Shifts have been a big part of my career as an educator. International educators, and many of our students, experience this much more than our national counterparts: shifts in school culture, shifts in curriculum, shifts in colleagues, and shifts in education trends. One shift I’ve wanted to make completely but have really just been dipping my toes in is student agency.
You see, while I wouldn’t call myself an early adopter, I’m enthusiastic to break the traditional mold and try things that might reach more of my students. As someone who loves to learn but struggled with my traditional education, I’m eager to find as many ways as I can to coax the love of learning out of my students. When I first experimented with student agency, Gary Stager, author of Invent to Learn, paid our school a visit and encouraged coding in the classroom. But it wasn’t the coding or use of Microworlds that stood out to me, it was one thing he said, almost off-the-cuff, “Why not let kids make their own schedules?” This got me thinking, ya why not? I was teaching Grade 2 at the time and was quite new to the PYP and international education but was being encouraged by my leadership to take risks like this. So, I experimented, saw the merits and challenges and put it in my toolbox. I then continued on with my learning of the PYP, getting ready for accreditation, and giving students ownership where I felt I could – working within the system.
At the time, I was not aware of the term “student agency,” yet, the concept always seemed to come up during professional discussions. Especially for teachers new to the PYP, letting go of control was scary and the concept of student agency was being grappled with in questions like,
“What about the curriculum?”
“How do I meet the standards and have student-driven inquiry?”
“But those concepts are so broad, what do I teach?”
“How do I know what to teach?”
“How should I schedule inquiry time?”
“How do I plan for that?”
You get the picture.
Shifting to MYP was a considerable change; more so than I expected or realized at the time. Unfortunately, it meant that in the first year, I wasn’t dipping my toe into the pool of student agency as much or taking it out of my toolbox very often. Sure, I was still having my students set their own learning goals and encouraging student inquiries. However, it seemed to fall flat as I was doing what I was told was the way to deliver English Language Acquisition units and assessments. But the curriculum and assessments seemed to be getting in the way of learning instead of enhancing or encouraging. When I found myself feeling kind of bored, I got concerned. If I was bored, my students definitely were too. This can’t be right! Then the work began: rewrite units, have students write units, change assessment practices, and put the learning in the students’ hands more often. Thanks to Taryn Bond-Clegg’s posts, I was reminded of my toolbox and a colleague and I instituted a workshop structure during a unit in which students were exploring creativity through poetry, spoken word, and songs. It was a real success and gave the students and teachers many great learning experiences.
During this shift back toward the students and away from the institution, I have been reminded of a blog post by Jonathan Field about school leadership and I think it applies just as well to teaching. He says, “start with a YES and see where it takes you.” Recently I’ve found the word “Yes” becoming a bigger part of my daily vocabulary and it feels great. How often do you say “yes” to your students?