DigiLit Sunday: Agency

Children must be in control of their own learning. — Marie Clay

Peter Johnston, the author of Choice Words and  Opening Minds, spoke these words yesterday at my first session of the Annual Cotsen Conference.

Students should expect to learn from each other.
Children’s questions are the most important part of the process.
Students should see themselves as mentors.

What better way to start a post on agency.

To make these words a reality,  I need to adjust expectations and plan towards that kind of thinking. Students can’t just walk in the door and take a thoughtful agentive stance as learners.  And, it isn’t something I can schedule or compartmentalize.

9:30-10:00 Reader’s Workshop
10:00-10:15: Read Aloud
10:15-10:35 : Agency

But to be honest, there is an element of this in my classroom. Student agency opportunities exist in some parts of the curriculum. And sometimes, agency disappears or is a quick add on and not a priority.  Saying “turn and talk” isn’t enough. Explicit teaching as to how that looks needs a bigger place in our lesson plans.

It’s a relentless choice of how we draw lines.

How much of the perceived must do’s overwhelm the agency necessary to “control your own learning.” And how compelling is the choice? Is there a reflective protocol around choice and agency? One that transfers. If I value and believe in Marie Clay’s words, more reflection is needed.

Johnston went on to talk about constructing causal process. In other words, when you do “x,” this is the outcome. It’s a reflective and potentially predictive.  Perhaps, constructing causal consequences with students is the cornerstone of understanding how to have an agentive classroom, academically and socially.

It’s complicated work. We as individuals and as a community of learners need to set goals for this kind of learning; intertwined with each other and understanding:

Mistakes and quirks are not who we are.
Kids want to be a participating part of a community.
They (students) need to know how to live together

Seeing our differences as positive additions to a community is more than just up to the teacher. Students need to be taught to see we are better and stronger individually when we listen. Listen, as Johnston stated, “because we give a damn; because we find them interesting.” To create this kind of community, it takes many conversations around literature and learning where student talk is the majority and teacher’s questions are minimal.

It is a journey. One of redrawing the lines and approximating.

Thank you, Margaret Simon, @ Reflections on the Teche, Peter Johnston and The Cotsen Foundation for making me think about agency in my classroom.


Writing has great mental health benefits. — Peter Johnston


Celebrate: Choice Words and Waiting for Stories

It’s the last Saturday before school starts and it’s time to celebrate this week with Ruth Ayers. Thank you Ruth for the opportunity to link up with others who share. Read more celebration posts here.
celebrate link up

This week I’m celebrating Choice Words and waiting for stories.

1. There are stacks of empty notebooks.  They are closed, undecorated, and waiting.

2. Two bags of two pocket file folders They are leaning up against the notebooks, waiting.

3.  Boxes of  pens –  blue Bic ball point and black Flair pens They are capped and waiting.

4. Thirteen iPads – Fully charged, stacked, and waiting.

5. A Library of Books  – informational, realistic fiction, historical fiction, poetry They are in boxes waiting.

The room is empty, quiet, clean. Waiting.

Waiting for 58 students to come and fill up the room with noise, questions, wonderings, ideas. Words that will fill paper, electronic devices, the air and our minds. This is the excitement of the unknown every new school year. All of that possibility of what might be.

Every child walks in looking at those beautiful new notebooks ready to be filled. The new pens ready to spill out words, words, words  and books ready to be explored.

They walk in the first day with hopes and dreams; with wonder of what will be accomplished. They all walk in new. Almost.

Students walk in with stories of what they have been.  How they see themselves. How others see them.  As they walk in, there is hope of new beginnings. That clean slate feeling of all that is possible in a new year.

This week I’ve been re reading Peter Johnston’s Choice Words. Last year what stuck with me was one word, “yet.” I hold that word close because it offers  hope and the acknowledgement of a continuum of growth.

This year the idea of narratives resonated with me: how narratives set us up for success. When we have a sense of agency our personal narratives reflect it. Students who come into a classroom with narratives filled with success or more importantly, stories that show a they are problem solvers have a sense of agency. Their stories might sound like: “it may be hard but, I’m the kind of person who can handle it, figure it out, get it done.” The question is how can we teachers promote this kind of narrative.

This year I’m holding on to these choice words from Johnston:

The heart of a good narrative is a character who encounters a problem and by acting strategically, solves it, usually (but not necessarily) attaining a goal. The following examples of teacher comments are likely to influence the sense of agency children experience in the stories they tell about themselves as literate individuals.

How did you figure that out?

What problems did you come across today?

How are you planning to go about this?

Where are you going with this piece (of writing)?

Which part are you sure about and which part are you not sure about?

Why would an author do something like that?


Next week we will walk into the classroom ready to learn, to become, to create narratives.

This year I’m holding on to the idea of creating narratives that build agency.

This week I’m celebrating Choice Words and waiting for stories.


Slice of Life Day 9: Report Cards Meets the Power of Yet

11454297503_e27946e4ff_h“When do we get our report cards?” B asks.

“At the end of the day,” I tell him.


“If I get more 4s than 3s I get to go to a movie,” A says to B.

They are so excited, you’d think it was Christmas. They can’t wait.

I can.

I agonize over report cards. And I don’t mean just the tremendously long time it takes to input them. I mean giving a student a number (4 being the highest) that measures them as a reader and most upsettingly as a writer, is painful.

In the Before Common Core period we were to assign grades based on what we thought the student would score on the state standards test. In other words, if their report card said “3” the prediction was that the student would score as “proficient” on the test.  Over years of collecting state testing and reading assessment data, we had a fairly predicable correlation. Now with the new and improved testing, all bets are off. .We know itis a lot harder. We know our students have had no real experience in this kind of testing environment. We know, based on other state’s experiences (think New York), the scores will be lower. Add this into my grading angst.

Back to my classroom.

At the end of the day, I pass out the report cards. Every year I tell them to wait to open it till they get home with their parent. And every year they open them as soon as they get them, like Christmas presents, count the 2s, 3s, and 4s, and share with their neighbors.

One student has totaled the numbers up. She’s smiling. She likes the ratio.

“I love reading the comments one student says, look what I got, ‘Shows growth in reading.’ ”

These are the students I don’t worry about too much. They are the ones that love school. Generally they are pretty good at it.

My worry is for the student who got 2s in reading and writing. They are readers and writers, they just haven’t met the level of expectation yet. This is the nature of learning. Do they know that? Is the power of yet present in a student’s mind? Or is another “2” another confirmation that says- I’m not good enough, or I’m not a good reader, or worst of all I don’t like reading.

The facts are this: report cards aren’t going away and we teachers value assessment in the light of next steps. So here is my pie-in-the-sky wish: a report card that shows a progression of growth and expectation.. When a student opens up their report card, their conversation becomes:

 Here I am.
Here is my goal.
I’m getting there (or) I’m not there yet,
Where do I need to work?

This could be done. It has been done with the writing checklists from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Units of Study. Why couldn’t we do this same thing for the Common Core Standards, at least in elementary school. Maybe I’m crazy, and I know it wouldn’t be easy, but it might make report cards something to get excited about.

  • .

Making Room for Thinking

How did I learn this summer? I didn’t have a graphic organizer, charts to refer to, or questions to answer.  What I did have was a driving question — How can I get my students to become passionate readers and writers. I also had access to information and and resources to stimulate my thinking,  namely:

  • great PD publications including (Notice and Note, What Readers Really Do, Choice Words, The Book Whisperer and The Units of Study in Opinion, Information and Narrative)
  • “virtual talk” specifically tweets and blogs of the driven, passionate learners of Twitter.

What I learned made me look hard and question my teaching.  Are the tools I’m giving students driving them to become passionate learners? Am I giving them the opportunity and tools that will spur that learning?

Strategies, strategies..does it stick? 

I teach strategies, lots of them. The strategy for every situation and the matching chart to go with it.  All these lovely tools — modeled, practiced, available and ready to be used.  Nothing was wrong with the strategies themselves. But were they being used effectively? When the scaffold and I were gone, did the strategies transfer?

My Aha:

I stopped short,   Actually I had it backwards.  The strategies worked in a controlled environment, but student transference was weak. Not because the strategies were bad, but because my thinking stimulated the use of the strategy, not student thinking.  They weren’t thinking. They were mimicking my thinking. My big aha: provide room for student thinking.

images-1New Rules — Listen, pose open ended questions, acknowledge thinking and get out of the way

There is nothing wrong with setting up the strategy, modeling it and charting it to make it clear. The trouble was how I got there. The source of the strategy needed to be lifted from student thinking. Model yes absolutely. Then as students try it, acknowledge their thinking and then push in subtly, teasing out their thinking with powerful prompts and  questions. Peter Johnston’s Choice Words gives good direction:

           Say more.. What made you think that? What else connects to that idea?      

              Show me…How did you get that idea? How did you figure that out?

                     Why? Why would the author do something like that? 

Making Room for Student Thinking

As teachers we so want our students to “get it” we push in and in the process we disable and we disrespect their thinking process. We take away the possibility of  development beyond us because we don’t trust that they can. And they “get” that, so they don’t think. They don’t think they can.  Johnston’s choice words and questioning creates a wide and respectful yet structured space for students to put their thinking in.

This just in — Another Great Resource for Questioning:

photoProviding questions that will stimulate process, problem solving and synthesis without leading is difficult!  So here’s another great book to put on your to be read pile: Essential Questions  written by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins.  It offers a  structure for formulating questions that are  important, timeless, and recur throughout our lives, organically. They are universal questions. They don’t dead end with a one word or one sentence response. They are intriguing. They beg to be answered. They foster investigation. They require critical thinking.  Check out the link above and get a taste of what EQs are and aren’t.

7 characteristics of essential questions:

  • Open ended
  • thought provoking
  • requires higher level thinking
  • raises additional questions
  • requires support not just an answer
  • recurs over time, needing to be revisited
  • is important and transferable within disciplines

Here’s to a year of student-driven strategies.  Driven with questions and prompts that foster room for student thinking and questioning. Here’s to a year of passionate learning.