The Minimalist Educator Podcast

Episode 013 - How Student Agency Lessens a Teacher’s Load with Nicole Dissinger

November 14, 2023 Tammy Musiowsky-Borneman Season 1 Episode 13
The Minimalist Educator Podcast
Episode 013 - How Student Agency Lessens a Teacher’s Load with Nicole Dissinger
Show Notes Transcript

In today’s episode, Nicole speaks with us about the importance of skill development and agency, no matter the age of our students, and how this can help lighten the load of teachers. Her pare down pointer is about the importance of simplifying and being flexible.

Nicole Dissinger is a mentor teacher, professional learning facilitator, and curriculum developer. She has experience teaching and leading globally for 15 years. Nicole holds a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education with an emphasis in Psychology and a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education with an endorsement in Bilingual Multicultural Education. She has experience with a range of curriculums from Multi-age, state standards, and the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program.

Follow Nicole on Instagram:  @nicoledteacher

Nicole and Tammy have a mini course on EduSpark called Student-Focused Learning: P.A.V.E. the Way to Learner Agency.

This episode is sponsored by Plan Z Professional Learning Services - forward-thinking educator support. Contact us on Twitter or Instagram @PlanZPLS.

Buy The Minimalist Teacher book on Amazon.
Follow on Instagram and Twitter @PlanZPLS
The Minimalist Educator Podcast is a Plan Z Professional Learning Services adventure.

In today's episode, Nicole speaks with us about the importance of skill development in agency, no matter the age of our students, and how this can help lighten the load of teachers. Her Pare Down pointer is about the importance of simplifying and being flexible. Nicole Dissinger is a mentor, teacher, professional learning facilitator and curriculum developer. She has experienced teaching and leading globally for 15 years. Nicole holds a Bachelor of Science in elementary education with an emphasis in psychology and a master's degree in early childhood education with an endorsement in bilingual multicultural education. She has experience with a range of curriculum from multi age state standards and the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. 

Hello, everyone, and welcome to today's episode. Today we are speaking with the wonderful Nicole Dissinger. How are you today, Nicole? 

I'm good, thanks. 

Thank you for joining us today. Can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and your philosophy about education?

 I've been teaching for over 16 years now and have taught in a variety of different settings, from multi age, which is project based learning and individualized curriculum, to the international baccalaureate,  the primary years program, and also in public schools, where we have state standards and testing that has to happen. I've taught in the states and also overseas in Ukraine and Singapore, both IB schools. And now I'm currently back in the US. Working as a mentor teacher, doing professional development for schools, sharing information at conferences, and also working on curriculum design and development. So my philosophy of teaching is kind of a mixture of all those things.

As we grow and evolve with our teaching careers, we kind of learn new philosophies and strategies and ideas and perspectives. 

I think overall, my teaching philosophy and beliefs have kind of always been rooted in the same ideas of that more student centered learning and teaching 

and the teacher doing less of the work and the students doing more of the work. And also that whole child idea that if they're not happy or healthy or feeling good, it doesn't matter how great of a teacher you are, or they're not going to learn if they're not in a state that they can learn. So I've carried that with me through all these years. But other little things here and there have changed and evolved. I think just thinking about your philosophy matches ours. Right? Like, we focus on having students as the focus of the classroom and the learning, and then we're kind of more of a facilitator role a lot of the time. And with that, we've all taught in IB schools, which lends that philosophy of teaching, lends itself to that. Right. So when you're teaching in a place that matches your philosophy, it feels fairly easy because that's just what's at the forefront of everybody's mind. 

Can you talk about kind of that skill focus when teachers have the opportunity to really focus on teaching students particular skills and the content isn't always the focus because that feels different. Yeah, that's good question. But I think also kind of touching on what you said before, of getting the opportunity to work in schools that already support this or provide this type of opportunity. I think that's something that. 

I've really focused on from the beginning. My very first teaching job was at a small public charter that taught multi age specifically. So I've always sought out schools or teaching philosophies that match mine and have been lucky enough that I've gotten jobs at schools and haven't had to just work at any school that would take me, in a sense. So I think that's also something it's a scary thing to do because you could potentially not get that job. 

But I also have found that that's been something that's really important to me because I want to work at a school that supports my vision as well as it's being applied to all of the students at that school. 1.5s So focusing on skills is a big thing that a lot of those school schools I've worked at do, and especially in the International Baccalaureate, that's a key part of their framework, is the ATLS or approaches to learning. So essentially across the board, rather than focusing on specific curriculum or content, how does that fit into these bigger, overarching skills that we want students to walk away with? Being able to learn it, practice it in a safe environment so they can learn how to self manage without risk of  horrible feelings or things like that. They're able to fail in a really safe way that teaches them, oh, okay, that didn't work, so this is what I could do next, or this is how I could change it. 

I think them having that opportunity and then being able to then take those skills they've learned, whether it's big or small, because a four year old's interpretation of self manage it versus a 15 year old's is different. But that's okay, because it's a skill that they will learn and continue to develop as they grow older. But then taking that and transferring that into their own life, whether that be playing on the playground or cleaning up at the end of the day, or even something they do at home. And I find that's something that many parents find the most interesting or shocking in a sense. Not that they can read to them at home. They're like, oh, yeah, great. Okay, good. You learned this at school. But my student comes home and they know how to organize their materials now. I love that. So helpful transferable skills. And again, it's different. And also, each kid is different. You know, you might be teaching how to organize your materials in first grade, and some kids really understand it, and they're able to organize in a really clean, simple way. And then other kids, they're just not ready for it yet. And that's okay, because they're developing other skills. And that's what's really nice about that focus, is it is that whole child and getting out of those opportunities. 

Again, that's something I put in when I'm writing reports, is, yeah, there's goals to work towards, but what can they actually do? Right. It doesn't serve anyone any good to talk about all the things they can't do because they're just not there yet. So let's talk about what they can do and then how we're going to keep building on that to get them to the next step. 

Yeah, I like that idea of it's not just the content, not just knowledge that we want for the kids, but also what kind of a person we want them to be. Be and having self management skills and the research skills and the thinking skills and putting that emphasis there. Why do you think that's so important for kids as they're growing up? 

Why is that such an important thing for them to have? Why can't it just be, let's fill them with all the knowledge that we possibly can. Why do they need these other skills? Yeah, that's a great question, because that's what many of our education systems are built on, right? It's just content and great. You were able to learn it and regurgitate it great. Let's move on to the next topic, but what do you do with that information? 

There's so many things I learned in elementary school. I have no clue what I learned or when I learned it or how I learned it. 

Right, exactly. But I do know that now I understand how to communicate with people in various different settings because I've learned that I know how to research and I know different ways to research. I can go to the library, I can go on my computer, I can talk to someone and interview them. Those are the types of skills that we're wanting our kids to know because those are actual life skills. Those are things that are going to transfer
anywhere, really. The curriculum is irrelevant. But if you know how to research, you can research any topic, whether it's science related, social studies, history, geography, any of those things. So those skills are what form people to be functioning humans in our society. 

You and I do sessions on student agency, and Christine and I have written. A few years ago we wrote a piece on student agency and thinking about how those skills are setting students up for success, whether they can master them when we teach them or not. It's building blocks. How does that help then, a teacher in their just everyday kind of setting the stage for the skill development? Because we have a lot to do and so if we can remove some things from our plate, how does this help? Yeah, no, and that's a great point. We talk about agency a lot. And developing these skills in your students is what allows them to then be able to execute or practice having agency. Because they're not just sitting there waiting for you to tell them what to do or how to do it, or at what time to do it even. I mean, you could have it so open that they have lots of choices in a given situation.  You know, even down to having a student help develop the classroom agreements that's giving them agency, that's lessening the task for you because you're not having to generate all the ideas or create all of this content for them. They are able to add to it. They know what's happening, they know what to do, they know what should be going on in a classroom. They know what should look like, sound like, and feel like it's us then helping them. Okay, how do we phrase this? Or collate it all or organize it and then that's us modeling that skill to them, which they can then take on and apply in another setting. So I think teaching our students these skills is going to make our life as teachers so much easier because that's just one less thing that we have to then manage or do or think about, because they are able to do so many things. 

Kids are brilliant. Yes, they don't necessarily know all the content that we have to teach them that year, but they know a lot of things. They're still figuring out their world, but they understand how they can create a project with a few guidelines or they know how they could create a game. They're much more creative than us half the time. So I think we should give them a lot more credit and a lot more opportunity to show that. So I know that kids of all ages are capable of having some agency and some voice and do good things with that. But I have heard people argue my students are too little to be making choices and to make decisions. And I've also heard the other way around, like, no, we're older now, we have content we need to get through, we have this project we need to do, we've got exams coming up. We can't have choice here, we can't have any of that. So what would you say to those people who argue in that way? 

Yeah, that's one of those perceived problems that we think it's actually a problem or something that can't happen, but it's not an either or It can be both and it is both. So I think them being too little, that's not a reason. Because think about if you have a kid at home and they have a room full of toys. They get agency to go choose whatever they want to play with. Right. That's a great connection. Yeah. It doesn't matter if you're one, two, three or twelve, that's agency in that situation. And think about as adults, we basically have all the agency by the time we are adults. There's no one telling us what to do except work normal societal things. But we have to decide how our day looks every day. We have to create a schedule for ourselves. We have to manage our time. We have to do all these things. And how do we do that? It's not just magic. It doesn't just happen overnight. Like we have been taught over the years of our entire life. 

All these little tiny skills and all these little different opportunities that lead up to us as functioning adults. Most of the time. So I think about with little kids, it's just then what is your actual expectation? Like, what are they actually capable of? If it's.

Even if it's a choice between two things that's giving them agency. It doesn't have to be big. It doesn't have to be this big grand thing. It can just be you can choose between markers or crayons. That's giving students agency. It doesn't have to be this big elaborate situation. And I think with older kids, that's the best time to give agency because they're about embark on actual adult world or getting really close. So giving them those opportunities to practice self management or practice research skills or practice communication skills in a way that even if they fail, it's okay because that's going to be a teaching moment in itself and it's not going to be a life or death situation because it's just school. So giving them the opportunity and it's not to say that they shouldn't cover all of the content. Absolutely. That's great. That's what we do. That's how we anchor everything in our classrooms, right, is those standards, those objectives. But use a different strategy. Rather than you being the person that's talking at them for 45 minutes every three days a week, give them a menu, choice menu, and they can choose between over the course of the week, they have to complete three activities and then the following week they'll complete the other three. So they're still doing all of the ones that you're required for them to do, but they get the choice of when they do it or with who they do it or how they do it. So I think it is a lot simpler than we make it out to be, but it is scary. Like you do have to really trust yourself and trust your students to know that they can do it and you can do it. 

 I think sometimes it's a bit of a mindset shift for us to let go of that control and see what can happen. And that's hard because I like controlling things. Me too. I like things a certain way. I like to organize things a certain way. I get a picture in my mind, oh, this is going to be great when it goes like this. But then you get in that classroom and you realize, oh, yeah, no, that doesn't work because these are children, and we have to just see what happens. And that's the beauty of teaching, right? When you can feel comfortable enough to be able to do that, which it's hard because you don't know how it's going to go. And you do have to build the skills and the trust with your students. We could talk about this forever. Obviously, we're going to wrap up our episode, and at the end of each episode, we ask our guests for a pare down pointer. And so we wanted to know what you would want to share with our listeners. 

 Tammy knows because she's been in my classroom numerous times. I like very little things and very little distraction on the wall. And if I could have even less, I would. But sometimes school says you have to have certain things, so I definitely appreciate the minimalist approach here. So I think my maybe tip or pointer is just to simplify and also to remember flexibility. So I always think about simplifying. What materials do you actually have in your classroom? And what do you actually need? There's lots of things that can be used in various capacities. So rather than having 14 different types of counters, you just have one, and you use that for various different settings. I use unifix cubes in my classroom a lot, and I use that for math. I use it for building blocks because kids love building. It doesn't matter what you give them them. You can also use that for game pieces. 

So there's all sorts of things that that can be used for. And then you don't have to have so many different containers or tubs of all these different types of counters. And I think also spaces. So creating your classroom space so that it can be used for anything. I remember I had a professor one time that said, oh, this is the writing area, and this is the math area, and this the reading area. And I was like, no, I want my whole classroom to be available for writing. I want my whole classroom to be available for science or my whole classroom for drama or whatever it is you're doing, so that you can move tables, chairs, desks, move things out of the way, create new spaces so that at any given point, doesn't matter what you're doing, that space can be used for anything. 

Awesome. That's a great tip. Thinking really purposefully and intentionally about what you have in your room. I think that's a great one. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Nicole. As Tammy said, we could keep talking forever, but we will let you go. So thank you for joining us today. 

Thanks for having me. 

Today's episode was brought to you by Plan Z professional Learning Services, forward thinking, educator support. Find out more  at 

Be sure to join Tammy and Christine and guests for more episodes of the Minimalist Educator Podcast. They would love to hear about your journey with Minimalism. Connect with them @PlanZPLS on Twitter or Instagram. The music for the podcast has been written and performed by Gaia Maretti.