Agency, Voice, & Choice - Letting Students Take the Wheel

This week has been a bit of a whirlwind.  Between the Thanksgiving break, a snow day on Monday, and the end of the quarter rapidly approaching things have been moving pretty fast here at The Summit, and sometimes that leads to tasks either not getting done, or having to be adjusted or scrapped altogether.  

As teachers, we all know about the importance of flexibility.  Nothing is ever going to go perfectly according to plan, despite our best efforts. That was one of the hardest shifts for me as an educator.  I’ve always been a planner and had to know exactly what I was doing on any given day. I used to have exact daily plans for every day of the year laid out before the end of the first quarter.  One year I even got it done before school started! I was so proud of myself and thought “This is perfect, I can spend my spare time before school or my planning period making phone calls to parents, writing grants, or anything else my teacher heart desires!”  And that year went basically according to plan, aside from the expected emergency drills, assemblies, and other logistical events that always happen during the year. Then after two more years of having student-teachers who were amazing running my classes second semester, I had time to do some personal professional development, and discovered that I hadn’t created a perfect classroom.  I had created a group of automatons who followed exacting routines and did not deviate into that strange & mystical world of: CREATIVITY!

I didn’t want THAT! I wanted my students to be problem-solvers, independent thinkers, and risk-takers.  So I shifted again, and embraced the idea that it is okay to be flexible with lessons. Sometimes the learning takes longer than you thought, and that is okay.  Sometimes your great idea wasn’t so great after all, or simply was not logistically feasible. When those moments come, we often fall back to our expertise and our comfort zones.  This year I wanted my students to find the love of National Parks that I have found. I wanted them to discover the challenge of design-thinking, of taking on a year-long project, knowing that at the checkpoints it might not be perfect or even close to what they wanted it to be, but still to show their learning and thinking without worry or fear of a low grade.  Sparing you the details of my idea, the first version of it was TERRIBLE! I hadn’t thought through all the logistics of submitting the work, getting feedback, all the steps in the process. But instead of basing my decision on what I wanted it to be, I asked my students. I sought out their advice on a revised project idea and listened to their questions and feedback.  The second version was better. The kids really enjoyed the design elements and the collaborative nature of the project. Unfortunately, the logistics of students switching hours at semester made a year-long project not feasible. So I sought out their advice again. Some wanted to keep the project, others didn’t think it would work with so many switching hours. So we agreed to leave it as a Fortune & Glory Quest available to anyone who wanted to continue to work on it throughout the year.  Giving the students a voice in the decision on a project helped them take ownership of the class and the learning that goes on within.

Right now, I have students working on a project about reform movements that began in the 1840s and have continued to the present day.  They got to choose their own partner (if they wanted), the topic (from a list of five options), and had total freedom in the design of it.  The feedback has been tremendous! Students loved getting to dive deep into one topic, connect with it on a personal level, and having it be open to their own designs & ideas. At the end, they don’t present it.  They talk with me for about five minutes about the process and their learning. There is no quiz checking to see if they could remember all the names and events they researched. Instead we talk about what went well, what could be improved, what they enjoyed the most, and what they learned about themselves through this process.  As always, some are better than others, but they still get feedback, and get to revise and improve their product, and in so doing, embrace the learning process.

Finally, sometimes as a teacher when a snow day hits you put off a task that you needed to get done.  For me, Bellwork is always one of my biggest issues. I used to grade it on completion, with it being a document analysis or a couple of DOK 1 questions, but this year I stopped grading it altogether.  Instead we use it as practice for skills that we use in our study of history. This week, however, I forgot to get them ready for the week and had to scramble very quickly Tuesday morning to come up with something.  So I went to Pinterest and came across a hashtag, #miss5thswhiteboard. It comes from a 5th Grade teacher who puts up incredible drawings and simple morning question for her 5th graders to respond to. I loved it! So I decided to try it as a change of pace for Bellwork this week for my 8th graders.  I was stunned. They loved it too! I asked about how they spent their snow day, their favorite Disney movie (we listened to the soundtrack of the top vote-getter while they worked), they built a Spotify playlist for their hour based on everyone’s idea for our class theme song (some definite hard turns in the playlist, going from Spongebob Campfire Song to Britney Spears).  Nothing academic in this, though some will be in the future, but definitely gives students some agency in class and lets them see me as a relatable teacher who can have some fun in class without it just being about content.

My challenge to you is to find new ways to build agency, voice, and choice into your lessons and your classes.  In this educational era of high-stakes...well...everything, give back some control to the students. I promise you they will surprise you with their efforts and energy.  And, you’ll get to enjoy the learning too!

Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out two more of my wonderful colleagues: Jon Ogle & Tara Comfort. Jon is an 8th grade English teacher in the Kansas City area who I privileged to work with for a couple of years at my previous school.  Jon is incredible at connecting with kids and giving them some agency in the classroom. His classes are always a joy to be in, and you know that the students are not only learning, but also enjoy talking with him about their lives and their futures.  They know he cares about them as people first, and working with him definitely had an impact on me! You can follow Jon on Twitter @jonogle1981. Tara is one of my cross-curricular teammates at Summit Trail. Tara has embraced the challenge of teaching a new grade level in science from what she had taught before, and is definitely not a teacher that has the whole year planned.  She is the epitome of flexibility when it comes to lessons or projects, and totally knows how to connect with kids! I hear so many great stories of students loving her class, and they love talking about the labs or the projects they do. It is truly an amazing and heartwarming thing to witness in person & I’m lucky to get to work with her and the rest of my team at The Summit. Tara needs to get on Twitter so other science teachers can learn from her example!