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?

You lost me at levels and incentives…

A few weeks ago I attended a training session for an online reading product. I arrived open-minded and ready to learn about a new tool to help my students develop their love of reading.

Then words and phrases from the presentation started to buzz around me like pesky bees.

“stars earned for books read”… swat!

“limit their levels”… swat!

“comprehension quiz”… swat!

“pre-made”… swat!

“worksheets”… swat!

“generic lessons”… swat!

Then it started to become worse than buzzing. I was shown how to control what students read, how to restrict how they read and how to send them messages to which they could not reply. Cringe.

Where is the student ownership, voice, agency?

So I began to do a little research on their website:

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Ranking. Control. Practice, practice and more practice. 

Nothing about love, joy or passion. 

The whole time I was listening to the presentation and browsing the website I could not get this poem written by John Locke our of my head:

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I don’t want to do anything that gives my students an aversion to reading or learning. I do not want to make reading a business for them. I want to help them grow their passion as readers.

5 years ago I probably would have jumped on board and signed my students up. I’ve become more discerning since then. I become more informed since then. I’ve become more critical since then. I’ve become more emboldened since then.

Amazing provocateurs like Pernille Ripp, Mark Barnes and Alfie Kohn have challenged my thinking about reading practices like reading logs, levelling, and incentives. They have prompted me to reflect on how the choices I make as a teacher can kill my students’ love of reading. They have forced me to think of myself as a reader when thinking about what I should be asking of students. They have provided me with guidance about how to create a passionate reading environment. They have inspired me to become a reading warrior where I critically think about and advocate against literacy practices and products that negatively impact children. They have inspired me to break the rules.

Yet time remained in this presentation, so I tried to see the potential uses. Here was a website offering thousands of online books. Books… hmmm. I began to wonder about these “books”. So I dug a little deeper.

“professional illustrators who have years of experience illustrating educational material

excerpts and adaptations from literature”

Was this a place where students could access real books or materials for reading instruction?Because those aren’t the same things.

I think my students deserve exposure to good quality literature. I think my students deserve to be free from levelling and ranking. I think my students deserve voice and choice in what they read and how they read. I think my students deserve to develop their love for reading away from prizes, rewards and incentives.

Is there not an app or website where students have access to literature with no levels, no incentives, no restrictions or limitations?

Is so, please tell me about that.

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”…

Forced feedback or found feedback?

Feedback.

One of the it words of education today and probably something most educators around the world seem to agree about – that feedback impacts learning. But I wonder if our obsession with feedback has us so focused on the potential impact of feedback, that we are forgetting to question the context and conditions of that feedback.

This tweet from @justintarte provoked my thinking about this:

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Are we forcing our feedback upon students or are we empowering students to own their learning and find feedback in order to help themselves grow and improve?

This got me thinking about training I received last year to become an instructional coach for teachers. The biggest takeaway from the course was that instructional coaching needed to be optional in order to be most effective. Teachers needed to seek out a coach by choice because feedback for their teaching was more powerful and impactful when it was something they were looking for on their own accord. Something done by them, not something done to them.

…gathered, not given.

…found, not forced.

This means the difference between a coach scheduling a meeting with a teacher and telling them “here is what you need to do in order to get better” and a teacher requesting a meeting with a coach and asking them “what can I do to get better?”

So if we acknowledge and protect that for adult-learners, why are we not doing the same for child-learners?

As teachers, are we scheduling a conference with students and telling them “here is what you need to do in order to get better” unsolicited? Or are we empowering students and creating conditions where students request conferences with teachers (and beyond)  so they can ask “what can I do to get better?”

If we believe that feedback is most effective when sought out by the learners themselves, the question for educators then needs to move away from “Are you giving your students feedback?” and towards “How are you empowering your students to understand the purpose and process of gathering feedback?”

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?

If it works for teachers… why not students?

Last week I wrote about how my work with adults will change the way I interact with students with regards to issues of classroom management. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it will also change the way I approach planning for learning experiences. After two years working with adult learners I feel pretty confident with the structure I have used for professional development sessions.

Why can’t I use that same structure with children?

I had the sneaking suspicion that I could… and lucky for me the perfect opportunity presented itself! I was asked to facilitate a one hour “bridges” session to help our transitioning Grade 5 students learn about the MYP. So I decided to approach it the way I would approach a one hour PD session with adults.

Here is how it went:

I planned Guiding Slides based on Kath Murdoch’s inquiry cycle (just like I would for teachers)

I gathered materials – pencils, markers, post-its, scrap paper. (just like I would for teachers)

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I built a Google Doc with a variety of resources. (just like I would for teachers)

MYP Google Doc

I set up groups with materials already on the tables. (just like I would for teachers)

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We played a round of “stand-up if…” to help our learning community build connections before jumping into the learning. (just like I would with teachers)

I told them I would collect their attention by simply raising my hand and waiting patiently for them to wrap up their conversations. (just like I do with teachers)

Students tuned into what they already know-or think they know. (just like teachers would)

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Students tuned into what they wondered and wanted to find out. (just like teachers would) 

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Student chose how they would find out – watch a video, read a blog post, look at a diagram, browse a Twitter hashtag. (just like teachers would)

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Students decided how best to record and organize the important information they found – write it down, type it out, take a picture of it. (just like teachers would)     

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Students reflected on how their thinking changed. (Just like teachers would)

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My reflections on the session…

It was amazing to see that when given the opportunity, students were able to take ownership over their own learning. There was no “lesson” and I didn’t “teach” them anything… but there was learning. There was thinking, curiosity, self-differentiation, risk-taking, discussion, reflection and new understandings.

What worked:

  • playing a game to build connections before starting with the learning tasks
  • individually tuning in and collectively posting initial thoughts and questions
  • raising my hand to collect their attention
  • having a collection of resource links on a Google Doc for students with devices and paper copies for students without devices
  • providing choice of how, where and with who to learn
  • having post-its, scrap paper and writing utensils on each group
  • setting time expectations, not task expectations (ex. you have 5 minutes to write as many post-its about what you know about the MYP; you have 15 minutes to explore as many resources as time allows) 
  • using familiar Visible Thinking Routines like “I used to think, now I think” and “See, Think, Wonder”
  • reflecting at the end of the session about how their thinking has changed

What I would change if I did it again:

  • time it out differently and plan to do less in one hour
  • trim down the resources to one or two per type
  • support students more in accessing and using the Google Doc
  • stick with VTRs  they are familiar with and have used before

So, can I use the same structures to facilitate student learning that I use to facilitate teacher learning?

YES! 

…perhaps just with a little extra time and support!