Empowering Students by Cultivating Agency
Elementary students may stay more engaged in school if they feel that their voice matters in their learning experiences.
The past four years have reminded us that we need to transform the education system and that transformation is possible. We can reimagine and create schools where we center student voice and experience through expanding our notion of data and discover the story behind the data.
Every student has endless potential, funds of knowledge, and cultural wealth. Equity pedagogy relies on an agency framework to ensure that students feel seen, heard, and loved—that every student experiences agency. In this article, I explore the components of the framework and provide examples of each.
Agency, as defined in Street Data: A Next-Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation, is “the idea that people have the capacity to take action, craft and carry out plans, and make informed decisions based on a growing base of knowledge.” It includes identity, belonging, mastery, and efficacy.
Every student feels valued for who they are, including their race, gender, ethnicity, language, learning preferences, strengths, background knowledge, family background, and way of being.
As a teacher, I must first explore my own identity so that I continue to grow and understand my perspective and biases. I provide opportunities for students to explore and celebrate their identities. I use priority standards and take students’ identities into account so that the activities are relevant to them, they see themselves represented, and they learn about others. I ensure that every student is seen as contributing to collaborative learning as we engage in the learning experience.
Every student feels seen, heard, cared for, and loved by themselves and others. The classroom is filled with laughter, joy, and frequent student discussion and collaboration.
I’m intentional in showing up to be fully present with students. I build authentic relationships with each of my students and among students. I deeply listen to students and their loved ones in order to understand who they are and what they need in order to acquire social and academic success. This success isn’t possible if students lack a sense of belonging, so I begin by exploring what belonging means to each of my students.
Every student has agency and choice in their learning and opportunities to build knowledge and demonstrate understanding in a variety of ways. As a teacher, if my students and I are clear on the rigorous learning target and criteria for success, they can explore traditional and nontraditional ways to access and express learning.
Universal Design for Learning provides a framework for accessing and expressing learning in a variety of ways while maintaining rigor. For example, following their guideline “Use multiple tools for construction and composition,” students could write a paper, design a video, or create a visual representation, etc. When students understand (by explicit explanation or cocreating success criteria) what success looks like, they begin to understand where they are in relation to the learning goal, where they need to go (goal setting), and how to get there (and where to go for support).
As students engage in the experience, I collect “street data,” including observation and dialogue, and provide affirmation and timely actionable feedback. Students reflect on the strategies and processes that are working best for them, rather than just get a final grade. I tell students, “I am giving you this feedback because you are important to me and I know you can do this. I am here to help you along the way,” and they have opportunities to revise as much as needed.
Every student knows that what they do makes a difference in the classroom, the school, and the world. I can help students develop and enhance their sense of efficacy by involving them in the cocreation of authentic and meaningful learning opportunities. I share power in the classroom by asking students for feedback on my teaching and acting on the feedback; I also promote students’ asking questions as much as (or more than) I do. When learning is given a purpose in a content area, as with the work of experts in a field, students are empowered to understand the discourse, structure, and ways of communicating within a field of study. We can celebrate learning by sharing with an audience.
It’s time to rethink how we do school and to listen to our students—they know what works for them and what doesn’t, and what might work if we’re willing to explore alongside them. If we create classrooms, schools, and systems where we empower students, and act as learning partners, we give students agency in their own learning. If we center identity, belonging, efficacy, and mastery in order to strengthen student agency, we can begin to transform schools. Quoting Street Data, “Our equity efforts truly begin when we redefine success as the cultivation of student agency and realign our measures of success to this goal.”