At the start of this year I took on a Grade 2 class for the first time, having only ever taught Grade 4 and 5. The experience I have from teaching in upper primary has been useful in many ways, but one area that I have grappled with has been student agency. I’d tried hard over the years to embed this within my practice, but was this transferable to Grade 2? What would it look like? How much autonomy do we give to Grade 2 students? Can they make learning decisions for themselves? As ever, I just went for it and did what I thought would work. I quickly found that life in Grade 2 was different. Very different. Just having the mere choice of a few extra seating options at certain points in the day proved to be a strain on students well being. And mine. And this was when I realised I needed to think more deeply about agency and what it means.
Sometimes I get easily carried away with new ideas and it was no different once all the hype surrounding student agency started. It made sense, it does make sense, and it is something I have always tried to achieve in my classroom prior to it being brought to front. But what makes this different now and what is happening around it? Over the summer I read about what was happening at the International School Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC), who are currently leading the way with Studio 5 and this really hit home. A set up in Grade 5 that involves students planning and making informed choices about their day and what it is they want to learn. Students form small teams that are lead by an advisor (teacher) and work independently and collaboratively in these small groups. I am not an expert on the school nor the idea and I have only read about it with posts from those involved; Tania Mansfield (@hktans) Taryn Bond-Clegg (@makingoodhumans). Sam Sherratt, a consultant from time space education, is due to release a podcast very soon, talking with one of the studio 5 advisors about this initiative. I’m sure this will provide more information about what is happening and I am looking forward to hearing about it. The main idea is that students within studio 5 have a voice, a choice in what they learn, and that student agency is truly at the centre of their learning. This was my starting point, and could I adopt a model like this to suit Grade 2.
As mentioned, life in Grade 2 is very different. And although an idea like studio 5 is manageable with Grade 5 students, is it really possible with Grade 2? If so, where do we start? What are we trying to achieve in Grade 2 in terms of agency and what is needed to ensure that student agency is evident at this age? Cindy Kaardal (@innovative_inq) recently wrote about her experience here in setting up a student agency model in a Grade 3 PYP classroom in Switzerland. I had thought about doing something similar, and after a few months of finding my feet I started mapping out ideas of what this would look like. I came back to it again and again, and then very recently I stopped. Because I’ve realised that I can’t do this on my own. This is not something contained to one classroom, or one grade level.
As with inquiry, student agency is not a thing. It’s not just a buzzword. It isn’t something you just do and nor is it some new way of thinking that we’ve only just discovered. And it isn’t something that can be achieved just by giving students a choice and a voice. It’s a culture and a way of being that should form part of every teachers day-to-day being. It should form part of every schools mission, and this is what has happened by bringing it into the spotlight and giving it centre stage. Student agency is a mindset and a way to consistently bring the focus and attention back on the learner. The big question is, how does this look school wide. How are ISHCMC preparing their grade 2 students? Have they mapped backwards from Studio 5 and is there progression leading towards this new model?
I’m now going to skip to a mistake I’ve made this year; The Connection Wall. My idea of a connection wall at the start of the year was that I wanted to make connections visible to students. To see that we don’t just finish a unit and leave it, or find something out and then store it away never to be used again. I wanted students to see their connections for real, make connections with new learning, new learned knowledge, our key and related concepts. We watch BBC Newsround on a daily basis and scan current event stories through Newsela each week. This formed a big part of our connection wall, and the students loved it. They really enjoyed sharing their idea and with me putting the string up and connecting it to their given point.
But then it started going downhill. I made a bigger deal of it, and connections from the students picked back up again. But before long, although some connections were still being made, I was finding it difficult to manage. It was becoming time consuming, making sure it was all written down and then stuck up in the moment when six or seven connections are made. Then the string went missing, then it ran out, and then I ran out of sentence strips and missed a connection, but the post it note fell down with the connection on. Again, interest started to fade and I was losing. I stood there recently just looking at it, wondering where I went wrong. Then it clicked. Why was it me putting the connections up? A time when students could own the wall, could practice their writing, could physically move the string themselves, practice fine motor skills, maybe make connections they hadn’t seen before, work on their their speaking and listening skills by talking about the new connection with other students who were stood by the board. The simple answer was that the board was too high, as you can see. That’s when I knew that I all I needed to do was bring the board down to them. And this is where I am at with Agency.
Student agency in Grade 2 is not about letting them go, being free to make big choices about what they should learn. I don’t believe they are there yet and this needs a big run up. Maybe that will change in time when my understanding develops and student agency becomes more ingrained within the culture of the school. But for now, it’s about bringing the board down to them. Involving them in decisions, having the the opportunity to decide things for themselves within a controlled environment, showing trust of your students and giving them responsibility in all parts of school life. This is not about handing over power to students, it’s about sitting alongside them. Creating a culture where the students lead, ask questions, make suggestions, become responsible, and you then provide the support and provocation when and where needed. Essentially, this connects deeply with inquiry. There are so many more questions to come from this, and it’s only the start of my own journey in understanding how this all fits together and what it looks like. But for now, I do know that I can’t do it on my own and that it’s up to everyone involved to embrace student agency.
But there is one thing that keeps coming back into my thoughts. Studio 5 as a whole school approach; Reggio Emilia?