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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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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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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10 Books of Wishes

For kids, wishes hold power. So much of life seems beyond their control: where they live, what they wear, who they meet. Among so much uncertainty, it’s a comforting hope to hold tight to a wish.

In Matt de la Peña & Christian Robinson’s latest picture book, “Carmela Full of Wishes,” Carmela doesn’t realize just how many important wishes she holds in her heart until she finds a dandelion. 

There are so many elements in this read that I found lovely. The details of Carmela’s neighborhood. The papel picado, Mexican folk art, that beautifully illustrates her wishes. The jingling bracelets that capture the essence of childhood joy (that can’t be diminished even by an irritable — and likely care-worn — brother). The way that it keeps readers wondering about Carmela’s wish and her life.

Also, I just have to share this gorgeous case design beneath the dust jacket!

I asked my kids if they could remember whose style it was, and they knew it was the same illustrator that created the video, “What is Music,” that they love so much (Funny coincidence: I included both Matt de la Peña & Christian Robinson in my summer post, “18 Best Videos to Get to Know Children’s Authors & Illustrators”).

For your readers that are full of wishes, here are 9 other books of wishes I’d recommend!

#2: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

#3: When’s My Birthday by Julie Fogliano & Christian Robinson

#4: I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal & Tom Lichtenheld

#5: We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen (I’m starting to wonder how this book somehow manages to get on just about every one of my lists…I regret nothing.)

#6: The Quickest Kid in Clarksville by Pat Zietlow Miller & Frank Morrison

#7: It Came in the Mail by Ben Clanton 

#8: Mr. Rabbit & the Lovely Present by Charlotte Zolotow & Maruice Sendak

#9: Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie & Yuyi Morales

#10: Pigeon Books by Mo Willems

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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.

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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?

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7 Questions to Ask About Your School Fundraiser

Fundraising season is in full swing. On the one hand, I completely understand the sad need for fundraising in our underfunded schools; on the other, I am growing increasingly concerned about our tactics.  The more I consider my own experiences, from childhood through adulthood, the more full of questions I become. Here are a few so far:

Do the prizes for top sellers tend to go toward one racial or economic group of students? I still remember the name of the boy who won the top prizes every year when I was in elementary school; his dad was a surgeon, which also meant his work colleagues were able to load him up with purchases. If a fundraiser serves to reward kids who are already privileged, we should re-evaluate.

Do the prizes highlight haves & have-not’s in any way? My first job after graduation was at a school that used school uniforms. Students who brought $1 on the last day of each month were permitted to dress in casual clothes the next day. Though this was a more affluent area, I was still horrified to see how it shamed the few students left in uniform who could not afford it (often because they had a lot of siblings). We should be wary to avoid creating such a spotlight.

Are there ways to celebrate school-wide efforts? My daughter’s school is planning to have a school-wide special assembly to celebrate everyone’s efforts (whether they were able to sell or not). I love this because it builds school-spirit and removes individual pressure from students.

Do the prizes create status issues among students? Winning badges & trinkets for selling X amount may seem trivial to us, but within kids’ social circles, they can MATTER. SO. MUCH. We must be careful not to add to their burdens, especially when so much is out of their control. And we must protect the privacy and dignity of families who may be struggling.

Are there more discreet ways to fundraise? Amazon Smile gives .5% of all purchases, the annual Target grant offers $700 for field trips, several chain restaurants offer portions of meals, DonorsChoose, adding a donation button to your school Facebook page (100% goes toward your school), & more.

Are the prizes actually attainable? If we’re pulling students from valuable classroom time to be dazzled at an assembly by prizes they are unlikely to even earn, we might want to revisit our approach.

Are you selling something the community wants? Try asking what the community would be interested in purchasing before deciding on that year’s fundraiser. Do they really want more wrapping paper, or maybe they’d prefer bags of potatoes from local markets? Or maybe they really would just prefer a donate button on your school’s website or social media page. Whatever the case, if we’re going to ask students to solicit the community, we should do our homework first in finding out what the community wants.

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