Expanding Agency and Inquiry in the Classroom

I posted previously sharing some of the incredible work my students have been doing with the Passion Project, and the presentations they shared before the winter break have had me doing some serious thinking about what more this project could be in my classroom. And it’s not just because of the quality of work my students put forth (which is, undoubtedly, the best work any individual student produces in a semester); it’s what it has done to the sense of community in my classroom.

As I wrote in the most recent blog post on my site, Evolutionizing Education, I changed a lot about my teaching this semester; with a heavier emphasis on the Passion Project, I wanted to carry that sense of freedom and dialogue over to other parts of the curriculum. I talked a lot more with these kids—not just on an academic level, but on a personal one—and, more importantly, I listened even more than I talked. I made my classroom a safe place to discuss, to challenge, to consider, explore, debate, divulge. And in simply being more real with my students, I opened the door for them to be more real with me, without even realizing I had done that. Several of these kids have bared their souls in these projects—something I have never before experienced and truly never expected to. The Passion Project is responsible for this—I would have never gotten to know and love them as I do had it not been for this project. The nature of the Passion Project opens up pathways and topics of discussion that otherwise would be left undisturbed. And it creates, out of pure necessity, an atmosphere of trust and respect and openness—and it is amazing what those things can do to the relationship between teacher and pupil. I feel honored and humbled by what each of these kids brought to the table this semester, and I am going to miss them moving forward. But I suppose in the end that’s what I’m meant to do: empower them to move forward, leaving me behind. How bittersweet that duty.

Beyond sharing their completed projects, I also asked them to think about the process and journey of the project itself—what worked best and what more they needed or wanted out of the project and out of me as a facilitator. Surprisingly, I received incredibly thoughtful and reflective comments from just about everyone, and there were definite patterns in their responses. The most repeated suggestion throughout presentation week (and, really, on and off throughout the whole semester) was the desire to have the same kind of freedom and control over other work in the course. This has stuck with me the past weeks and has had me thinking, “Why not?!”

Doing what I normally do, I rolled up my sleeves and set out to find resources that dove deeper into project-based learning and inquiry in the classroom. I have several texts still yet to work through, but I’ve found one in particular that is going to evolutionize what I do next semester: Liz Prather’s Project-Based Writing. Prather’s process closely resembles the framework of the Passion Project, but her focus is on writing projects. Prather offers a variety of activities to move students toward discovering an idea, creating a bank of possible writing material they can refer back to and expand on over the semester. After settling on an idea, students begin to frame the work they will set out to do, developing a pitch and proposal. While students work independently on their projects, there is a great deal of sharing and feedback that happens within the writing community of the classroom. After receiving approval of the class, students move forward with planning, developing specific project goals and outlining a project schedule, which they revisit daily, documenting the work they actually accomplished. Then they begin doing the real work—individual “studio time” writing and developing their piece, researching and building a project library, conferencing regularly with the teacher.

Midway through the process, they share an “inquiry draft” with the whole class, accompanied by questions for readers the writer evolved from their project goals. The writer uses this extensive feedback to revise and further develop their project. Students compose a project reflection to accompany the final product, as well as design an individual evaluation form (again, revisiting the goals and inquiry draft questions) which they will use to self-assess, classmates will use to complete a community score, and the teacher will use in determining the effectiveness of the product. Finally, working off the feedback they received at this stage, they make any final adjustments to the final product and look for a way to share it beyond the walls of the classroom (Prather provides multiple avenues for this, as well).

Prather’s text is chock-full of materials and resources to utilize, and the process is one that is easily and practically carried out in any classroom—even easily adaptable, if you only want to try it out as a mini-unit to dip your toes in the waters of project-based learning. Between what I’ve garnered from her text and from my students’ honest reflections, I will be making additional changes to the Passion Project before relaunching in Spring semester. But, even more than that, I am committing to launching my entire course utilizing project-based curriculum. I asked my students what they wanted, and I’m listening. I’m ushering in a new era of expanded agency in my classroom, with a keen focus on inquiry. I am excited, though admittedly a tad nervous, to see what my students will do with this newfound freedom to direct the course of their own education in full and not just in part.

WVCTE is wondering what changes have you made (or want to make) in your classroom to enhance student agency! Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Sarah Krause teaches Honors Sophomore English and Dual-Credit Senior English at Hurricane High School. Beginning her career as a full-time instructor for Marshall University, Sarah is entering her fifth year in public education. If she is not in the classroom, grading papers, or conducting research, Sarah enjoys working on developing her professional website and blog at www.evolutionizingeducation.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @teachtwdchange.

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