Supporting Students’ Agency – Take Two!

Last year, was the first year in my career as an educator where I tried to my best to respect and support my students as agentic learners. There were many successes, many frustrations and a whole lot of learning. This year I am it again! Hoping to continue to challenge and change my own beliefs and practices and hopefully do a better job respecting and supporting my students’ agency.

This year I have changed schools and joined a team of like-minded educators, who are also interested in re-thinking education, pushing the boundaries of “doing school” and innovating the PYP. Our initiative is called Studio 5 and it has been amazing to be a part of it so far.

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We are in the process of organizing ourselves so we can share, in detail, what we are doing, why we are doing it – and the part that is usually most appreciated by teachers – how we are doing it. When that blog is up and running I will be sure to share the link here.

For now, I just wanted to take some time for myself to reflect – What approaches have I kept from last year… What have I changed and improved… What new things have I tried… and most importantly how it’s all been going so far.

Morning Cafes

Each morning is a slow start to the day – meaning students can come up to class any time they like between 7:45 and 8:15. During this time all 4 homerooms are open and offer something different and the students roam freely from room to room, building, creating, playing and enjoying each other’s company.

Student Written Rights and Responsibilities

Using the Visible Thinking Routine “Growing Definition” students came up with a list of rights for the time they spend at school.

Student Voice

Providing lots of opportunity for students to voice their thoughts and opinions including using the Visible Thinking Routine “Compass Points” to collect their needs, worries, excitements and suggestions from the first day of school; having an ongoing place in the room for students to document problems, questions and ideas; asking students to complete surveys with honest feelings about school, learning and themselves.

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Student-Planned “Bonding Day”

At the beginning of the year, each grade attends a “Bonding Day” to help students and teachers get to know one another and begin to build a strong sense of community. Instead of teachers planning and running this day for the students, the students planned and ran this day for themselves. This involved researching activities, putting the plans together, testing out their games on each other and their parents, receiving/analyzing/actioning feedback from multiple sources, advertising their game and finally -when the day came – running their activity.

Re-designing the Learning Space

Since we are trying to break through the typical notion of “my homeroom” and create a collaborative culture where all Studio 5 students are learning and working together, instead of having students set up their own classroom, we had the entire Studio 5 student body re-design the whole Studio 5 area. This required having students really understand the “why” of having them design their own learning space as well as having some interesting discussions on planning and making decisions on behalf of a large group of people. In order to make this happen, students connected with others across the grade who shared a similar interest, collaboratively conducted research and collected data, put together a video proposal on Flipgrid and if they received majority support from the community they could put their plan into action.

Inquiring into Learning

We used the Frayer model to tune into what we thought “learning” meant, then we used the process of “Growing Definition” to come up with a shared understanding of what “learning” means to us. We used this definition to create criteria to help us know that learning has happened (can be seen below along the right side of the day plan template). We also spent time thinking about how learning happens and who we are as learners. Finally we “looked for learning” by identifying the learning that had happened over the past weeks – even if we weren’t aware of it at the time.

Building a Culture of Initiative (Not Permission)

I was also cautious not to quash curiosity and any initiative my students were taking to pursue a curiosity or interest. Whether it was building, designing, figuring out if a lime could power a light or how best to make a wad of clay stick to a glass wall… I tried not to stop them or stand in their way.

Planning Their Own Day

I started having students plan their own day the same as I had done last year by giving them a blank template that had the timings of periods and empty boxes. Thanks to collaboration and amazing team members, I was able to fine tune and improve this process. I started to use the MOSCOW method to help students see different priorities for the day and I amended the day plan template to build in space for not only what they were doing, but also why and how. One of the best improvements to the day planning process and template was building in a focus on ATL skill development.

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Inquiring into Reflection

In order to help students get to know themselves as reflective learners, and to become more aware of their reflective preferences, we discussed and experimented with many different approaches to “how” we can reflect as well as “what” we can reflect about. From here students will (hopefully) be able to make informed choices each day when reflecting on their learning. Students are also working towards using their daily reflections to inform the choices they make the following day when completing their day plans.

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C.A.R. Time

The first period and last period everyday is “C.A.R. time” where students are supported by a learning advisor to “Choose. Act. Reflect”. The groups are small enough that the advisor can meet with each student in the morning to offer advice on planning their day and again in the afternoon to encourage deep and meaningful reflections about the day.

Student-Led Workshops

In our Studio 5 model it was important to us that students felt empowered to lead their own workshops for other students. In order to get this process started, students first used the “Gradual Increase of Independence” to reflect on things they can do independently, as well as things they would need to be taught, helped with and things they could teach others. These reflections were then shared in a central place so students could start to see both workshops they might want to offer and workshops they might want to participate in. From there students took initiative to plan, advertise and facilitate workshops on a range of topics.

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Optional Teacher Led Workshops

As much as we wanted students to be empowered to lead their own learning, we also wanted to make sure we were a part of their learning too! So in attempt to move away from the typical mandatory, full class lesson model, we began to offer optional workshops that any student – regardless of which homeroom they were in – could sign up to attend. Workshops ranged from read alouds, to creative writing, to math concepts to tech skills.

Building a Culture of Passionate Readers and Writers

In our Studio 5 model it is important that students are developing their literacy skills – but we want to be careful that this does not infringe on their agency as learners. So we have been focusing more on creating a culture of passionate readers and writers – with the help of advice from blogger Pernille Ripp – focusing on what we can do to help them want to read and write. We try to make books visible, accessible and valued; we encourage students to use and enjoy the beautiful school library; we ensure space for students to share book recommendations with one another; we encourage reading at any point in the day; we invite students to become reading buddies for younger students; and we provide options and opportunities for practical and creative use of language.

Developing Assessment Capable Students

In order for students to be able to lead their learning, they must have access to all the usual behind-the-scenes process teachers engage in. For our first stand-alone math unit we wanted to support students in not only understanding what is expected to be learned by the end of the unit, but also how they could figure out what they may already know. We supported the students in using the “Gradual Increase of Independence” to self-assess where they thought they were for each math learning outcome. But more importantly, we discussed the difference between thinking you know something and being sure that you know something. We discussed the role of providing evidence and gathering feedback from experts to ensure you are on the right track. Some students decided to create a Google Slides presentation to house their evidence and others preferred to collect their evidence in a notebook. Some students used a teacher as an expert, others used an older sibling, parent or peer. As students received feedback from their experts, many of them made changes to the placement of the learning outcomes along the Gradual Increase of Independence.

Parent Voice

Similar to ensuring that students feel their voice is heard and valued, it is equally important to ensure that parents feel their voice is also heard and valued. Sending home a Google form was an amazing way to better understand their child, their family and their perspective on the purpose of school.

Student-Written Reports

I am so excited that our administration supports the idea that if students are truly owning their learning, they should be the ones to write their evaluation of learning report. To help them in this process, we used the Visible Thinking Routine “Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate”. First we had students reflect on everything they had done in the Who We Are unit, then we had them think about how those learning experience helped them develop two self-management and two social skills as well as how those experiences contributed to their understanding of “Who We Are”. From there, students used their concept map to reflect on questions in a google form. Next week, students will then turn these responses into a cohesive paragraph that will be used as their official written report for the Who We Are unit.

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My reflections…

  • it has been amazing to be surrounded by like-minded educators who are also striving to respect and support students’ agency during their time at school
  • approaching these initiatives as a grade level, as opposed to a single class has provided much more opportunity for students
  • having an administrative team and head of school with a similar vision has helped to alleviate some of the fears associated with innovating and taking risks in the classroom
  • letting go of exactly what I did last year has been hard, but the growth and progress from letting go and being open to my team’s ideas and suggestions has been amazing
  • the days are so enjoyable – the vibe is relaxed and free; there is always a buzz in the air filled with conversation and laughter; students and teachers are interacting as partners in the learning process; it all feels very humane
  • the parents have been amazing allies in this process, providing lots of supportive feedback about what we are trying to do and how it has been a positive experience for their child
  • there is still so much preventing us from being able to truly support students as agentic learners – practices and procedures deeply embedded in the current paradigm of schooling limit the type of true agentic environment we dream of
  • I am still a learner… I have much to learn, unlearn and re-learn about how best to work within a system and yet at the same time push the limits of that system

What is your feedback about what we have been trying so far?

How can we continue to improve as PYP teachers in support of student agency?

How have you been respecting and supporting your students as agentic learners?

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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…