Agency in Writing

Last year I wrote about the idea of studio time and opening myself up to agency in learning. This year I am trying to explore agency beyond the limits of studio time. I’m interested in the opportunities for learner agency within and beyond my practice.

  • How can I notice opportunities for learner investment?
  • When does a learner’s natural curiosity provide a potential launch point for inquiry?
  • How do I build my own capacity for noticing and harnessing the inbuilt learning tendencies within my class?
  • Where, in the past, might I have ignored or worked around the curiosities in the room and continued doggedly towards my curriculum goals?
  • How can I continue to provide quality learning experiences for students but focus on building learner agency within those experiences?

In other words, how do I plan a ‘good lesson’; one I know is targeted to student needs,  but one that also invites learner agency?

With that in mind, I have reflected on an imperfect example of my experimentation with this idea.

A sequence of learning:

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Our year began with an inquiry (Who We Are) into the actions of individuals in a community and an exploration of character strengths and dispositions. A few weeks in, and as teachers, we are interested in giving students an opportunity to share what they have learned but also experiment with the role of workshop facilitator. What dispositions do they need to apply when planning and facilitating a learning experience for younger students?

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Most students were really excited by the idea and found it to be a positive learning experience (besides a few who complained about having ‘a few disruptive kids to deal with’…pause for my raised eyes and response along the lines of…’that must have been awful for you’). With more future learner-led workshops in mind, I wanted the reflection to also be future thinking. We used Harvard Project Zero’s Compass Points thinking routine to explore what might be considered if we were to do something similar again.

As always, when I have a writing opportunity in mind, I find learners have more success when they are able to verbally share their thinking first. So we talked with our thinking partners and shared some responses as a class.

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Sidebar: How awesome is my handwriting?

So with the shared vocabulary and ideas visible for all learners, I posed a writing task. Yes. Controversial, I know. I’m normally an advocate for learner choice in writing but sometimes I break from that. What I don’t do, at any point, is identify an intended genre. Instead, I ask that we write something with:

Purpose: To prepare others to run a workshop

Audience: My class next year

So then came the pivot point. Questions from the crowd. This is where I would normally have the outcome in mind but now I’m trying to notice the natural direction the learners are wanting to take the piece.

“Can it be funny?”

“Can it be an ad on TV?”

Without saying it, I was expecting they would produce a basic list of lifehacks for workshop leaders, or a set of tips for success (which some did). With opportunities for experimentation, stopping and sharing, collaboration and advice giving (to each other), what was written was so much more diverse. The personal voice was better developed. The creativity was strong. The informal sharing provided entry points for idea development amongst learners who were struggling with opening lines or in finding a tone for their piece.

Next…

We paired with our thinking partners again. Here is where I got a bit too experimental.

“Share your writing with your thinking partner. Identify an area of strength and an area for improvement in each of your writing. Your job is to use this information to suggest mini-lessons for next week’s writer’s workshop. The mini-lessons will be opt-in workshop style, so they don’t have to be for everyone. Here is the writing section of the Australian Curriculum (displayed on the board…yes, I know…not exactly practical) for you to use as a resource.”

So this is where I would do something differently if I had lesson over. Duh. The WHOLE writing section of the Australian Curriculum. HAHAHAHA!!! As if. Perhaps an abridged set of learning outcomes? Or even better, a co-created resource describing author skills.

What it did do, however, was provoke and generate a whole range of questions about what is in the curriculum. Another agentic moment noticed. Now…what to do with it?

Here is the list of mini-lessons they created:

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I was able to use the opportunity to develop metalanguage for what they were describing as a need. For example, “I want the paragraphs to flow into each other in a way that makes sense”. Ahhh, cohesion. Notice, name.

So they didn’t really use the curriculum on the board which means they know what they need.

SO

What are the possibilities? Where could we go?

  • learner-led mini-lessons?
  • teacher-led mini-lessons?
  • optional publishing of the pieces for REAL audiences (year 4 students who will plan their own workshops)?
  • filming of the TV ads during studio time?
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Agency in the Exhibition

‘Thinking beyond ourselves empowers us to act.’

This is the central idea for this year’s exhibition and it has been powerful in driving learner inquiries towards action. We started by asking students and teachers what they do to go beyond themselves in their school, in the community, and in the world. There followed a series of powerful, engaging provocations including a whole day conference with workshops led by NGO’s, charities and other social justice groups, a series of opt-in excursions to similar venues, short films, documentaries and guest speakers. Once immersed, students began to identify areas in which they felt they could explore going beyond themselves.

But this post is not really about the obvious learner agency idea of choice. I’ve come to understand that agency is more about learner investment. We tried to rethink the process of the exhibition this year to bring agency and action into its every aspect:

Examples of this included:

  • students ‘running’ the conference – catering, audiovisual aspects, welcoming guests, giving inspirational speeches, self-selecting workshops
  • opt-in guest speaker sessions throughout the exhibition process
  • mentorship with adults based on rapport and personal connections rather than an interest in a similar area
  • allowing students to plan, implement and evaluate peer-learning lessons and workshops with younger students
  • discussion groups run by students for students of the same year level – themes included Perspectives of Bullies, Bystanders and Bullied Students, ‘Exploring Fear and Coping Strategies’, and ‘The Masks we Wear to School’
  • cross-year level collaboration and flexible timetabling – teachers saying ‘yes’ to students turning up at their door wanting to interview other students or even the whole class (as long as it didn’t disrupt something terribly important)
  • one on one student sharing sessions throughout the journey with various thinking routines used to scaffold conversations and provide feedback structure
  • extended email engagements with primary sources and mentors
  • students organising their own immersive experiences
  • students organising and implementing food drives without teacher intervention

As a teacher, once again, I’ve tried to say ‘yes’ amidst the chaos. Let’s face it, the beautiful chaos of exhibition can push those teacher control buttons. Sometimes rightly so. There have been times where staggered sessions of high structure and teacher choice have been necessary for the well-being of all learners.

The externalisation of my thought processes about agency continues to be a strategy I use when negotiating learning experiences with students. It’s my way of modeling my own inquiry and has engaged students in conversations around this. When learner agency is high, students should be able to articulate reasonable justifications for their plans and choices.

This is a short post, sorry. There are eight days to go until the exhibition, nine days until the end of the school year, and I’m pretty well cooked. But I wanted to make a little space to remind myself that I’m still doing all of this with something bigger in mind.

Swim a bit deeper

Screen Shot 2018-07-30 at 5.22.36 pmHow do we ensure that each learner is getting the most from their inquiries? For one student in my class, that is his inquiry. “How do I inquire into something that will keep me engaged for a long time?”

It’s a decent question, right? Critics of learner-driven inquiry who demand answers to this question are right to expect a high bar. I too am uncomfortable with learners being given free-reign to inquire into literally anything. On that note, to start, I thought I’d share some of my students’ suggested guiding questions and my matching responses (not all of them particularly helpful):

Student: What do the different colours inside a golf ball mean?

Me: Who cares?

Student: How do you play basketball?

Me: You already know how to play basketball.

Student: How can I make a game exactly like Fortnite?

Me: Does the world really need another Fortnite?

Student: Why do I love pink so much? (not the singer, the colour)

Me: Perhaps you want to find out about the aesthetics of colour?

Student: No. Just pink. I REALLY like pink.

So yes, critics. You’re right! Not every learner idea is a worthy inquiry. Even fewer hold potential for deep inquiry. Fewer still are potentially transformative for the learner. But that is the goal. On the flipside, is it really a guarantee that every teacher planned inquiry meets the brief? We’ve all taught units that have just not worked – to claim otherwise makes you the teacher of the decade or deluded.

The challenge, therefore, is to provide many varied opportunities which will provoke authentic inquiry. And I’ve struggled with this. What works for some doesn’t work for all. Whilst most students are champing at the bit for studio time and begging me for it, some still get that rabbits in the headlights look about them. They’re just a bit lost and they’ve noticed that they don’t have the same energy and enthusiasm for it as the others.

So here are some of the things that have worked:

  • A good old one-on-one chat. Questions that provide a starting place don’t always focus on learning. Questions that seem to lead somewhere are:
    • What would you like to design or make?
    • What would you like other people to know about you?
    • What is surprising about you?
    • Where do you find flow? What do you love doing so much that time just seems to pass?
    • What are you fascinated by?
    • What would you like to be when you’re older?
  • Marketing my own nerdy fascinations. Sometimes I like to share and model my own inquiries. Not because I want my students to share my obsessions, but it’s in the noticing of one’s own inquiries that we provide students with a way to discover potential ‘ins’. What started my fixation with tessellating patterns in architecture? Why is my Instagram feed filled with kitchen design pics? I’m hypothesizing that the noticing of curiosity is a skill as much as curiosity is a disposition.
  • Noticing and naming the moment of curiosity in a student when it occurs outside of studio time. Asking the question at the time of that exact moment is really important. “Is this something worth thinking about during studio time?” Sometimes, that’s when the most authentic guiding questions happen. The benefit of this moment is that all learners are seeing it at the time it is happening. It’s a developing awareness that I don’t have to ‘come up’ with an inquiry. It will come out of me as a function of awe and wonder.
  • Speaking to another person besides me. Sometimes I send my students to another teacher for a chat. It’s just a new perspective. I return the favour on occasion.
  • Pivot or Persevere – this is a concept I picked up from Tania Mansfield and the Studio 5 team. I’ve started having small group discussions with students who are feeling ambivalent about their inquiries. My take on this idea is a chat during which the learner shares their inquiry journey so far and their fellow learners ask questions about the inquiry. This, in itself, seems to lead to new perspectives and ideas. But there is also an opportunity to either bring the inquiry to an end or new direction (pivot) or keep going; hopefully with new energy and insight (persevere). We’ve noticed that if others express interest in the learning, it can lead that student to new heights.

We want learners to develop the capacity for inquiry; including grit and determination. But we don’t want to flog a dead horse either. If we think about our own learning, some of it is short-term and targeted, some of it is over before its begun and some of it is lifelong. And each of these holds its own potential value.

We’ve also begun journalling our inquiries. A quick plan at the beginning of the day using paper and pencil because to write with a pencil is a different thing to do these days and because there are fewer distractions and pop-up notifications. A day plan is required and at the bare minimum, inquiry questions for each session of studio time.

A quick reflection at the end of the day.

  • How well did I engage with my guiding questions?
  • Were these the questions I spent the day answering?
  • Do I need to modify my inquiry?
  • What resources do I need to move further?
  • How can I plan for more learning next week?
  • Pivot or persevere?
  • How can I go a bit deeper?

Get Involved! Or not?

So Studio Time is now ‘a thing’. It has legs. And whilst it is beginning to come together in terms of form and substance, it is also starting to flow into other areas of teaching and learning. We speak more in the collective. More than ever, I’m mindful of using ‘our’, ‘we’ and ‘us’ and it’s catching on. By bringing students into the decision-making process, a sense of ownership and personal investment in the learning community has been more palpable.

By the time we got around to another planned session of studio style learning, the students had been thinking more than I expected about how they’d spend their self-directed learning time when offered.

I’ve been thinking about workshops a lot lately. Having found this type of small group, hands-on learning to be highly engaging and effective in terms of assessing student understanding, I was keen to try it again.

So we planned another day and I offered a string of lesson-length small group workshops. This time, fewer students asked me whether I thought they needed to attend particular workshops. This time, they seemed to know. And I think this is why:

I wrote the timetable using the format of guiding questions.

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Because the workshops were worded as questions, students seemed to ponder their ability to answer them. Therefore, they either knew they didn’t need to attend at all or made a choice about attending or inquiring independently.

Credit due to Jess Morgan and Melissa Sokol (via Twitter) for inspiring this idea. We’re working on students developing and sharing their own guiding questions for their inquiries.

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One of the students asked me an interesting question: “You know how you said we can opt out if we want to come along but decide we don’t need to stay, we can go?”

“Ah…yep,” I replied, bracing myself for the next suggestion in the usual negotiation process.

“Well, can we opt in if at first we don’t think we need it but when you start, it sounds like something we’re interested in?”

PAUSE. THINK.

Sidebar: I’m having constant battles within myself about this sort of stuff. Why do I want to say no? Is it reasonable to say no? Is it reasonable to say yes? Are their suggestions purposeful or just curious? What benefits could potentially come from saying yes? Do I need to modify their suggestion to somehow make it work?

Also, I’ve gradually made this internal dialogue more external and transparent. I’ve actually asked myself all of the above questions out loud in front of the students – much to their amusement. Why? Because I want them to know that I have heard their ideas and if I dismiss them, it’s not because I haven’t thought about it. And also because modelling any decision-making process when the stakes are high is worth doing with kids. I need them to know that the stakes feel high to me and therefore really worth considering.

“Sure. As long as you don’t interrupt the flow of the session.”

“Cool. Thanks.”

So here’s my first surprise for the week.

The ‘opt-in’ option is powerful. It’s like my workshop is a non-intentional provocation in the middle of the classroom. The numbers seemed to quietly grow on occasion. Curiosity meant that some of them couldn’t help themselves. And even more interesting were the onlookers. Students who watched curiously from across the room. I wonder what they were thinking. Should I join? Do I need to join? Is what I’m doing more important?

I’m a little fascinated by this internal decision-making process and I might explore it with them.

The ‘opt-out’ option is also really powerful. The workshops provide enough of a provocation for wonderings, curiosities, and questioning which some students then want to pursue independently. I’ll be honest. I possibly find this too reassuring. I reflect that this makes me comfortable because I value the learning as ‘worthy’ because it is driven by the teacher. Food for thought…

But my biggest surprise of the week was how much I enjoyed the sessions. I was relaxed. Once again, my conversations with the students were productive, efficient and informative (for me as the collector of the all-powerful DATA). The room was settled. What a pleasure it is to teach to a group of students who all choose to be there. It felt collegial. And weirdly ‘grown-up’. They had these grins on their faces that seemed to express their understanding that they were doing something very adult – choosing to learn.

 

 

 

Well that went better than expected…

 

IMG_20180523_120603.jpgWhat you’re looking at is the aftermath of the only planned lesson of yesterday in my class. And as you might be able to tell from the image, even it went in a different direction from where I thought it might head.

On the journey of student agency, some stuff happened this week in my class and in my head and online. We made some stuff happen.

I guess it was a series of provocations.

  • I blogged for the first time about what it was I believed about learner agency and why I believed it to be important
  • The Twitterverse returned the favour by encouraging me and addressing almost all of my concerns
  • I shared my Twitter feed with my class. Particularly, this thread with Abe Moore, in which we discussed my concerns over learners neglecting curriculum areas.Screen Shot 2018-05-24 at 12.50.44 pm
  • My students reassured me that although my concerns might be well founded, they would try and build my trust by thinking carefully about how they might schedule their time

So…

This is what we did. We planned it as a class. THE WHOLE THING. TOGETHER.

We decided the day before, that we would collapse the ‘teacher’ timetable on Wednesday. The students would have their normal specialist lessons, a lesson of geometry with me and then they could plan the rest of their day.

They each submitted a suggested timetable and to be honest, they seemed pretty sketchy.

We met again as a class and I showed them what ‘real’ planning looks like. My day planner. I spoke about how it wasn’t enough to write next to period 5, Writing. Writing what? With whom? With what literary focus? I know. I’m a tough crowd. But remember how worried I was?? Control freak.

Anyway, they rose to the occasion. Suddenly I had students writing lines of inquiry and great questions.

Next…

I offered a series of optional workshops across the sessions. Two writer’s workshop sessions, one reader’s workshop session, and one poetry performance workshop. Students signed up to the workshops voluntarily and some wanted to know if I recommended particular ones for them. I did and I told them and some decided to go with it, and some decided that despite my recommendations they’d still prefer to learn independently.

**grits teeth and smiles**

“Okayyyyy.”

So how did it all go?

It was possibly the best risk I’ve taken in a while.

What surprised me?

It REALLY mattered to them. To make it work. They wanted it to work so badly that I never once had to talk about their behaviour. They were completely invested in everything they were doing.

They asked each other for help instead of me. Maybe because we were moving towards shared responsibility.

The learning was more diverse than I predicted. The writing was BIG as predicted, but many moved on naturally into other areas.

The small group workshops were small but SO rich. I was able to target my teaching/coaching in a way that whole class lessons just don’t allow. The assessment data I was able to collect in those sessions was of a higher quality than I predicted.

Students decided that they wanted to run their own workshops for the class. How does estimating and measuring the distance of a golf ball from the hole, sound? And how the angle of the putter is crucial to golfing. There was also an idea for a workshop called ‘Learning about conflict resolution strategies’.

Questions and concerns we still have:

Much of the student-initiated learning has sprung from whole class inquiries. How do we balance the timetable to provide the right amount of everything?

Is sport a viable student inquiry? They want to go outside and do sport. Are they actually going to be learning anything? Or just playing?

We need to schedule individual sessions to assess where the learners are at. When should this happen?

How do we keep the momentum? What learning about learning and this process in general needs to happen next? How can that best be supported?

How do we ensure accurate and regular learner self-assessment?

How do we ensure the learning is rich and conceptual?

They’ve convinced me to have another go tomorrow. I feel a mutiny brewing…

 

 

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