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Teaching Opinion

Making Distance Learning Vibrant: Student Agency Is Key

By Anindya Kundu — August 12, 2020 3 min read
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Today’s guest blogger is Anindya Kundu, the author of The Power of Student Agency: Looking Beyond Grit to Close the Opportunity Gap and a sociologist at the Graduate Center, CUNY LMIS. His work has appeared in NPR Education and MSNBC, and he has given two TED Talks, each with millions of views.

My students come from diverse backgrounds. How can I inspire them to take learning into their own hands?

Last year, I toured several school districts across the country to discuss how to foster student agency—the influence kids have over their own lives, reflected in their ability to find resources and navigate challenges. In other words, we talked about how to help students help themselves.

Luckily, many of the lessons apply equally well in the classroom or in distance learning. Here are some of the main takeaways:

Be open to recognizing different kinds of giftedness. Intelligences are multiple, and teachers can help kids recognize their own strengths. In my book, one of the stories I share is of J-Stud to illustrate how agency can blossom. A Black student from a low-income neighborhood in Queens, J-Stud had individualized education programs (IEPs) into high school. Every day, he sat in the back of his classes and scribbled away in a notebook, seldom looking up. Eventually, his English teacher asked to see what he was writing, and he revealed pages and pages of rap lyrics, beautiful in prose and literacy.

She seized the opportunity and offered him a deal: “Keep showing up to class, do the homework, and I’ll help you record your music at a studio my friend works at so you can put out a CD.” J-Stud immediately complied; his teacher noticing his talent inspired him to work harder not only on music but also on schoolwork.

Encourage students to seek help and build their own networks. At the studio, J-Stud met mentors who showed him the financial side of the business and even invited him back for summer internships in accounting, a type of responsibility he never had been given before. This set off a chain of life events that culminated in J-Stud working at finance internships during college to pay for his degree.

While you may not have access to a recording studio, you can allow students to explore their passions and connect with others who are like-minded. One initial interest can branch off into other productive avenues if stimulated. In distance learning, this might mean letting students pick their own topics of exploration, to ask their own questions, and then find answers independently. If and when they get stuck, pose the question, “Who is someone who might be able to help you, and how can you reach out to them?”

Create “standing ovation moments.” In English class, J-Stud performed a song for his classmates and received a standing ovation, one of the most memorable experiences of his life. You can create similar moments for students by allowing them to share online what they’re excited about with each other. Celebrating their skills and competencies encourages them to collaborate and explore new questions together.

Though support is harder to provide from a distance, this crisis presents us an opportunity to remember that not all learning takes place inside school walls. Learning also happens in the recording studio, kitchen, or park.

Today, 15 years later, J-Stud is a successful investment banker who still lives in Queens. He does so to set a good example for the kids in his neighborhood—the kind he wishes he had more of growing up, before his English teacher changed his life. That’s the lasting power of student agency.

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