Note: Student Agency is a HUGE part of middle school
identity and success. For this issue’s column, I’ve
asked education expert, LeAnn Nickelsen, to join me in
presenting the case for elevating its importance in our
teaching during the pandemic, and for practical tips
on how to build it with our students. – RCW
The concerns grew louder in early September of
this year as many schools switched suddenly from
in-person teaching to full-time, remote instruction
due to a local COVID-19 surge: Students just don’t
care about attending online sessions, and they aren’t
turning in their assignments. Upon closer reflection however, it wasn’t so much a matter of students being
irresponsible in their studies as it was a reflection of their sudden reality amidst the unrelenting
Not only were teachers battling the decline in
student participation that began during last year’s emergency teaching and the typical proficiency slumps of summer, but their students were facing
continued trauma with forced social distancing,
evictions, canceled rituals/sports/performances/
clubs, exacerbated inequities in access to schooling,
illness and death of loved ones, parents’ job loss, and
for some, newly abusive family life, increased opioid
addictions, insufficient sleep, increased anxiety and depression, and a very real sense that those they trust to help them through all this were just as lost as they were. Teachers did the best they could, and did even
better than they thought they could, but it still wasn’t
enough for some.
Yes, we can expect a “COVID slide” in student
achievement this year and in the years to come. In fact,
“preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest students
will return in the fall of 2020 with roughly 70% of the
learning gains in reading relative to a typical school
year. In mathematics, however, students are likely to
show much smaller learning gains, returning with less
than 50% of the learning gains and in some grades,
nearly a full year behind what we would observe in normal conditions" (Kuhfield & Tarasawa, 2020).
Last year and now in the new year, teachers
have responded heroically and creatively to these
concerns, taking up the steep challenges of teaching
students who are learning from their homes. They’ve
created unique projects, re-vamped their instructional
designs, collaborated on redesigning curriculum,
provided students with materials, scheduled virtual
learning lessons throughout the day, delivered meals
along with lessons of the week, called students
daily, taught lessons via online platforms while
parenting their own children, added humor to learning
experiences to create community, retaught content
as needed, provided feedback in a variety of helpful
ways, and some have installed MIFI (mobile Wi-Fi
units) in neighborhoods and apartment complexes or
driven buses into these locations so students could
have Wi-Fi access for the school year. Of course, highpoverty
districts have even deeper challenges due
to lack of supplies, food, medical care, and access to
technology while also having more truancy issues
and intense trauma generated by existing inequities.
These same issues can be found in rural and urban
communities as well (EdWeek Research Center
Survey, 2020). Against the odds, educators have
worked hard to meet their students’ needs, and they
continue to do an amazing job.
Today, and for at least the next two years, there
will likely be a need for remote instruction for some
or all of our students who cannot attend in-person
schooling due to lack of a viable vaccine and antibody
tests, or who have suppressed immune systems,
family issues caused by the pandemic, or other
challenges. Teachers may not be able to be in their
own classrooms themselves due to similar issues.
The negative impact on the teaching-learning
dynamic is stark and unsettling, and among the most
concerning: the lack of student engagement with their
Many of us rely on time spent physically together,
especially at the beginning of the year, to get know
each other, create connections, and commit to one
another’s success. And being together regularly, we
adjust our interactions as we learn more about our
students in order to ensure continued success and
connection. With new students in each physically
distanced school year, however, we are left adrift,
as those opportunities are gone. Urgently, then, we
look for insight on how to engage students in learning
when we are so regrettably detached from them.
Going forward, we suggest one of the most effective
responses is proactive student agency.
What is Student Agency?
Student agency is when students self-initiate and
persevere in their own learning through partnership
with others and empowerment. To do this, they codesign
goals, tasks/methods, and criteria for success
for resolving challenges and accomplishing identified learning goals. Critical to these processes are self-reflection and feedback from peers and teachers, all helping students monitor their own progress and
guiding the next steps in learning.
Agency, then, is not one event or factor, but rather
a continuous cycle of growing and learning based on
students’ interests, background knowledge/experiences,
and what they perceive is meaningful to them. There is a passion, flow, and initiative to keep learning until goals are met or new ones are formed, even when confronted with serious hurdles along the way.
Teachers affect student agency significantly by questioning teacher-centered instruction and by
planning instruction in such a way that elicits student
voice, choice, and empowerment to act upon what
is learned and valued. We’ve known for years that
motivation is not something we do to students but rather
something we create with them. When we partner with
our students in their learning, both our instruction and
their personal investment in learning improve.
In her 2018 article, “Part 1: What Do You Mean
When You Say ‘Student Agency’?” Jennifer Davis
Poon states how important it is to student agency to
make sure goals are, “advantageous to the student,”
continuing with the pointed concern that this, “calls
into question what gets counted as a worthwhile
goal and who gets to make that determination.” In
addition, she reminds us that, “Once a direction is set,
students don’t just gaze out the window of the bus.
They drive. This…invokes existential concepts such
as voice, choice, free will, freedom, individual volition, self-influence, and self-initiation."
The positive motivational impact of developing
student agency involves multiple elements, each with a significant theory and research base, let alone anecdotal evidence. A very brief sample of these studies are included in Figure 1.
The Bottom Line: Providing and designing
opportunities of ownership for students as well as
self-assessment, autonomy, celebration, descriptive
feedback, knowing the why of learning, creating
competence and multiple paths to mastery, and
challenging our beliefs all contribute to intrinsic
motivation. Bundled together, these components yield
Developing Student Agency, Especially
in a Remote Instruction World
In his 2015 piece, “10 Tips for Developing Student
Agency,” Tom Vander Ark, includes suggestions for
teachers as they develop student agency, including
caring for students’ emotional well-being but not
so much as to coddle them, including their lives
and perspectives in lessons while keeping students
focused on learning goals, making instructional
experiences interesting, facilitating cogent content,
helping students with long-term memory processing,
coaching students in their own self-monitoring, pushing students to think flexibly and substantively and helping them see the connection between their efforts and achieving things they value.
We propose a BOSS framework for partnering
with students to create their agency in learning.
We want the students to be in charge (the BOSS) of
their own learning while we partner, facilitate, and
coach them toward authentic learning experiences.
Student agency grows while we help students foster
beliefs and mindsets that elicit ownership, feedback,
reflection, and success celebrations with next step
Beliefs: Cultivate self-efficacy and growth mindset.
Since mindsets drive our behaviors all day long, this
is where we start. It’s not so much a specific step,
however, as it is an ongoing, constantly changing
effort based on interactions with others, our subjects,
our knowledge of students’ developmental processes
and how they find meaning, and students’ attitudes
about the subject. Beliefs and mindsets drive the rest
of the student agency elements.
Ownership: Co-design goals that are challenging
and needed, including criteria for success, and plans
for achieving those goals through coaching. There
is maximum emphasis here on the student’s voice and choice. The more that students co-design their
lessons, learning tasks, and criteria for success, the
more they take interest and engage in learning. We
invite their ideas, interests, cultures, and ultimately,
their voice and plans for accomplishing mediated
goals, which becomes a partnership for helping
students monitor progress, solve problems, and move
their work forward. Dr. Russ Quaglia, founder of
Quaglia for School Voice and Aspirations, synthesized
valuable research about student voice value and their
motivation levels (2016): He found that when students
believe they have a voice in their school, they are
seven times more likely to be academically motivated
than students who don’t believe they have a voice.
We’ve compiled a list of ways to ensure students’
voices are heard throughout our schools and
classrooms. Please see the specific practices for
cultivating student voice and choice in the next section.
Self, Peer, and Teacher Feedback & Reflection: Provide co-designed clear criteria with students,
modeling how to self-reflect and peer assess using
that criteria. Provide time and techniques to guide
students toward more reliable self-feedback and
reflection that invokes thoughtful analysis of progress
thus far, which then leads to helpful next steps in
learning and growth, not comparison, status, or
defensiveness. For specific principles and techniques
on effective feedback, watch “Descriptive Feedback
Techniques,” Part 1 and part 2 created by Rick on
YouTube and available at www.rickwormeli.com, and
see the work of Susan Brookhart, Bill Ferriter, Starr
Sackstein, Garnet Hillman, Mandy Stalets, Shirley
Clarke, John Hattie, Connie Moss, Douglas Fisher,
Nancy Frey, Joe Hirsch, James and Jill Nottingham.
Success Celebrations and/or Next Steps Action
Plan: With dopamine’s help, success breeds success.
So, let’s model how to reflect on success, even
celebrate it, and find meaning in every step—both
large and small—
towards achieving our goals. Let’s
make progress visible, denoting milestones achieved.
We can also model how to respond when any one or
more steps were not successful. Here we promote the
oft-shared interpretation of F.A.I.L. as, “First Attempt
in Learning,” and see mistakes as stepping stones to
success, not inescapable pits. As we positively affirm
student progress and encourage students to do the
same, they drop their singular focus on their weaker
areas as a statement of their permanent plight, and
instead, they see themselves as capable problem-solvers
and goal attainers.
To move into a mindset that facilitates student
choice and voice in their learning, focus on
intentionality: Be ready at any moment to listen to
students and expect to learn something from them.
Plan information processing points, discussions,
and sharing times throughout every lesson and take
care to really notice what students say and do. Then,
give their words, concerns, and questions serious
consideration and react in a way that demonstrates
that their voice merits response from those who care
for them. This is deeply validating.
As we move through our lessons, whether they
be done remotely or in person, we can invite student
voice and choice, implementing practices that give
students a stake in their own learning environment,
topics of learning, and progression.
Classroom Management Tools that
Invite Choice and Voice
When students experience voice opportunities, they
are more likely to experience value and self-worth
which in turn builds self-regulation and behavior
management (Quaglia & Corso, 2014). When teachers
give multiple opportunities for voice, they are declaring
that they have enough respect for students that they
want to know what they are thinking. It takes time,
effort, and intentionality to build trusting relationships
with mutual respect. Here are a few ideas:
- Give weekly proof that you know them as
individuals and honor what they bring to learning’s
table. This includes spending time getting to know
them outside of the basic interactions in our lessons
and integrating what we know of their lives and
culture into our lessons. It’s worth the extra effort
- Empower students with specific roles in
learning and classroom management, including
responsibility for materials management, work
updates, curating web content, committees for
improvement, community service, resolving conflicts
as they arise, and arranging for guest speakers/
trainers to do presentations for the class.
- Constantly invite students to design and take social
and emotional climate surveys to improve the school
- Provide learning experiences in which students “try
on” different voices as they explore this growing
element to their identity. Allow them to change
their voice if they feel what they are doing isn’t their genuine selves or is a little too revealing. For
example, they might initially explain a science
concept using scholarly words and phrasing that
sounds like a newscaster, but it doesn’t really
sound like them, so invite them to describe the
concept as if explaining it to their younger brother,
using familiar words and comparisons. In some
projects, they can make responses based on specific
models of writing, thinking, and art, and in other
projects, use different models in those same areas.
Eventually, they outgrow these models and start
using in their own voice the elements of those
models that resonate most with how they’d like to
- Ask them to create their own Learning Profiles to
determine their interests within upcoming units,
their learning preferences, how life is going, etc.
When you take the time to care and truly want to
understand how they are doing (personally and in
school), student agency forms.
- Allow students opportunities for flexible seating,
standing when they need to stand, or moving to
a better location to see or hear the learning. As
we teach our students about their brains and
how important blood flow to the brain is, we hope
they can take care of their movements without
distracting others (yes, there will need to be
parameters around these opportunities).
- Explicitly teach leadership skills so students can be
better decision makers to solve community, school,
and classroom problems.
- Consider using restorative justice techniques for
classroom discipline. See https://edut.to/3jJidiH and
- Build executive function skills. For more on this, see,
“Looking at Executive Function,” (AMLE Magazine,
Content Acquisition and Processing Ideas
When schools increase the amount of student voice
in changing curriculum and instruction, research
found that student learning improves (Oldfather, 1995;
Rudduck & Flutter, 2000). There are many ways to
improve student voice while planning lessons, units of
studies, and assessments, and when determining the
criteria for successful learning:
- Invite students to choose topics of personal
interest with which you can integrate your subject
- Create a pre-assessment, interest survey, or idea
contributor before you start the unit in order to
know students' background knowledge, their
passions within the unit’s topic, questions that
intrigue them, and ideas that would make the unit
more relevant and fun.
- Prime their brain before units or lessons begin
so that when you activate prior knowledge at the
beginning of your lesson, all students will have
something to activate. Activating prior knowledge
also sends the message of respecting what they
know and what they want to learn. It allows
teachers to personalize the learning.
- Invite students to choose a favored technology to
investigate and express their learning as long as
it allows for clear representation of evidence of
- Ask students to moderate online discussions or
curate Google docs and similar artifacts.
- Teach descriptive feedback techniques that they
can use for themselves and with one another.
Ask students, for example, to write a letter to
you describing where their effort on a particular
assignment matches the exemplar provided and
where it differs. Place a dot at the end of a line of
students’ writing or next to a mistake in a math
problem (or use a simple highlighting swipe), to
indicate a mistake is present, but don’t identify
what the issue is. Ask students to identify and
correct the mistake(s) made. You can also ask
students to create item analysis charts they can
use to reflect on their test performance, they can
respond to the three basic questions of feedback:
What is my learning target? Where am I now (or,
what progress have I made so far?), and what do I
need to do now to achieve my goal?, and they can
see the fruits of their labor and their capacity to
grow via the classic reflection on a newly learned
school topic: I used to think…, but now I think….
- Ask students for proposals for the products they will
create to demonstrate their mastery of a topic and
accept those alternative products as long as they
demonstrate the required evidence of learning.
- Let students decide which method or assignment to
use to practice the newly learned content between
now and the next class meeting.
- Help students build and maintain portfolios
(e-portfolios) of their work over time, including
reflections on each piece.
- As you include access to knowledge and sense-making
in your lessons, ensure processing
knowledge and meaning-making as well. It’s not
just about memorizing the five protections under
the First Amendment; it’s knowing our rights and
our responsibilities when we’re stopped by a police
officer for a traffic violation.
- Invite students to research a question of interest
directly or tangentially related to the subject of
your course right now. Let students co-teach, or
actually teach, the full lesson or a sub-section
such as vocabulary terms to classmates (with your
facilitation, of course).
- Let them help design the criteria for success (the
qualities of the formative assessment that ensure
mastery of the learning target) for a project or
- Build a cause meaningful to students into the
curriculum–something for which they’d like to
advocate in their own lives or communities.
- Provide an audience for student demonstrations
of learning other than you or students’ parents.
Younger students make a great audience for older
student’s efforts, as do community organizations,
publishing/displaying students’ creative content,
and recorded performances.
- Let students choose a contemporary novel for
your novel studies or as a companion text to the
- Give students two sticky notes before the lesson
begins and invite them to write two questions
that pop into their minds during the lesson (this
activity can be done before, during, and/or after
the learning). Depending on student age, sort the
questions into broader categories and design a plan
to answer these valuable questions.
- Ask students to connect with a professional in the
field in the subject area of your course and explore
how course content is applied.
- Co-create Likert scales to see where students are
with the learning tasks.
- Let students start out processing information or
demonstrating learning one way and have the
option to go a different direction if they get a better
idea while working.
- Implement and maintain a robust exploratory
program, inviting students to try new and different
topics of interest over the year to get a sense of them and discover previously unrecognized
interests and talents.
- Invite students to generate metaphors for the
science, math, writing, engineering, art, music,
health, government, legal, media, or philosophical
concept you’re teaching and one of their favorite
sports, hobbies, or passions. Alternatively, ask
students to portray abstract ideas via physically
- Ask students to add their own voice to projects and
assignments: If we left their name off the project,
would we know who created it?
- Teach students empowerment tools and encourage
their application in their studies. For example,
teach students about debate, deductive/inductive
reasoning, and logical fallacies, then ask them
to conduct debates and write argumentative
papers incorporating those tools. Teach them
how to paraphrase others’ work, memorize text/
information, how to capture gist (summarize)
cogently, and how to think divergently and
analytically using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge,
Frank Williams' Taxonomy of Creative Thinking,
David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps, and Sketch-noting.
Summarization in any Subject, 2nd Edition (ASCD
2019) by Rick Wormeli and Dedra Stafford is a
great place to start, as is teaching students logical
fallacies, which can be found here: <a href="https://bit.ly/
3hEAgoC ">https://bit.ly/3hEAgoC and here: https://bit.ly/3hIenFe
Let’s help middle school students be in charge
of their learning to every degree we can so it is as
relevant and engaging as possible. Student agency is
built through our daily student partnerships, not by
yanking students from afar on tattered ropes to which
they cling and watching them bounce and skid along
harsh pavement toward an anxious future. Distress,
which many of us feel right now, is really chronic
stress in which we feel out of control of our lives and
learning. Facilitating student agency gives some of
that control back to students, and hence, distress is
mitigated and engagement resumes.
Teachers find students’ rising agency exciting as
well. Heck, it’s a big reason we entered the profession
in the first place: To watch students discover their own
talents and soar. So, invite them in. William Blake (1757-
1827) reminds us, “No bird soars too high, if he soars
with his own wings.” Middle school is exactly the right
place to build sturdy wings, launch bravely into the
new breeze, and find hope in what’s to come.
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Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and
author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected
Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff
I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available
from www.amle.org/store. His book, Fair Isn't Always Equal
(second edition) (Stenhouse Publishers), was released in
2018, and his latest book, Summarization in any Subject:
60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student
Learning, (second edition) (ASCD), co-authored with Dedra
Stafford, was just released.
LeAnn Nickelsen is an educator and Certified Jensen
Trainer (brain-research) for over 25 years, has authored/
co-authored 14 educational books, including Teaching
with the Instructional Cha-Chas: 4 Steps to Make Learning
Stick (Solution Tree, 2019) and Deeper Learning: 7 Powerful
Strategies for In-Depth and Longer-Lasting Learning (coauthored
with Eric Jensen; Corwin Press). LeAnn currently
trains and coaches educators to activate the highest
impact tools, to close and prevent gaps, and to provide
equity among the most vulnerable students: high poverty,
struggling learners, ELs, special education, etc.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2020.