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Whew! The end is in sight. Both educators and students have made it through one of the most difficult school years. I have been teaching for over 30 years, and it definitely was the most challenging school year I have ever experienced. Nevertheless, we have made it to May. This is the time to empower students to finish strong.

I recently saw this article in Edutopia, “Creating a Classroom Culture of Shared Ownership.” It offers useful tips to get buy-in from students at the beginning of the school year. Instead of thinking about the beginning of the year, let’s see what we can do now in May to empower our students to take ownership of their learning, set short-term goals to finish the year, and avoid the end of year slump.

Encourage Students to Set Short Term Goals

girl student writing

Let’s look at short-term goals first. Encourage students to identify what they want to accomplish to end the year as strongly as possible. This could be accomplished with a Google Doc survey (a link to examples is provided later in the article) or taking a few minutes each day in class to talk to your students. Help them set a personal goal and self-monitor their progress toward that goal. Jen Bradshaw has an informative post to help you help your students set a goal for the end of the year.

Shared Ownership & Learner Agency

teacher pointing book

Ask for opinions. If there are choices that can be made about how the rest of the school year plays out, include your students in the decision-making process. State your pros and cons, and let the students decide. This is the beginning of applying student/learner agency to your classroom.

Why is learner agency important?  The Education Hub defines learner agency as “the capacity to intentionally direct one’s efforts towards specific goals.” Prioritizing learner agency allows students to express preferences and seek ways to add personal relevance to the lesson. By listening to students’ opinions and allowing them to add personal relevance, you are creating a climate for them to actively participate and take ownership of their learning.

What Learner Agency Looks Like

Jacob Bruno writes in his NWEA blog post that student agency “ is partially about having choice, and partially about knowing what to do with that choice.”  This is so important. It is not just about giving options; students also need to learn how they can make decisions to meet their personal goals.

How to Get Started Using Learn Agency

teacher using laptop

The Inspiring Inquiry Learn Agency web page is a great place to start. This site has a plethora of resources, videos, and cool posters to download. It’s directed at primary students, but there are a lot of ideas that could be adapted to use with older students. Check out the Strategies Drop-down menu. It’s a one-stop spot to take a deeper dive into the strategies that support learner agency such as: growth mindset, problem-based learning, and differentiation.

But, What can I do Now?

I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like something I should research over the summer and start next year. But there are some things you could do now to help motivate students to avoid the slump and finish this very long year of in-person learning strong.

Provide Choice Where You Can

students inside classroom

Recently I did a lesson on the different types of irony. Before the pandemic, I would assign the fable, “The Eagle, The Cat, and the Wild Sow” and have the students identify the irony in the story. For a 2nd assignment, I would assign the story, “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, and the students would identify and describe the situational irony in the story. Both of these tasks met the same learning objective–to identify irony in a short story. Rather than do both, this year I let the students choose which assignment they wanted to complete. One student even chose to do both!

Another way to incorporate choice is to let the students choose how to complete the assignment.  For example, if the assignment is to demonstrate their reaction to a movie or play, let’s say Romeo and Juliet, they could write a paragraph, draw a picture, or find an illustration (painting, cartoon, or meme/gif) that demonstrates how they feel about it and tell why. The medium the student chooses gives great insight into their personality! 

Ways to Promote Student Agency

studying thru laptop

Student Inventory

This blog post by Esther Park provides a sample reading interest Google survey which you could use as a template to create your own survey. The stamina chart would be a great way to make the students more aware of their stamina and encourage them to self-monitor and improve independently. You could also use her daily self-assessment questions as exit tickets.

Hexagonal Thinking

This is a visual way to create a web of connected ideas. The learner agency is created when students can decide how many connections they can make. The hexagons are labeled with concepts, names, or terms. Students work individually or in small groups to nest them together so each item touches at least one other to make a strong connection. Check out this article to see some examples and templates. To encourage higher-level thinking skills, you could extend the activity by having students pick a specified amount of connections and explain why those are strong connections. 

Make Small Changes

Don’t be afraid to start small! Check out these ideas to give your students a choice. 

  • Complete the odds or the evens on a worksheet 
  • Assign 2-3 tasks but the student can choose which order to complete them
  • Make a Choice Board into a Tic-Tac-Toe grid. Do any 3 in a row.
  • Post task cards around the room. Students can complete in any order, or they can pick 3, or do only the odds or evens. Really any way you can think of to mix it up!

Negotiate

Once you begin to give students more options and autonomy over their assignments, you may find yourself in some negotiations. When my 9th graders studied “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe this spring, the assignment was to complete a PowerPoint template by adding the plot elements and illustrations of the story.

One student asked if he could “rewrite” the story by giving names to the characters and a definite setting (a castle in England in the 1940’s). Of course, I said yes!  He did an excellent job telling his version and staying true to the story. He really enriched the story while staying engaged and making it his own.

Let’s Make a Deal!

student and teacher discussing

Just this week I assigned a writing program that I plan to use to collect writing data. I have one student who uses avoidance when I make this assignment. But on this day, he decided to strike a bargain. He asked if he could do Read Theory instead! So, we went into bargaining mode. I asked how many ReadTheory passages would be the equivalent assignment. I was thinking 2, but he answered 3. I took the offer. I know it doesn’t exactly achieve the same objective, but at this time of year, I think it is better to get something from them rather than nothing. Besides, how can you say “no” when they ask to do ReadTheory? Always a win-win!

Your Efforts are Worth It

teamwork kids and teacher

Students appreciate and value the opportunity to have more say in their education. This student ownership gives students a voice in their education which, in turn, leads to improved motivation, engagement, and self-efficacy. Interested in learning more about effective strategies for motivating students? Check out my colleague David Kayler’s article Motivating Students During Distance Learning. He provides lots of valuable insights that are relevant no matter whether you are teaching in person or remotely.  Now, let’s go finish the year strong!

Jana Hill, SPED English teacher (for ages 14-20)
Written by Jana Hill, SPED English teacher (for ages 14-20)

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