A Teacher’s Adventure into Adopting a Culture of Student Agency

A teacher and I have been working with over the course of the last three weeks made his goals very clear to me in our initial meeting. “I want to move away from the amount of direct instruction that I use in my classroom, and I would like to give students more choice on what and how they learn.” His biggest obstacle, like all who find themselves in this position, was how to keep his sanity as he relinquished control in his classroom. We began to discuss his upcoming project with his 7th graders as they were about to begin a unit in which they explored chemical reactions.

In the past, the teacher had stood in front of the class and demonstrated different reactions as the students took notes of the reactants and products, and the demonstration would lead to classroom discussions on what students saw. We began to discuss the engagement aspect of this lesson. I asked if he felt each of his students was engaged in the lesson. Undoubtedly there were students who were engaged and excited about the reactions, but there was also a group of silent students who may have been just passing time until the next bell rang. We began to discuss how we might give students the ability to have some choice in this lesson, and by doing so make the lesson more student-centered and engage all students.

We sat down to brainstorm some ways to make the activity more engaging. The first thing we had decided on is that the students would need to be involved in choosing the reactions that they wanted to explore. If we are talking about student agency, we as teachers set the goals we want students to achieve, then we work backward with the students on how they can demonstrate such knowledge. We broke students into small groups and allowed them to research chemical reactions that could be demonstrated in class. Moreover, students discussed what the reactions could be used for. They came up with examples such as creating a reaction that would propel a rocket into the sky, the many uses for the reaction between baking soda and vinegar, as well as a group who created lumenal, the glowing reaction that crime scene investigators use to detect the presence of blood.

Students were tasked with developing the list of reactants needed for their experiment, the product of the experiment, the availability of the reactants, whether or not the product was safe to demonstrate in school, then after the items were purchased, they were able to demonstrate their knowledge to the class. Using the scientific method, they posed a question about their experiment. They researched the reactions, posed a hypothesis, tested the experiment, drew conclusions and reflected on their process.

The next unit will incorporate metabolic reactions. We had discussed allowing students the ability to move through this unit self-paced through a flipped classroom. Using Khan Academy, the teacher found a pre-created unit on metabolic reactions. Students will work their way through the unit. Their assessment results will be provided to the teacher, which will allow him to gauge student comprehension, and provide additional support to students who are struggling. Once the unit is complete, students will choose a metabolic process and choose a way to present or demonstrate it to their classmates.