Bringing an Agile Mindset to the Classroom

How Agile Coaching Brings Better Results

When I began my journey with L-EAF.org, I was staring down the end of the school year. Usually this would be reason to celebrate and yet here I was with 150 years of content and 5 weeks to cover it. 

The class is American government, but the scope and sequence states American history colonies to Cold War should be taught as well. As all teachers know the breath of our content is not always attainable. Most of the year is spent learning about the basis of government. Our first unit is social contract theory, then we set the scene for the U.S. Constitution by diving into colonial history and the Revolutionary War and finally we take a deep dive into reading, analyzing and synthesizing the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. In the fourth quarter is always left with approximately 150 years of content and no viable way to cover it all. 

The students have also been leading their education since August. We launched our project based learning  unit through the EduScrum framework, where the students learned basic project management, organizational and leadership skills. To cover this much material in 5 weeks would mean to stand and lecture taking all of the autonomy back that they deserved to be reveling in. 

There was never an option to go back to delivering content. The students were used to being the navigators of their own education. The puzzle was now how to facilitate that. 

Building an Agile Mindset as a Teacher

Thankful, I had just begun my Practitioners journey with Jeff Burstein and his agile ed tech company L-EAF.org

Last summer I discovered Agile and SCRUM while searching for possible solutions for the upcoming year. Not knowing what the state of the world would be, how I would be teaching, who I would be teaching, or where I was teaching from I knew  I needed a plan to connect kids no matter our distance. We all slogged through the spring, doing the best that we could, but we were all miserable. All disconnected, lacking social feedback, alone and isolated. 

Agile and SCRUM seemed to solve so many of those issues. They provided flexible frameworks that allowed all students to be connected, collaborating and creating. It seemed like a Godsend to a weary teacher terrified of the fall. 

Now my year was almost over and EduScrum was our functional framework, but when an opportunity to learn Agile and Kanban arose there was no way I could say no. 

My daily meetings with Jeff began during the day. The first few days were intense. There is a lot to learn and Jeff has been coaching Agile teams for over 20 years. I was confident that both agile and Kanban would be a great fit for my class, the HOW kept nagging me, but never stopping me. I am the type of person that likes to dive in. The bigger the challenge the fast I run towards it. The thrill of the puzzle is like my sky-diving so while scared this seemed like the perfect fit. 

Within the first week of meeting with Jeff we began to discuss how my students could learn the agile mindset and use kanban in the classroom. I was confident that they would adapt and excel, so there was no need to sell it, but how was I going to incorporate it and how was I going to cover 150 years of content in 5 weeks. 

Tapping into my knowledge of Bloom’s taxonomy the immediate thought was to jump to the top level of understanding and learning. Students would teach other students content. I would remain as the guide and empower them to become content experts. The first iteration of this idea was to break up the 1800’s into sections and groups would be assignment different decades. They would then deliver their knowledge to the other students and we would have established a learning cooperative where all students were researching, examining, prioritizing what must be taught and finding unique and engaging ways to deliver the content to the other students. Each class would have the same time period. Each class would be on the same path. The only choice would be how they chose to deliver the content. 

This was not my worst idea. Rough around the edges? Absolutely, but not beyond what could be accomplished. I began to write my essential and guiding questions for each decade and was soon overwhelmed. If I felt overwhelmed what would my students feel like?

In our daily meeting time I ran this idea through Jeff. Always the agile coach he peppered me with questions that I did not have answers to. 

Why is it only this time period? 

Why can’t the students choose content?

Is the deliverable the only opportunity for student agency?

Is this an agile classroom?

There is no great defining answer to all of these questions of course, but to learn an agile mindset you must always be open to the possibilities of WHAT IF….

Jeff then asked me to look at the Kanban board. Through Kanbazone.com I had access to boards. Not just one, as many as I needed. Armed with a template and a brief understanding of how to edit, Jeff prompted me to think about what could be achieved through an agile mindset on the Kanban board. How could students fully realize the incredible lessons that they have learned about project management, growth mindset and time management in these last five weeks. 

Jeff’s last instruction of that day was to dream big.

What if there were no limits to what could be accomplished?

What heights could the students reach?

Great question… Let’s take off the self-prescribed limits that we set on ourselves. 

Figuring It All Out

By the next day ideas were beginning to crystalize. What constraints was I putting on students that were unnecessary?

  1. Groups – All year students picked their own groups. From the Eduscrum framework student used lists of quality and skills to fill out and then anonymously they would pick from these qualities to try to form well rounded groups. Of course this was always done between the students in the class. By the end of the year everyone had worked with everyone and the fresh feeling that once came from picking groups was stale. 

BUT…. What if I lifted that constraint? 

Due to the transparency and heightened level of communication the Kanban board brought, could students work with each other from different class periods?

I don’t know… Let’s find out.

This time students fully self-organized picking teams from any of 6 classes. This was a jolt of caffeine to my weary 8th graders. They could pick their groups and it could be anyone in the grade level. There was immediate buy in and enthusiasm, even after the extra responsibility of taking on this idea was explained. 

2. Content – There was no lack of content to teach and if all students could work together it was feasible that all 150 years could be covered. In opening up the groups it truly became collaborative learning. Student groups could select the time period that they wanted to become an expert in and teach the other students about it. Instead of each class doing the same period and the same lessons because each class was self-contained we could cover everything in an engaged and purposeful manner. 

3. HOW? – With groups and content figured out the last, but not least big obstacle was how would information be transferable between groups? We could not have presentations, watching videos was not engaging, and last quarter we designed games… How else could we find engaging ways to learn and teach? How will I be able to make the necessary connections that bring history to life? How will American History spring alive and carry the tired 8th graders through the end of May?

Museum. But, not an old silent museum. A hands on, interactive, museum built with pure ambition and creativity. It would need to be both physical and virtual to reach all students, but that would be my only requirement. 

Students must build a physical and virtual exhibit to teach the entire graduating class about their time period. There is no definition of exhibit, interactive or hands on. Students will need to determine for themselves how to best create an exhibit that will engage other Middle Schoolers and teach them about their self-selected time period. 

To achieve this the students will have to create their own rubrics, since a blanket rubric would only stifle student creativity. There would still be checkpoints to ensure that work is being completed and moving forward. They must schedule planning meetings with me to discuss the content and plans for the exhibit. The Kanban board must be utilized to enhance communication transparency between all of us.

That’s it. That’s all of the MUSTS. This is how 150 years of history will be covered in 5 weeks with students leading the learning.

Reflection

All of this sounds like a great idea. Agile and flexible. Student choice and creativity.

There’s also a huge risk that this will blow up. There can be a lack of student engagement due to the looming summer, the ambiguity of the project, meant to spark creativity, could be to broad for students to understand, there could be to many kids going in to many directions.

Giving students control of your classroom is scary. Career ending scary. Yet, I believed in them. They had accomplished so much this year, grown independent and confident in their creativity. They had already learned backward design and project management. This was still risky, but I would still be an active guide in their learning so we could collectively adjust and adapt as necessary. We could unwrap the learning process together and stay agile in the process.

With Jeff’s coaching, basic knowledge of Kanban and a growing agile mindset we were ready to roll through the end of the year.

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