Finding the Light

by Jill DeRosa

How do you work with a sense of agency, when you have lost control over so many parts of school?  This is the question that has been at the heart of our thoughts and conversations over the past 2 years of the pandemic. We know that student agency grows out of teacher agency but what happens when teachers don’t feel agentic or in full control over their profession?

So many teachers have felt helpless as they maneuver through the pandemic and all the changes it has made in schools. You would not be alone if you were feeling that so many things were out of your control when it came to educating your students and this feeling can be disheartening.  We are there with you, and have felt it too. We know what our students need but how do we give them that in a time of social distancing,  mask mandates and fear of so many unknown possibilities? Instead of looking at all of the things that we couldn’t control, we decided to  look at what we could reenvision to give more agency to our students. Compliance is the opposite of agency, so we had to look closely to find places for agency inside all this compliance. This is what we found.

1.Social-Emotional Conferences to know our students better

Getting to know our students is imperative to adjusting our curriculum to meet their needs. This is one foundation for agency. The current reality of desks in rows to socially distance can be isolative for students and make it hard for social connections. Our solution: We made sure to schedule in time for talking and getting to know our students. We treated this like a reading or writing conference and ensured we got to each of our students a couple of times a week. The more we checked in with our students, the better prepared we were to be responsive to their social and emotional needs.

2. Book Choice to put choice and control into student hands

Books open up opportunities for children.  They can take them on an adventure, serve as an escape from the real world, teach them new information, help them learn about other perspectives, and so many other valuable life lessons. The current reality of children being unable to share books made book shopping hard. Our solution: We made a schedule for students to book shop independently and then had a book quarantine area.  This gave students agency over their choices of what they read and for what purpose. It might seem like a small adjustment but it was life-changing for many kids. They were able to pick their own books and felt some control over their time at school. 

3. Purposeful Writing as a Tool for Agency

Writing can be a great way to get our feelings out and into the world. The current reality might limit children’s social interactions with others outside their homes. Our solution: We used writing to strengthen social connections and to spark agency for our students. There were strong feelings about the pandemic from our students and we provided an avenue for them to express this. Some students wrote poems, opinion pieces and informational text. Other students wanted an escape and wrote comics, fantasy adventures and graphic novels. We made an opening for their voices and they naturally filled it with writing that had an impact on themselves and others. 

4. Creating and reenvisioning opportunities for collaborative work with partners or small groups

Collaboration is a 21st Century skill that educators are teaching our students so they have the skills to work together in effective ways. The reality in many classrooms are desks 3 or 6 feet apart, some with physical barriers making collaboration feel impossible. Our solution: We had partners meet in a variety of spaces where they could be socially distanced but still work together such as hallways, open spaces in the classroom or other larger rooms in the school such as the cafeteria. We also used technology to help. Google slides or documents, Nearpod, FlipGrid and other platforms all provided opportunities for our students to collaborate virtually. 

5.Deep Conversation to promote language around resilience and giving students’ a voice

The language we use is important and sends a message about what we believe and value. The reality is the language around school and the pandemic speaks a lot to learning loss and portrays gloom and doom. Our students hear this and may feel a sense of despair. Our solution: Be thoughtful about the language we are using within our classroom, model positive self talk, and teach students how to express themselves while truly listening to others. We can leverage our language to help students persevere, be resilient and flexible when dealing with the challenges that the pandemic has brought.  Language can also be a uniting force that lets them know that they have support and are not alone.  Most importantly, we give students a voice in their learning and listen to their voices as we continue to create a learning environment that is built on them.

6. Providing access to the things they need

It is hard to work with agency if you don’t have access to the things you need. The reality is many families are struggling economically due to the pandemic and are focused on getting basic needs. Often, this doesn’t include school supplies. Our solution: Give supplies to our students.  Better yet, leave little gifts for them that build their identity.  I left you that decorated notebook because I see you are a writer.  Here is a book that reminded me of you.  These colored pencils will be great as you work on being an illustrator.  These gifts all send a message that I notice and believe in you. 

Working with agency and feeling that your work matters and can have an impact is at the heart of true learning.  It has been a challenge, but we have found ways to build agency into our school day.  We invite you to try out some of the things that have worked for us or try out something you have thought up. Together, we can keep the light of agency burning in our classrooms. 

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