Friday, October 27, 2017

Reflections on OESIS Boston: Humanities without Textbooks & Bringing Poetry to the MakerSpace

Two weeks ago, I attended the OESIS conference in Boston, MA, and I’m still processing all the things I learned over such a short period of time. I had the privilege of sitting on two panels, one on online collaboration and another on student agency, as well as presenting with my colleague, Joel Garza, on some of our previous collaborative projects.

I wanted take a moment to share some notes and observations about a couple sessions I attended that relate to English instruction (Also, for more reflections on OESIS Boston, check out the article just published by Global Online Academy, The Power of Networks: 10 Ways Schools Are Tackling Innovation):

1. Humanities without the Narrative by Deborah Shaul from La Jolla Country Day School

Deborah’s session was about blending a US History curriculum with an American Literature class without using an anchor textbook for the course. When Deborah ditched the textbook, it freed her to approach the content in a less linear fashion, and instead, scope and sequencing were often shaped or influenced by the interests and choices of the students as they immersed themselves in a deeper, more interconnected investigation of American literature and history. As she stressed, by allowing to make more choices as to what primary documents they wanted to research, the teacher and the author of the textbook were no longer the “keeper of the keys” to the narrative. One thing I appreciated about Deborah’s session was her candidness about student and parent responses, which were not always positive. Doing away with the textbook created fear and anxiety for some. They weren’t always sure what to study or how to do so, but I think such push back always happens when we truly turn over agency to students in relation to their learning. Why do some students prefer having a textbook?

(a) It serves as a security blanket because the answers are explicitly provided
(b) Students don’t always trust their own answers nor those of their peers
(c) It’s easier to perform well on a test when one can memorize pre-packaged content

She surveyed her students, asking them how they prefer to learn, and Deborah was a little disappointed to see that many students still prefer lecture/power point formats. However, I think it’s important to step back and ask ourselves: are students conflating “getting good grades” with learning? Perhaps the survey results reflect that kind of confusion that one would expect from the average independent school learner whose main priority is his or her transcript.

If you have more questions, you can reach out to Deborah at @Dshaul3.

2. Discovering Poetry Through Maker-Space Projects by Amy Alsip from The Oakridge School

Amy shared with us a project she did where students made poetry as well as artifacts inspired by their literary creations in the context of a MakerSpace. One through-line I noticed that connects Amy’s project to Deborah’s curricular innovations was the role of student agency in each scenario. Students would enter the MakerSpace, and there were several stations/choices for poetry creation:

(a) Dice Roll haikus
(b) Using book spines to create poetry
(c) Using the name of paint samples to create poetry
(d) “Blackout poetry” using markers and a found text (like a newspaper)
(e) Using scrabble games to construct poetry
And there were a few more stations that escape me now…

Amy Alsip presenting her poetry/maker project at OESIS Boston
Students would then share their 20+ poetry creations with peers to get feedback. Once they had selected their favorite 3-5 poems, each poet would return to the MakerSpace to create an artifact inspired by the poem in question, and once again, they had many options:

(a) Coding
(b) Sowing
(c) 3D Printing
(d) Repurposing found materials
(e) Circuitry Boxes
(f) Legos
Again, I believe there were 1 or 2 more options that I cannot recall now

The whole project culminated in a poetry read-aloud night at the school for the community to attend. Of course, the students got to showcase their fabrications as well. As an English teacher, I like how a project like this reminds us that English classes have always been spaces for making.

If you have more questions, you can reach out to Amy at @amyalsip.

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.