Three Ways to Balance Student Agency and Rigor

As a passionate person who wants to go all in, I have to fight a myopic approach to teaching. Right now, I am on the choice and innovation train, and it is hurtling in one direction. However, yesterday I sat in district professional development listening about rigor and teaching content, and it gave me pause. Am I facilitating choice and autonomy to the exclusion of rigor?

I don’t have that answer, yet, but I do know that I believe in variety and balance for students. As Ken Robinson describes in his TED-talk, students are naturally diverse with diverse needs. I often argue that I could design the most engaging class complete with cake and ponies, and there would be one student who would rather sit in the corner and read. So, we need balance.

Incorporating both student agency and rigor is the challenge that I like to address with colleagues. We think and talk about our role as educators, and the changes in that role. I made this graphic to spark a discussion among my colleagues:

Students need context to understand content, and we as teachers often can provide that. However, content is available to students, and they must learn to sift the wheat from the chaff to evaluate and process that content. So, what can we do to make sure students have agency and are being stretched to do their best learning?

Three Ways to Balance Student Agency and Rigor

  1. Student-created assessments–As a writing teacher, I offer the standards in kid-friendly, I Can, statements, and allow them to choose what they will concentrate on for each piece of writing. I build my mini-lessons around their choices. For each student, there must be an element of Content, Craft and Language. Their own self-assessment is usually more insightful than my assessment of them. However, I keep full license to assign the final grade. For 20% Time, I have students create their own learning targets and assessment rubric. This could be adapted to any content area, I believe.
  2. Students teaching students–Sometimes I formally set up areas of expertise for students. For example, one student was named the Hanging Indent Queen, and all hanging indent questions went to her. She wore her crown (construction paper) proudly. More often, though, it is the informal moments. A student came up to me the other day with a question about transitions. One boy near us chimed in a suggestion, and a conversation began. I slowly backed away. Students can help each other when the culture of students teaching students is established.
  3. Students holding each other accountable–Some of this comes in group and project work when students rely on the work of others to move forward as a team. Other times, students are simply inspired by the work of others. One powerful tool for accountable is the ability to be a Critical Friend. Peer assessment and immediate feedback, taught well and applied well, is one of my most effective tools to raise the level of rigor in the classroom.

Even as I write this post, I want to do these things better and more consistently. I want to raise rigor and give agency more effectively. As teachers, doubt can spur to be better or make us retreat to a safe place. I choose to get better.

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