Stay Critical, Not Cynical

A few weekends ago I was at a conference and something said by the key note speaker – Sir Kevan Collins – really stuck with me.

He was talking about our school and all the amazing, progressive, innovative things we are doing… which got us all proud and perked up!

And then he asked us:

How will you be sure that that what you are trying to accomplish, is actually being accomplished? How will you know if what you’re doing is “working”? 

And then you could feel our collective consciousness pull back in contemplation.

This was especially impactful for me, as I had just joined the school and the Studio 5 initiative. This meant I was part of a specifically experimental team, trying to challenge the traditional model of school in pursuit of more student-directed, agentic learning.

How were we going to know if what we were trying to accomplish was actually being accomplished!? How could we be sure that our crazy experiment was working?

Obviously the answer was clear – and it was the point he was building towards in his address – with putting on the hat of risk-taker and innovator, also comes the need to put on the hat of researcher.

Maybe not capital R, published-in-a-scholarly-peer-edited-journal, “Research”, but definitely the small r, how-will-we-know-and-measure-the-effects-of-our-innovation, “research”.

I’m not new to the practice of educational research. I completed a major research project during my MEd last year. But that felt different. That was research mandated by my university, required by my coursework and necessary in order to receive my degree. It was research I had to do… so I did it.

This is also research I feel I have to do, but for totally different reasons. I want to know the effect of our our innovation. I want to document and share the potential impact of our model with other educators. I want to know, for myself as a risk-taker, if I’m accomplishing what I am trying to accomplish.

When it came to our innovations, Sir Kevan Collins urged us not to be skeptical, but to be cynical. And although I agreed with the heart of his message, I did not agree with his word choice here. I think both words have a negative connotation — neither capture the eternal optimism and hope I feel about the risks I am taking with my team this year. I don’t feel I need to stop believing in what I am doing in order to be able to conduct valid, reliable research.

So this year, I will pull out, dust off and re-fit my research hat… not because I have to… not because I am skeptical… not because I am cynical… but because amidst my dreams and hopes and passion for change I want to ensure I stay critical.

I have no idea where to start.

Wish me luck…

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What IS the Purpose of School?

How often as educators do we dialogue and debate this question?

(Answer – hopefully very, very, very often!)

But how often are we asking this question to the two groups of people who have the most vested interest in the answer?

…our students and their families.

Each year, I start the year with a student survey and a parent survey to help me better understand my students as people and the families from which they come. But this year for the first time I asked them both a new question:

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Their responses were beautiful, fascinating and informative.

Here is what my students think:

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Here is what their parents think:

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Not only do the answers to this question help me better understand my students, their families and what they are expecting from their time at school… but it also lets me know that we’re all on the same side… the same team…. the same page.

So often we lean on “but the parents want…” as a crutch to cling to antiquated educational models and practices. But, is that what they really want? Have we asked them recently?

Perhaps we should.

Reflecting on a Year of Risk-Taking

Last year, when I decided to leave my role as PYP Coordinator to go back into the classroom, one of the biggest reasons was to have the opportunity to take risks, innovate and disrupt the model of “doing school” at the classroom level.  I had big dreams of what I wanted to start, stop and continue and I had a vision for a more fair and free place to learn. Now that the year has come to an end, it’s important for me to reflect on how things went. And since I have been sharing my journey with you along the way, I wanted to share my final reflections with you too.

So, here are my reflections from a year of taking risks:

Students setting up the classroom 

Inviting students to help set up their learning space was one of the best things I did all year! Not only was there SO much thinking and reflecting and problem solving that took place, but there were a lot of curricular connections, made authentically. Above and beyond that, it set the tone that students have a voice and are equally contributing members of our classroom community.

Read more about it here. 

Flexible Seating

Flexible seating was also a huge success. It took us a while as a community to test it out, problem solve and find the line between comfort and safety… but once we found our groove it was smooth sailing. Students were relaxed and comfortable during their time at school and often reflected on how that positively impacted their learning.

Respecting student’s physical needs

After reading the blog, post 10 Ways to Get Your Students to Respect You,  I couldn’t believe all the years I spent as a teacher, controlling, limiting and even not allowing students to tend to their physical needs. This year students ate when they were hungry, drank when they were thirsty and went to the bathroom when they needed to go. If felt much more humane and again had a noticeably-positive impact on their learning.

Democratic decision making

A huge part of my MEd degree was becoming more aware and critical of the power structures that exist in schools. This year I actively worked to create a more democratic classroom. We made ever decision together – where possible – regardless of how big or small. This not only set the tone that each and every student has a voice and a right to be part of decisions that effect their lives, but it also opened the door for some amazing learning about democracy, decision making, fairness, equity and equality, authority and hierarchy.

Optional homework

For the first time in my life I did not make the decision that my students would have homework. Nor did I make the decision that my students would not have homework either. Instead I decided… to let my students and their families decide! I guided them through an inquiry into homework and then students made their own conclusion about if they should have homework, and if so, what, when and how much. This approach worked very well – families that didn’t want homework never complained they had too much and families that did want homework never complained they didn’t have enough. It also had an unexpected positive side-effect: throughout the year when students genuinely reflected and felt like they needed more help or practice with something they would self-identify the need and take initiative to request extra help and resources.

Read more about it here.

Student-written day plans

This was the risk I was most excited about and the risk that ended up being the hardest to execute. We started out the year strong. We spent weeks inquiring into learning, inquiring into the PYP, inquiring into making day plans and then students were off and running planning their own day. It started out really amazing… students were excited and energized to have autonomy not only over how and where they learned… but for the first time in their life when they learned. Then I got in my own way of such an amazing and successful risk. I started to feel the pressure of time, and standards, and consistency… and slowly more and more of their blocks were being planned by me, because “we had to get something done” One day I woke up, looked around and realized that I was back to my old ways – planning one standard school day and obliging my students to follow along. Towards the end of the year – when reports were done and the pressure was lessened – we went back to having students plan their own day. And once again, life was good.

Read more about it here.

Involving Parents

It was important for me this year that I included my students’ parents in our learning community. Firstly, in the sense of having them involved in their child’s education and what happens in the classroom. I invited them in for before-the-year-starts meetings, I asked them for feedback three times throughout the year and I attempted to differentiate my communication in order to reach as many families as possible. But more than that, I wanted them be involved in our vision… our risks… our movement. I would share screenshots of provocative tweets, infographics and links to PYP and education related blogs to challenge and provoke their thinking about what school look like in 2017. As the year went on it was great to see them engage more and more with the ideas being shared. The best was when parents started sharing their own provocations and resources with me about the future of education! I still remember receiving an email from a parent with a YouTube link to The People vs. The School System and her thoughts about how it connected to what we were doing in our classroom!

Assessment done with students, instead of assessment done to students

This year I took a drastically different approach to assessment. I wanted assessment to be an inclusive process that involved the students as much as possible. We co-constructed success criteria together. We used that co-constructed success criteria as a tool for self, peer and (always last) teacher assessment. Students chose how they felt they could best share their learning. Final marks were negotiated between me and the student, during a one-on-one conference. The results were incredible. Student became much more assessment-capable. They were much more aware of their own learning, growth and areas of need and they were much less nervous and afraid of the assessment process.

Read more about it here.

Creating a culture of passionate readers

This was a hard one for me. I loved everything I read from Pernille Ripp about creating a culture of passionate readers and I couldn’t shake the quote “if they only read and write when we force them to read and write – then what’s the point?” So this year I took a hard, critical look at my own literacy practices and decided to ditch many of them in favour of achieving this goal. I got rid of nightly reading logs, book bins/bags, levelled library, forced guided reading, Daily 5, mandatory reading and writing workshops… pretty much anything where I, as the teacher, was choosing or forcing things on my students. The results were miraculous. I had students choose to become reading buddies; I had students request reading conferences with me; I had students self-select to all read the same novel so they could discuss it; I had students take initiative to create their own reader’s theatre; I had students sign up for optional reading workshops; I had students volunteer to read in front of the whole class. Was there still “progress” as can be measured by a standardized reading test? Yes. No more or less than there has been for my students in the past. But more than that, this time there was also students who learned to love reading; students who began to identify as readers; students who experienced agency and authenticity in their lives as readers.

Creativity Thursdays

If you ask any of my students, they would tell you this was their most beloved risk of all. It was also the risk that received the most scrutiny and push-back from ‘above’. After reading, watching and discussing Sir Ken Robinson, my class decided to devote as much time for creativity as we do to literacy development. That worked out to 20% of a week – a whole school day. So each and every Thursday students would pursue their creative passions – Minecraft, acting, painting, sewing, fashion design, digital music making, construction, jewellery design, singing, slime, modelling, nail art, playing instruments… the list goes on and on. Thursdays were magical… everyone was happy, relaxed, engaged.  It was the day of the week were our sense of community was the strongest. And it was the day of the week with absolutely no behaviour or classroom management issues. There may not have been a lot of “schooling” on Thursdays, but there was definitely a lot of “learning”!

Read more about this here.

Global Connections

Another goal of mine this year was to support my students in connecting with other students around the globe. We had a class blog, a class Twitter account and participated in my Mystery Skype calls. My success in this area was mediocre. The blog and twitter started out strong at the beginning of the year, but fizzled out over time. Mystery Skype were great, but I waited too far into the year to organize them (only when it fit with our unit). This is definitely an area of growth for me, and I will be doing some reflecting over the summer to try and figure out how to better support my students next year as global citizens.

Making time for play

My students and I decided that for every 30 minutes of focused learning, we would take a 10 break. This seemed to jive with research about how long children can focus and aligned with our IB Learner Profile of being balanced. Even though my students are in Grade 4 I think this time for unstructured play was essential. Not only did I notice lots of authentic learning taking place, but this is also when many of the friendships developed and when our sense of community grew. It was not unusual for us to receive confused or skeptical glances from passerbys while students were “on a break”, but it was something we strongly valued as a class and something we all felt positively impacted our community and our learning.

 

So what have I learned?

  • It can be lonely to swim upstreamFind your allies, whether that means people at your school, or like-minded educators in your PLN
  • It is SO worth it. Seeing the children’s growth – not only as students – but as humans is so rewarding
  • Students and parents are AMAZING allies. Let them in on your vision, provoke their thinking, ask for their input and feedback often
  • The pressure is real. Despite my best intentions to avoid “doing school” and instead pursue real learning, I felt immense pressure throughout the year about time, standards, standardization, test scores etc. from multiple sources…not only external from, colleagues and supervisors but also internal, from within
  • Systemic change is needed. There were many times in the year where I ran up against a roadblock that precluded school from being a place of true learning. Ingrained parts of our education system like curriculum, grading, reporting, grade groups, scheduling, etc. were constantly getting in the way of learning, but beyond my control as a classroom teacher
  • I have much more to learn. Much of this year I felt like I was in my first year teaching, not my eighth. But in a way, I guess I was in my first year – my first year trying to let go of being a teachery-teacher and instead respecting and supporting my students’ agency as learners. I am looking forward to spending the summer learning more and hopefully changing my thinking further, so that I will be ready to try again next year and hopefully come a little bit closer to making my classroom a place of real learning

 

Assessment done with students, not to students

This year I have tried to approach assessment differently. I wanted my students to feel that assessment is something I do with them… not to them.

I have made many shifts in my assessment practices to try and accomplish this goal:

Discussions about assessment

As a class we discussed the difficulty of trying to measure a human’s learning and I shared that there are many different approaches to trying to figure out what a student has learned in school. We discussed a handful of approaches for measuring learning and then we tried each of them out within the context of our unit.

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Co-constructed success criteria

Instead of teachers sitting behind closed doors, deciding what ought to be learned by the end of a unit, I made those decisions collaborative with my students. I used the structure of growing definition where first students brainstorm on their own, then they combine ideas with a partner, then they merge thinking with another set of partners, then a foursome with a foursome and so on until the whole class builds a list together. Once their student list was created, I consulted our school curriculum documented and added any knowledge or concepts they might have left out. This list then became our success criteria that we used throughout the unit.

Student chosen summatives

Teachers and teaching teams spend hours, upon hours, discussing and trying to figure out how students can best show their learning at the end of a unit. This year, instead of choosing that choice for them, I handed that decision over to my students. When we approached the end of the unit, I would ask “How best can you share your learning from this unit?” Some students who felt most comfortable expressing themselves orally would submit a vlog or request a one-on-one conference, other students who felt they best expressed themselves in writing would submit a written text, and others who felt they could best express themselves visually would produce a mind map, or concept map or cartoon – some sort of visual to convey their new thinking and new knowledge.

Triangulation of perspectives

Oftentimes as teachers we are the only – and ultimate – voice of assessment. Sometimes we tokenistically invite self and peer assessment, but rarely are those assessments equally valued. So this year I wanted to take a flatter, more democratic approach to assessment. Whether it was diagnostic, formative or summative, we always followed the same three steps: first the student would assess themselves, next they would find a peer to offer their perspective, then purposefully last, I as the teacher would share my perspective. What they end up with, is three different perspectives… all equally valued.

  

Interchangeability of diagnostic, formatives and summatives

Instead of approaching diagnostic, formative and summative assessments as assessments that you do at the beginning, middle and end of a unit – I took a much more fluid approach. If a student did a diagnostic and demonstrated all the knowledge and skills that were expected they could decide to use that as their summative and then either choose to extend themselves in this area of continue with a personal inquiry of their choice – thus the diagnostic becomes the summative. If partway through the unit a student demonstrates the required knowledge and skills, then that formative can then become their summative and they would have the same choice of extending or free learning. And finally, on the “last day” of the unit if a student completed a summative and had not yet demonstrated the necessary knowledge and skills they could choose to continue to learn, and therefore turn that summative into a formative and re-take the summative at a later time when they felt ready.

Decision making conferences

When it came time to enter “final marks” into the report card, I would sit with each student individually and have a conversation about where they thought they were in their learning. They would look back at the assessment data and tools and share where they thought they were and then I would do the same. Together we would agree on a mark that we both felt comfortable putting on the report card.

Taking it to the next level…

All in all, it was a great change in practice! I think my students felt empowered to have a voice in their learning and in the measurement of their learning. I think students felt their perspectives were respected and valued. And on a personal level, it felt much more humane and much more like a partnership in supporting their learning journey!

Upon reflections from this year and visions for next year, here are a few ways that I would like to take the approach of ‘doing assessment with students’ even further:

Individualized success criteria 

I enjoyed the process of co-constructing success criteria with my students, but to take that further I would love to personalize that process even more and have students design their own individual success criteria. Flipping the question “What should we learn but the end of the unit?” more towards “What should I (or do I want to) learn by the end of the unit?” This would open up some great conversations with students about choosing how they might know they have been successful at learning something or acquiring new skills. Here is a blog post with an example of how one teacher approached this.

Beyond triangulation of perspectives

This year I think I did a pretty good job shifting the assessment power away from myself as a teacher, and equally distributing it between myself, the student and a peer. However, I would like to push that model further and perhaps figure out a way to include the perspective of parents, industry experts or community members. I don’t think it would have to be all 6 sources every time. I think there could be a lot of authentic learning in having students decide which assessment perspective is most helpful in a specific situation.

Student written report cards

The only part of the assessment process my students were kept out of this year was reporting. Moving forward I would love to see students take a more equal role in writing their own report cards. Here is a great blog post with some suggestions I hope to be able to follow in the future.

How do you ensure assessment is something done “with students” not “to students” in your classroom or school?

Motivated Students

In education we often hear the question being asked, “How can I  motivate my students?” And though I am sure that question always comes from a genuine place of desire to help students learn and grow… I’m not sure it’s the question we need to be asking.

Recently I have begun a professional inquiry into motivation. I started by watching the very famous Ted Talk by the very famous Dan Pink about motivation:

Although his Ted Talk is specifically focused on motivation in the business world, there is much to learned – and much that has already been learned – about how this translates in the education world.

Many people are familiar with the new paradigm Pink offers regarding human motivation:

Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose. 

Autonomy – The desire to direct our own lives

Mastery – The desire to be better and develop ourselves

Purpose – The desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves

And many people can see how this paradigm fits into a system of education that supports agency and life long learners… but then comes the ever-present question on educators’ minds:

“But what does it look like in the classroom?”

So I have begun to brainstorm ways to turn this theory into practice. I’ve started to a list of  ideas – linked to resources where possible – that I believe can help teachers build learning communities that support students’ autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy – The desire to direct our own lives

Mastery – The desire to be better and develop ourselves

Purpose – The desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves

I think it’s time we switch the question away from “How can I motivate my students?” and more towards “What are we doing – or not doing – as educators that is getting in the way of students’ motivation?” and “What changes need to be made in both our classrooms and the education system that allow students more autonomy, mastery and purpose during their hours spent at school?”

What does autonomy, mastery and purpose look like in your classroom?

How you do translate Dan Pink’s theory of motivation into practice with your students?

How do you protect and foster your students’ intrinsic motivation?

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?

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?