Student Agency: 5 Steps for Beginners

As student agency gains greater momentum (it’s now a core portion of the International Baccalaureate PYP program), more and more teachers are joining the discussion. Many start on the fringes, wondering…

would achievement go up if we helped students know, understand, and own the learning objectives? 

would we have fewer classroom management problems if we started to give students more choices about their learning? 

These are fabulous springboard questions, but they are just the beginning. True student agency is not actually about getting students to do what we want; it’s about helping them learn to identify what they want for themselves, to expand their view beyond this current task to a sense of self-driven purpose that will last much longer.

It’s a shift from teachers as the experts and controllers of learning in the room, to teachers as consultants and facilitators of student learning, helping students to make connections with peers, outside experts, and the community.

It’s a shift from students as passive recipients, waiting for the knowledge someone else has planned for them that day, to students as active agents, anticipating and even planning what should come next alongside their teachers.

These are massive shifts that take a great deal of time and patience with ourselves. So what are beginning steps we might take?

1. Help parents understand what we mean by agency and ownership over learning. At first, there may be confusion and reservations. But parents might be surprised to find out just much they might already be applying agency at home. Help them recognize that it might look like…

…fostering independence (Let Grow is a great resource illustrating ways many parents are working toward healthy, independent childhoods).

letting kids in on the secret of their own development.

building resilience skills.

…building time-management skills, including discussing balance.

…listening to kids’ voices even when we feel frustrated. (great example from Aviva Dunsinger, an early childhood teacher).

2. Work to cultivate self-regulation and other social-emotional practices. This goes beyond the occasional lesson discussing metacognition. It’s work that begins with ourselves, then carrying over to authentic modeling and discussions with our students. This might come through teaching students to identify their own feelings and process stress. Or it might happen through teaching them to take ownership over resources at their disposal.  All of this is important for agency because it gives them strategies for self-direction.

3. Get to the root of defiant behavior, and find new strategies to address it.   The “Life After Clip Charts” series gives excellent strategies that can replace those clip charts and stickers. They aren’t as neat or pretty, but they are important because if our students are constantly receiving the message that they need rewards from grown-ups in order to make good choices, they are less likely to believe that they can be trusted with their own learning life.

4. Invite student voice. Let students in on the secret of all that curricula and classroom set-up, etc. Bring all the “secret teacher business” stuff into view of the kids and ask them, how can we make it better? Invite them to teach workshops from time to time (great getting-started post here from Mindy Slaughter).

5. Work on “getting the mix right” between guidance and student-directed inquiry. Kath Murdoch (an inquiry-based teacher you should follow right way if you don’t already as part of this list) recently wrote on getting this mix right. There’s sometimes a strange notion that promoting agency means we teachers will be kicking our feet up on the desk. But the truth is, a lot of work goes into providing timely guidance. As Kath writes,

“Far from being an arms-length facilitator ‘on the side’, the inquiry teacher is continually weighing up if, when and how to ‘step in’. They actively work beside the learner observing, listening, questioning, prompting, suggesting, explaining, demonstrating, refining or redirecting as required. This is guidance. When we position students as inquirers, we offer them opportunities to make decisions about their learning every day.”

This is an important step in promoting student agency because it provides them with the support they need, even as we express confidence in their decision-making.

Learning to honor our students’ agency takes time, but it is an investment that is absolutely worth every effort.

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featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Intentionally Cultivating Abundant, Intrinsic Learning #TeacherMom

I wonder how often I’ll be surprised at the abundance of learning that can happen for kids without the personal intervention of adults.

The latest episode occurred when my 8 year-old asked Google to show her a picture of the solar system so she could create her own LEGO model. This launched when she decided to build a spaceship, which got her thinking, “where will the spaceship land? It’s more fun if there’s a place for the person to land and explore!”

Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Can you tell which is which?

Her exploration was packed with play, discovery, pleasure, energy, and joy.

All this was all fueled by her own delighted fervor to learn. No assignment. No sticker chart. No carrot and stick.

While this learning venture was all her own, there have been intentional steps toward a culture of intrinsic learning. Steps like…

saying no to reading programs that would get in the way of self-selected reading.

…setting up a learning environment with invitations to explore.

intentional language (“what amazing science you’re exploring!” “your interesting connections really make me think.”)

…discussing independent time-management & balance.

second-guessing my agenda before second-guessing her developmental readiness.

treasuring play. As written in a recent Washington Post article,

“the art of the joy of childhood is doing things because they anchor you to the moment, not because they will reap future benefits or rewards. There is a sense of mindfulness children feel when they play that so many of us long for as adults.”

Leaving a child to their own learning devices still actually does involve quite a lot of effort on our part. Sometimes the things to which we say “No” are just as important as the things to which we say “Yes.” As I’ve shared before, in the words of Seth Godin,

“If it’s work, they try to figure out how to do less, and if it’s art, they try to figure out how to do more.”

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

5 Ways to Leverage Student Ownership for Improving School Communication

Communication shows up on just about every school’s plans for self-improvement in one way or another. A school might work on newsletters, automated texts, or social media, all of which are worthwhile.

However, as I recently learned at an active transportation conference,

Good solutions solve many problems; access to active transportation solves mobility, but it also addresses obesity, isolation & depression, and connecting with ‘the other'” (Tyler Norris).

Similarly, focusing primarily on student ownership is a good solution that can address many problems; it solves students feeling more invested in their learning, but it also strengthens the school/home connection, lifelong learning, and a more empowering school culture.

Here are some examples of how leveraging student ownership might help improve school communication in particular:

1. More transparent process. Ownership might look like students planning how to spend their learning time, leading workshops to teach peers, co-constructing success criteria, and more. All of these lend themselves to a tone of transparency that will most certainly make its way home to students’ families.

2. Authentic audience. Rather than waiting for that unproductive “what did you learn at school” conversation, students can provide their families with a window into their learning as it unfolds. Tools like Seesaw, student blogging, and more make this doable even for young students.

3. Students’ ability to identify and develop learning goals can grow in ways they can articulate to parents…

4. …which also lends itself to more meaningful conferences.

5. Students learn how to take more meaningful action that often carries over to their local community.

 

Student ownership has so much potential to strengthen our students and our schools. Putting more of the planning and decisions in their hands can yield astonishing results if we are courageous enough to control less and share more.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Is There Anything More Powerful than a Child Choosing a Book? #TeacherMom

My one word goal for 2018 has been power. It’s been an inquiry into questions such as…

…what is the connection between power & influence?

…how does comprehending our sphere of influence impact our lives? Our communities? 

…what is my sphere of influence?

…how can I be more intentional about directing and growing my influence to areas that matter most for me? 

Because I’m in the midst of this inquiry, I often find myself thinking about how & why certain sights, actions, and words carry power.

So when I come across my 2 year-old snuggling in with a book of his choosing, I’m fascinated by the implications for power.

Is there anything more powerful than a child choosing a book?

How does book-choosing, especially starting at a young age, give a child power?

How do books boost a child’s ownership over their learning? 

How does ownership over learning relate to an individual’s power?

Truly, helping children onto a path of choosing to read is a powerful endeavor, and we can all contribute:

Cultivating a child’s desire to choose and celebrate books is one of the most powerful things we can do.

featured image: Oliver Henze

Owning That They CAN’T Always Control What We Think They Should

I used to think…students could control a lot more I do now.

Now I know…there is a whole lot more out of their control than I realized.

I used to think…part of my job as a teacher was to hold them accountable so they could learn responsibility.

Now I know…holding a child accountable for that which they have only partial or zero control is fundamentally unjust.

I used to think…self-control was all about helping them take care of themselves.

Now I know…sometimes our emphasis on control is less about their needs and more about our agenda. 

So as you view images like this “What I can/can’t control” example…

…consider these questions:

  • how might the home environment impact a student’s control homework completion (including but absolutely not limited to internet access, books in the home, library access, care for other siblings, etc.)
  • how might the way certain values are (or are NOT) emphasized and valued at home impact the way a student views them, such as education and hard work?
  • how might the stability (or lack thereof) of a students’ upbringing impact his/her ability to trust people enough to ask for help, try again, or respond to challenges in responsible ways?
  • to what degree should hold students accountable for values we have always been taught to cherish when they may have been taught that other values matter more (taking care of family over studying for a test, for example)?
  • how might chronic or toxic stress impact a student’s capacity for self-control?

I suspect the list of questions could go on for some time.

Which is why:

1) we can’t ignore the reality of compassion fatigue and why self care should be a massive emphasis for teachers everywhere. It’s incredibly draining for teachers who choose to seek understanding and responsiveness amid a myriad of difficult circumstances.

2) it’s worth considering why self-regulation > self-control.

3) I love Brene Brown’s Engaged Feedback Checklist, which I’ve shared on this blog many times. “I’m willing to put the problem in front of us rather than between us (or sliding it toward you).”

4) we should step away from the stickers:

“If a child is demonstrating stress behaviours, they may be telling us that our expectations are too much for them. Reducing the stressors may mean changing our program or our routines. If we are asking young children like Michael to sit for too long, listen for too long, or complete too many worksheets, then no number of stickers is going to be enough incentive for a child who is not developmentally ready.”

How can assuming more ownership over this issue of control with a stance of curiosity impact the students in your classroom?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Messy Beautiful Learning Happens When… #TeacherMom

…play is seen for what it really is: “the work of childhood.”

…children are permitted to make a space their own.

the desk of the 4 year old. Play dough, dinosaurs, magnetic letters, arctic animals, and some super heroes, all with an important and cohesive role for him.

…they are permitted choose to toss the instruction manuals, mix-and-match, and re-imagine what’s possible.

She decided to mix all the “sets” together to design her own city.

…they are encouraged to plan their time while also given the skills to identify balance and foresight.

…we stand ready to guide, shape, and support their inquiries, while also respecting their choices, voices, and sometimes messy ownership.

via Kath Murdoch’s blog

…we respect our students as the human beings they are, giving feedback grounded in relationships rather than judgement. (much less tidy than a clip chart for behavior, but much more likely to yield growth and learning).

What do you find to be the best conditions for messy, beautiful learning?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

On A Sustainable School Year: An Open Letter to Parents I Wish I’d Sent

Dear Parents,

The year is still shiny and new. We’re feeling refreshed after the summer break, and ready to tackle a new year. In your renewal, you may be feeling tempted to sign up for all the programs and pack all the cute lunches and be all the things.

As teachers, we get it. We feel determined to apply for all the grants and find all the flexible seating and be all the buzz words.

And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do our best for those kids, especially when we feel like we have energy to spare.

But the truth for us all is, as any long distance runner will tell you, starting off at a sprint is just not sustainable. The crash will come, and if you’ve poured in all the energy at the beginning of the year, the crash will be swift and complete.

My personal favorite illustration of this burn-out effect was Jen Hatmaker’s hilarious blog post a few years back:

“[husband] Brandon: “You don’t have to do all that, you know. Just blow it off.”

Me, staring blankly:

“Well, what a lovely thought you’re having there in your brain. How nice for you to be thinking that thought. I want to live in your imaginary world where my failure to do the School Stuff doesn’t mean our kid is the only one not wearing a purple shirt or didn’t have his pictures in the slideshow or didn’t bring in a handmade card for his teacher like every other student. I’ll just ‘blow it off’ and our kids can work it out with their therapists later.”

If we start out feeling like we have to do it all, and do it all perfectly, I will be astonished if any of us make it to the New Year.

This year, let’s set a more sustainable pace from the start. The same blogger posted last Christmas about “Big Day Sabotage,” with suggestions on how to return to a calmer, healthier holiday season, like lowering stimulation, avoiding over-scheduling, casting a simple, manageable vision, and talking about big feelings. These tips absolutely apply to sustainability here as well. Here are a few more to consider:

Be mindful of pace, for your child, for yourself, and for your family. Talk with your students about how they are feeling, talk to them about how you are feeling, and share those feelings with me. While I can’t be all things to all people, I am happy to accommodate your needs the best I can.

Don’t be afraid to opt out. It’s not laziness to opt out of a program or event that doesn’t work for your child or your family. Read about the time I opted out of what I’m sure was a lovely home reading program here.

Work more on your culture of agency than on perfecting details. Instead of trying “keep up” with the level of involvement you might perceive from other kids and their families, focus your energy on letting your child take the reins. If it’s important to her to look like an amazing Amelia Earhart for the wax museum, don’t make it the default for you to do all the work — teach skills like sewing, planning shopping lists, or calling the school office to check for available butcher paper or old cardboard boxes. And be ok with what will inevitably be a messy rendition. (other ideas for a culture of agency at home here).

Stay in touch regarding your needs! I remember when a parent told me that her child had been spending hours on math homework each night. By the time she talked to me, they had clearly been maxed out for some time, and my heart sank — new teacher that I was, it never occurred to me that any of my students would be pouring in that much time on the work I had assigned. I was happy to have the chance to set it straight then, and I learned for the future that I need to consult parents much more thoroughly regarding homework moving forward.

Meanwhile, I will work toward greater sustainability as well by seeking out student voice, putting learning in students hands, and managing self-care.

Let’s work together, not just to “make it,” but to approach learning at a pace and tone that will be sustainable this year, and for many joyful years to come.

Thanks,

Mary Wade