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?

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What if?

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

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

So I have begun to wonder…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Throw out the day plans and follow your students 

Many educators today are faced with students who want to discuss nothing other than the US election… even in countries outside of America. My class was no different. So when one of my students asked “Can we spend some time today talking about the election?” I had two options.

1. Say no and offer an explanation about our lack of time due to assessments, report deadlines, and being behind in our unit…

Or

2. Throw out the day plans, clear the schedule and go for it.

I chose the latter. I told the students that if they were interested they could come participate in a class discussion about the US election. About 90% opted to be part of the discussion and the rest of the class followed along with their pre-planned schedule. I decided to take on the role of facilitator, to allow students to explore their own and each other’s perspectives and ideas, instead of listening to mine.

It was great on so many different levels:

From a social/emotional stand point…

My students had very strong emotions about the US election. This gave them a safe place to share that they were sad, worried, upset, nervous, and confused. There were moments of tears and moments of laughter – lots of big, genuine emotions… noticed, named and shared within the safe space of our classroom community.

From a learning stand point… 

We learned about democracy. We learned about the US electoral system. We learned about the US branches of government. We inquired into the composition of the house, the senate and the cabinet. We learned new words like “advisor”.  We learned about the different states in the US. We discussed concepts of power, influence, and prejudice.

From a critical thinking stand point…

We discussed the importance of reliable sources and recent information. We learned how to ask the very important question “how do you know that?”. We talked about facts, opinion,  bias, rumour and propaganda.  We compared sources of news (BBC, CNN, SnapChat, ,YouTube).

Students wondered if you could ever be sure about the reliability of a source. Students questioned whether the current electoral system was the most fair way to choose a president. Students challenged the notion of children not being able to vote. Students were curious as to why there can only be one president and why it can’t be a shared position.

From an international mindedness stand point…

Students compared the US electoral system to that of their home country – Canada, Portugal, Kuwait. Students explored the concept of open-mindedness. Students discussed the desire to learn more about their own country’s government. Students discussed international relations. Students explored the common humanity of all people, regardless of colour, culture of religion.

It was open. It was honest. It was amazing.

As educators, we often spend hours among hours trying to plan for learning that is significant, relevant, challenging and engaging… when often times the most significant, relevant, challenging and engaging learning is not something we plan for in advance, but instead something we need to listen for and notice.

And most importantly, when those moments of opportunity appear, we must be willing to throw out our day plans and follow our students.

Are our authentic assessments truly “authentic”?

Most educators around the world are currently committed to creating “authentic” assessments. A way to measure students’ learning in a “real life” way.

But here are some examples of authentic assessments I have seen or heard about:

“pretend you are a designer”

“imagine you write for a magazine”

I began to wonder… if we are asking students to pretend to be or do something in their “authentic” assessment, isn’t that by nature inauthentic?

So I looked up the definition of the word “authentic”…

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and the word “inauthentic”…

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It seems like if we are asking our students to do something that is not real, accurate, true or sincere then it’s not really authentic. We’re merely mimicking what happens in the real world, without allowing our students to participate in or contribute to the actual real world.

I’m not discounting that these types of assessment tasks are an improvement from traditional tests and quizzes, but calling them “authentic” might be a bit of a stretch. I think if we are asking students to pretend to be or do something, then that’s quasi-authentic or pseudo-authentic at best.

Should we settle for quasi or psuedo-authentic tasks? Or should we be aiming for truly authentic ways for students to demonstrate their learning and apply new skills?

I vote the latter.

In this day and age, with the help of technology, students don’t need to pretend to be bloggers, magazine writers, podcasters, advocates, speakers, inventors, creators, designers, teachers, publishers….

they can actually be and do those things. Authentically.

A class misunderstood…

I knew this year was going to be hard. I knew that I wanted to take risks, innovate, and try new things. I knew that many people would have different perspectives and opinions about what I was doing. I knew that I would have to stand up for my beliefs, my philosophy and what was happening in the classroom. I knew that I would probably have to explain myself… justify myself… defend myself…

I just didn’t know my students would have to as well. 

Today one of my students was chatting with me at recess and sharing his frustration that many people think all we do is play.

“Miss, it is not okay that they think all we do is play all day because we do a lot of learning and they don’t think we do. It’s not fair.”

I tried to sympathize with his frustration and tell him that we can feel confident in the amazing learning that takes place in our class and that I know what it feels like to be misunderstood. The he told me something very interesting.

“Miss, it’s not only students who misunderstand us, it’s also teachers.”

… oh really!? Tell me more about that!

“I was walking to the library with myself and a teacher stopped me and asked where I was going. I told her I was going to the library. She asked my name. I told her. She asked who my teacher was and I told her. When she found out I was in Miss Taryn’s class, she asked if we actually ever do any learning in there. So I told her, yes we do so much learning. Then she asked what we were learning about it. I told her we were learning about relationships and perspectives. Then she asked if all we are learning about is relationships and perspectives how are we doing any math. So I told her were learning about perspectives and relationships in math. Like how everyone has a different perspective when solving  problem and that numbers and shapes are connected in many ways.”

Then a different student who was sitting close by chimed in…

“Yeah, the exact same thing happened to me! I was walking in the hall and a teacher stopped me and asked my name and my teacher. When they found out I was in Miss Taryn’s class they also asked if we ever did any learning. So I told her we do a lot of learning. She asked about what. I told her about relationships and perspectives. She asked if we were learning any knowledge. I told her we were learning so much knowledge like relationships that happen in nature, human relationships, perspectives in art, how technology affects relationships and more!”

I can’t remember a time where I felt more proud of my students. Not only are they able to understand our approach to learning, but they are able to advocate for it, and defend it! When confronted by a teacher, they were able to explain our concept-based approach to acquiring knowledge. They were able to point out the transdisciplinary way that we have been approaching math and literacy. And most importantly they were able to be critical thinkers and confidently share an opinion different from an authority figure in a respectful, but self-assued way.

They might not get us…. but we definitely get us!

The initial frustration at being misunderstood by students and teachers has turned into a class inside-joke. Now my students kid with one another and me by saying  “we don’t learn  anything”, “no learning in Miss Taryn’s class”, “all we do is play all day”.

The cherry on top (as if it could get any better!) was a student who came up to me after this conversation and said…

“Miss I’ve been thinking. What are the point of grades? They are just letters and numbers – but it’s so hard to make a letter or number that measures our learning. I think I’m going to write a blog post about it to share my perspective on this issue.”

My school’s mission focuses on creating critical thinkers and contributing world citizens. Check and check.

… even if that comes at the cost of being misunderstood and misrepresented…

we can take it.

“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.