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.   “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 asking 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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7 Ways to Communicate We Care About At-Home Reading–Without Reading Logs

Last week, I wrote about my experience in which my 8 year-old questioned my ethics of signing off on her reading log all at once each week. Olwen, a friend in my PLN, responded,

To me, this really captures what most of us hope to convey about reading at home. But, as Olwen states, having them track their reading in a log at home can send the wrong message. Others commented describing how reading logs encouraged their children to read for the required time — and then not a minute after.

This post is about finding better ways to send the important message that you care about at-home reading — without the unpleasant side-effects reading logs can bring.

#1: Share your Goodreads lists: Post it on your class social media accounts, send texts with Remind with the link, send home the shortened link in a paper flyer. Many parents want your recommendations anyway. But if you really publicize books you love, families will definitely receive the message that you care about reading.

#2: Post a “What I’m reading” outside your door (and periodically share on class blog or social media). Great way to help with your own reading accountability, too! Perhaps you can even see if a student will accept a classroom job of reminding you and updating the title for you.

#3: Participate in #ClassroomBookADay (and periodically post a photo on class blog or social media). This is one of the top 5 ideas I’m dying to implement when I return to the classroom. Click the photo below for details!

via Nerdy Book Club

#4: Participate in Global Read AloudWorld Read Aloud Day, and similar events. And invite parents! I still remember the mom who would come every year on our school’s annual read-a-thon day to tell us the story of Brer Rabbit.

#5: Connect your students to local library resources. Does your library offer services through apps like Hoopla or Libby? Does it host special events that will be of interest to your students? Do they hold storytimes available for younger siblings? Do a little research and help make your students’ families aware of opportunities and updates.

#6: Connect them to audiobooks! Share your recommendations for apps and resources to help them get stories on devices at home. Some current favorites include:

  • Storyline Online is a big favorite around here since it shows the pictures of our favorite picture books while a celebrity reads. Free app on Apple, Android, and Chrome.
  • Khan Academy Kids offers their own line of stories, readers, animal books, and more. Free on Apple, Android, and Amazon appstore.
  • Fairy Tales is a free app, but you have to buy coins to access most of the books. Might be worth investigating, however, as they are fun interactive versions of beloved fairy tales.
  • Libby & Hoopla are especially wonderful options if your library pays for the subscription.

#7: Make reading the only homework. There is substantial evidence that there is little positive effect (and possibly negative effect) of homework for elementary ages. In lieu of worksheets and papier-mâché projects, make your only “assignment” to read. DO avoid attaching a minimum number of minutes required, but DON’T be afraid to inform parents of the effects of consistent reading. If you share information like the one below, be sure to assure parents that it’s really less about the 20 minutes and more about cultivating a lifelong reader (and that holding a hard line on reading can be counter-productive). 

There are many other ways to help convey to students’ families that you value reading at home. Maybe if you already do a monthly newsletter, maybe start including a reading highlight with a simple tip or recommendation. If you already have a class Facebook account, maybe set reminders to yourself to share what you’re reading there every couple weeks. Keep it simple, find what works best for you, and center the message on the reading itself.

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Inquiry into SDGs: Industry, Innovation, & Infrastructure

This is a series of provocations designed to provide resources for students to inquire into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. For more, click here

The Sustainable Development Goal #9 is intended to “build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation.” The resources below are intended to help your students start thinking about what this might look like and how they can be involved!

Resource #1: Our Work by Global Goods Partners

Resource #2: Animanimals: Ant by Filmbilder

Resource #3: Enterprise Sustainability by Bruton STrobe Studios

Resource #4: If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson

Resource #5: The Red Bicycle: An Extraordinary Story of One Ordinary Bicycle by Jude Isabella and Simone Shin

Provocation Questions: 

  • What is infrastructure? How does it impact the way a society functions?
  • What is industry? How does it impact the way a society functions?
  • What is innovation? How does it impact the way a society functions?
  • How does innovation help people come up with ideas for better infrastructure and industry?
  • How can responsible shopping choices help improve the industries in other countries?

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On #diyPD

Twitter has been an interesting ecosystem of #diyPD. Most, if not all, of the teachers present are looking for opportunities for professional growth and connection. But lately, I’ve noticed some push-back in discussions.

When someone talks about being inspired to do better, others say they are already maxed out.

When someone says they want to better model reading, others say they are too buried for personal reading.

When someone expresses excitement about some flexible seating they received through a grant, others say they’ll wait for higher-ups to fund it because who has time for grant-writing!

When someone asserts that they are not helpless and they can be the change, others say we must stop trying to depend on teachers to save society.

When someone talks about working to improve relationships and model learning, others say teaching should not be this hard: we teach content, students work on assignments, we grade.

And honestly, as much as we’d all like to focus on the positive that inspires, it’s important to acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns to be reckoned with across the spectrum here. Particularly when it comes to the concept of what it means to be a professional.

After all, it’s easy to say something like, “If we want to be treated like professionals, we have to act like professionals.” But if teachers are not given the support they really need, the expectations for going the extra mile should be zero.

It really becomes a “chicken and the egg” debate. Does showing initiative help others value teachers as professionals, or does valuing teachers as professionals cause them to take initiative? I’ve seen Twitter threads where teachers mourn for lost opportunities for them to take professional development into their own hands (like Edcamps), and I’ve seen threads where administrators mourn for the fact that none of the teachers will take advantage of the various professional development opportunities available.

For teachers who feel maxed out by unrealistic expectations, (especially the “cult of the superteacher” variety), maybe the diyPD needs to focus on self care. For instance, they might:

For teachers who are feeling inspired to shake up the status quo, maybe the diyPD needs to focus on building community. They might:

It’s likely that for all of us, our needs and capacity will shift over time. Sometimes, we will need to focus more on self-care, and sometimes we will need a challenge. Often, it’s a blend of the two. Sometimes, challenging the status quo will even be necessary for teachers to feel more confident with self-care (& vice versa!).

Whatever the case, we should be mindful about what’s doable for our ever-shifting personal circumstances. Say no to keep those boundaries maintained, and also be intentional about our yes’es to help us grow and to better reach our students.

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In Which the 8 Year-Old Questions My Reading Log Ethics #TeacherMom

Pernille Ripp’s recent revisit on reading logs reminded me about a conversation I recently had with my 8 year-old. She watched me sign the reading log like I always do: scribbling 20 minutes for each day all at once and adding my signature.

Her: “Is that cheating?”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Her: “Like, we don’t write down exactly how many minutes I read each day.”

Me: “No, it’s not cheating. You read at least this much every week.”

This was the end of my rushed explanation that morning, but I knew it wouldn’t satisfy her for long. Sure enough, the next time I went to sign, she inquired again. This time, I turned it back to her:

Me: “Right now, you love to read. We read during breakfast, at bedtime, and lots in between. How do you think it would effect how you feel about reading if we were always tracking every minute you read? If I was always asking whether you’d gotten up to 20 yet? If I was always telling you to set a timer and write it down?”

Her: “I don’t think I would enjoy that. I just want to read!”

She just wants to read. And don’t want to get in the way of that!

We further discussed how in the rare event that she does read fewer than 20 minutes in a day, it is not worth discouraging her overall love of reading. She now understands that my scribbled 20 minutes a day actually is, in fact, about maximizing her reading — both the quantity and the quality of her time spent.

At this point, some teachers might be thinking, “Well, that works fine if they actually read. What if they don’t?” To this, I would definitely recommend reading Pernille’s post to which I linked at the top — she has a great list of accountability strategies that help her know whether her kids are reading.

I myself used to think that reading logs were a great way to remind kids to read at home. Now I know that they can create obstacles that stand in the way of reading itself. I’m grateful for the lesson, and hope it will help me more thoroughly assess future strategies.

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Inquiry Into SDG’s: Responsible Consumption & Production

This is a series of provocations designed to provide resources for students to inquire into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. For more, click here

The concept of responsible consumption and production especially weighs on my mind this time of year as the holiday season approaches. Kath Murdoch recently shared an excellent post by George Monbiot that you may have seen since it was published in 2012. If not, be sure to check it out! One line that stood out to me in particular:

“…very rich people in Vietnam are now sprinkling ground rhino horn on their food or snorting it like cocaine to display their wealth. It’s grotesque, but it scarcely differs from what almost everyone in industrialised nations is doing: trashing the living world through pointless consumption.”

How might sharing this provocation spark more thoughtful consumption & production for our students? Use these resources to find out!

Resource #1: PYP Exhibition Staging from Sam Sherratt’s class: “Keep it simple, clear, and environmentally responsible. “

Resource #2: Lego artwork by Nathan Sawaya (Pop art series & Metamorphosis series)

by Nathan Sawaya

Resource #3: Sustainable Brands 2018 from Nice and Simple

Resource #4: The Most Sustainable Jeans by Parallel Studio

Resource #5: Sustainable Furniture by People for Smarter Cities

Resource #6: The Lorax by Dr. Suess

Provocation Questions:

  • What is production?
  • What is consumption?
  • What makes production or consumption sustainable?
  • What is our responsibility to produce and consume in a sustainable manner?
  • How does sustainable production/consumption compare with unsustainable production/consumption?
  • How does being responsible consumers help us better connect as human beings?

Reorganized Pages for Easier Navigation!

2 years ago, I came up with a blog posting topic schedule that consisted of 3 main categories of inquiry, TeacherMom, and Learning through Reflecting posts.

I wrote:

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about making this kind of commitment. I know there will be days or even weeks where it just doesn’t happen. But since I want to continue to model important learner qualities to my students (current small ones and future bigger ones), I refuse to let fear of failure keep me from taking a chance that might help me grow and improve.”

I am so glad I took that chance–it has been an incredible experience for me to push myself to curate resources, notice connections, and reflect as a professional. I feel certain that if I did not set up these goals for myself, my personal professional learning would fall by the wayside in these years while I’m away from the classroom.

Now, as these posts have accumulated, I realize it’s getting a little cumbersome for readers (or even myself) to revisit older posts. So I’m pleased to announce that the pages for each of the 3 categories have been reorganized, with posts grouped by sub-concepts on each page. I would love feedback–what is easier about these pages? What would make navigation even simpler?

Inquiry Posts

#TeacherMom Posts

Learning through Reflecting Posts

Thank you so much to all those who have encouraged me over these years of blogging!

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