When Choice Builds Agency
During this episode, Emily shares how the instructors at the Relay Graduate School of Education not only teach students about UDL, they also use the UDL framework to design their instruction. She makes clear that this has been a journey for everyone and they are continuing with their growth, but what she shares is a wonderful story of exploration and implementation across a system. Woven within her story is a focus of agency which is what I’d like to highlight here.
When we provide our learners with agency, we are giving them opportunities to identify what they are interested in and attach that to what they are going to learn. They are also given choice as to how they will work within that environment (e.g., seating, task, skill, mode of learning or assessment, etc.). That kind of definition can feel really abstract, so I’ll share an experience I had as a student and how it built my agency.
In high school, I opted to take a course called U.S. History-Paperback. We moved through the U.S. History curriculum via fiction and non-fiction books our teacher had identified. For example, for the American Revolution, the list included books like Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, My Brother Sam is Dead by Christopher Collier, and Sarah Bishop by Scott O’Dell (I will say that there was a significant lack of diversity represented in our books, but there are many, many more high quality and diverse books available now. Always, always, always have diversity represented in your materials and environment). This is the first example of autonomy. Though we needed to stay within the curriculum, we chose the book(s) we wanted to read. We could also propose other books. We just had to argue why it was appropriate. Mr. Bloomberg was a smart man. We helped him expand his reading list.
Each student signed a book contract which laid out which book we chose, why, our anticipated completion date, and it gave us an outline we used to help guide our reading process. These were overarching questions about plot, theme, characters, motivations, etc. This is another example of autonomy. He scaffolded the selection process to really make us think about our connection to the book and our reason for choosing it. And, even though Mr. Bloomberg gave us an overall pacing structure (e.g., have x number of books read by x), I know firsthand that he worked with each student on pacing. I chose a really difficult-for-me book to read for the Civil War and I was not going to finish it quickly enough. Luckily, he had clearly communicated to us that we were to meet with him whenever we had questions or concerns. When I left that meeting, he had empowered me with suggestions on how to chunk the book and engage with it better. He never told me that I was behind or that the book was too difficult for me. There was always an option to switch books if you wanted to, but he knew that I didn’t see that as a solution.
Once we were done, we turned in our notes and then chose our next book. Mr. Bloomberg would read through our notes and determine partners based on what we read and what we pulled from our books. If he was going to partner me with someone else who read the same book and he noticed that I didn’t completely lay out the theme of the book, he’d give me a note on that so I could add to my notes. He used everything from jig-saws (meeting with other students who read different books) to same-book partners to help us learn about that segment in history.
When we met with our partner, we had a guide to walk us through the conversations we needed to have. We also had the study guide for the final evaluation, so we could make sure we were getting the answers we needed along the way. If either of us felt we didn’t get the information we needed, we could approach another student who had read the same book. This is a third example of autonomy. We were deciding whether or not we had the information we needed, but that decision was an informed decision based on the study guide.
Ultimately, this course allowed us to gain our autonomy. There were many students who entered that class never having experienced that level of freedom before, but he always had scaffolding in place. For example, he had some non-negotiables (e.g., we had to read at least one book from each time period), but we were also part of determining the class rules (e.g., what would cause you to lose the privilege of access to the library through this cool backdoor from his classroom versus having to walk down the long hallway and through the regular doors). The classroom felt alive and interesting. We could choose to read in the classroom or the library and the same choice was provided for our student meetings (though we had to be a bit more quiet in the library).
I was not interested in history before I took Mr. Bloomberg’s class. I liked reading, but didn’t read for content. That class taught me that I could read history for pleasure. It also taught me that my reading pace didn’t matter. Finally, it taught me that I was really good with time management and could handle big chunks of information. These are things that aren’t in the standards. These are things that supported me as I moved through higher education. These are the experiences I gained through the use of agency. What I love most about this story is that it is replicable in today’s classroom. Other than the backdoor to the library, key components of this environment are replicable.
In what ways are you allowing for agency in your classroom? In what ways are you supporting it? When have you attempted to provide it and things fell apart? Did you shy away from it or did you look for a way to scaffold the attempt? Our learners can only take with them what we provide. You might have to scaffold an opportunity down to its bones, but then you can help those learners advance and grow through those scaffolds. After all, every student needs the opportunity to become an expert learner.