Student Agency

How do we grow student agency in our classrooms?

What is it?

Students have an active role in their learning through voice, and choice. Building Equitable & Inclusive practices requires working in partnership with students, creating an environment where students can lead their education journey.



“To alienate human beings from their own decision making is to change them into objects.” – Paulo Freire

  • What are we eliminating?

    Compliance, Obedience, Alienation, Robotic regurgitation
  • We are creating an environment where students are leading their education rather than the banking system where “the teacher is a lecturer, and the students are containers that need to be filled by the teacher.” Paulo Friere


Barriers to Creating Student Agency


Can be:


  • Systemic
  • Unconscious
  • Physical / Architectural
  • Expected/Systemic

What does a student driven classroom look like?

  • students use camera equipment to interview Steven Tennen. These are students with disabilities making a documentary about their stories

    Activities are accessible to different abilities and skill levels.
  • Students feel safe to create, modify, edit, revise, improve an activity in order for them to participate fully.
  • students playing steel drums

    Isn't only one right way...Make space for them to create a quilt of their ideas, or how they work.
  • TA is a curator of their students' thoughts and creations. Students are the experts.
  • Feedback comes more from peers, than from the educators.
  • Students can always step back and observe/reflect on their work.
  • artist leans into a group of HS students

    TA recognizes and learns that there is a culture within the classroom/space…Listen to it, learn how to listen to it and know and honor that their silence often comes from being used to an atmosphere where their input is not honored.


Prime the environment

Placing students at the center of their own learning requires their collaboration. They need a voice in why, what, and how learning experiences take shape.

  • Why?

    Why is about relevance. Learners need to understand the value of the subject, vocabulary, and skills before they are willing to invest effort. Show relevance from students’ perspective.

  • red word WHAT? appears on an blue and green artistic background

    What is learned involves students choosing the focus of content. Let their interests drive the content that teaches skills and concepts. The best strategy is simply asking what students want to explore. Start with a brainstorm of what they like to do, and dialog together to match their interests with the skills and concepts.

  • red word HOW? appears on an blue and green artistic background

    How learning will be demonstrated depends on the different ways that students process understanding. Offer a variety of product options based on what you know about your students. A safe approach is to offer three options. The teacher designs two options based on what most students may like to do. The third choice is a blank check.


How do you build student agency in your classroom?

  • the artist leans in to hear from the students who are clustered around a table with their art projects
    Students Share in Decision Making throughout the process
    • What content do they want to focus on specifically?
    • How are they interested in approaching their learning process?
    • How do they want to share their learning & with whom?
    • This requires reflection throughout the residency as a community on what is working, what everyone is interested in, how they want to move forward.
  • students work together on a collage mural of a tree
    Believe in Students' Capacity to Lead

    Reduce teacher direct instruction by increasing student-led learning activities.

    Veteran students, like experienced teachers, know what types of learning experiences work best for themselves.

  • artist leans in to two students - one is in a wheelchair. all three have colorful striped sock puppets on their hands.
    Give Up Need for Control

    Teaching Artists aren’t giving all the responsibilities to students, but instead giving up the need to control all the choices and outcomes within a classroom. Opening the conversation to include student leadership, choices for content focus and outcomes, and a majority of student voice.
    Teaching Artists take a role as a Guide or Facilitator rather than t...

  • artist leans into table to talk with students as they paint
    Focus on your Students
    • Be present, flexible & adaptable to your student’s needs.
    • Take time to listen to your students.
    • Take time to let each student have a moment to be in the spotlight (if desired)
    • Let students engage how they are comfortable engaging
    • Offer choices
    • Share power and ownership of the space & activity with s...
  • students drum on large taiko drums, the artist holds their hands up in the air
    Respect Students Knowledge

    Celebrate and discover what’s already known such as students’ prior knowledge and experience of the art form.
    Ask: What do you know about this art form?

  • students are all working at their tables, the artist in a red hat walks around asking questions
    Respect Students Knowledge

    Check in with what students want or would like to learn from the art form.
    Ask: What would you like to know or learn about _______?

  • students in bird puppet heads cluster around the artist smiling
    Respect Students Knowledge

    Create Goals together with Students
    Ask: What are the goals to make this learning possible?  What are each student’s goals for this particular class / art form / time together?

  • a large group of students - many with disabilities perform on stage. on the laft hand side of the stage is a visual support for some of the actors and audience with the song lyrics
    Asset Based or Growth Mindset

    Believing all students are able & capable. (checking your adultism bias)
    Language has power – speaking about & to your students with positive language will shift your perspective on them, and their personal belief in their abilities
    Reinforcing positive behaviors, leads to more positive behaviors.

  • students sit in large circle on stage. Artist is in the middle pointing for whose turn is next
    Share Power - Treat Students as Collaborators in their own learning

    Sit or stand in formations where everyone can be seen & heard, and power feels shared.
    Teacher sets up protocols for students to offer peer feedback.
    Teacher checks in with the students & reflects in-community on how the learning is going, where students need support, where they need growth, where they can go deeper. Make adjustments based on ...

  • artist faces the camera holding a drum. Students gather around in front of them. together they are writing a song
    Focus on Building Relationships

    Work to build meaningful relationships within your classroom community (both between peers & teachers to student).​
    Be authentically you with your students
    Take time to acknowledge each student
    Create shared space agreements​
    Utilize Rituals to build connections between peers and peer to teacher.


Examples in Action


    Peer Feedback in Action

    8th grade Multilingual Learner students are reminded to consider the peer feedback they received in the previous session as they rehearse their original theater scenes around the topic of ...

    Setting up Peer Feedback

    Students, teachers and teaching artists work together to set objectives for their lessons and share feedback on them.
  • a painted version of AC's logo in red and green

    Notice, Describe and Ask

    This language protocol offers structures for teachers to focus on student voice and choices over their own.
    Notice, Describe and Ask Protocol

    Feedback Protocols

    Support the process of creation, student led feedback and revision which is intrinsic to the artistic process.
    More tools to support Formative Assessment