As the deadline for our scholarship draws near, I decided to reach out to winners from previous years to check in with them and see what advice they had to offer for this year’s applicants. For more information on our scholarship and how to apply, head here.
Kayla Klurman (Our 2021 Top Winner)
Check out our 2021 post on Kayla and her Design a Better Future project, Kayla’s Care Bags. Not only did she win the $10,000 scholarship, but she was awarded an additional $5,000 to continue her project.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to this year’s applicants, what would it be?
A: If I could give one piece of advice it would be to always stay true to yourself. Be genuine. It is so much easier to talk about yourself and the things you love when you are passionate about them and they hold a special place in your heart. This will radiate off of you and without a doubt, people will love you and your story!
Q: What has been the best thing to come from your scholarship project?
A: I have been able to continue my project in North Carolina while also being active in Miami.
Q: A quick update on you! What are you up to? Are you still actively involved in your project?
A: Yes! I make care bags in Miami and in North Carolina. I come home for the summer very soon so I am excited to have the opportunity to do some further work this summer!
Are you beginning to notice a pattern? The most common consensus between our past winners can be boiled down to one word: passion. If you start a project that you really believe in, it is very apparent in your scholarship submission. Not only that, you are much more likely to follow through with the project if you have a genuine interest in it. For more information on exactly what we look for in a scholarship submission, I highly recommend this post.
Fidget Toys: the very thought can make teachers (and parents) groan and roll their eyes. From stress balls to fidget spinners, there always seems to be some new gadget taking over your classroom. Should they be banned? Should they be embraced? The debate has been ongoing ever since stress balls first gained popularity in the 1980s. The practice of using sensory tools, however, has been around for much longer. Baoding balls originated during the Ming dynasty and were used to reduce stress, improve brain function, and aid in dexterity development. Before weighted blankets, there were Turkish yorgans which date back to the 16th century. The average winter yorgan weighed anywhere from nine to thirteen pounds. Komboloi, or “worry beads”, were used in Ancient Greece to promote relaxation.
While these sensory tools might have been around for centuries, the science behind them has only recently been looked into. Dr. Anna Jean Ayres first identified Sensory Integration in the 1960’s when she noticed there were children who struggled with functional tasks who didn’t fit into the specific categories of disability that were used at the time. She developed the term “Sensory Integrative Dysfunction” to describe the problems faced by children whose brains struggle to receive, process, or respond to sensory input. Sensory input instructs us on how to respond to our environment and there are consequences from being over or under-stimulated, especially for children who are still learning how to process these cues. When confronted with bright lights, messy or cluttered spaces, and loud noises, children can become agitated and retreat to quieter spaces; whether that is physically finding relief in a less stimulating area or by shutting off their sensory receptors and essentially shutting down. When stimulation is restricted, as is common in a traditional classroom, children will find their own ways to meet their sensory needs. Teachers know exactly what this looks like: tapping, bouncing up and down, kicking, touching everything and everyone, chewing on pencils, making noises, or getting out of their seat to go on some made-up “but I really needed to throw this away” mission.
This is exactly where fidget toys come in handy. (Ha! I didn’t even realize that was a pun until revising this post). And I’m not talking about fidget spinners in all their noisy, distracting glory.
It might be counter-intuitive to think that doing two things at once can enhance a student’s ability to focus on their lessons but evidence is slowly backing it up. One study demonstrated how increased movement boosted the cognitive performance of children with ADHD. Another found that students who used stress balls had improved focus, attitude, social interactions, and even writing abilities. The trick with fidget toys is finding those that don’t require so much brain power that they pull focus from the main task. How many of you have your own fidget methods that you revert to without realizing? Do you chew on pencils or repeatedly click your pen? Perhaps you doodle or bounce your leg. We all have different ideas of what an optimal “focus zone” looks like and it’s important to help students discover their own learning styles and preferences. It’s important for adults too–I decided to invest in my own fidget toys a few months ago and I always keep one at my desk.
Looking out over your sea of pupils, it can be a little overwhelming to try and figure out their individual needs but as I always say, “When in doubt, ask it out!” As you go into a new school year, reach out to the parents and ask what has helped their child calm down in the past. Do they have a history of thumb-sucking? They would probably respond well to chewelry or rubber pencil toppers. Having a quiet space in your classroom or noise-canceling headphones would be good options for children who need time alone in their room to defuse. Some students need physical contact in order to stay grounded so pressure vests or weighted lap pads would benefit them the most.
Another great way to learn your students’ individual learning styles is to involve them! Have them complete a task while adjusting the volume of background noise and have a discussion about which one was easiest for them to work with. Give them fidget toys to use while reading to them or showing them a video and then ask them if they were able to focus better or if it was a distraction. This also helps your students develop self-regulation skills. Giving your students access to different sensory tools allows them to stop seeing them as toys and start to recognize when they really need them.
If this sounds like wishful thinking, there are lots of people who would agree with you. Fortunately there are also lots of tips and tricks out there to help you integrate fidget toys into your classroom. Here are some of the most common ones that I encountered in my research:
BOUNDARIES. Work with your students to come up with rules for the fidget toys that they are willing to follow. Post the rules somewhere in your classroom as a visual reminder.
Have a variety of tools available to the class. This can prevent jealousy among students and allows you to use discretion in deciding what toys are actually beneficial.
Find toys that don’t produce noise or require sight to use. The kids should be able to use their hands or feet to fidget while using their eyes and ears to learn.
Be patient! Once your students get used to the sensory tools in the classroom, the novelty will wear off and they’ll be less of a distraction.
Remind your students that “fair” isn’t the same thing as “equal”. Different people have different needs and it’s important to support those needs.
Ultimately the choice to integrate sensory tools into your classroom is up to you! The fad fidget toys will come and go, but there are plenty of tried and true options that can really work wonders when properly used.
Are fidget toys a menace to society or a misunderstood ally? What challenges or successes have you seen come from them?
This is not a drill. This is the ultimate test for honoring child-directed learning.
And it turns out I failed the first round.
How many times have I written about working from a place of love instead of fear? Yet I’m afraid that fear has been at the helm far too often over the last week. But I’m going to be kind to myself as I decide to try again each day through this crisis. Meanwhile, here are some of the lessons we’ve learned so far:
#1: Schedules & Routines are valuable, but remember to co-construct them with your children!
Here was my first attempt:
At first, I felt pleased because I had my daughter write and post it for our family. But it was still entirely conceived by me, with no input from my children. And it, um…didn’t go well.
The timetables didn’t work for all 3 kids at the same time, with some finishing fast, others experiencing boredom, and others feeling anxiety to do something that was arbitrarily placed later in the day. I struggled to get any of my own remote teaching done as I was constantly interrupted by “I’m done; what can I do next?”
As I fell asleep last night, I realized that in my fear of making sure my kids got all their physical, emotional, and intellectual needs taken care of, I was neglecting the key ingredient: autonomy. And with it, the peace and confidence that’s fostered by purpose & ownership.
I resolved to do better the next morning, and I fell asleep thinking about all the years and ways I have tried to help my children visualize and own their schedules & routines…
…and I decided to sit down with each of them to talk about what they hoped the day would bring.
#2: Take time to truly listen, early and often.
As a result of our discussions this morning, I learned from my 9 year-old that writing time slots with her schedule created tremendous unnecessary pressure for her. She preferred to write a sequence that could be flexible. I also learned that she preferred to finish all her difficult tasks (like cleaning her guinea pigs’ cage and homework) first thing in the morning.
And from my 5 year-old, I learned that he wanted me to draw pictures next to each item on his list, talking through each one so it made sense to him.
Setting the tone for listening first thing in our day has fostered more meaningful discussion, self-awareness, and self-regulation throughout the day. Words like, “When I do __, it helps me feel __.” And we all need this kind of mindfulness now more than ever.
#3: For the schoolwork coming home right now, try to make it as independently accessible for your children as possible.
For my 9 year-old, this looks like creating a Google Keep note with checkboxes, sharing it with her, and then adding any additional tasks I hear from her teacher to this one document as we go. That way, tasks don’t slip between the cracks, and I don’t overwhelm my daughter by telling her again and again, “Oh, and don’t forget this other assignment!”
For my 5 year-old, this looks like having a designated folder on the counter where he can access all the materials he needs each day. He doesn’t have to wait around for me in order to get started each day, which helps us both tremendously!
I still have work to do to improve this situation for all three of my children and myself, but our home feels more peaceful than it has in days. Now that I’m working toward child-directed learning again, the ship is righting once more, and we can look toward tomorrow with greater confidence and hope.
My very best wishes to families and teachers everywhere at this time! Remember to hold onto what you value and cherish most, and to be kind to yourselves through this stressful time!
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!