George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Voice

Building Classroom Culture Through Student Autonomy

Students who have a say in creating classroom rules are more likely to abide by them, but getting student buy-in can’t stop there.

December 9, 2022
Fly View Productions/iStock

For teachers wanting to develop student agency, providing students voice and choice in important decisions is key. 

To communicate our belief in students’ capacity and desire to behave in ways that help themselves and their community, we need to examine our classroom management. Do classroom rules come from the top down? Who reflects back to students whether they are following classroom agreements or not? How much voice do students have in decisions about how they want to be with one another in the classroom and in reflections about their growth as a learning community?

Truly cultivating a classroom space that honors student agency takes more than co-creating classroom agreements at the beginning of the year. It takes a great deal of continuous reflection and attention to the ways in which each of our behaviors impact the community.

One structure that allows this continual reflection and attention is Envision, Coach, Reflect. This structure allows students to be in charge of establishing agreements, following through with them, and reflecting on how they are attending to their needs and the needs of their peers. 

Teachers can layer this structure onto any learning activity in order to keep the agreements alive and develop the reflective muscles that allow students to build self-regulation. This simple structure, influenced by and adapted from The Power of Our Words, by Paula Denton, allows students to envision the actions that would lead to an effective classroom community and reflect on the impact of their actions. 

Step One: Envision (3–5 minUTES)

Before you begin an activity, work with students to co-create group agreements that are specific for that activity. For example, you might say, “We are about to work in groups. What do we need to do in order to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard, and everyone feels like they are contributing to the work?” This troubleshooting ahead of time allows you to name the challenges of working in a group and proactively create solutions so that the group work time is successful. 

During this time, you can ask students to think about what their bodies might look like, what the volume might sound like, and what other things we might consider. This step allows students to have a clear vision of their interactions during the activity. 

Envisioning language allows students to see for themselves what they are capable of. It can help them create a mental image of themselves beyond what they previously perceived to know or do. The clearer their vision, the more likely students are to follow the agreements. You can chart the student responses and post them where students can see them during the activity.  

Step Two: Coach 

During the activity, you walk around the room, listening in on student conversations, observing group work, and providing just-in-time feedback to reinforce, remind, or redirect students’ behavior. You might say, “I notice that you invited Anna into the conversation,” or “Personal space” if someone needs a reminder to give others some room. 

You might also reference the agreements written on the chart if someone needs a reminder or have a brief check-in with a small group, asking, “Are we hearing from everyone? How might we invite some folks in?” Be sure to make a mental note of any issues you want to bring up in the group reflection at the end.

Step Three: Reflect (3–5 minUTES)

After the activity, a short group reflection reminds students that these agreements are important to the community. The class looks back at the chart, and students engage in self-reflection and group reflection with questions such as, “How did we do with our agreements/expectations? What did you notice that we did well? What do you think we can continue to work on?”

At this stage, you might bring up a couple of things you noticed during the work time as well. This brief but powerful activity builds metacognitive skills and reminds students that we care about how we work together in this classroom and that we believe that students want to behave in ways that help the community. As education reformer John Dewey wisely stated, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

The beauty of Envision, Coach, Reflect is that it can work for almost any class activity. The most important thing is to get clear on what the goal is for each activity and include it in the prompt. Here are a few more examples of the envision prompt for some common classroom activities:

  • “We are about to take a test. What do we need to do so that everyone can focus and do their best work?”
  • “We are about to listen to a read-aloud. What do we need to do so that everyone can listen to the story and be focused on our group conversation?”
  • “We are about to go to recess. What do we need to do so that everyone can be safe and have fun?”
  • “We are about to have a class discussion. What do we need to do so that everyone feels heard and included in the discussion?” 
  • “We are about to work with math tools. What do we need to do so that everyone can use the tools they need and can focus on their work?” 

With practice, students learn this structure and can begin to lead the envision and reflect steps as class discussions themselves. 

It’s a powerful thing to witness students generating their own working agreements, deciding on what’s important to them and their community, and then reflecting on their follow-through. As a result, Envision, Coach, Reflect minimizes behavior issues because it helps students decide for themselves how they want to be together, and it holds them accountable to one another for their growth as a learning community. It’s one way we can honor student agency in our classrooms.

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