, memes, hashtags and more…

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(Screenshot from course participant)

I hope, in the future, that educators realize the very meaning of the word “literacy” is deictic.

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(Screenshot from this published article)

I hope, in the future, educators realize that literacies are situated in time and place – not a frozen constant that have always existed and will always exist.

I hope, in the future, educators are discerning and fair in their criticism of new literacies and the technologies that make them possible.

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(Labelled for non-commercial reuse here)

I hope, in the future, educators realize the volume of information being created and consumed without the use of pencils and paper.

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(Image: Erik Fitzpatrick licensed CC BY 2.0)

I hope, in the future, the power of youth literacies are understood and harnessed in the classroom.

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(Original image created by compilation of screenshots of classmates posts)

I hope, in the future, students are not confined by limitations of past literacies, but encouraged and supported to be readers, writers and communicators in the time period they were born in.

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(Original image photographed by me)

I hope, in the future, narrative inquiries move beyond books to include the exploration of films and video games.

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(Image source)

I hope, in the future, students are not only allowed, but also supported in learning how to share their ideas through blogs, tweets, snaps, instagram posts, podcasts, videos, vlogs, thinglinks, powtoons and more.

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(Screenshot of classmate’s post)

I hope, in the future, the school system sees creativity and literacy as inextricably linked… unable to survive without each other.

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(Image source)

I hope, in the future, that vernacular, situated, authentic and artifactual literacies play more of a central role.

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(Original image compiled from screenshots)

I hope, in the future, a hyperlink is perceived no differently than a MLA citation.

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I hope, in the future, students have their own Personal Learning Networks where they can connect globally with like minded learners, not confined by geographic location or age groupings.

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(Image by Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano- www.langwitches.org/blogbased on image (CC) by Alec Couros- /educationaltechnology.ca/couros/799

I hope, in the future, the use of screenshots, memes and mashups are not seen as infringements on copyright.

I hope, in the future, classrooms show just as much (if not more) evidence of the 6 Cs than the 3 Rs.

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(Screenshot taken from course material in summary of this publication)

I hope, in the future, to witness the death of the 5 paragraph essay, the weekly spelling test, the hamburger paragraph, the reading log, the story plot chart, the reverence of the paper dictionary,  and the overinflated sense of importance placed on penmanship.

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(Original meme created by me at memegenerator.com) 

I hope, in the future, education will prepare students for the world that is and will be… not the world that once was.

Finally, I hope that this future I have envisioned is not a distant future, but a near future – mere years away… months away… days away…  or, perhaps hopefully, already happening.

“But they’ll need it for when they are in university”

I’ve noticed that a common road block for us educators when faced with rethinking traditional educational practices and embracing new practices, literacies and technologies is the response…

But they’ll need it for when they are in university.

it” can be anything from a 5 paragraph easy, to sitting and listening to a lecture, to a multiple choice test, and the list goes on.

This notion that post-secondary institutions are stuck in the past, seems to work as an easy-out for us educators to resist change in our own practices and shifts in the educational paradigm. It’s not just high school teachers – who have students mere years away from university – but it is also middle school teachers… and even elementary school teachers.

When working with educators in the past I’ve used a buffet of counterpoints to provoke their thinking about this argument. No one has a crystal ball and can say with certainty what students will or will not need when they get to university; Don’t let the tail wag the dog – why are we allowing the 4 (6? 8?) years where students end their educational journey to dictate the first 15 years of their education? Change is inevitable, it will happen with or with out… so jump on board!

Yet, somehow the argument sticks. We need to do X because they will need it in university.

And then something amazing happened!!!

I myself experienced this statement not to be true…

I am currently in university… in the very institution we use to galvanize our practices against change. And guess what? The skills and knowledge I need are the very skills and knowledge teachers are weary of, because “that’s not how universities are”. Bah! Not true! And I have proof!

Each week my professor shares multiple forms of text with us pertaining to our topic – songs, memes, infographics, hyperlinks, videos, wikipedia pages and more. We need to be literate in multiple ways in order to access and analyze the  information.

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And the best part? Each week we must compose a post in response to the ideas presented in the course material and we are NOT ALLOWED to share our thinking through only written paragraphs. We MUST demonstrate our meaning in multiple ways!

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One week I shared my thinking, questions and challenges through a sequence of tweets:

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Classmates of mine have shared through emojis:

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Through thinglinks:

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Through blogs:

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Through memes:

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This is a real university course, from a real university and the literacy skills that are helping me be successful are many of the literacy skills we as educators are uncomfortable or nervous or flat out refusing to teach.

Of course I still need to be able to read and write. But those traditional skills in and of themselves are not sufficient any longer. Not for me as a university student and not for our elementary, middle and high school students either. I need to be able to deconstruct and reconstruct meaning in multiple ways that span far beyond “traditional literacies”… and so should they.

An argument that clings to traditional literacies and opposes new literacies for the sake of preparing students for a model of university that may not longer exist is cause for concern. It is time to embrace new literacies, multiple literacies, digital literacies, and making multiple meanings in order to prepare students for the world as it is today. Because the world that used to be no longer exists… not even in slow-changing institutions of education like universities.

“But they’ll need it for when they are in university”

I’ve noticed that a common road block for us educators to embrace new practices, new approaches to teaching and learning, new technology, and new literacies is the response…

But they’ll need it for when they are in university.

it” can be anything from a 5 paragraph easy, to sitting and listening to a lecture, to a multiple choice test, and the list goes on.

This notion that post-secondary institutions are stuck in the past, seems to work as an easy-out for us educators to resist change in our own practices and shifts in the educational paradigm. It’s not just high school teachers – who have students mere years away from university – but it is also middle school teachers… and even elementary school teachers.

When working with educators in the past I’ve used a buffet of counterpoints to provoke their thinking about this argument. No one has a crystal ball and can say with certainty what students will or will not need when they get to university; Don’t let the tail wag the dog – why are we allowing the 4 (6? 8?) years where students end their educational journey to dictate the first 15 years of their education? Change is inevitable, it will happen with or with out… so jump on board!

Yet, somehow the argument sticks. We need to do X because they will need it in university.

And then something amazing happened!!!

I myself experienced that this statement not to be true…

I am currently in university… in the very institution we use to galvanize our practices against change. And guess what? The skills and knowledge I need are the very skills and knowledge teachers are weary of, because “that’s not how universities are”. Bah! Not true! And I have proof!

Each week my professor shares multiple forms of text with us pertaining to our topic – songs, memes, infographics, hyperlinks, videos, wikipedia pages and more. We need to be literate in multiple ways in order to access and analyze the  information.

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-52-59-am

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-53-20-am

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-54-40-am

And the best part? Each week we must compose a post in response to the ideas presented in the course material and we are NOT ALLOWED to share our thinking through only written paragraphs. We MUST demonstrate our meaning in multiple ways!

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-01-05-am

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-02-52-am

One week I shared my thinking, questions and challenges through a sequence of tweets:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-58-29-am screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-6-58-43-am

Classmates of mine have shared through emojis:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-01-35-am

Through thinglinks:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-00-10-am

Through blogs:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-06-03-am

Through memes:

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-7-07-38-am

This is a real university course, from a real university and the literacy skills that are helping me be successful are many of the literacy skills we as educators are uncomfortable or nervous or flat out refusing to teach.

Of course I still need to be able to read and write. But those traditional skills in and of themselves are not sufficient any longer. Not for me as a university student and not for our elementary, middle and high school students either. I need to be able to deconstruct and reconstruct meaning in multiple ways that span far beyond “traditional literacies”… and so should they.

An argument that clings to traditional literacies and opposes new literacies for the sake of preparing students for a model of university that may not longer exist is cause for concern. It is time to embrace new literacies, multiple literacies, digital literacies, and making multiple meanings in order to preparing students for the world as it is today. Because the world that used to be no longer exists… not even in slow-changing institutions of education like universities.

We tuned in!

Before our Units of Inquiry started, grade-level teams inquired into “tuning in” (with the help of  this post from Kath Murdoch). Many teachers walked away with a new, or deeper, understanding of the purpose behind the “tuning in” phase of inquiry. Teachers were excited to put their new learning into practice… here is how it turned out in our Grade 1 to 5 classes:

Grade 1: Peaceful relationships are created through mutual understanding and respect.

Students tuned in to problems and solutions:

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Students tuned in to the concept of numbers:

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Grade 2: Citizens build communities.

Students tuned in to the concepts of “community” and “citizenship”:

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Grade 3: Decisions impact conseqeunces.

Students tuned in to “decisions” and “consequences”:

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Students shared important decisions they made in their life:

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Students tuned in to decisions made by readers:

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Students tuned in to the decisions they make as mathematicians:

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Students tuned in to the number of decisions they make:

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Teachers tuned in to the type of decisions they make:

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Grade 4: Relationships are affected by learning about people’s perspectives and communicating our own. 

Students tuned in to the concepts of perspective and relationships:

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Students tuned in to different representations of numbers:

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Grade 5: Relationships among human body systems contribute to health and survival. 

Students (and teachers) tuned in to the concept of systems:

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Students tuned in to what they think they know about body systems:

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I love that the students’ thinking is front and centre!

I love that the students’ thinking is visible!

I love that students were able to demonstrate their thinking in a variety of ways!

I love that teachers tuned into conceptual understandings, not just topic knowledge! 

I love that transdisciplinarity is evident!

I love that teachers were acting as inquiries themselves… doing reconnaissance to find out about what their students bring to a Unit of Inquiry!

The feedback from teachers about “tuning in” has been great! Teachers are excited because they have learned about their students’ prior knowledge, their misconceptions, their interests and their questions. It has not only provided them with diagnostic assessment data, but also a road map that illuminates “where to next?” based on students’ needs and interests! I can’t wait to see where these inquires lead!

How do you “tune in” to your students’ thinking?

Classroom Set-Up: How much should we be doing without students?

Every year many teachers spend hours upon hours setting up their classroom to ensure it is picture perfect before the students arrive.

classroom on the first day
But I wonder, by doing so, are we taking away some great learning opportunities for students? In PYP classrooms, we start the year with blank walls to ensure there is lots of space to display students’ questions and students’ thinking, but what other classroom set-up jobs should we be sharing with students? Involving students in classroom set-up is not only a great way to build a sense of community and send the message that it is our classroom, not my classroom,  but their are also some great opportunities for math, literacy and transdisciplinary skills… if you’re looking for them!

Here is a list of some typical classroom set-up jobs that involve literacy, math and transdisciplinary skills that could be shared with students:

Covering bulletin boards: measurement, surface area, cooperation, problem solving, group decision making, planning skills

How much paper will we need to cover this bulletin board? How can we figure it out? What tools could we use? Is there another way to figure that out? 

bulletin board cover

 

Bulletin board borders: measurement, perimeter, repeating patterns, adding, multiplying, creativity, planning, organization, fine motor skills

How much border will we need to go around the outside of the bulletin board? How can we figure that out? How wide should the border be? How do we know if we have enough? What designs can we put on the border so it is appealing to the eye? 

border

 

Sectioning Bulletin Boards: Shape and space, measurement, division, fractions, arrays, problem solving, cooperation, analysis, spatial awareness

How many equal sections do we need? How big will they be? How many rows and columns can there be? How can we be precise? How can we section them off?

sectioned bulletin board

 

Arranging desks/tables: equal groups, shape and space, multiplication, division, problem solving, listening, speaking, planning, gross motor skills, safety

How many different ways can we arrange our desks into groups? How many different ways can we arrange our desks into equal groups? How can we set up our tables to maximize the number of chairs that fit around? Which arrangement gives us the most space? 

desk set up

 

Name tags: Literacy, printing, letter formation, capitalization, non-verbal communication, respecting others, planning, organization

How we can show which cubby belongs to who? Why do we need to label cubbies? What do we need to remember when we write our names? How can we make sure our letter are the proper size and shape?


cubby label

 

Classroom Library: sorting, genre, organization skills, labelling, counting, adding, estimation, planning, group decision making

How can we organize our books? Is there a different way to organize them? Where should we put them? How should we label them? What are the fancy literacy names for these kinds of books? Where can we find out? How many do we have in total? How will people know where to put them back?

class library

 

Toy Shelves: sorting, labelling, organization, systems, cooperation, making group decisions, planning, speaking, listening,

How can we sort our toys? How can we keep them organized? What should we label each bin? How will students know where to put them back?

toy shelf

 

Student-Made Class Alphabet Strip: Literacy, letter formation, letter sequencing, letter sounds, upper case and lower case, writing, synthesis, fine motor skills, team work

How do we make this letter? What word starts with this letter sound? Which letter comes next?

alphabet strip

 

Student-Made Class Number Line: Counting, sequencing, quantity, number formation,writing, synthesis, fine motor skills, team work

How do we make this number? How much is that number worth? What number comes next? What is the name of this number? How do we spell it? How do we make/spell this number in our other language?

nunmber line

 

 

Class Schedule: Measurement, writing time, lapsed time, adding/subtracting/dividing time, fraction, percent, analysis, evaluation, planning, time management

How can we split our classroom time? How can we make a schedule that has x minutes total for literacy/math each week? How long is in between first recess and second recess? How can we show that this class is 45 minutes long? How can we display our schedule?

 

schedule

 

As with most things in PYP/inquiry-based teaching it can seem that the teacher’s role is minimal. Quite contrary! In order for a teacher to share the classroom set-up duties with students, there is much thinking, planning, organizing and orchestrating needed on the teacher’s part in order for this to be successful and meaningful to students. Here are a few guiding questions to help with this:

1. Which tasks are appropriate to share with the age of students I teach?

2. Is there purposeful literacy, math or transdisciplinary skills in this task for my students?

3. How can I organize this process? (What materials should I have ready?  How long will it take? How should I split the students in to groups?)

4. What questions can I ask to guide the process and maximize student thinking?

5. Is the juice worth the squeeze? (Do the benefits of having students involved in this task justify the time it will take?) 

To be perfectly honest, I have never tried this myself… but I wish I could have before I left the classroom! I think there are so many authentic literacy and math skills needed to set up a classroom that require social, communication, thinking and research and management skills – both by the students doing them and the teachers planning them!

Have you ever tried this before with your class?

Do you have any advice for teachers trying this for the first time?

What other classroom set-up jobs would you add to the list?

 

Inquiry Cycle: Why, What and How?

At my school, we use Kath Murdoch’s Inquiry Cycle. Many of our staff are new the PYP and new to inquiry-based teaching and learning, so we find this inquiry cycle provides some structure to the elusive process of inquiry.

inquiry cycle black and white

How do I use the inquiry cycle?

What do the different stages of the process look like?

 These are common questions we get from our first and second year teachers as they try to make sense of the inquiry cycle. I came across this graphic which outlines some guiding questions for each phase of the cycle. I found it quite helpful for my own understanding of inquiry and plan to share it with our teachers soon!

inquirycycle

Sometimes I find we overthink the process of planning for inquiry – when really it is just the natural stages of human curiosity! These questions can serve as a great way to structure the process of inquiry with the students, instead of for the students. What would happen if we posed these questions directly to students and helped scaffold and guide the processes they come up with? Could that guide a whole Unit of Inquiry? Would we need much other ‘secret teacher business/planning’? Or could our time be spent planning the way in which we want to present these questions to students and how to support and organize their processes?

There is also a great blog post written by Kath Murdoch entitled Busting Myths About the Inquiry Cycle which may help to deepen your understanding of the benefits and limitations of using such a cycle in the classroom.

Let me know what you think!