Strategies to trust students to own learning when they seem uninterested

Sonya asked a question that is so important to acknowledge when we’re working to cultivate student agency and ownership over their learning:

This is different from non-compliance. Non-compliance asks, “how can we get them to do what we ask?” And interestingly enough, for many students, non-compliance issues are often resolved when we shift to the agency-based question that Sonya’s tweet is really about: “How can we inspire students to own their learning?”

But what about when they do comply, and they do take some ownership of their learning, but, as Sonya writes, they “are satisfied with the minimum possible effort?” Here are a few thoughts.

1. Partner with parents. It’s entirely possible that if you just ask, “What have you found motivating for your child?” you’ll find the parents have been at a loss, too. But you might find more success if you try asking something more specific, such as, “What are the top 3 topics that make your child light up?” or “Can you share with me a time when your child was excited to take the lead on something?” This is also an important step to take to check if there might be something bigger going on in the student’s life that is making learning a low priority.

2. Hold regular conferences. I appreciated the details of what makes a conference effective in the recent post by Lanny Ball, “What to do when a writer doesn’t say much?” It’s geared toward writing conferences, but the same qualities can be applied to any kind of conference feedback:

  • “Happens in the moment

  • Specific and calibrated

  • Focused and honest

  • Offers one (maybe two) practical tip(s)

  • Lays out a plan for follow-up

  • Demands a high level of agency from the student”

3. Demystify coming up with ideas. For many students, coming up with an idea can seem like something only those people can do. Help them demystify this by showing them process, process, process. Talk about your own process. Highlight peer process. Share experts’ process. Julie Faltako’s “The Truth About the Writing Process” below is a great example of this (as is her Twitter account, as she regularly turns to others for ideas). And of course, keep a chart of strategies nearby for when we get stuck!

I also love “Where Do Ideas Come From” by Andrew Norton

4. Use “Must, Should, Could” for time planning with exemplars. I absolutely love David Gastelow’s “Must, Should, Could” chart with his young students.

from IB Educator Voices blog

For students who struggle with coming up with ideas, I would definitely provide a menu from which they can select, hopefully gradually opening up over time as they become confident.

5. Expand their knowledge base & sense of self-discovery. 

I love inspirational videos like the ones below–I often include them in the provocation posts I write. They help lift us out of the rut of the everyday and help us glimpse issues and passions we might not have even considered. Sharing this kind of work with students, and then finding opportunities to research deeper, might help provide the knowledge base that will awaken a student to a sense of his/her own capacity.

Speaking of knowledge, check out this simple but illuminating visual from Margaret (Maggie) Lewis in Sonya’s thread:

None of the above is foolproof. Working with human beings is messy and will requires serious trial-and-error. As Alfie Kohn recently wrote about motivation:

“Working with people to help them do a job better, learn more effectively, or acquire good values takes time, thought, effort, and courage.”

It’s why we need each other in this process! If you have additional strategies or resources, I’m sure we’d all be grateful if you could add to the list!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

When Not Everyone Is Inspired by Your Inspiration

My first year of college, I enrolled in a freshman support group of sorts. One of the requirements was to take a student development course on building a sense of community. The main mentor text in this endeavor was Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks.

Seems innocuous enough, right? I really like Paul Fleischman, too. But I hated that course, and as a result, I also disliked the book.

Looking back, I can more clearly pinpoint why. It was the pressure to conform, to pretend inspiration in order to feel a sense of belonging.

Sometimes, an approach, text, or training might dazzle most but not all; when that happens, does it lead to blame or shame or even exclusion? Are labels applied like “not a team player” or “not fully invested,” when the truth sounds more like, “Still thinking about this application” or “Stressed about my massive inbox right now.”

This applies just as much for teachers during professional development as it does for students during back-to-school icebreaker games.

Adding a large dose of agency to our approach (actual agency, not the pretend kind — a concept that Doug Robertson nailed in a post a few months ago), is a great way to move away from this sense of in-group/out-group. It also conveys that you trust teachers and students to find their unique way forward, which ultimately leads to greater success.

“It’s great to be successful. It’s even better to make sure you followed your own distinctive, and not necessarily always obvious, path to the success that can truly fulfill you.”

How we can show our teachers and students that we are as open-minded as we hope they will be? How can we help co-define & construct success? How can we promote an atmosphere of agency in our learning?

A few resources below might provide some ideas to help all participants find inspiration!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Provocation for Finding Ideas

Where do we find inspiration? Why is that that one moment, ideas seem to sweep us away, and the next, they feel hopelessly out of reach? I’ve shared other provocations on finding wonder and inspiration before, but it’s such an essential flame to keep burning that I’m sharing another!

Resource #1: Where Do Ideas Come From? by Andrew Norton

Resource #2: On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein picture book by Jennifer Berne & Vladimir Radunsky

Provocation Questions:

  • When have you felt most inspired?
  • How does inspiration impact how our societies run/change?
  • Why do we feel uninspired sometimes?
  • What is our responsibility to share our ideas?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

An Epiphany: Blog Posting Topic Schedule

You know when you get those moments of clarity that make you giddy with excitement? I’m currently in the thralls of one of those right here!

I’ve been reflecting lately about my blogging habits that I know are holding me back. Like the fact that my brainstorming process reminds me of chicken feed scattered thin across a yard (I have several dozen Google Documents of ideas I start and then abandon to jump to something else). Or the time I waste second-guessing myself before I hit publish. Or the mental energy I squander with worry that since I’m not currently in a classroom, my ideas are less valuable.

But today, I’ve had a stroke of inspiration that I hope will help me better organize, focus, and refresh my thoughts and time. I’ve decided to try joining those bloggers who create weekly topic schedules for their posts:

Mondays: Inspiring Inquiry

Wednesdays: #TeacherMom

Friday: Learning Through Reflecting

Some background on each topic:

Mondays: Inspiring Inquiry

I feel like I’m constantly stumbling across beautiful and thought-provoking images, articles, or videos that I think would make incredible Provocations or conversation-starters for students (for those not familiar with International Baccalaureate or the PYP–Primary Years Program–a Provocation is a component of an inquiry unit that provokes students’ questions and thinking, hopefully orienting them toward that unit). Sometimes I’ll tweet them and sometimes I’ll bookmark them. But I’m generally left with a nagging, back-of-mind worry that I’ll want to find that one resource again for my future students, only to be thwarted by my hopeless lack of organization.

So I’m setting aside Mondays as “Inspiring Inquiry” as a personal goal to not only better organize provocation-worthy material, but to share with my fellow teachers. In addition to publishing my favorite resource of the week, I’ll also plan on listing open-ended questions you can have students consider.

Wednesdays: #TeacherMom

I’m particularly excited about this one. I’ve often heard the advice for bloggers to “write what you know.” As a teacher writing for an educational blog, I never anticipated this being an issue (after all, despite being on year two of my extended parental leave, I still can’t seem to turn off “teacher mode”).  But the longer I’m away from my classroom, the more difficult it’s becoming to reach back to write about my experiences in the classroom. And if I’m not reflecting about personal teaching experiences, I worry about originality–I don’t want to just recycle other people’s ideas.

What’s more, child-rearing has taken center stage on the “what I know” front while I’m home with our three little ones. And I don’t often turn to this all-encompassing aspect of my life for writing inspiration because it’s not the classroom.  

But I recently realized how very silly this has been. Though my students are much smaller, they still offer rich learning opportunities every day. And not only run-of-the-mill parenthood learning (ie, don’t lay down on your picnic blanket during a crowded library storytime, or the toddler behind you might try to pick your nose), but learning that very much uses and extends my professional development as a teacher. So it’s time for those #TeacherMom stories to come to light. Buckle up!

Friday: Learning Through Reflecting

I’m setting this aside to reflect on lightbulb moments on my previous teaching practices. These “aha” moments usually come as I connect with and learn from my PLN–their tweets, blogs, and photos. They also come through keeping up with educational journals and news. 


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.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever tried a blogging topic schedule? What worked for you and what did not? What are your thoughts on the topics I’ve chosen? And I’d also love to hear your feedback on these themed posts as they start rolling out next week!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto