Monday, June 4, 2018

Student Agency

It's been awhile since I last posted. I've been spending a lot of time consolidating and mastering my skills in thinking routines and building a culture of thinking in my classroom, along with a sense of kindness too.

However, I found a new goal to try and focus on this year.

I went to Singapore for the IB Global Conference earlier in the year and part of the conference they had some guest teachers speaking about how they are doing things differently in their classrooms. Firstly there was a teacher who spoke about being a robot teacher, or being a rebel teacher.
I like to think myself a rebel teacher - I'll often put my hand up to try new things and will often beg for forgiveness over asking for permission... I went into the conference feeling pretty confident.

Until I heard these teachers speak.

Next to these teachers, I was a run of the mill robot teacher.

These teachers were spruiking what I feel is the new lingo - 'Student Agency.' 
I thought I had that down pat - the kids had choice, they had a lot of opportunity to extend themselves, take responsibility for their own learning... but apparently not.

In these teacher's classrooms, the kids literally made up their own curriculum. The teachers worked with the kids to form individualised programs that were totally based on what the students wanted to learn about. The kids made up their own assessments and ways to be assessed. They made their own schedules and time lines to adhere to. And the teachers facilitated and supported them each individually throughout the whole process.

I felt two things when I listened to them:

1. Complete inspiration
2. Complete hopelessness

What an amazing way to learn and teach! What an amazing way to develop skills as a learner to set them up for life!
But... how could I do this? We had ACARA to adhere to. We had grades and MYP criteria to fulfill. How could I could I possibly do this with bureaucratic red tape strangling me???

I planned. I ummed. I ahhed. I had no idea how to tackle this, but I knew I really wanted to. I finally threw my hands up in the air and said 'it's too hard'.
As soon as I did that, it stopped me in my tracks.
When have I ever said that?
When have I ever  accepted that as an excuse, not just from me, but from my students, my staff, my own son?

I went back to my old mantra and dusted it off.

Stuff it, I'm doing it.

I knew that changing an entire curriculum for every subject was out of the question, purely for my sanity. I needed baby steps. Well, maybe toddler steps.

I sat down with my students and told them that we were going to plan our curriculum on Ancient Mediterranean Worlds together. We sat in a circle on the carpet with a giant piece of butchers paper and a marker in everyone's hand.

I was honest with them. I told them that I had never done this before and that it was completely new territory for me too. That it could fail dismally, but it could also end up being totally awesome. One kid asked me 'what will happen if it fails dismally?' My response?
'We'll pick ourselves up and deal with what to do next then'.

Lots of smiles all round.

We started by brainstorming everything we knew already about Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Anything at all. I gave the kids a good 10 minutes to do this at their own leisure and pace.

We then wrote down all and any questions we had about those civilisations. Anything at all. What were they interested in? What did they want to know about? What questions had arisen in their previous brainstorming and in the conversations they were having during the brainstorming?

I have never seen kids actually DIVE for a piece of butchers paper before. The kids were already hooked.

From here, the students needed to look at the questions and choose at least 5-10 that they were genuinely interested in. They needed to categorise their questions to find out at least 3 topics that they were going to study, and then come up with an inquiry question for each area.

Simple, right???

It was at about this stage I realised that I had a lot of work ahead of me to make sure that the kids were not going to just faff about all term. They still needed guidance and direction in how to actually organise themselves without me doing it for them. I ended up putting together a time line scaffold for them to fill in to help them plan for their term. I showed them my teachers planner and we spoke about the reason why I made them do learning tasks (to show me that they understood the learning and could apply it) - some kids were really keen to just research and show me their research... ummm no.
We spoke about learning tasks and assessments, the purpose behind them and how to set them out and plan. This took a long time to facilitate with each student, almost 2 weeks of planning to be exact.
But it was worth it.

Which then lead me to the biggest sticking point of this individualised learning.
The assessment tasks.

How was I going to get the kids to still have student agency in their assessment tasks, but be able to assess them again the MYP criteria??

We began like any good starting point, with a brainstorm. I set up a google doc for students to add ideas to.
It was a DISASTER. I hadn't had a lesson for a long time that was a complete and utter disaster. The kids were more interested in what their 'anonymous name' was. So we went forward with the idea that I sent out the criteria and a blank assessment sheet for the kids to come up with their own assessment task. It needed to cover the criteria (all written in kid friendly language) and need to showcase them as an 'expert' in the topic they had chosen.

So far it is working - their first assessment is due this Friday.

In regards to the second assessment, after the first planning disaster, I decided that I would dictate one aspect of this trial - that the final assessment task was a 'portfolio' of all they had learned and done during the term. This way they were also accountable for the 'tasks' they were meant to be producing and developing all term.

Final Thoughts

When someone says to you 'the kids are doing everything', a naive person would think 'sweet, I don't have to do anything as a teacher, just make sure they are working!'
I have worked harder, spoken more to the kids and supported learning more than ever before. It's been an eye opening experience so far, one that I still approach with knots in my stomach as at any stage it could just flop and fail. 

It's super important to keep track of kids, not so you have control, but so you can help support and guide kids if they get lost. This is a massive undertaking for the kids too, never before have they had to opportunity to be in control and charge of their learning.

Approach with an open mind. Say yes. If you squash what the kids want to learn (unless it is totally off the track) they won't be as excited to learn. My original idea was to get the kids to choose either Ancient Rome, Greece or Egypt to learn about, but some wanted to compare two or three worlds, some wanted to look at areas from all three.... who am I to say no to that??!?

Honestly, this is one of the best risks I've taken. The kids BEG for humanities lessons. They want to learn and develop understanding. They are engaged and interested.
And they are in control.
Well, sort of.

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