When kids return to school, they may have more agency. Are we ready?

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By Tanji Reed Marshall

When schools closed their doors back in March, my first thought was for the students. Like many of you, I wondered if they were safe; if they had adequate means for getting meals and access to the necessary tools to continue their learning. As we learned, our concerns were real. Long-allowed inequities intensified. Predictive analytics let us know the most vulnerable of our students would be the ones hardest hit by having to move from in-person instruction to home-based learning. 

Not only did many of us learn that our students (I’m out of the classroom now but still use the collective when talking about students) had limited access to learning tools, we also came face-to-face with the realities that many of our students live, to which we hadn’t been privy. Yes, we thought we may have had one or two students who had to choose between coming to school or supporting their parents by tending to younger siblings. Or a few who were helping to support their families by working. But we rarely thought these situations were as pervasive as was revealed when in-building education moved to a digital space.

Our understanding of “school” centered on a singular delivery model, one which privileges students being in a fixed place for a fixed amount of time. In many cases, we adults weren’t fully prepared to support students’ learning in any other way.

How do students feel about remote learning?

I wanted to get a sense of how students were doing during this unprecedented time, so I set out to talk to them. What  I learned was not what I expected. Yes, I heard from students about their internet not always working and how teachers were giving them more work than they had prior to remote learning. And yes, I heard from other students about teachers who didn’t make contact at all and about too many assignments being optional and, in some instances, not graded at all. This I expected.

What I didn’t expect to hearin interviews with 20 secondary-level students from the West to the East coast and from a variety of races, ethnicities, and genderswas how much some students were enjoying their freedom.

For instance, Joey (a pseudonym, as are all names here) from Albany, New York, said, “Interesting times call for interesting measures.” He explained how his school district posted assignments at the beginning of the week and, as long as he turned the assignments in by the due date, he was free to determine when he would do them—which he appreciated. This freedom to make decisions echoed across interviews, even when students shared frustrations about not being able to access their work or experiencing delays from teachers about how to proceed with assignments. 

Michelle, an 11th grader from Washington state, noted, “School was, like, be there at 7:30 and stay until 3:00. Now, I can wake up later and work until later. I like being able to set my own schedule.” Her story reflects a sentiment shared by many students I spoke with about their perspectives on distance learning.

More room for agency

As schools moved to various forms of remote learning, the power structure shifted a bit. Students became “in charge” of their learning and learning time. They were called on to make decisions about when and how to do their work. Some students struggled with these decisions because their families lacked the necessary tools, including strong internet connectivity, to support at-home learning. Others were forced into exercising their agency because their districts only provided asynchronous learning structures, leaving students in charge of structuring their time. Some students simply chose to make decisions about how and when they would learn, as a way to assume ownership of their time.

In this new space, students developed more agency. Having opportunities to determine their own schedule and how they would do their work helped them realize what it means to have the ability to make such important decisions. Having agency influenced how many students viewed their distance-learning experience and how they organized their time; many found it enjoyable and freeing. When I asked Isabella, a middle school student from the East Coast, what she learned about herself while doing distance learning, she replied, “The best part for me is I’m doing things I like to do. I was learning guitar at one point. Now I actually have time to do it again since I can do my work whenever I want.”

During this remote learning time, many students have developed a skill that educators know students need, but rarely get authentic opportunities to develop. While students’ voices weren’t considered in decisions about how to continue learning in a remote landscape, the ascendency of student agencyparticularly for students of color, students from low-income families, ELLs, and others who tend to have little opportunity to practice agencymust be considered as schools move towards reopening.

As leaders consider how to structure learning for the coming school year, we should consider two critical questions: 1) What adjustments must teachers and principals make to partner with students to further this agency development? and 2) How can leaders support teachers in recognizing when students are exercising agencyso teachers don’t misinterpret self-advocacy for defiance (and respond with traditional forms of discipline that often negatively impact students of color, particularly Black students)? Pondering these questions will help leaders ensure that teachers approach their relationships with these “new” students through an equity lens.

We must be ready for how students will be different from who they were when remote learning began. Their agency matters. Let’s continue to cultivate it.


About the author

Tanji Reed Marshall is the Director of P12 Practice at the Education Trust. Follow her on Twitter @Remarch76.

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