A great Costco deal led to goggles for everyone in the family this summer. However, I didn’t bother with them for my 2 year-old since we were dealing with his floaties, which generally kept his face about water anyway. For those unfamiliar, they look something like these:
One day, he snatched his pair of goggles and insisted on wearing them, too. I realized that if he was going to get any use out of them, we would definitely need to give goggles a shot without with floaties:
I couldn’t believe what happened next.
Within about 30 minutes of swimming in the 2-foot end of the pool, he went from a formerly clingy, somewhat nervous state to confident explorer.
Where I had once struggled to convince him to try blowing bubbles, or to let go of me even to stand up on a bench, he was now diving under the water. He couldn’t get enough of enthusiastic underwater waving, suspending himself with his feet off the floor, and testing his breath-holding ability.
As with hiking (and pretty much everything else!), I have been pondering teaching connections to this shift. In what ways might we similarly replace the floaties with goggles? How might we give our students tools for deep experimentation, and remove structures that might actually be impeding that opportunity?
Perhaps we might:
Move away from basal readers and computerized literacy programs toward more reading choice & mentor text studies (which of course, means more books!)
Move away from bathroom use control and instead toward discussions on self-regulation, autonomy, and respect.
I think the real reason for my toddler’s transformation was that the goggles literally gave him a new lens with which to see water. No longer was it a threatening, mysterious body, but something with which he could actually interact and discover his own capacity. Meanwhile, without the floaties, I could no longer push him beyond his comfort level and had to stay near his side. Yet with the goggles, he was pushing himself in his own way.
What shifts have you seen give students a new lens for the structures and concepts around them? How else might we allow students to dive in when given some “goggles instead of floaties?”
I was going to write a quick, agency-related reply, but then I got thinking some more and decided a blog post was in order.
#1: I believe in helping students take the wheel for their own lives.
I see myself as a guide, ready to help students make necessary adjustments and to help them discover possibilities they had not yet considered. I recognize that this requires sharing ownership over the learning space, honoring student voice & choice, and letting go of my need to feel “in control” in favor of messy-but-essential student-led planning.
#2: I want learning to be as authentic as possible.
Obviously, we can’t always go visit the Louvre to study the art in person, but thanks to the digital world, there’s so much more at our fingertips than our dusty textbooks and basal readers. This includes, but is not limited to:
Studying mentor texts to learn their craft and technique rather than having drills about those techniques.
Exploring landforms using Google Earth or by going outside rather than having a powerpoint presentation about them.
Making connections by using provocations and focusing on big concepts rather than learning every skill and subject in isolation.
#3: I try to practice what I preach.
If I tell my students to be risk-takers, I want them to know how I’m working on it, too. If I expect them to write poetry, I will work to truly engage in the process right alongside them. If I want them to take action in their community, I will do the same. I never want to be that coach sitting on the ATV riding alongside runners!
#4: I love being a teacher, but I have a lot of other interests, too.
My family is the most important part of my life, and I have a lot of other passions that help me to feel happy and fulfilled, from biking to carpentry to urban planning. I want them to know this not only because it helps them understand who I am as a human being, but so that they also understand that I truly do love to keep learning new things.
#5: My foundation for “classroom management” is a blend of self-regulation, relationships, and humanity.
I am terribly imperfect at this, but it is something I strive for. I would rather put my energy in teaching students the tools to regulate their own feelings and impulses than to try and regulate them myself. I would rather sit on the same side of the table to have conversations with individual students rather than place all the blame on the student. I would rather work on finding a solution together rather than keeping them in from recess.
I hadn’t realized how important it is for students to really understand all these things about me as their teacher until I wrote them down, so thank you so much, Olwen, for the reflection opportunity!
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).
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.
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:
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.
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.
But as another typical day progressed with my 3 small students, I kept thinking of Edna’s post. I realized I could definitely benefit from inventorying my culture of agency at home, not least because of how I’ve learned that more agency leads to less classroom management — and we could really use less “classroom management” in our home right now!
The questions in bold below are her overarching questions, to which she also attached sub-questions for more in-depth reflection (be sure to check out her post to read those)!
“What sort of language will you use?”
Overall, we have good metacognitive dialogue happening, including naming learning skills (“Wow, you are making an interesting connection right there!”) and referring to my students as authors, scientists, etc.
Two questions that stood out to me most as opportunities for growth were, “Do you talk about learning, rather than tasks and work” and “Do you ask the learners’ opinions and really listen to what they say?”
It’s so easy to get swept away by all the tasks that must be accomplished each day, and it becomes a temptation for me to focus on the work, as well as to multi-task everything. But I have noticed that when I do make time for undivided attention, it goes a long way in the culture of agency at home.
“How is the environment organised to foster agency?”
This one is always a work in progress, but overall, I feel like we’re moving in the right direction for agency.
As I reflect on opportunities for my two- & four-year olds, my thoughts turn to games, blocks, Lego’s, play dough, and other creative experiences we could engage in together with more regularity. I think that especially as my daughter starts school again, I could renew the self-selected magnet schedule below for my 4 year-old to consider the possibilities for his time.
“How is time managed?
Self management of time has often been encouraged, and our approach is constantly shifting (especially to make sure my kids aren’t wasting their time “waiting for the teacher”). In addition to the magnet schedule above, we have tried…
…the week wheel:
…general week/month planning:
…planning hours to scale (½ inch = 1 hour)
…digitally shared to-do lists:
“What dispositions do you model?”
All three sub-questions Edna asks here regarding openness and vulnerability fluctuate with my emotional state. I notice that when I’m feeling stressed and behind-schedule, I am less likely to discuss my process with my kids.
However, my kids are merciful; when I share how I’m feeling, they tend to be patient. All the same, I would like to do more to explain my strategies for getting back on track so they better comprehend self-regulation.
“What routines are in place to encourage agency?”
I actually just recently added a visual prompt for our morning and bedtime routines. Secured to the bathroom mirror with packaging tape, these little pictures help my kids get on with their daily routines independently.
“What kind of expectations are clearly set?”
We’re always having conversations about the importance of intrinsic motivation. But there’s definitely still a major learning curve for initiative over compliance. Part of this may be that initiative still looks pretty destructive for my 2- and 4 year old boys. But I am working to adjust my expectations and our environment to meet their needs.
Here’s a recent example: from time to time, we check out what’s called a “Discovery Kit” at the library, a themed box including new toys, books, puzzles, etc. We love playing with them, but it’s difficult for me to keep track of everything, and the fines for missing pieces/late dues add up fast.
One day I was telling my 4 year-old that I didn’t know if we could get another discovery kit because he had misplaced one of the pieces. Later, I expressed my concerns to my husband, and he thoughtfully said, “Well, he is 4. Maybe it’s just that the discovery kits require us to supervise them.”
Another option would be to stop borrowing the kits for now, but I see now that I would want to make sure my 4 year-old knew that it wouldn’t be his fault.
We have high expectations for responsibility, but developmental readiness must factor into those expectations.
“How do interactions foster agency?
I really like the question, “Can they tell that you trust them to learn?” It’s clear through his expression that even my 2 year-old can tell a lot about what I’m feeling about him and his choices. When I work to reassure him, especially when he’s trying new things, he grows in his confidence to act independently.
“What small action will you take to shift the culture in your class?”
Processing my thoughts through this inventory has been a great step for me today. As parents and teachers, we need to be honest but kind with ourselves in this process. Working with kids is messy, but as we work toward a stronger culture of agency, they will astonish us with what they are capable of!
I have not forgotten my one word goal for 2018. But I’ve noticed that I don’t talk about it with other people the way I’ve talked about other one word goals I’ve made. Because even though it has proven a fascinating and wonderfully challenging goal, the statement I shared at the beginning of the year is still true:
“The word power itself is sort of this dirty word. We don’t like to talk about it, we don’t like to name it–it seems unseemly. And yet, if you don’t understand how power works–what it is, how it flows, who has access to it, who does not–you are essentially being acted upon.”
In this brief mid-year reflection, I realize that I need to talk about this goal, too. Not only because my growth thus far is in no way less valuable than other goals, but because I believe it’s important to have more productive conversations about power. Conversations that are entwined with agency and citizenship.
Here are some of the places this goal has taken me so far this year:
Joining our local bicycle committee
Creating a 10-page local bike parking guide including education, a discount I’ve secured with a bike rack company, and recommendations/specs
Leading an active transportation tour with elected officials
Reading our city’s General Plan, & otherwise learning more about the direction our city is headed (or hoping to head)
Submitting digital feedback on local policy issues for the first time
Attending city meetings for the first time
Speaking before the City Council and Planning Commission
Joining the PTA board for our local school
Starting weekly bike ride for moms
Creating and sharing graphics across city social media pages (examples below)
Some of these have had more community impact than others, but that’s not the important part of my goal. What’s important is that all of them have made a profound impact on me and on my family. I am learning so much about a community I love dearly, and have started to see how I can better be of service. My kids are learning more about how our city works and how we can get to know our neighbors.
I hope that as I continue to learn and grow this year, I will continue to gain lessons that I can also carry with me into the classroom to help my students to better understand their own power within our community (agency), and to take meaningful, relevant action (citizenship).
When we have lofty visions of students taking the wheel at their own learning, it can be devastating when they seem to reject that agency. It’s understandable why this happens; after all, most have years of training that only teachers make the important decisions regarding their learning, & it’s difficult to reverse that dependency.
However, I believe there are still layers to that rejection that can be valuable for us to try and recognize. Often, it may be that they need to develop more skills (see the self-management skills provocation). Maybe they need to better see themselves as inquirers. Or, perhaps, they simply need to have their sights elevated in general as to why personal ownership over learning is so important. That’s where this week’s provocation comes in. As always, I would love to hear how this goes with your students in the comments below!
Resource #1: Cogs by AIME Mentoring
Resource #2: The Power to Create by Matthew Taylor & The RSA
Resource #3: What Adults Can Learn From Kids, TED Talk by Adora Svitak
Yes, a personality quiz. But I promise it’s not one of those “which celebrity is your soul-mate” kinds of quizzes — it’s generally based on Don Lowry’s work to help people understand themselves a little better, and might help students recognize their existing strengths to take the wheel at their learning.