Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What is Student Agency? Some Provisional Notes

Next week I will be speaking at the Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools Conference in Boston on October 15-16.  One of several things I'll be doing is participating on a panel titled, "Student Agency - Strategies and Opportunities."  I'm excited to be a part of such an exciting conversation with so many impressive fellow educators. 



I'd like to share some of my preliminary thoughts as they relate to 5 crucial questions for our upcoming panel, and any critical feedback from those of you who are reading this post would be much appreciated as I prepare for next week:

Question 1: What is Student Agency?

First off, I think it’s important to note that there are two terms here: “student” and “agency.” The word "student" makes me think of the following modalities: learner, investigator, inquirer, maker, practitioner, deconstructor, apprentice, evaluator. In other words, to be a student, we must be willing to move outside or beyond the self for purposes of encountering teachers, experts, peers, as well as a body of knowledge in a given field of constructed inquiry.

As I think about the word "agency" some words that come to mind are will, choice, autonomy, ownership, personalization, and individuality. If being a student demands us to "get outside our selves" to experience the world and others, agency is the practice of taking responsibility for the self by being one's own advocate and by managing one's priorities, capacities, and interests autonomously. Agency relates to choices about pacing, sequencing, and scope when it comes to curricular engagement as well as deciding how to demonstrate one's knowledge and learning.

With all this in mind, here's my working definition: Student Agency is empowering students to develop, not only the hard skills necessary for a particular curricular scope and sequence of content, but the soft skills as well to map that scope and sequence for themselves in a personalized fashion that fits their sense of purpose while doing so responsibly and productively in partnership with a community of learners (teachers, experts, peers, etc.).




Question 2: Why does it matter?

Students are capable of learning anything, and they need to take responsibility for that innate capacity, but that can only happen if we expect and demand that of them in their formative years of socialization and education. Otherwise, we risk messaging something much less inspiring: that there are those who are good at school and those who are not, when in reality everyone is good at learning, especially if we’ve been given the time and space to develop the soft skills needed to manage that innate capacity productively. However, this can only happen if students have a safe place to practice agency during the formative years of their educational development.

Question 3: What structural and cultural barriers in our schools inhibit the development of student agency?


For structural barriers, here are some insights that came to mind for me:

1. It can take more TIME: pacing can be unpredictable and varied, and not every student moves according to the same timeline. As a result, teachers may not be able to cover as much ground.
2. School schedules can be a hindrance, but the reality is we need to "have the minutes match the mission" - meaning if cultivating agency is important for your school then there needs to be a schedule that allows for such environments to flourish. I think it's harder to achieve this when students meet for shorter time periods (such as the 45 minute, 5-days-a-week schedule).
3. Technology is often a supporting tool for scaffolding agency, so inequity can be an obstacle when it comes to having access to such resources.
4. Sometimes there can be "mixed messaging" for a given student when traveling from one classroom environment to another.  Some classes demand the exercise of agency, while other classes may inadvertently suppress it, making it difficult to develop the kinds of habits of mind that are necessary for students to take ownership of their learning.
5. High stakes testing.
6. I believe agency is motivated by authenticity, so it's important a student's educational experience is (inter)connected across departments as well as to the real world (beyond our campuses).  

For cultural barriers, here are some thoughts that occurred to me:

1. The tug-of-war between the scope of content vs. the depth of the learning experience can make it difficult for teachers to prioritize student agency. This gets back to the structural barrier mentioned in #1: it takes time to cultivate agency.
2. For some of us, there is a real fear of losing control of the classroom, and the fear is well-founded.  One does lose control, but we have to ask ourselves: What does active learning look like? I think the answer to that question makes clear that there is a need to cede some control in our classrooms.
3. Our cultural perceptions of the role of the teacher can get in the way: there's little room for the distribution of agency when the teacher is content king/queen. We have to rethink our role if we are to empower students to drive their learning.
4. The “messiness” and diversity of student demonstrations of learning can be daunting: How do we assess them? What are we assessing in a classroom that prioritizes agency?
5. It can be difficult to trust students to take responsibility for their learning, but we all know that they need to practice having such responsibility before the stakes are raised in college.

Question 4: Are all students capable of driving their own learning? What gets in the way?

In my experience there are 3 identifiable cases of students who have a hard time driving their own learning:

(1) The student who has always “schooled school”: usually this type of student is a “high achiever,” but his or her strategy for success is to give the teacher “exactly what they want to hear or read.” I like to think in terms of “mapping” versus “tracing,” and the kind of student I’m describing here is very comfortable with “tracing” what the teacher “maps” - instead of taking the risk of leaving his or her comfort zone to map the learning for his or herself. Oftentimes this kind of student needs to be challenged to exercise agency - especially before they leave for college where more independence and agency will be expected of them. Usually consistent conversations (of a metacognitive nature) that reflect upon why such experiences matter can be enough to get this kind of student to understand what’s demanded of them and why. The real challenge here is when the “high achieving” parent of that student expresses skepticism about what you’re trying to get your students to achieve. Again, I think frank conversations about the soft skills that will be demanded of them once they leave for college can be a good starting pointing for winning this type of parent over.


(2) The student who struggles with executive functioning or related skills that are the foundation for exercising agency successfully and productively: some learners, for a variety of reasons, have a hard time self-initiating and staying organized, as well as understanding strategies for prioritizing tasks to get a job done efficiently. A student who has these challenges sometimes necessitates intervention and assistance from the instructor, but I believe this can only work if there is a communicative partnership with parents or guardians behind the scenes. It’s important to let these students make mistakes, but it’s also important to vigilantly serve as a source of support. I often schedule weekly meetings with students to help them identify what priorities matter for them this week and strategize ways to get it done.

(3) The student who is (nearly) completely disengaged from school and perhaps from the greater community: this to me has been the most challenging case in terms of winning a student over to the idea that he or she can drive the learning. No single classroom environment can completely solve this conundrum; that’s why I mentioned community because it has to be a communal effort to reengage the student. Most importantly, there has to be a mutual partnership with parents/guardians as well. The best place to start I think is to get to know the student as well as his/her interests and/or hobbies, but if the parent/guardian is disengaged as well, it becomes a difficult, uphill battle. One thing that can work here (I think) is peer mentorship, namely finding student(s) who have bought in and could collaborate with (aka mentor) the student in question.

Question 5: How do you determine if a student is motivated, engaged and taking charge of their own learning?

First off, I strongly recommend looking at the Bartle Test for Gamer Types. There are 4 categories: (1) Achiever (2) Explorer (3) Socializer & (4) Killer/Griever; and the test results reveal where you fall (in terms of percentile) with each given category. It measures what’s motivating different types of gamers by identifying what keeps them engaged with the game over a sustained period of time. (Go here to learn more about the taxonomy of types). I suggest using this resource to better understand what type of learner you are working with as well as what motivates them to stay engaged with a project or task. If you have a “socializer,” the student is most likely motivated by social factors; therefore, make them a group leader who reports back to the teacher about the success of the group’s work. An “achiever” wants to feel a sense of accomplishment, and they want it sooner than later, whereas “explorers” want to investigate all options and pathways in a given unit of study. The “killers” are interesting; they like sabotaging other people’s progress. I like to gamify my units, and I always recruit the killers to be beta-testers who look for glitches or loopholes in a given unit (and they are very motivated by this role).
Here are a few more observations about indicators that students are truly motivated to take charge:

1. They stop asking about grades and the bare minimum requirements; instead they start focusing on completing the task they have envisioned

2. I know there's a shift towards agency when students stop asking what I want (for a given assignment) and instead start telling me what they’d like to do.

3. I know they're engaged when students demand that I adjust, alter, or modify an assignment, not because they don’t want to do the work, but because they see a connection or direction that motivates their inquiry elsewhere.

4. Students are taking control when what I’ve planned (in terms of a lesson) gets derailed by the demands of what students need that day for purposes of getting done whatever it is they are working on (in terms of an ongoing project, etc.).

5. I know something is going well when students start talking about what they’re doing/learning outside my class and start making connections with other learning experiences both in other classes and in the real world.

6. (In the context of gamification) I know they're engaged when students go beyond the required amount of XP points because they want to finish the task, “beat the game,” or have the most points.


Wow, I didn't expect this post to be this long, but I've been thinking about this a lot over the past several weeks. Again, please share feedback; these notes are provisional so I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on the matter.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What Does a Flipped English Class Look Like? An Example Using Chaucer

Back when flipping classes became the newest trend in conversations about pedagogy, it always bugged me when people would say that "English teachers already flip their classes." Behind such statements the assumption, I think, was that because English students would get content at home (by reading a novel, for instance) it makes possible opportunities for active learning at school (an example being a lively classroom discussion perhaps). As an English instructor, I've always thought that such an assessment misses the point when it comes to "flipping".

The questions we should be asking when designing a flipped course are as follows:

1. What doesn't have to take place during class time (due to tech tools and connectivity)?

2. What should be taking place during class time (but usually doesn't due to time constraints)?

If reading and writing are the skills that dominate the focus of a given English class, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that those are the 2 things that should be taking place in class (even if they demand a lot of time). If discussions and what I call "setting up the book lectures" don't have to take place in the four walls of the classroom (due to technological resources), perhaps activities such as these can take place a-synchronistically outside of class.


Here's something I did this week, for instance, for a unit covering Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

Step One: Instead of "setting up" Chaucer in class by lecturing about or discussing together the historical and literary contexts of Chaucer's work, I recorded a podcast (using GarageBand, but if you don't have a mac, check out Audacity, which is free online) that covered in 20 mins. what would have taken at least one entire class period. (You can listen to the podcast by going here).

Step Two: I also created an online discussion thread that prompted students to share insights and thoughts about the podcast they were required to listen to. Every student had to contribute at least once to the discussion, which also was a way for me to monitor that students were listening to the required material. In my case, I utilized the class's portal page to set up the discussion (we use Finalsite at Oakridge), but one could make use of several free, online programs such as Slack.

For almost every unit now, I follow steps 1 & 2.  Students can complete the requirements easily over a weekend, and they're ready to get down to the business of practicing the skills of reading (and writing) together come Monday morning.

Step Three: Students come to class, and first thing, there's highlights from the weekend's online discussion projected on the digital screen for everyone to see. Naturally, it creates conversation at the beginning of class, but quickly, we turn to the text, reading closely together the first lines of Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Each person gets a specific task (like determining tone, cataloging imagery, detecting allusions, etc.), and with everyone, I model how to read closely the opening passages on the Knight and the Squire. (This gives me the chance to show the difference between idealizing or satirizing a given character...)

Step Four: Students break into groups, and each group gets a character that's portrayed in the opening Prologue. I project on the screen a URL to a Google Doc that everyone can access and edit, and on that doc are questions to guide each group as they read critically the passages that were assigned to them. (The doc looks something like this).

As groups, students must catalog and cite the concrete details that "stick out" after reading the passage in question. Second, they have to discuss and write down any commentary they infer collectively based on the details they've cited. At this point, they're also determining whether the passage is satire or something else. Their third task is to pretend that they're going to write a paragraph about the character in question. With this in mind, they write collaboratively a topic sentence that makes clear the main idea of the passage. (While all this is going on, I get to hover from group to group, helping where I can but mostly listening to the learning that's taking place among peers)

Step Five: After each group is finished, they have to present their work to the class. Someone reads the passage aloud, followed by a brief presentation of the concrete details and commentary they noted. Lastly, we workshop as a class the topic sentence they've constructed, discussing together its merits as well as where we see room for more development. Everyone participates in this process.

Step Six: Once everyone has shared their work, we return to the Google Doc to complete the final task: namely, to create a Meme that makes clear the most important characteristic or flaw related to the character in question. Of course, this activity gets a lot of laughs, and sometimes we post them online for others to see as well.


The lesson I describe above works well with block scheduling. One would have to modify or break apart the stages if dealing with shorter class periods. To me, this is what a "flipped" English class would look like: We front-load the need-to-know info and facilitate much of the more open discussion outside of class so that class time can be spent practicing the art of reading and writing for each other in real time. It went well this week, and students appreciated the collaborative approach. Now we're repeating a similar process (minus the podcast) as we read some of the stories (specifically, "Pardoner's Tale" and "Wife of Bath's Tale"). After that, it's Macbeth, which means another podcast (which you can check out here).


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

OESIS is Rolling Out Its XP Webinar Program and Listservs - A Call to Join the Network

Looking for some good PD opportunities for the upcoming school year? Are you interested in attending a conference or online learning experience that focuses not on the device but on innovative teaching and learning?

If you teach in an independent school and want to network and grow as a professional, you need to attend the Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools (OESIS) for one of their regional gatherings, such as the upcoming OESIS Boston conference on October 15-16. I'll be there this year presenting on topics such as online collaboration and student agency in the classroom.
However, if you can't attend the conference, that's ok because OESIS is introducing in September their new XP webinar program with more than 200 live sessions planned for the 2017-2018 school year. Teachers and schools can now personalize their PD needs by selecting what webinars would suit their interests and desires for growth and innovation. This September, I'll be hosting two OESIS webinars: one on gamification in a humanities class and the other on collaborating online across campuses. Schools and educators can sign up for access to the new OESIS XP webinar program by going here, and educators can submit proposals for future webinars (which includes a $200 honorarium) by going here.

In addition to the webinars, OESIS is also debuting their innovative listservs for the 2017-2018 academic year. Each listserv will be managed by at least one OESIS network leader: for instance, I will be facilitating discussion for the English teacher listserv. The purpose will be to provide a continued channel of communication after OESIS conferences and webinars, but the listserv will also serve as a platform for sharing useful content, resources, and ideas among a network language arts teachers from across the nation. Anyone can try out the listserv this month to see if it's something they'd like to subscribe to for the rest of the year, so I encourage readers to give it a try:

To learn more about (and sign up for) the listservs go here.

To sign up for OESIS XP webinars go here to learn about the various offerings.

To view the webinar schedule for September 2017 go here.

To submit a proposal for a future XP webinar go here.

To learn more about the OESIS Boston conference taking place Oct. 15-16 go here.



Friday, August 11, 2017

Be a Presenter at the LLI Southwest Conference, Hosted by The Oakridge School, February 23-24, 2018


This February, The Oakridge School plans to host its 2nd annual teaching and learning conference in partnership with the Lausanne Learning Institute. The 2018 LLI Southwest Conference offers an opportunity for educators to experience relevant, authentic PD that focuses on topics like design thinking and student centered learning. This year's theme, Making Learning Visible, highlights one of the most unique aspects of the LLI Southwest experience: the opportunity to observe Fishbowl Sessions where teachers administer lessons with real students from The Oakridge School.
This year, I'll be leading the committee that selects and organizes the conference program, a task that's caused me to reflect more deeply about the overall purpose of professional development (especially for teachers). When it comes to PD, instead of asking how I can become a better teacher, I keep returning to the reason we have schools in the first place. Schools provide spaces for learning to be celebrated and made visible for others to see both on our campuses and beyond. Therefore, the real question, for me, is how do I become a better promoter of learning both with my students and with my fellow colleagues.


This is why the fishbowls at LLI Southwest stand out against all other conference experiences: Educators can see learning in action by working together with students in classrooms. Making Learning Visible means, not only talking about best strategies, but actually witnessing the practice together. The feedback from last year's conference echoed these sentiments, and it's why I encourage anyone to make the trek to Texas this winter (...well that, and the warmer weather).


I also want to encourage readers to consider being a presenter for the upcoming event. Last year we had more than 100 presenters, representing 37 schools, from across the nation. Prospective presenters can submit a proposal for leading a 1 hr general session (without students in the room), or they can submit a lesson idea for leading a fishbowl (which is a 45 min lesson followed by a 25 min debrief without the students present). Go to the link to submit your ideas; we'll be accepting proposals until November 17, 2017.


We're excited to announce that Matt Scully and Ryan Welsh, from Providence Day School, will be giving the keynote on Friday, February 24th.  Go here to visit the conference website and learn more about this exciting opportunity. Hopefully we'll see you in Arlington this February.