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?

Teacher Spaces vs Student Spaces

Who is most important in the classroom? Who is the classroom designed for?

Obvious answer… the students!

But if you take a second look at a typical classroom, does the physical space and set-up point to the same answer?

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Teachers typically have a large spacious desk with multiple drawers, many of which that lock. 

Do students?

Teachers typically have a large, comfy, adjustable chair with wheels, 

Do students?

Teachers often have a private, locked cabinet for their personal possessions (bags, wallets, phones etc.).

Do students?

Teachers typically have a personalized corner of the classroom where they post pictures of their families, friends, old classes etc. 

Do students?

Arguably you could say that teachers spend more time in the classroom than students – that it is their home away from home and therefore they need more comfortable furniture. Arguably you could say that teachers have more to do than students and therefore need more space. Arguably you could say that teacher’s possessions are more valuable than students and therefore need to be locked up. I’m not sure I agree.

Students spend a large part of their day in their classroom and I’m sure if you asked them they would say it is also their home away from home. Students have SO much to do and organize in a day – multiple subject, assignments, binders, notebooks, projects – and I’m sure if you ask them they would say they would like more space. Students come to school with many valuable things, not only wallets, lunch money and phones, but also precious and sentimental toys, books and artifacts and I’m sure if you asked them they would like to be able to safely lock up their treasure.

So if we return to the original question – who is most important in the classroom – the large desk, comfy chair, extra space, personal photos, locked storage… it would seem like many teachers have a lot more comforts and luxuries than their students. Why is this the way it is? What does this reveal about how teachers and students are viewed in the school system? Does it have to be this way?

As a teacher, I wonder what it would be like to spend a year with a simple desk, a basic chair, an open cubby in the hallway and no personal pictures on the wall.

Maybe I will give it a try and find out… 

Re-thinking “morning work”

How many adults wake up and start their day with a worksheet?

None that I know of.

Whether it is called “bell work” “morning work” or a “a daily warm up” lots of students begin their day by completing a worksheet, answering questions or a doing a pre-planned activity – all of which have been decided for them by the teacher.

Just check out Google or Pinterest to see all the different varieties:

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But how do people start their day in their ‘real world’?

I start my day by scrolling through my Twitter.

My husband starts his day by meditating.

My mother starts her day by doing a crossword puzzle.

My father starts his day by playing chess.

My best friend starts her day by working out.

My mother-in-law starts her day by reading.

My father-in-law starts his day checking sports scores.

All different. All valuable. All self-chosen.

Why can’t students start their school days like this? Why can’t students choose how they start their own school days? Perhaps if we allowed students to choose how to begin their school day we would not have to stand in the halls and count down from 10 and compel our students to enter the classroom. Perhaps they would want to enter because they are excited and happy to be at school and start their day. I know teachers have many administrative responsibilities at the beginning of the day like attendance and collecting field trip forms, so a 10 – 15 minute window of time is needed to ensure these responsibilities are met. But why are we dictating how students spend those first 10-15 minutes warming up to their day?

Next year I plan to have a discussion with my students about how humans start their days. I plan to share how my friends and family begin their days, and I hope my students will share how their friends and family begin their day. I hope we can use this to create a list of possibilities about how students might start their day and post it somewhere in our room. Then I plan to respect their freedom and choice over how they start their school day while I am competing my administrative responsibilities.

Imagine the learning that might happen….

Imagine the connections that might happen….

Imagine the skills that might be developed….

Imagine no longer needing to find, photocopy and mark “bell work”…

Who should be writing the day plans?

In most classrooms, the writing of the day plans is a job done exclusively by the teacher. Each afternoon, after the students leave, teachers around the world sit at their desk and decide what their students should learn the next day and how their students are going to learn it.

In my opinion, handing over the writing of the day plants to our students is one of the best ways we as teachers can tap into student voice, student choice, student agency, student autonomy and student ownership of learning.

Here is how I envision it happening:

  1. Let them in behind the scenes – if you are lucky enough to work at a school where students are trusted to choose what they want to learn about and when, you have the luxury of ignoring this first step! For the majority of us though, we have standardized curricula, collaboratively created units of inquiry and reporting timelines to consider. Why consider them alone? Invite students to inquire into their curriculum and what the powers that be have decided they should be able to know and do by the end of the grade. Share with them the learning outcomes that have been pre-decided for a specific unit. Be transparent about what knowledge and skills will need to be reported on and by when.
  2. Discuss ‘learning’ – If students are going to be making choices about what they learn, when they learn and how they learn, it is probably a good idea to help them make informed decisions. Conduct a class inquiry into learning. Look at the different ways human learn. Discuss the different things humans learn about and learn to do. Brainstorm lists of approaches to learning that can be posted and referred to somewhere in the classroom.
  3. Come up with shared expectations – As a class, decide what is reasonable when planning a day. Should reading, writing, listening and speaking appear everyday? What about math? Should there be a minimum time spent on each? How will breaks work? Can you make changes to your plan throughout the day? Is play a respected part of the day?
  4. Share your template – At the end of every day, carve out a chunk of time where students can plan their own upcoming day. For students who prefer paper, make a copy of your empty day plan (with specialist classes already blocked out) and for students who prefer to work electronically, push out an excel version or Google Sheet.
  5. Offer optional workshops  – Figure out the needs of your class and in response to those needs, offer optional workshops and collaborative inquiries. Post the purpose, content and time of the workshops and inquiries when students are planning their day so students who are interested in participating can account for the workshops on their day plans.
  6. Offer optional conference times – When you are not offering optional workshops and inquiries, make yourself available for individual conferences. Conferences could be requested for a number of reasons – for reading, writing, math, inquiry guidance, personal reasons or even to play together! Post the times when you will be available for conferences when students are planning their day so they can make a note of when they would like to reach out to you.
  7. Provide support – For the first few times that students are creating their own day plans, offer guidance. Perhaps invite any students looking for help to participate in a shared approach. Then, with the students who self-select for assistance, go through the day plan block by block and help them plan what they are going to, how they are going to do it – and most importantly why they are going to do it.
  8. Provide feedback –  Take the time you would have spent writing your day plans, and invest that time in providing feedback for your students’ day plans. Either on the shared document or the paper copy, jot down questions that will help students clarify and improve their own plans. An hour is a long time to write, have you planned for a break? I noticed you have not built anytime for independent reading, why is that? You have noted that you want to practice your times tables, how do you plan on doing that? 
  9. Reflect – build in time and model the value of reflecting on day plans each and every day. Help students think about what went well, what they enjoyed, along with what did not go well and perhaps why that is. Encourage risk-taking, by guiding students to try something different or check out how a classmate structured their day of learning.
  10. Back off – If you are going to say you trust your students to know what they want and need to learn about and how best to go about it, then you need to actually trust them. You can offer guidance, advice, probing questions… but at the end of the day you have to respect their decisions and truly believe that they know what is best for themselves.

I’m imaging a classroom where some students are reading, some students are writing, some are practicing math, some are playing games, some are talking to one another, some are painting or building, some are attending a optional teacher-led workshop… but all are learning. Learning in their own way, at their own pace, and on their own schedule. Doesn’t it sound wonderful?

I have never tried this before, but I plan to this year as I head back into the classroom! As always, I would love to hear your feedback and suggestions about this idea!

How can I improve this plan?

What obstacles might I encounter?

How do you involve your students in planning the day? 

My plan for a more fair and free place to learn…

Yesterday I shared my thoughts and reflections about my own practice creating a democratic community in the classroom and I promised to share my plan for next year- once I had one. Well, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and as a result a plan has started to take shape, so here are my initial ideas, as promised!

Classroom Set-up

In the past I would spent the summer coming up with a blueprint for my classroom set-up and then during the week before students would arrive, I would spend countless hours setting it all up on my own. This year I plan to hold off on any classroom set-up until the first day of school. Once the students arrive and attendance has been taken, we can come together for the first time as a community and together decide how we want our learning space to be set-up. From there I am hoping we can break off into task-forces (classroom library, physical set-up, boards, resources and manipulates, school supplies etc.) where I can support students in coming up with a plan, putting that plan into action and then reflecting on how things went. I have to be prepared to let go, allow the process to unfold and resist the urge to jump in and rescue or veto. Overtime, I think the natural consequences of any design flaws will appear and as a community we can come back as a group and discuss what is working and what might need to change to better serve the needs of our learning community.

Systems and Routines

This will be the hardest for me. Every year that I have taught, I have started the year with a clearly laid of plan for every routine imaginable within the teaching day. This year, I plan to come up with these systems with my students. As a community, we can brainstorm all the times in the day it would be beneficial to have a routine, and then discuss what routines they might have used in other classes. From there we can discuss the pros and cons of different approaches and vote on the ones we want to try. I think it would be helpful at this point to document the why, how and what of each routine in a visible spot somewhere in the room – perhaps with some criteria for how we will know it is working, and clues for when we might need to revisit and refine our plans.

Community Building 

Obviously it is essential at the beginning of a new school year to build a sense of community and help students get to know each other. Similar to classroom set-up and classroom routines, this has been something I have spent hours in the summer planning – to the point that when I started a new school year, the first five day plans were fully filled out and ready to go! This fall I would like to develop this alongside my students. I plan to start with the why – and stimulate a discussion about why it is important to build relationships with the people in our community. From there we can dive into the question – how do humans build relationships? Hopefully this provides a long list of potential activities that we can use throughout the week to build a strong community.

Schedule

In the past I have always built our class schedule alone – without the input or ideas of my students. This year I’d like to try and build it with them. I have been given a schedule template (which accounts for all my specialist classes) but aside from those specified times I plan to leave the rest blank until the students arrive. When the students arrive I’d like to invite them to help build our class schedule. In order to make informed decisions, I think it would be important to first inquire into learning – how do people learn, why do people learn, how do other schools and classes schedule their learning. I also think at this point it would be important to be transparent about our limits and boundaries with regards to curriculum and programming. As an IB school that has adopted the Common Core, I think it is important for students to inquire into “what” they are supposed to learn and also “how” they are supposed to learn. Once students are familiar with what they are supposed to learn in Grade 4, how they are supposed to learn as IB students along with what options are out there for structuring a school day – then we can work together to design a schedule that meets our needs. Perhaps students will breakout into groups or work on their own to come up with a proposed schedule and then we can vote on which one, we as a community, like best.

Homework

In previous years as a classroom teacher I have decided what is for homework, why it is for homework and when it is for homework. When I started to think about going back in the classroom I decided that there would be no homework ever. Now that I think about that, I have realized that either way I am deciding something on the students behalf – which I would like to avoid. Instead of a blanket decision for the entire class one way or another, I have decided to open it up to a personal and family decision. Again, in order to make informed decisions I think it would be important to inquire into the different perspectives around homework (student, parent, teacher, administrator, research etc.) and share those discoveries with the parents community. From there each student, along with their parents, can decide if they want homework. Then, I can support the students who have opted for homework to come up with a personal plan – starting with why, then working out the how and what.

Conflict Resolution

When you force 24 humans to spend 5 days a week, 7 hours a day together in one room, conflict is bound to occur. And in the past when conflict has happened, I have been the judge, the jury, and the mediator. I have had a plan for how I would deal with conflicts in the classroom, but this year I want students to not only be part of the decision, but also part of the actual processes once they are decided. At first I was going to impose a model of “council meetings” like they have at Free School, shown in this documentary from minute 23-32. But then I realized making that decision on my own for them, was just as un-democratic. So instead I’d like to discuss as a class, how humans in the real world solve conflicts. I’m hoping this leads to discussion of strategies for small conflicts and also options for when people with unresolved conflicts look for extra support form the community (i.e.. mediators, councils, town halls, judiciary committees etc.). We can inquire into how humans solve conflict in the real world, then we can see how schools have adopted these practices and then finally decide as a community which one(s) we would like to have as options when conflicts arise.

Goal Setting 

Usually the week before school starts I am exhausted from setting up the classroom and planning the first week of school….but since I won’t be doing any of that this year without my students I am anticipating a lot of unused time on my hands. In thinking about building a democratic classroom community, it is not only important that students have a voice, but also that parents have a voice. So I think a great use of my free time would be to invite parents in to meet with me for a pre-school year conference. I would love to sit down with parents and ask them what their goals are for their child for the year and what they would like from me in order to support those goals. I would also love to ask them to tell me about their child’s needs, interests, skills and passions. I think this would be a really great to lay the foundation for a collaborative partnership with my students’ families and also a great way to show that their voice, knowledge, opinion and perspectives are not only welcome, but also valued.

Thinking in this way has been a huge challenge for me. I am still very inclined to come up with these plans on my own during the summer and I actually have to force myself to stop, but becoming aware of those tendencies has helped me see more clearly the power structures that have existed in my previous classrooms. I am really excited to take this new approach and I am hopeful that the time invested to have these conversations, conduct these inquires and democratically make these decisions will lead to a really powerful and productive learning community. I know as the school year gets underway, I will need to think about how to democratically approach things like curriculum, units, assessment and reporting… but for now, I am happy with my plan in these seven aforementioned areas. And, as always, I will report back and let you know how it goes!

How do you plan to establish a more democratic classroom this school year?

How do you plan to ensure your students’ voices are equal to yours?

How democratic is your classroom?

I am currently in a summer course called Alternative Approaches to Schooling – which is BLOWING my mind – with concepts of free-schooling, willed-curriculum, unschooling, holistic education, critical pedagogy and democratic education. We have also been reading an amazing book called Tuning Points, which chronicles the personal journeys of 35 education revolutionaries.

All of this new knowledge is provoking my own thinking about my plans for next year. Am I helping to develop the whole child? Will my students experience freedoms and personal liberties? What structures of power will exist?

And the question that has been circling my mind the most…

How democratic will my classroom be? 

I used to think my approach to teaching was very democratic and that I helped to set up a community of learners where students had ample voice and choice…. but the more I have read, thought, discussed and watched real examples of democratic classrooms, the more I am beginning to wonder. Schools like Summerhill and Windsor House are living breathing examples of how trusting children to participate in real and important decisions can be quite magical. Watching a student-led “council meeting” from minute 23-32 on this documentary shows just how powerful true democratic processes can be in the classroom.

I think back to my pages and pages of detailed classroom layouts that I would sketch in the summer, showing exactly where every piece of furniture would be, all to be set up before any student stepped foot into the classroom…

I think of my pages and pages of detailed systems and routines for being quite, moving spots, going to the bathroom, starting the day, ending the day, cleaning up, packing up, solving problems that I would plan on my own and train students to follow during the first few weeks of school…

I think of all the “community meetings” where I controlled what was discussed, how it was discussed and who participated in the discussion and when….

And I’m feeling like, perhaps, my classrooom was psuedo-democractic at best. Where I always had the final voice and veto and I would carefully decide what decisions and plans students were allowed to participate in.

This year I would like to try and do better. I would like to try and become a truly democratic community, where students and I make plans and decisions together. Where all of our votes count for one. Where students are trusted with real responsibility to make real decisions that actually matter. Where the classroom looks and feels and functions more like the real world.

How? I have no idea yet… but when I figure it out I’ll be sure to share it with you here! 

In your classroom and school, are you teaching about democracy… or through democracy?

How much have you planned  for next year without your students?

Goodbye clip charts. Hello individualized behaviour plans.

The term ‘behaviour management‘ has always bothered me. It gives the impression, that as teachers, all we are trying to do is ‘manage‘ behaviours in hopes of getting by and surviving the day. If our focus is only on managing behaviours are we missing an amazing opportunity to help develop good humans? I think so.

In my opinion one of the biggest culprits of ‘managing‘ behaviour is the good ol’ whole class behaviour plan.

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You know the one. Maybe you’ve seen it. Maybe you’ve used it. Maybe you’ve experienced it as a child. It comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it is shaped like a guitar. Sometimes it looks like a stoplight. Sometimes it uses IB language. Sometimes there are stickers involved. Other times, clothespins. Lately it has made its way online in the form of  Class Dojo. No matter how you slice it, it is what it is. A whole class behaviour plan. Very public. Very one-size-fits-no-one. Google image search “Whole Class Behaviour Plan” to see the full spectrum of options!

I’m not the first blogger to launch an attack on the whole class behaviour plan…

So What’s My Problem with Public Behaviour Charts?

Why I Will Never Use a Behaviour Chart Again

6 Reasons to Reject Class Dojo 

But I do want to take a different approach when re-thinking the whole class behaviour plan. I have decided to interview the most child-centered educator I have ever worked with. You may know her as the Globally Minded Counsellor or follow her on Twitter @h_sopierce. I know her as Heidi, my colleague, sounding board and friend. I have decided to interview her in order to explore the debate about whole class behaviour plans from a counselling lens – with the student’s best interest at the heart of it all.

Press play on the podcast below to listen to what Heidi had to say about whole class behaviour plans versus individualized behaviour success plans:

Here is a summary of the major points from Heidi’s podcast:

From a counselling lens, what do you think about whole class behaviour plans with regards to classroom management?

  • only manages behaviours at a surface level, but unless we look at what each individual students needs they will only be management tools to help the teacher succeed, but not necessarily impact the students’ behaviour
  • more about keeping a classroom in control, than changing students’  behaviours
  • sets the tone that the teacher believes that students will fail in their behaviour somehow
  • shaming and calling students out in public are harmful to the student in the long run

Is there ever a time when a whole-class behaviour plan is needed?

  • need to reflect on strategies teachers are using and perhaps gaps in systems, routines, consistency, boundaries that might make it seem like a whole-class behaviour plan is needed
  • might need to identify behaviours that 2 or 3 students need to change, not usually all 20 students need to change

What can teachers do who want to move away from the use of whole-class behaviour plans?

  • build authentic, genuine relationships with students (greet each student at the door – make eye contact, shake their hand use their names; get to know them as individuals – what motivates them, what’s happening at home, what are their interests)
  • reach out to other teachers and counsellors and see what works, what they suggest, and what resources are available

How do you know when an individualized behaviour success plan is needed?

  • after you have tried a variety of differentiated strategies for behaviour supports for your students and they still aren’t working that might indicate that a student would benefit from an individualized behaviour success plan
  • the 1 or 2 students who need to be “taught” about their behaviour and not just “told” or “reminded” about their behaviour

What advice to do you have for teachers who want to create an individualized behaviour success plan?

  • sit with a counsellor or administrator and consult about wanting to set this up
  • create it with the student – sit with student and discuss behaviour; pick one or two specific behaviours to focus on;
  • ensure it is goal oriented – make it specific, not general and vague
  • make it developmentally appropriate
  • ensure the plan allows for the student to celebrate success
  • have a ‘celebration’- high five, chat with the teacher, playing with teacher etc.
  • build in time to re-set
  • praise, praise, praise, praise – share the good stuff with their family!
  • keep it simple
  • make it a working document that is revisited
  • needs to be consistent
  • be okay with trial and error
  • involve student in tracking and self-reflection in an age-appropriate way

(To read more about Heidi’s perspective on the impact whole class behaviour plans can have on students, check out her blog post: How your classroom management practices led to counselling.)

To sum it all up, I will use a famous “Heidi question” that I hear Heidi ask all day, every day (it’s what makes her such an amazing, truly student-centred educator)…

What’s best for students?

If we use this question to re-think our use of whole class behaviour plans and drive our process when building individualized behaviour success plans, we can rest assured the we too are keeping our student’s wellbeing at the heart of everything we do.

What are your thoughts on whole-class behaviour plans?

What are your thoughts on individualized behaviour success plans?

How do you ensure you practices align with what is best for students?