Podcast for Teachers & Coaches: Agile Classrooms for Student and Teacher Empowerment - Steve Barkley

Podcast for Teachers & Coaches: Agile Classrooms for Student and Teacher Empowerment

Agile Classrooms provide for student-centered learning, collaboration, iteration, continuous feedback, and adaptability. Experienced teacher and Agile coach, Jessica Cavallaro, describes how Agile revolutionized her teaching practice and shares how teachers can create classrooms where students are active participants, planning alongside teachers, making informed decisions about their learning tasks. Agile classrooms foster independent learning where students tackle problems with creativity and critical thinking.

E-mail Jessica: jessica@the-agile-mind.com

Find Jessica’s resources here.

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!

Podcast Transcript:

Steve [Intro] (00:00)

Hello, and welcome to the Teacher Edition of Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding, and my curiosity is piqued whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’m delighted that you’re here.

Steve (00:30)

Agile Classrooms for Student and Teacher Empowerment. Jessica Cavallero is joining our podcast today to share her insights around the possibilities for agile classrooms that place students at the helm of their learning journeys. Jessica has been a teacher with a background in history and special education in New York City public schools, private schools, and online learning programs. She pioneered a humanities lab where students critically engage with history to solve present-day issues. That showcased her belief that education should extend beyond rote learning to foster critical life skills. Welcome, Jessica.

Jessica (01:18)

Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Steve (01:21)

I’m wondering, for starters, if you’d share a little of your teaching background and experiences and the learning that that occurred for you that leads to the work you’re doing today, supporting teachers with the desire to empower students

Jessica (01:38)

Oh, well, thank you for asking. So I started my career out in New York City Schools in a wonderful program called The Nest Program. And that was where we worked with students that were on the Asperger’s spectrum, and we embedded them into general-ed classrooms. So everyone was learning from each other. The students with Asperger were learning from our Gen-ed students, our Gen-ed students were learning from Asperger students. It was a wonderful learning and growing experience. And in that experience, the first thing that we’re taught is to meet our students where they are and let them show us mastery based on what they can show us instead of saying that the product is the end result. And that was a really formative… it was pivotal in my life as an educator because I had to immediately… I had no past to go back to. I had to know how to meet my students and what skills were necessary. And I remember I was planning a lesson on the French and Indian War once, and I was plotting out and teaching the difference between a political map and a geographical map and things like that.

Jessica (02:41)

And my reading coach came in and she said, Jessica, these kids need to know how to get on a subway. They don’t need to know where this obscure battle in 1673 was. And that’s where it all clicked to me. And I tell everyone, my origin story of being a teacher is in that moment, is my students need skills, and the facts are the vehicle to drive those skills. And ever since that moment, I went out and said, well, how do we make history pop? How do we make English and learning language and all of these skills that students absolutely need. We absolutely need to teach the history of the country, the history of the world, the different cultures around us, but we need to do so in a way that’s meaningful for students, that respects students’ time, and that shows them the bridge to why they are learning it to today. And so in that, I became engrossed in project-based learning. I love the idea of it. I spent so much time in so much professional development and design thinking. So how do we bring that into humanities? How do you let kids prototype and have hands-on application with history?

Jessica (03:44)

And all of that was growing and growing until we got to COVID. And when everything shut down, we were so uncertain at that time. The thing that jumped out to me, the huge red flag was how sad and lonely my kids were. It wasn’t the learning loss. They were still doing their homework, they were still getting stuff done, but they would just sit on their screen and just talk to you because they had no one to talk to. And they would tell you, I don’t know how to talk to my friends because you think that your kids are so interconnected because they’re on their phone and they’re playing their app and they’re Snapchatting and they’re TikToking and all these things and we’re like, oh, our kids are so hyper socialized. But when they didn’t have a physical space to come together, they didn’t know how to connect with each other. And so my my number one goal at that point was, forget the learning. How do I get my kids connected if we’re never in the same building again? And through that thought process is where I found Agile. And I looked out into the world beyond education.

Jessica (04:48)

I said, How are other people still working? How are other people operating? How are there healthy individuals that get to work from home? And how are there people that work in New York and they get to work with people in Sweden and Turkey and Istanbul and New Delhi? And how do we have these relationships? How do these companies work? And it turns out that they work on a system that’s really based on humanity and the way that people actually work instead of this false idea of how it should work. And so when I took those lessons in and brought them into the classroom, it was incredible. The learning outcomes, the growth in my students, the happiness, the connections. And really, to be very honest with you, all I cared about was their mental health at that time but the depth of their learning was so significant that I knew it was something that was beyond an emergency measure. I knew it was something that was pivotal to help students and teachers want to be in school and really turn around the system that is unadaptable a lot of the times.

Steve (05:58)

I think the word as “Agile” is new to some teachers and the thought of agile classrooms. So I’m wondering, would you talk just a little bit about the business concept of agile that you looked at and then began to work with from a classroom standpoint?

Jessica (06:15)

Thank you for asking. That is a great point. Agile was created in the early 2000s in software development. And so what was happening was the software developers were coming together on multimillion dollar projects, and they were planning them out using Gantt charts or waterfall charts where you have this phase happens, then this phase happens, then this phase happens, but something always happens in the first phase that messes something up, and then it puts everything behind and everything gets over, and then you’re spending a lot of money, and then nothing else is ever on track again because you have six months to a year to two years of plans that are all pivoting on each other. And so they’re not flexible and they’re not adaptable to the way that things actually work. And so at that point, a group of developers went into the mountains and they came up with this idea of these core principles and values that were very much based on the way humans work. So interactions, we want in-face interactions. We want processes. We want the simplest version possible. We want flexible communication. And so when we work within Agile, what we really try to work on is how do we do small pieces of things quickly so that we can see where our successes are, we can constantly reflect on our processes.

Jessica (07:28)

We can constantly get better. So you’re doing revolutions of work. So how did it go that time? Well, let’s make it better. And each time you’re scaling it a little bit better, but you’re getting constant feedback, constantly having touch points with other people, and you’re working in teams. And so there’s a lot of transparency, a lot of communication. A lot of these things that we now call in 2024, AI proof skills, the kinds of things that our LLM systems can’t do for us yet. I don’t know when this will air, and we don’t know what Elon Musk is up to, but when we bring Agile into the classroom, what that means is instead of me having all the control and dictating and saying, we’re doing this, we’re doing this, we’re doing this, what we might call a push-based system because I’m the teacher, I’m in control, I’m pushing the information out at you. I dictate the length, I dictate the assessment, I dictate how much time we spend on things. If you don’t get it, too bad, we’re moving. If you already got it, too bad, you still have to sit here, I’m pushing. Instead, what agile does is it creates a pull-based system.

Jessica (08:35)

So I prep the work and I put it into what we call a backlog for you. And then our student teams can pull the work as they are ready for it. So it’s a poll-based system. And then what I do, my job becomes a facilitator of learning. So instead of me pushing the information and spending the time, and I’m not doing five lectures a day now, it’s I’ll videotape my lecture and I’ll give you your assignments, and then you pull them as you’re ready, and you can pick them yourself. I’m giving you a choice. I’m giving you a box of choices. So it’s not just anything. It’s not random ideas. I’m giving you a box of choices. You’re able to pull, you do your assessments, You work with your team, you turn in the work, and all of those things take our learning standards and apply them to the real world. At the end, you have real-world solutions that your team uniquely came up with. It’s an idea of our students then have the opportunity to practice those AI-proof skills of decision-making, of problem-solving. They have to communicate with each other. What are we going to pull this week?

Jessica (09:40)

What work are we going to get done? Is this they all have to talk to each other and determine, is this the work that’s acceptable to turn into our teacher for a group grade? They have to go through their own auditing system. So instead of students standing at your desk and crying and saying, Joey didn’t do his work, there’s visual systems like a Kanban board that will show you the work. So no one can say that they don’t know. When we work in agile ways in the classroom, it really improves the overall communication and function and culture of the classroom. It changes the way that we speak to each other. It changes the way that we communicate. It changes the whole… it just shifts the responsibility from the teacher’s shoulders, where everything is sitting on your shoulders, to the students. And in doing so, it actually makes the students happier because they’re respected. They’re children, but they’re human beings, and they’re not robots, and they don’t want to come sit in the classroom in a row for 45 minutes and be told what to do. They want to ask questions. They want to have choice.

Jessica (10:45)

They want to have options. They want to know that you respect their time, too. So they don’t want to learn a bunch of things and then when they ask you why, you get mad and say, well, you just have to know this. We want to say, listen, we’re learning this, and this is how we’re going to apply it to here. When you can answer a student’s question like that, the buy-in, it comes up exponentially. And so it really is just the way I really tried to sum it up is agile is a lot of different things, and there’s a lot of ways that I can show teachers how to do it. But really what it is, it’s bringing humanity back into education. Kids are not data points, and teachers are not gears meant to be ground down to nothing. We’re human beings that are working in a system, and we should be respecting each other as human beings. When we get back to that, I think the school systems will really improve.

Steve (11:36)

As I was looking into Agile Classrooms, I pulled a couple of phrases that jumped out of me. I’d like to just toss the phrases to you one at a time, and you respond to how they fit in your thinking. So one of the phrases I pulled was student-centered learning.

Jessica (11:54)

I love that one. Yeah, thank you. So the system that I use is called Learning Flow. And when we do Learning Flow, again, you do it in revolutions. Agile is we’re doing these different sprints of work over and over again. So the first one you might plan, but eventually what happens is you want to bring your students in on that decision making. And so you can even say to your students, these are our standards, this is what this looks like. I have this idea. What are your thoughts on it? And you have whole conversations with your kids about what this can look like in the classroom. We have this much time because that’s mandated by our district. We have this much content that’s mandated by the district. How do we see this can possibly apply to the real world? How do we come up with questions that we’re going to solve here? And they get in on the process and they help you brainstorm. And because they’re used to working in these functional ways where they have to agree and disagree and listen to each other, again, skills that we all, as societies, could use a little bit more reinforcement of, they get to the part where they’re starting to plan those things with you.

Jessica (12:56)

So they have real buy-in to it. I did this with my students when I was teaching the US Constitution. I was sitting there looking at the things that I had done previously, and I was just brainstorming my class going, okay, I need to teach you this. This is the learning outcome. I’ve done it like this before. What do you guys think? And one of my students raised her hand and she said, you know what I love? I love games. Can we make a game out of it? And I said, absolutely. And so what we did was we studied game theory while we studied the Constitution, and my students had to, in their agile teams, create eight games out of the Constitution. Because when you think about it, the Constitution and all government is systems thinking, and all games are systems thinking. So if you can learn about systems thinking, then you could overlap the two. And we had games anywhere from outdoor score games where students were hiding clues around the quad and running around and getting them and scoring points if they can answer questions to games about the Electoral College and how to win the White House.

Jessica (13:55)

And every group, this is the great thing Agile, too, is every group has a different solution at the end because you’re setting the scene for them to take that information that they have to learn, but then they internalize it and they bring it into their schema and interpret it into their world so that they come out to you and you say, well, what was the most important part of that lesson? And they all have a different answer because all of us are individuals. There’s not just one answer for, is this right or wrong? Yes or no? Especially in history. This isn’t a math class. So it’s ways for students to really engage in that information and then put themselves into it so that it’s a deeper level of understanding. They can attach it to their schema and interpret it instead of saying, well, what answer does she want from me?

Steve (14:48)

The next phrase I pulled was collaboration. I heard you use the word team and groups a lot as you were walking through that first piece. Is that where collaboration element fits?

Jessica (15:02)

Absolutely. A fun way that we build agile teams is in the beginning of the year, I might do this, I might pick a team leader, so I might pick five team leaders. I have all students fill out a little form that lists their top five strengths in their personality or the way that they work, and they do it anonymously. So we number it. And then I send the team leaders out of the room, and they have to pick a team. And before that happens, we have a conversation of what does a good team look like? Is it good when all of us are alphas? Is it good when all of us are the creatives? Is it good when all of us are the tech people? And so we talk about how diversities of teams really help us because you need the alpha to push us, but you need the creative person to make sure it’s done right. And you need the tech person to understand how things roll. Having that understanding, then they pick their teams anonymously. So it’s not based on personality or my best friend, or I like Susie, or I don’t like Johnny.

Jessica (16:00)

They have no idea. They’re just picking based on their strengths. And when they come in, we pick the groups. They read the numbers out loud and everyone sorts. And the first thing we do is say, why don’t we talk to each other about our strengths and weaknesses working in teams? And let’s clear the air and get our working agreements together. And then we put the teams on Kanban boards, which are visual information radars. They’re just columns where they can do work. And that’s when we start the team building process. So Instead of a fake team building process where we send them and they do trust falls and things like that, we say, here’s the project, here’s the timeline. Let’s break this project into small, doable tasks. We show them, we model it, we scaffold it, but then we say, that’s their first thing as a team. Can you build a backlog out of this project? Can you color code it correctly? Can you timeline it correctly? And they have to work at it. And it’s a puzzle like they’ve never seen before, but it really gets them on the same page because they really have to sit down.

Jessica (17:02)

It’s not an educational lot. We say collaboration, we say, oh, go jigsaw or go popcorn. And so the kid that’s in the desk by themselves has to turn to the two people on either side of them, and then they get 30 seconds of talking and they’re like, great, collaboration. No, that’s not collaboration. That’s not. That’s pretend collaboration. Real collaboration is I’m giving you a really hard puzzle, and I’m asking you to work together to solve it. That’s deep collaboration. And that’s how we start every project is, now we identified our strengths and weaknesses, let’s now jump into a puzzle that does not have a clear solution. And let’s figure out how to communicate, how to listen, how to agree and disagree. Those are the skills our students need that they’re not getting any time to practice in their childhood right now.

Steve (18:00)

I’m guessing the next two phrases go together, so I’ll give them both the same time. Iterative and continuous feedback.

Jessica (18:09)

They do. Thank you. They absolutely do, because in Agile, we do things in small and small pieces. Each task has to run through that board, that Kanban board, that visual information board. And so as they pull it through the board, they need to talk to each other and communicate. Is it here? Is it at the next stage? Can we turn it into the teacher? So every time they’re pulling a task, it’s an iterative process. And so in that, they have to constantly communicate and reflect. And that’s one of the things that I really do love about Agile is the reflection process. Is there is reflection at every single step. Every day you come in, you do a stand-up meeting. What did we do yesterday? What are we doing today? Were there any problems we need to discuss? So it’s opening the lines of communications. So Susie can say, Well, I had softball last night. I couldn’t do my homework. Work. Okay, so how are we… there’s no blame. Okay, how are we just going to solve it then? So it’s reflection. And then at the end of every project, we have what’s called a retrospective.

Jessica (19:10)

And that is, let’s all sit down together and talk about the projec. What went well? What can I improve? What can you improve? What can the class improve? Is there a cultural problem here? So it’s not just a one-way thing where I say, your project was good, but you could have done better. They can sit down to me and say, your planning was good, but it could have been better. And you know what? That’s good because we’re all lifelong learners. I’m never going to do anything that’s perfect, and neither are the majority of us. So It’s always an opportunity to see from their eyes, hey, Ms. Cavallero, I really like this, but I would like it better if you could clarify these steps in the future. And then we can go into the next iterative cycle, having that community communication open and saying, okay, I’m going to make a couple of tweaks before we start. And all of us can have that moment of reflection. So it’s group reflection, it’s self-reflection, it’s reflection on culture, it’s reflection on skills. And it’s a lot of that learning. So why did we learn this? And at the end, your kids should be able to tell you, yeah, we had to study this conflict because I see this here, here, and here, and they should be able to tell you that as well.

Steve (20:27)

So fair to say that iterative is probably generally not built into the traditional school model. Is that a fair statement?

Jessica (20:40)

I would say so.

Steve (20:43)

It’s supposed to work the first time.

Jessica (20:47)

Yeah. Everything’s supposed to. There’s no do-overs.

Steve (20:50)


Jessica (20:51)

There’s a lot of this that’s missing from the traditional model, and I think that’s why it’s so important that we… I’m really passionate about this I really see this as a fix for the way that public schools are working, is that the things that we are focusing on as important are not important for our students’ future. We’re not giving them time for skills. We’re not giving them time to have choice. We’re not doing things in a way that says, you can fail and then stand up and do it again, and you’ll be okay. There’s no resilience. There’s no independence. When we have those push-based models, the kids are meant to be passive. And then they get out of high school and we’re like, Well, the kids are so passive. Why don’t they know what to do in college? Well, when did you give them time to build resilience or independence? At the same time, as a teacher, you take on all the stress of doing everything for your students. And you’re the only gear that’s grinding. Everyone else is just holding on to you. It’s like you’re the swimmer that has all the booeys attached to you, and you’re pulling them forward.

Jessica (21:58)

It’s just a weight on your shoulders. No wonder so many teachers are so stressed and burned out. But when you do it in this way where we all can fix each other and we’re all reflecting and we’re celebrating, how nice would it be to celebrate in school instead of just jumping from one unit to another and saying, great, you’re done. Here’s the next pile of work. We stop for a moment. We say, look at how much you’ve accomplished. Can you tell me what you accomplished? Tell me how proud you are. You’re building that self-confidence, that self-esteem that we always talk about as important. But then we push to the side and go, not right now. No. We’ll do it at the end of the day, the last five minutes. These are the things that we all give lip service to, but it’s integrating them into every single class, every single day to develop real human beings, not just data points.

Steve (22:49)

Well, Jessica, I know that you provide coaching to teachers that are working to implement agile approaches in their classrooms. I’m wondering if you could give a couple of starting spots for people, and then any guidelines maybe for a teacher to proceed after getting started. Where do I start and how do I move ahead?

Jessica (23:13)

Fantastic. That’s a great question. Thank you. We said, it’s iterative cycles. So just start with something small. Don’t let big get in the way of doing something. So people think, well, I have to redo my whole unit, or I have to redo my whole year. No, no, no. Let’s start with today. What can you make today that you can put on your students, that you can say, this is yours. I want you to have ownership of this. So tape your lecture and post it for them on your LMS system and say, I want you to watch the lecture, and then I want you to come back to me with three questions. That’s just step one. Then the next step is, I’m preparing for the next week. Here’s the assignment for the next week. I’m posting them all here. I want you to pick the order, pick your team, come through, and come ask me questions. And that way you are free to walk around and do small group instruction with those kids. You can spend the time with the kid that needs processing. You can spend the time with the kid that’s a high flyer.

Jessica (24:09)

But these are small little things. You don’t have to do everything. It’s just small things. It’s, can you remove that responsibility from your plate, from pushing into where they are pulling? And so it really just starts with, here’s choice of three things to do today. One of them must be done at the end of the period. Try.

Steve (24:29)

So your example sounds more at the secondary level for me. I’m wondering, what does it look like when you push it down to the younger grades?

Jessica (24:40)

Oh, well, I use this – I have a six-year-old and a nine-year-old, so I do this, too. Yes. Very much so. I give them small choice, too. I make it way more visual than I make it language-based. When you’re talking about an early… we’ve done this in early elementary, so we would set up a task board, a Kanban board and say, you need to make it through each of your centers, but you get to pick your centers, but there can only be three people at each center. There’s a little reinforcement. And very honestly, the younger elementary grades, your cycles need to be much smaller. So your cycles need to be a morning and then an afternoon cycle. They don’t get to be a six-week cycle like in high school. They have to be small. And you want to start really small and then slowly give them more independence. But you want to say, you need to do this worksheet and then you come to the table with me, and then we do this. So there are ways of doing this in which you build that resilience and that independence really young. And then when we see that it started with young students by the time that they’re in upper elementary or middle school, they are flying because they know.

Jessica (25:46)

They know that they can pull the information. They know that they can advocate for themselves. They know that they can try and fail. And that’s when you start to see those really brilliant learners because they’re not afraid to try. And that’s really, we say in our culture, we want a culture of creators of innovators, and then we tell everyone to sit down and be quiet. So do you want a culture of innovators that need to try things and ask questions, or do you want a bunch of passive people that sit down and be quiet? Our society needs to figure that out, and our education system needs to adopt to that. If we say we want creators and innovators, we need to build creators and innovators.

Steve (26:26)

I almost laughed at myself as I asked you that question about the younger grades because I frequently point to the fact that I love working with preschool teachers because their kids won’t allow them to teach. They have no choice but to plan for learning. And it really fits a lot of what you describe.

Jessica (26:50)

Absolutely. I love the younger grades because they have all the questions and they’re not afraid to ask them. And so you really want to capitalize on that. Make them keep asking as they get older. They should have as many questions at 15 as they do at five. That would be the learning goal.

Steve (27:07)

Well, Jessica, I’m excited listening to you, and I’m wondering what’s the best way that listeners might follow up with you, make access to the blogs and podcasts that you have available?

Jessica (27:21)

Oh, well, thank you. Please, if you have any interest in agile or have any questions about this, you can email me anytime. I love a conversation. I’m at jessica@the-agile-mind.com. Our website is the-agile-mind.com. That’s where our blog is. That’s where our past podcast are. We’re doing some workshops series over the summer that we’ll be posting. I also write for Intrepid Ed News. So that’s a great place to see what we’re doing and the events that we’re doing, the workshops, and just learning. Just open a blog and read a little and see if any of it is actionable in your classroom. And if you have any questions about it, I am so happy to connect with other teachers and try to share this because it transforms students’ lives, but it really changes your quality of life as a teacher. And that’s the goal. We want good teachers in classrooms.

Steve (28:21)

Thanks so much, Jessica. We’ll be sure to post those email and websites in the lead-in to the podcast.

Jessica (28:28)

Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Steve [Outro] (28:33)

Thanks for listening in, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter at Steve Barkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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