Meaningful student voice and choice leads to engagement and agency

By Diana Wilkes

Viv Mallabar, Associate Leader of Learning at Ormiston Junior College, shares some of the intentional mechanisms that have enabled strong learner engagement as they strive for their vision: “To guarantee every learner engages in innovative, personalised, world class learning.”

The ‘MAC’ – mentor, advisor, coach 

Since we opened in 2017 we have strived to support ākonga to collaborate and to lead their own learning – our MAC framework is fundamental in this area. MAC stands for Mentor, Advisor, Coach. Every child has an interview during enrolment in order to be placed in a MAC as a way to find a learning coach (and/or students in MAC) who is/are a best fit. MACs are vertically grouped so buddy systems can play out easily (tuakana-teina). Students are in a MAC for their entire time at Ormiston Junior College (OJC) so relationships are built and established with students and families over a longer timeframe and this enables a strong care ethic and teachers able to mentor, advise and coach academic, social and emotional growth with students (meets teenage brain needs).  The MAC also acts as an advocate and a launchpad for each student and their voice. 

OJC collaborative art by foundation ākonga in entranceway — Image by: Viv Mallabar

Our ‘kāinga’ – the homebase for ākonga

In addition, the Kāinga (physical learning space) is important as this is where we have the ‘home base’ of the MAC; the whānau of learners and staff who are together for their time at OJC work together in the kāinga. Relationships built between learners, learning coaches and whānau underpin kāinga expectations/celebrations/flourishing through a programme for learners to navigate self, others and beyond. We look to explicitly teach ‘golden threads’  learning habits and dispositions that weave together the OJC localised curriculum that support the social, emotional and academic growth of each learner. These are then celebrated through Expos, PLCCs (Parent, learner coach conversations) and Friday kāinga assemblies, which are usually led by our year 10 student leaders (Manutaki) and our MAC Kaitiaki (support student leaders). Student voices and choices are very strong here as to what and how these are run. Kāinga is based on whakapapa, realising that we are part of a genealogy and timeline that was set before our time here and that will continue after us, and we all have our part in our identity and belonging as a group.

Authentically enabling agency

OJC learning habits and dispositions are explicitly taught and developed at MAC level as well as across the OJC curriculum. Students collate evidence of learning and have conversations at all curriculum areas, but are focussed through MAC. Reflection and feedback for self/peer plays a big part in learning days. Student choice is also a big part of the way TAIP (Transdisciplinary Authentic Inquiry Projects) and WO (Whānau Ora) activities are chosen.

Whānau Ora – is physical activity linked to being active as a student for wellbeing of the teenage brain. Te Whare Tapa Whā, sets a holistic understanding of the whole person within the Whānau Ora space.

Again MAC conversations support students to ensure balanced choices across a two year cycle (Junior 7-8 & Senior 9-10), as the digital badges are the graduate profile to cover learning areas and key competencies.

In addition to the MAC relationship, our timetable itself (affectionately known as the TARDIS) empowers our learners to make choices about their learning everyday.  Read about a day in the life at OJC –

Student voice across the school, and we have a hugely diverse school, is sought at the end of every TAIP cycle, Whānau Ora cycle, Labs, and MAC at regular intervals. Wellbeing surveys and MAC conversations underpin a lot of collecting our student voices. From here some iterations have already been made to the way TAIP has happened (frequency, length, way to choose), and will continue to do so. Our SeNCo & ELL lead also collect voice, and our school counsellor and LAs all add to how things are working.

OJC entrance — Image by: Viv Mallabar

Language of learning

We have developed a common OJC language to build understanding of the learning areas. This is shared via students in MAC time, all through the school day, as well as with parents at PLCC (Parent, Learner, Coach conversations), at expos, Inspire day, parent walk throughs and any parent meeting. Every child who enrols at OJC has a family interview to help place them in a MAC and to give parents an introduction to our way of working. We stay transparent and connected through regular newsletters, a facebook page and use social media to support what we are doing and what a day at OJC looks like. The area of whānau involvement is our next major focus, which has been started. As Covid has caused two years of interruptions and we have so many new students, staff and families, 2022 has had a huge focus of ‘mowing lawns’, and on connecting/reconnecting with all stakeholders, especially our learners.

Read more here about learner agency at OJC / secondary school

A reflection on the challenges and benefits of the required shift to distance learning during the pandemic

Staff definitely missed face to face connections and students identified this, too. However, the MAC as the main online check in was the best way to connect. We ran other learning areas too and recorded so students could visit live or later, but best turn out was to MAC sessions as MACs had relationships already with parents, and could check in if students not there to see what/where help or support was best. This also allowed us to individualise as well.

In the short term, teenage students loved being able to build their day around their own interests/sleep patterns, so live recording or set videos to play back worked well. We were able to see a lot of students connecting later at night. A lot of students did say, as lockdown impacts dragged on for so long, that it had got to the stage that they needed to see friends and teachers face to face to be more engaged. Lots of students working around wifi issues, time on devices for themselves/siblings/parents work and the like, caused challenges.

Mindset was a thing, in that being in a home environment for some meant their routine changed and they found it harder to engage. But, at the same time they really looked forward to an online work layout that had the familiarity of what happened at OJC, so they were able to carry on without too much trouble. The new students, though, found this harder. We are a very digital school, so the tech employed was not ever a major issue – we had a tech team who students could message for any problems set up daily. However, keeping engagement in so many different homes was the toughest. Wellbeing focus through MAC was our major effort, and meeting family needs with parents drove our MAC’s involvement/support with individual children or families.

An interesting note was when schools were allowed to open at the end of 2021, only about a third of students returned, which meant we carried on with our regular online program but had some support and face to face relationship activities at school. Staff were exhausted by this stage, and those students at school were very quiet, so school had no energy or much sound from students initially. One of my students said he’d only talked to his family in the last three months so found it hard talking to others, which you wouldn’t expect. One of our tech teachers did say that apparently this was a phenomena that happened after the Christchurch earthquakes when students returned to school.  Consequently, 2022 will not see leading for change as the primary focus, but rather wellbeing management and reconnecting are our focus.

Viv Mallabar is an experienced school leader and facilitator

I come to OJC from a facilitation role at Evaluation Associates a company specialising in working alongside schools, Principals and teachers in Assessment and providing high quality professional learning and development that improve school leader and teacher practice that positively impact on student achievement.

I have always been interested in engaging students in their ability to understand and articulate their learning, strengths and where to next. Knowing and believing in yourself in the context of your educational life, supports your own measures of success and promotes the ability to actively participate in school, and later on, life. This has led to me being involved with the New Zealand Assessment Institute (NZAI) as an executive member and continuing to have a part to play in quality professional learning and development.

I have also had a strong interest in promoting positive Mathematics engagement with teachers and students. I was a past President of the Auckland Primary Maths Association (PMA) and still sit on this committee. I love to challenge and engage myself as a learner and have recently completed my Masters in Educational Leadership at Auckland University. I have a particular interest in understanding the neuroscience of the brain to support different learners with their strengths and their challenges.