In our pre-service deeper learning work this year we delved into a few areas in our new statement of deeper learning at Graded. One of the items on the list is agency.
To kick off our discussions, we read this text, “Making sense of student agency in the early grades” by Margaret Vaughn from Kappan. Despite the title, it’s very applicable to all ages and grade levels. And I love an article that begins with a teaching anecdote. According to Vaughn, agency is “a student’s desire, ability, and power to determine their own course of action.”
Reading that text, I immediately thought about students in my middle school journalism elective. The way I operate it, it is much like a workshop where students are writing on their own topics at their own speeds. After our first assigned topics, there are no required or common topics, and I don’t set deadlines for students. Everyone writes at their own speed, ideally matching the writing and revision speed to the type of article and level and complexity they have chosen.
This freedom of choice and pace is amazing for some students and paralyzing for others. I started to think that the difference between the two reactions comes down to agency.
I’ll come back to the journalism course as a study in agency later, but today was our first day with students and there were so many moments that made me think about student agency. A first day of school is hard for anyone, but for new students, it demands a high level of agency. They have to listen closely to instructions, decide which peers to follow or reach out to, ask for help of adults they maybe have never met.
After a morning of advisory, grade level, and middle school assemblies, after lunch, students got to go to their first four, each for a short 30 minutes. Every student had 3 copies of their schedule given to them in the morning. The schedule lists the block (1-8), the course (humanities 7), the teacher (Mrs. Griswold), and the room number (D27). But it’s a schedule of a normal school day rotation.
Students had to use the printed schedule to find blocks 1, 2, 3, and 4 for our short afternoon classes today. They had to notice the teacher and the classroom printed there. Then they had to use our classroom numbering system or ask a peer or adult for help. This all requires a lot of agency.
Standing outside my room, the most common question I got was “Where is Mr. Lockhart’s room?” or a variation on that. My follow up was always, “What’s the room number?”
Very few students had noticed the room number or remembered it. Many claimed that room numbers were not listed on their schedule. I loved waiting patiently for them to show me that they were no room nu–oh, it’s right here. E07.
Sometimes a student came up knowing the room number. I was standing outside room D27. “Where’s D28?” I would point out that I was in D27 and D26 was to their left. Any guesses for D28? Being middle schoolers, they often forgot to say goodbye or thank you after the lightbulb went off and they scampered to class.
There was one student who stood out today. He came to my room during the start of block 2, when I had already started the class. I could tell he wasn’t a 7th grader. I asked if he had my class right now. He said yes. I asked to see his schedule. Block 2 said PE in the main field.
“Do you know where the main field is?”
“We just had recess. Did you go to the field for recess?”
“Okay, head back there.”
That seemed to click for him and he turned and left. Turns out he only made it to 2 of his 4 classes successfully. I think he switched block 4 and block 1.
Listen, he’s a new student on a big campus. I totally get it. But there wasn’t a lot of giddyup in his step as he left my room. He seemed a bit passive, unfluffed, adrift. I know his cognitive load was probably at the max, but I theorized that I was seeing a student who generally lacked agency. I’m curious to see if this pattern holds. He was one of almost 30 new students in the middle school, and the only one I saw or heard about having those difficulties. It wasn’t a common pattern for new students.
I think there’s something here in this first day experience about agency. Agency means using the tools in your hands, knowing when and how to seek help, planning ahead and setting your speed to compensate for lost time. These are important parts of driving your own ship. I know that the definition I gave of agency was about determining a course of action, but part of agency is weathering storms. Steering through rough weather.
If the first day of middle school isn’t the purest form of steering through rough weather, I don’t know what is.
(I started at a new school in a new country in 7th grade myself. Sheesh, I could tell some stories. More on that to come.)
My challenge for myself is to think about ways to teach students to be agents. How can we help them reflect and then try to exercise more agency? How can we be explicit when teaching them how to be agents? I bet some kids today thought I was being mysterious when I prodded them to find the room number on their printed schedule, or when I explained how the buildings were numbered–this is D, the next building is E; 1 digit number is 1st floor, 2 digit number is second floor–rather than just pointing and telling them.
I’m not being difficult. I’m showing you that you, like Dorothy, had the answers all along. The power was always yours.