Monday, September 23, 2019

"Innovate Inside the Box" Book Study, Week 1: Building Learner Agency and Defining Success

This year, my position changed. From my perspective, it’s been for the better. As a result of the change, I have been given the opportunity to pursue interests that I haven’t felt I was able to in the past because there just wasn’t time. At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with this change. I started to make a mental list of all the things professionally I’ve struggled with over the last five years and defined some goals for myself. One of them is to actually blog. I’ve had plenty of false starts over the years mainly because at the end of the day I was tired. I had nothing left to give to the profession and had to put all my energy into my family and relationship with others. I’m not finding myself stretched as thin as I was before and can now focus on reading more, writing more and seeking out/accepting more speaking opportunities. For the first time in awhile, I’m excited about working on me as a professional. It’s time to do something amazing.

While participating in an online book study may not be one person’s definition of amazing, it’s something I never allowed myself to do in the past. So, it’s pretty amazing to me. The, “Innovate Inside the Box” book study came at a great time. Not only am I reading and not thinking about 100 other things I felt I should be doing, I am also finding the encouragement to blog. It’s a double win.

About midway through Chapter 2 of, “Innovate Inside the Box,” I came across this passage:

If we really want students to guide their own path and lead happy and healthy lives, this will require us to define success differently. Rather than approach students with a deficit mentality, we must look for and build on their unique strengths and talents and help them acquire the skills, knowledge, and mindsets they need to see themselves as full of possibility.

This passage resonated with me for two reasons. The first being that I work really hard in my own practice to develop learner agency. Students need to understand who they are learners so they can forge their own path to lead happy and healthy lives. Schools need to embrace the learners’ strengths and foster growth rather than trying to remediate a deficit. Now, being a Special Ed teacher I feel as though every IEP I write goes against this belief. There are somethings I can’t change and paperwork is one of them. However, how IEP meetings are run and the atmosphere created is entirely within my control. I recently wrote a blog post for Make Learning Personal that addresses this very issue. This post outlines my process of using Learner Profiles to develop learner agency and how I use them in student led IEP meetings. This is how I get students involved in their own planning and goal setting.

The second reason this passage resonated with me is success looks different for all students. Here is a brief summary of two students who have very different definitions of success.

I have a student who has recently returned from a five month residential stay in a mental health facility. Not only are mental health issues a concern the student also has an intellectual disability, autism, reactive attachment disorder and trauma. She’s also a student who loves dogs, documentaries, socializing, cooking and learning about other places. Right now, success for her will be learning how to form trusting relationships with people (especially adults) and learning how to self-regulate her emotions/behavior. That skill is far more important to her future than any reading comprehension strategy or math process I can teach her right now. Her success is going to be difficult, if not impossible to grade. 

I have a former student who played drums and planned on being in a band after high school. I never felt that school embraced his interests. When writing his post secondary plan I felt pressured from other team members to focus on a Plan B since Plan A was to, quite literally, play drums in a heavy metal band. This guy did not go to college as his Plan B stated and the school prepared him for. Instead, he has traveled to Europe and all over the United States in several different bands, performed at large music festivals when drummers were needed and has served as a studio drummer for recording acts. Not a single follow up survey on graduates that was done identified him as a success. If you want to check him out on Twitter or Instagram @mitchondrums.

Success looks different for every individual and as teachers we need to know our learners and help nurture their strengths. Classroom practices, like using Learner Profiles, passion projects, 20% time, and choice opportunities for practice and assessment options are all ways teachers can help students build agency AND help them define what success looks like for them.

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