CReATE Student Agency


Twitter: @DonnaMNeary

a·maz·ing, adjective – causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing; startlingly impressive, mind-blowing, jaw-dropping.  Synonyms: astounding, breathtaking, remarkable, phenomenal, extraordinary, incredible.

The first days of the 2017-2018 School year have been amazing. I mean truly amazing. The rolling out of the Accelerate to Graduate, or A2G, pilot at Iroquois for our ESL students has moved quickly, and our students are jumping right into the concept.

The idea for this program to serve the needs of older ESL students has been in the works for more than five years, beginning as a ‘what if” scenario. During discussions between the  International Academy Director Vicky Cummings, and Dr. Elisha Beardsley, now JCPS Director of ESL Programs, a dream was born.  Formerly next-door neighbors at Iroquois, they discussed the growing ESL population at Iroquois and the district. They also realized the needs of students who would soon age-out of high school.

The program is finally a reality. The students selected to take part in A2G attended Iroquois last year, so they already know at least one of the teachers on the team. On the first day of school, Mrs. Cummings, Dr. Beardsley, Michelle Shory, and Dr. Carmen Coleman visited us to check in. Students were excited to see Mrs. Cummings, and meet our visitors.

We began our first day like teachers across the district by establishing our classroom policies and procedures. But we started with a blank piece of paper. We asked students what rules they wanted in their classroom. The immediate reaction was that they did this last year and that they know the rules. We told them, however, that A2G students have the freedom to set their own rules. Students listened with interest, doubt, or disbelief that teachers would hand the reigns of learning over to our students in A2G. Some were a little nervous. Others protested that the teachers should set all the rules, and the student negotiations were troubling to them. They were comfortable with someone else making the rules. But we encouraged them and reiterated: This is your learning community and your rules. What are your expectations of yourself and others?

Students worked in small groups to discuss what rules they would need to follow to create a place where everyone could learn, and move towards graduation. A student-led discussion followed and narrowed down the dozens of rules to three:

  1. Respect everyone (no racism)
  2. Work hard
  3. Use the cell phone only when appropriate.

Next discussion: What would be the consequences for breaking the rules?

These discussions were messy and sometimes a tug-of-war between teachers and students as we gave them more rope, and then pulled it back again to offer ideas or suggestions. I realized that I had to consciously step back, and let them go, and bite my tongue, and not be so helpful. I fully understood at that moment what it meant for me as the teacher to step out of the center, and to allow students to occupy that space. This was their work, not mine. I found that this was going to be harder than I thought, and I will have to be ever mindful of my role in this learning process.

We observed our student’s truly buy-in to their power on the morning of day three. Students were continuing the discussions about consequences for rule infractions from the day before and it was going nowhere. One student, expressing frustration that the negotiations were still ongoing, made a declarative statement, “Teachers, we need you to leave.”  Our team looked at each other, hesitant, not sure how to proceed. We considered it, got up, and exited to an anteroom in the back of the classroom where we had full view of the students and the proceedings, but were not in the discussions.

This was a transformative moment for teachers, students and our program when the teachers left the students to solve their own problems. We had provided the content, provided scaffolding, and modeled the behavior. This WAS Deeper Learning, Mastery Learning, Project-Based Learning happening right in front of us. The students believed us when we said this was their universe to design.  They clearly communicated to us that they needed to create a space to express ideas to each other as peers, without the fear of offending their teachers, or of receiving teacher input. This was their problem to solve. They were clearly creating a community before our eyes and wanted to work a few things out and get consensus of the group before reaching a final agreement and “publishing” it.

The first statement by a student who jumped up to take the lead in the teacher-less discussion was, “We are adults” lets start acting like it. “We have been talking on this for three days, you should feel shame for this. We know the rules. We are finished with this. Follow the rules.” Another added, “you are acting like babies, like children. Some of you may not need it (A2G), but I do.” So he admonished them not to get in the way of others who wanted to work hard and give this new program a chance. At times the discussions got heated, but never disrespectful, or mean. They were coming up with solutions to their problem.

In a particular sticking point – agreeing on the penalty for unauthorized cellphone use – a student who is quickly becoming a leader, said, “The teachers, they see weaknesses (in us), let’s show them we are strong” and have self-control. I don’t mean for the teachers to take your phone, but you know that’s a consequence.” She ended with, “In this class, we have to love each other.”

The students concluded their “executive session”, and called the teachers back into the discussion. We were told that the conclusion of the discussion was that no consequences needed to be negotiated. They would know if the rules were broken. Then they understood that the school rules would be in play. Then they all voted to agree to the rules and accept the consequences of their actions. Finally, one student said that students should thank their teachers for respecting them enough to leave the room and let them have the discussion. Drop the mic. We were amazed at how this all played out. They were powerful in their agency for themselves and one another.  And we learned we had to give up our power, to empower the students.

Students were excited and attentive as we began our first “official” lesson. We are starting by modeling cross-curricular project-based learning, providing the content and assigning a pre-determined project to walk them through the process. We will support them as they see how this style of learning is different.  We know our students are still figuring out what that will look like, as are we, but showed openness to this way of learning. They had great ideas in their discussions and supported one another in their groups. We saw academic competitiveness in some, and we saw hands go up from students who had not once volunteered to answer questions or read aloud last year.  We could see they were beginning to feel safe in their new learning community.

As I reflect on our first days of school, I feel real joy about how it is going. I am excited and optimistic for the school year. We know this pilot is a leap of faith by JCPS and Iroquois administrators who are trusting that students will embrace the project-based, standards-based learning in our classrooms.  I can happily say I am a true believer and practitioner of project-based learning and thankful for the trust in the students that is being shown in this pilot. Our team is confident that our students will push themselves to excel in their courses. And after only the first week, I am amazed to see that students are not only leaping, but hurling themselves into A2G, and are ready to lift off the ground and fly.