WIRE for Agency

Wouldn’t it be great if there were an easy to follow recipe that we could follow to create the perfect classroom management system? Like, add a cup of creativity to three parts curriculum, then mince three cloves of student ownership until fragrant…and VOILA! Fresh from the oven, a beautiful classroom space with a fresh garnish of rules ready for all to enjoy. Any teacher who has worked in a classroom for even one day, understands that control is an important ingredient to making a classroom run. However, as it is with any recipe, the most pungent ingredient has to be used more sparingly than the rest.  Think strategically when you think of control, think in terms of tablespoons, not cups. Too much control tends to overwhelm students, to the point where there is no taste of freedom left to enjoy.

Agency: Opportunities All Around Us

We regard control as a flexible framework that can be leveraged to promote agency. The goal is not to control what students do with learning or even how they respond to what is taught. The goal is to regulate how our teaching will unfold, making sure to give space for students to decide what will happen next. It’s a real partnership, what learners do with our teaching can only be decided by themselves. This is true for everyone, we can only really control ourselves. Think about it, when students dutifully respond with conformity, is it control or is it oppression?  Transferable learning is the thing at stake here, learning has to matter (to the student) if we are looking for transfer over the long term.  Agency is the secret ingredient to successful learning outcomes because agentitive learners perceive an immediate positive impact for themselves. When teachers leverage their instructional pacing as a locus of control they achieve greater flow in all aspects of classroom life, handing off the learning to students as a shared pursuit. We are all just learning here together.

To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

It is so crystal clear as to why agentic learning is appealing and has such great potential to make really big important impacts on student expectations for learning and school.  So, where can we work this in? Once you know what to look for you’ll soon see opportunities for agentic learning are everywhere. Here are a few examples of how we leveraged teacher control to promote agentive learning for special days, school events, organization decisions and other daily experiences.

On the Playground

The big news around school was that we were getting a new playground! There was chatter in the hallways, hopes for certain pieces of equipment, and a deep rooted excitement for it to be ready to use.  We leveraged our teacher control  to take full advantage of this natural learning opportunity to promote greater agency.  We extended an opportunity for children to have a voice. What equipment would be chosen? How should things be set up? What colors will it be painted? We started by having students conduct interviews with the kids in the school to find out what they wanted the playground to be like.  We set up research groups to gather information so they could be informed of the different possibilities.  Students prepared little presentations to advocate for what they needed in a playground.  Most importantly, the voices of the students were heard and their feedback was a key part of the decisions that went into creating a new playground for our school. The students will not forget this, their voices were heard and they now have a true investment in their new playground.

Celebrating Earth Day

This month we celebrate Earth Day, a day to have a positive impact on Mother Earth. What better opportunity for students to work with a sense of agency.  We leveraged control in this way, instead of teacher-led lessons for the environment, we posed the question: “What can you do to make our Earth a better place?”  Now, the learning will be put in the students’ hands. We provided the space for students to co-construct the lesson plan. This came in the form of  time for research so they can identify problems in our environment that they would like to solve.  Partnerships or groups are formed around shared issues as they work together to find and plan out solutions to these problems. Then, we put all of their solutions into action as they try to have an impact on their world. This is agency that is relevant to their real life!

Classroom Organizers

It’s that time of the year when we reflect and reorganize our classrooms. We leverage teacher control to promote agency by asking students what they think. They became advocates for what they need  by examining where they are most successful in the classroom. Then they listed their needs in terms of seating or how to share supplies.  Many suggestions came in for how to better organize spaces and set up the classroom to best meet their needs.  They made a list of supplies and tools that would be most beneficial to them.  This gave us so much insight for how they learn best.  Then later, we encourage students to take visitors on a tour of the classroom, to explain how it works and how their design reflects what their community values. 

Making Morning Announcements

Moring announcements signal the official start of the school day.  Part of announcements include the Pledge, maybe information about school events, the weather, or some kind of interesting fact.  We thought that this would be a perfect vehicle to get student voices out into their school.  Sharing this platform is another way to leverage teacher control to promote learning with a sense of agency. Using this time for students to  share important ideas, to organize causes, or just share a little bit of humor or happiness for the day ahead just makes sense!  Some students used the announcements to start and share campaigns around different issues such as recycling, littering and saving animals.  Other students shared an important fact or information that was important to them and which they thought other students would find interesting as well.  Yet others used it to practice out their comical skills with little skits or jokes to start the day.  However they chose to use this platform, the commonality was that they had a place to use their voice and to have a possible impact on their fellow classmates and school community.  They had agency!

Click here to read about meaningful causes.

Agency: The Search Goes On

What do you think? When thinking about your role in school, how would you leverage control to promote greater agency for all? We would love to know your recipe for agency, so please share! Give it go, because finding these openings allows students to truly have an impact on their world. Agency is the path forward to  improve educational systems.  Schooling is an extension of the real world with consequences and rewards that are best regulated  by the learner.  What does it mean to have a voice in the world? What does it mean to make a positive impact? The answers to these questions are born from having lived experiences to learn from. This is the kind of learning that will stick with them forever and have long-lasting effects.

Here is a reflection tool you can use to find ways to “cook up” some experiences where agency will thrive in your classroom:

Agency is becoming a popular word among teachers and administrators. It is this idea that educators discuss at great length but do not always know how to pinpoint what it is and how to put it into practice. We are hearing it more and more; yet, it still seems so elusive to so many. Teachers know what writing instruction is; they know what reading instruction looks like; most have taught math in a variety of ways. Where does agency fit in the school day?  We are here to tell you, agency can take root anywhere as long as there is belief that your actions will make an impact. Learning with a sense of agency can happen at any moment in any setting. Agency is the lynchpin that brings learning and purpose together, it is belief in one’s own ability to effect a positive change for oneself:  

“Wiring students for agency begins with actions we teachers take, but ends with students generating their own power as learners.” 

WIRE for Agency Four Simple Moves That Transfer Learning

Agency Throughout the School Day


Students Teaching Students 


At the Document Camera and Small Group Table


The highest level of learning occurs when we teach each other.  When students step into the role of teacher they are stretching themselves as  learners.  Many students learn best from other students.  By providing this opportunity, we are maximizing learning for all students!


Drawing is an activity that our students love!  Whenever they have a free moment, the room explodes with drawing.  It goes beyond just creating a picture, students are steep in different techniques that you use as you draw such as shadowning, sketching, outlining, hatching and other technical strategies.  With such a strong desire to grow our drawing, it was natural for students to want to share their expertise with each other and to learn from their peers. An opportunity was right there, what we did with it made all the difference. We honored their requests and provided space for students to step into the role of teachers. They picked something they wanted to teach, signed up for a time slot, made a plan, gathered supplies and then taught their classmates.  


Students Organize to Solve Problems 


Classroom Library


Recently some third grade students were working in Jenn’s classroom. Jenn shared that it had been difficult for students to find books they wanted to read because the classroom library was not set up as a “user friendly” space for younger children to borrow books.  The students got to thinking, and suggested that they would be willing to lend a hand to solve this problem. 


The students quickly organized a plan. First, they laid  the books on the floor and started sorting them into big categories, fiction and nonfiction. There was a lot of chatter conferring with each other, checking in to see if a book belonged here or there. Then they started sorting within these broad categories into smaller ones. They thought of clever names for the bins, names that  children would be drawn to. And before anyone knew it, our time together  was done. They wanted more! One boy suggested that they form a club. One where they could sign up and come and work on the library during their lunchtime. Imagine that! Sure enough children have been coming, bringing new friends, and collectively working to make the library better than when they found it.  They are making this all happen on their own. What would motivate this?  Whenever learners come together to build something (that matters to them) agency exists. These children believe they are making a positive impact – they are wired for agency.


Sharing Book Recommendations 


At the Document Camera and the Mat


Any student who is recommended to the RtI process for a literacy goal is given a reading log that is to be used both at school and at home. It is done with the intention that students will see how the many grown-ups in their lives come together to support their reading goals by signing their logs. Once a week they come to the classroom library and share about the books they borrowed, and make recommendations to each other. This is where children are learning how to exercise more control over their independent reading practices, and learn how to really talk about the books they read. 


Children put their books up under the document camera and show each other why this book was a good one and why they might like to read it too. Some children do a shared reading of a funny part; others talk about the author; some show how the book works and how that helps them to be able to read it. The thing that they all have in common is that they are learning how to use their voices to make an impact. They believe their recommendations are important because they are influencing what others read.  

Teachers Create the Conditions for Agency

Children understand that school is a place for learning.  When the learning process is demystified for them, they begin to know what that process consists of: to WATCH and learn, to have an INTENTION for learning , to REFLECT on the process, and to ENGAGE for long lasting effects. Knowing this, enables the learner to take control over this process. Asserting control over one’s own learning creates the conditions for agency to exist.  I know how to learn, and I can use my learning to make an impact. Agency is living and breathing within each of the stories we shared today. Whether students are: teaching others how to draw, or fixing up the classroom library, or recommending books to each other is not really the point. The really big work was the growing self-awareness of what learning is and what  could be accomplished when children believe in themselves.

It is Friday afternoon, and the weekend is coming on fast. The students are moving around the classroom with some urgency for writing. What does urgency look like? Children are acting out their writing with gestures to match. Some are collecting papers and supplies for writing; while others are in deep conversation about who is going to “do” what part of their series books over the weekend. Over by the cubbies, kids are scooping up their writers notebooks, filled with a slew of writing possibilities, and shoving them inside their backpacks. What does urgency sound like? Their voices bubble up into a frenzy trying to catch their ideas onto paper, and then right back down into thoughtful murmurs rereading their words to each other. Little chairs are scraping on the linoleum tiles as kids get up and down papers crunching; sharpeners wining plastic pencil boxes opening with soft pops. All of our students are trying to get in those last minute ideas to guide their weekend writing projects.  The urgency felt by the students was because their writing mattered to them – this is learning with a sense of agency. Their energy was innate, it was of their own doing – this what a joyful agentive classroom looks like and sounds like.

Of all the initiatives, and mandates, standards, and assessments let us not forget to prioritize joyful learning.  When speaking about teachers, Dr. Mary Howard once said:

Writing is one of those beautiful learning opportunities that can deliver critical thinking, agency, and joy all in one. Right now our students are writing series books.  It would seem that all of them have decided to have their characters make cameo appearances inside each other’s stories. Oh the power to create worlds for their characters to inhabit. Writing is a social beast, and they are learning how to use their words to explore the imaginary worlds of their own making, it is really something to witness. That and kids are really loving the series books they are reading. They are eager to try on craft moves they see in their books. Even though our students are just eight-years-old, they are authors.  What motivates them? They want what all authors want. They want  to be heard, to be validated, and more than that to find an audience.   

Looking Through the Eyes of a Writer: Access, Language, and Choice

Conner has really grown into his identity as a writer. He walks around our school with a notebook and pencil in hand, even when he is going to recess.  Writing has become a way for him to express himself and work through his feelings. His love of writing has spread throughout our classroom, he has grown a community of writers that he counts on for ideas, advice, and feedback.  They check-in with each other first thing in  the morning, throughout the day and before they leave school.  This is a natural part of their day which they look forward to.

It wasn’t always this way.  At first, Conner didn’t see himself as a writer.  He knew he had great ideas but he didn’t have the resources and supplies he needed to do the work he envisioned.  Day after day, we provided him with different resources;  a notebook with stickers, colored pencils, mentor texts that sparked his interest, and most importantly time!  These small gifts, coupled with high expectations and our deep belief in him as a writer, made all the difference.  By providing Conner with access, language and choice, we created the conditions for him to grow into an agentic writer.


  • Freedom – he has decided to write during lunch.  
  • Community – he is actively checking in with peers to give and get moral support
  • Resources – he is making the most of his time writing and becoming more efficient.


  • Texts – he is borrowing language from other mentor texts
  • Academic – he can converse with others about the writing process.
  • Crafting a writing identity – he is a writer and is cultivating a growth mindset


  • Feedback – he is giving thoughtful feedback, and is acting on the feedback he receives
  • Mixing genres – he is deciding how to bring in other genres of writing in his work
  • Ways to publish – he is making choices about how to publish his work 

Teachers who give these young authors the time and space for writing through access, language, and choice are helping them to discover how to use their voices to make a positive impact. Having the opportunity to be heard and celebrated as writers opens up the floodgates for joy. 

When you work with a sense of mission; sometimes things can go awry. Right now, we are doing some really important work, we are creating an academic toolkit. This toolkit is being designed to offer high utility for teacher use to find interventions to close academic gaps, with just a click of a link. We are building a system that rests on student driven data so that we may use an asset lens to meet them where they are. Sometimes, even when there is mutual respect within the team you work with, differences can arise. Having real values as a professional can complicate things. Recently, we found ourselves in a minority view. Things became a bit heated, and it didn’t feel great. Then Friday afternoon, Laura Robb posted this on Twitter and it put some things in perspective:

Thank you, Laura, for being the voice of experience. Thank you for putting your positive messages out there for all of us teachers to read every day. You make a huge impact, and really hope you know that. If you don’t follow Laura Robb on Twitter, you need to stop right now and follow her: @LRobbTeacher.

This toolkit is our effort to meet the high expectations for Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS). This idea, MTSS is very appealing, we are building a system where a responsive dynamic team works collaboratively to meet students where they are. Our work is to integrate a Response to Intervention (RtI) framework as part of a MTSS, with a primary goal to monitor student performance in an effort to meet academic and social emotional needs.

The best definition o RTI comes from our mentor, Dr. Mary Howard. If you don’t follow Mary on Twitter, stop right now, and follow her: @DrMaryHoward. Mary is a force for good in education. She is an educational beacon of light who will never steer you wrong if your goal is to view student performance through an asset lens and be 100% student centered. This excerpt comes from Mary’s book, RTI From All Sides: Click here to read a sample chapter

This is a Heinemann publication, and is an excellent addition to a reading list for RTI/MTSS

We can put interventions in place. We can read all the right books. We can follow all the wise people we can find on social media. However, we can not forget to listen to the most important sources of information right in front of us. Our students. They will show us everything we need to know to teach them. If only we are careful to watch them. Any academic or social emotional intervention we put in place for students will be hollow if we do not include student perspectives as part of our planning. This is the work, and we believe we are all up to the challenge.

Many students really love to write. Whether it’s series, how to’s, or any book that can get some laughs from others, this holds both rigor and joy for the developing writer. Having a personal belief that you are a writer among writers naturally builds a strong community. Teachers can make a big impact on the lives of their students because part of writing instruction is learning how. Why? One message rises to the top for us, “Your words matter to me, you can make a difference here.”

Both students and teachers need to believe that their actions will make a positive impact through writing. By honoring students’ voices, without being heavy handed with what they actually write, it really teaches them how to think critically and thoroughly. For young writers it’s not so much the content that they write, it’s the habits they are growing. But when we tell them what or how to get ideas down on the page, we take away the discovery of learning who you are as a writer, known as writing identity. Cultivating a writing identity for students is really job #1 for teachers.

We’ve been doing all this work and then we saw this tweet from our colleagues, @trustingreaders:

We did just love the side-by-side comparison of defining what writing growth means for teachers and students. To us, their tweet speaks to the undergirding of the power of personal belief, leading to greater agency. It got us thinking about how these beliefs can be transferred to shared intentions. There are natural links from student to teacher here. The list for what writing growth means for students becomes a list of potential goals. Where do you want to grow as a writer?  If a student wants to set a goal for “increasing volume” that would link up to a teacher’s goal to confer on “learning about the student’s writing identity.”  Strengthening a writer’s identity stems from the volume of writing a student produces. The more they write, the more we learn about who they are – one goal fuels the other. This is a way to follow the student’s lead into learning:
This is our thinking merged with Jen & Hannah’s. It makes sense since trust and agency go together. You have to trust your students to take ownership over their writing to get their voices out into the world.

We are taking a closer look on how to boost teacher confidence for conferring. One way to do this is by doing a Writing Running Record. This is an instructional technique we learned from our other friends at Teachers College, @TCRWP. Take a copy of student writing and look for patterns in this way – what stands out is the instructional goal to boost the process. As you can see, our student here is into development big time:

The word “you”  is woven throughout because we are creating a narrative for the student, “You are the kind of writer who uses dialogue.” This is extremely validating for her as a writer, and that really matters! It matters as much (maybe more so) as adding quotation marks, or fixing up endings. Also embedded within the feedback is the option for choice, “If you decide to do this…” is a very deliberate word choice because ultimately it is her choice.  If we said, “Go back and add quotation marks.” she would be doing that for us and our wishes rather than for her personal development as a writer, this is another way to get to a shared intention. Agency grows from access, language, and choice.  She was provided:  

Access: Space to grow writing identity within the writing process 

Language: Feedback that is given through an asset lens.  

Choice: An opportunity to decide what next steps may be

“Do you have the book, People?” she asked with a shy smile.

“No, I don’t have that book. Is it any good?” was the response to her small request.

“Yes! VERY good. My best friend has it and I want to read it too.” she bounced up and down a little with each syllable.

“Well, let me see if I can get that bo. If you’re saying you really want to read that book, and it’s a good book for our library, I will do my best to get it for you.”

Opening Minds Using Language to Change Lives

When children make book requests to their teachers it is an important moment. To ask for a book, is to be an advocate for yourself. If we act on these requests, students will experience agency. There are so many ways books create bonds between teachers and students. Think of how a child might feel when a teacher says, “This book made me think of you.” Yet another powerful message has been sent, “Yes, you are a reader” and “Yes you are important. I see you.”

A Few Days Later…

People by Peter Spier, first published in 1980

“…(Spier’s) work possesses a charming, colorful, ‘lookability’ to which children as well as adults respond. This… volume with its message of respect and tolerance will be no exception.

New York Times Book Review

The book turned out to be an extremely progressive. It’s message: we are all different in many ways but we are all one, we are all people. This book would make a welcome addition to our classroom library. With a hot cup of tea and this new glossy book in hand, it was time to read it cover to cover. That was when a dilemma arose,

Literacy opens us all up to all kinds of different perspectives. Perhaps our student sees this as a book that offers naked bottoms, and an open grave. To us, this is a book about our shared humanity adrift in an expansive universe. One book, but more than one way to look at it…

That is the most important lesson we think we can impart to students is that we think better together. We can show them how to come to learning with an expectation to negotiate meaning through discourse. There is a deeper form of learning that happens when we open ourselves up to learning from perspectives other than our own.

If transfer for learning is the ultimate goal, then we need to design classroom experiences that make room for it to happen. Transfer of learning is something students do for themselves, it represents a transformative moment in the learning process. Now is the time, for deep meaningful conversations how to set the conditions for transfer. As we see it, there are three main ingredients for transfer: independence, choice, and agency. Some questions that followed this thinking were,

  • What actions do I take as a teacher that shows I value student transfer?
  • What independent experiences do I give students that promote choice?
  • How do I collect formative data when it comes to choice?
  • How much time do I spend analyzing formative data concerning choice?
  • What is the difference between independence and agency? Spoiler Alert… it has everything to do with student choice!

Students make hundreds of choices every day, yet we really do so little with that data. We decided to pick one big important part of learning in school to focus our attention on. The first step is to reflect on our most precious resource – time. We wanted to look at how we structured literacy learning for students. Here is an example,

We decided to examine book choice, because the classroom library provides a natural lab site for a study into transfer, student independence, choice, and agency.

Creating Shared Intentions for Growing Strong Reading Identities

Creating shared intentions with students has to do with following their lead. So often we get caught up with what we have to teach, we lose track of how to teach it best. Having a shared intention between teachers and their students demystifies why this learning matter to them. In our case, we want students to genuinely love reading. We want them to make smart book choices that reflect who they are as readers right now. What books are funny? What books captivate them? What books represent the kind of readers they want to be known as?

As teachers, we run with their curiosity, and their goals become our goals – shared goals.

Hayhurst & DeRosa, WIRE for Agency p 109

Our work is to honor and nurture these reading identities by making space for students to continue to grow and expand upon the types of meaning making that fuel their desire to read.”

Scoggin & Schneewind Trusting Readers

When we honor student curiosity and nurture their reading identities , we make a powerful contribution towards bringing relevance to what we teach them. In this case, the shared intention is to bring awareness and understanding to reading identity. Once we do that, we can harness its power for positive reading outcomes.

Our school district is putting a lot time and effort into growing our resources for Response to Intervention (RtI). This made us wonder about a broader perspective when it comes to RtI, so we tapped into social media to get the pulse. From what we’ve been reading on blogs, and social media there seems to be a push to put an overemphasis on isolated skill work as means to close reading gaps. Targeting skills is important, providing strategies for skill work is important, but so is authentic transfer of learning! For transfer to be measured, it has to happen during authentic learning experiences. In this case improving reading skills and strategy work is needs to transfer during independent reading. Independent reading requires:

  • seeing yourself as a reader at school and at home
  • knowing what books you like to read and being a advocate
  • having a plan for how to access the text in the book
  • fluency for talking about books, what did this book make you do? think? feel?
  • a robust community that makes reading relevant – reading is a social endeavor

We are just starting this work but this is the structure we have so far. With any intervention put into place for students, book borrowing is part of the plan. Once a week students come to my classroom to borrow books from my library in addition to their interventions. Their book borrowing habits are a valued source of formative data for their growing reading identities. The create an index card with their names and a picture that depicts them reading. They can select any book, and we take a picture of their selections (this is much easier than typing a title into a document). Now at a glance I can see what they want to read:

The next part is to show students their choices will have a real impact on what gets taught. This data gets gathered and share back with students the following week in this form:

This presentation is the structure we use to do the reading identity work that follows. So let’s say one student has a phonics intervention to read vowel teams. That work becomes more meaningful when students can transfer that learning when reading their books of choice. It’s not only about about independent transfer for RtI goals, it’s about wanting to do this work because it made relevant through their choices and the experiences we create for them. Students cross the bridge from independence to agency when they transfer learning during authentic experiences. Before students can get better at isolated skill work, like reading vowel teams, they have to believe they are readers. Every child has a right to discover their own reading identity. Belief in self, and belief in one’s own ability to make an impact stems from learning with a sense of agency.

Creating Access to Agency for Why and How to Read Words

Intentionally Instruct and Learn: Creating Access to Agency for How to Read Words

How would you feel if you were referred to as the “low teacher”? You’d have a thing or two to say about it. What an incredible insult! It would be demoralizing and you’d probably show your resentment by either shutting down or through some act of rebellion. So why do so many teachers refer to students in this way? It’s something important to reflect on and to encourage colleagues to do the same. The way we decide to differentiate for students can (inadvertently) send out the wrong message. There are better ways to differentiate and it begins with teaching students how to be agentive learners.

Agency & Differentiation: Three Core Beliefs

Core Belief #1: the work we ask our students to do has to be linked to community. We need to see the work we assign students from their perspective first. From their perspective, will this work hold personal connection and meaning? We need to ask our students to know this. Setting up classroom structures where students can share feedback about our teaching is a positive way to make them part of the learning process. Another question we can ask, would we accomplish our goals for differentiation through a collaborative learning environment? More often than not, allowing students to work in partnerships is a positive way to bridge the transfer for learning.

Today, we are learning about words. Some of us may want to focus on how to read them (phonics) some of us may want to focus on what the parts of these words mean (morphology). So take a moment to reflect, why might this work be important for you as a read and and as a writer.

WIRE for Agency Approach – giving room for shared intentions

Agency means that learners have a personal belief that their actions will have an impact on the world. Having a sense of agency is a human right. Agency is more than an ideal it is the foundation for grit – it is the reason why we keep working even when the work gets challenging. All work has to hold meaning for the learner; otherwise it is just, well, meaningless.

Core Belief #2: data has to drive instruction, and it needs to come from more than just one source. Yes, teacher intuition has a huge role in how we provide instruction. No one is underestimating how important teacher experience and professional learning are here. And of course teachers who know “their kids” is fundamental to good outcomes for learning. However, we have all of this and be informed by data too. Data has two functions, confirm what you know, while revealing what you might not know yet. For us, we want to see what our students are able to transfer, while thinking about the learning patterns that emerge. For the lesson we are sharing today data has been derived from formative assessments (including feedback from students), NWEA/MAP, Fountas and Pinnell BAS, and TCRWP On Demand Writing Assessment results. Here is a sample of how we broke down NWEA/MAP data for the class:

Core Belief #3: instruction has to be aligned to state standards, and the school district’s curriculum. It’s very important for us to know not only how well our students are growing in this classroom, but we also want to know how well they are growing compared to their peers. Creating a student centered approach for teaching and learning is a driving force for everything else that follows. The only time we use the word fidelity is when it refers to our students themselves. So when when we are planning for word study there are three important questions we ask:

  • How does each student define their identity as a knower, reader and a writer of words?
  • Where does each child fall on the continuum of understanding language?
  • What does child need to develop next?

Putting Our Plan in Action:

We are sharing our lesson with you, if you want to give this work a try. The plan contains everything you’d need to focus on both phonics, and morphology. The lesson planner comes from our book, WIRE for Agency, Four Simple Moves to Transfer Learning. If you use this, or any of the tools we publish here, please let us know.

The Struggle is Real… Important

“Quick. Simple. Fast.” was the attitude that was voiced during a planning session when it came time for providing classroom interventions for students.  Lately the desire to provide that thing, that hurry and do this to fill that gap, or identify that one instructional approach that will move the data point up in the right direction fever… feels like a knee-jerk reaction to the cohort effect of COVID-19. Yes, we have to act and be efficient and there is certainly no time to waste during the school day. This is serious business. However, we cannot let our fears win out over their joy. 

Learning how to grow into a reader and a writer is not a zero-sum game. We cannot afford to take away student agency to give more to a program driven model or restrictive prescribed curriculum goals that are being made in isolation. The truth is if we want to win intellectual freedom for our students; if we want to grow a robust literate society, we cannot think in a vacuum of skills that are divorced from authentic reading and writing.  Kids learn from having experiences that are connected to their learning.  They learn from making choices for themselves, that lead to the application for that targeted skill work.  Learning in school has to be similar to how they learn in the real world. It has to hold some relevance to them, they have to want to learn how to read and write.  If we don’t let them write their stories, and read the books they want to read then what in the world is the point?  This is the truth, like it or not. Another hard truth is that teachers need to share some control and even give it up to their students during the school day if learning is going to have any real value to them.

There is something in the educational ether right now that is driving the decision making towards a skills based, controlled text approach to reading and writing.  Let’s be clear, we believe in skill work, but… if students don’t have some agency over their educational day, all that effort is doomed from the start. Kids have to care about what they are learning. When they are only  trying to learn to please us, they are missing out on how wonderful learning can be.  When the decision has been made to accept and expect that kind of learning, we (as a profession) are being intellectually lazy. That will never be enough to close the Covid gap. Never Ever.

How do we know that compliant learning, driven by isolated skill work and controlled texts, is not the answer? How can we be so certain in the face of such high stakes?  We are not being flippant, we care about our students more than anything.  We know this because we are learners too. Last week, we wrote about that thrill of solving the Wordle.  That thrill comes from  the synapses firing in the brain, because a new neural pathway has been formed. All of that is remarkable and it all came from simply being learners who successfully used strategies to figure out the word. And, if we don’t – that’s ok, we come back tomorrow to try again.  This experience would not have been fun if you were being told what to try or do during the game. And then to top it off maybe it didn’t even work! What about scaffolding? Learning how to read and write is harder than the Wordle. To that we say, yes, yes scaffold student learning! Just do it in a way that shares control with the student.

In other words, the first thing you need to teach them is how to advocate for themselves. Let them tell you what works for them. We have developed a special kind of conferring called, Conferring for Agency, How to Reveal Productive Struggle to Students:

If you believe that the first thing we need to teach our students is how to advocate for themselves as learners then try Conferring for Agency How to Reveal productive struggle for students. Click here for the blank anecdotal notes sheet.

The cure for dealing with the loss of educational experiences to students will not be a quick, simple, fast intervention. A school is not a pharmacy, with a secret remedy hidden behind that high counter. Instead, it will rest on the relationships and bonds teachers build with students.

  • Teachers who believe in their students
  • Teachers who listen to students.
  • Teachers who help students to better know themselves.

The dedicated, informed, engaged classroom teacher is the cure. So use all of the resources your district will provide you; knowing, that you are the one who will teach students the most important lesson of all – that they have agency over their own learning. Be honest, tell them the truth sometimes learning is hard for us all, but you know they have everything they need to be successful, that you believe in them.

If is this post is meaningful to you, please let us know. Give us a like, or leave a comment if you want to continue the conversation.

Has anyone been playing Wordle? We have, and we just love it!  The simple grid, no advertisements, a one time a day just for fun game that has built up its own little community. We share our scores, statistics, and even our strategies for playing the game.  Who would’ve thought a little game would spark word solving strategies on such a large scale!

Teacher Agency in Action

We started thinking, how might we connect our enthusiasm for this game to word study in the classroom?  At times, word study can be a bit dull or boring to students if we are not really thoughtful about the planning.  So we looked at our word study curriculum, the phonics principle was homophones. How could we do it? This simple desire to bring a bit of fun to have a positive impact on our teaching, is a show of agency.  The question, how could we do it still remained. Well, after years of putting together data, we knew how to format a Google Sheet to resemble the Wordle grid. Take a peek (not to be confused with peak):

Planning for Student Agency

Well we were excited because we identified an area of instruction that we wanted to improve upon, and our solution, Word Study Wordle, looked like a promising solution! The next question we had was, how might we extend agency to our students in this process? Learning with a sense of agency means that students have to play an active role in the planning and execution of the lesson. This was our thinking:

  1. Introduce the game and play it together.
  2. Provide suggestion boxes (shoeboxes in our case) for students to share words that conform to the rules of the game (5 letter words) and that fit phonics principles we are teaching or have taught. It feels like a fun challenge, and it’s also a formative assessment in disguise. 
  3. Use students’ words for future Wordles! 

The Benefits of Agency

For us teachers, this was a chance to make a positive impact on our curriculum. To make word study a bit more timely, light, and fun; but also, set the stage for higher level critical thinking. Kids have to synthesize, analyze, and make evaluations to play this game, and make contributions to the game. The first time we played the game this was the talk that game generated: 

  • “Look at the word wall!” – demonstration of strategy use
  • “What letter would go with that letter?” – analytical questioning
  • “I thought it was going to be ‘they’ because I saw the th!” – prediction based on word knowledge 

So what are the benefits of agency? It sparks creativity for our own teaching. It creates a new way for our learning community to come together around a shared experience, to build something together. It inspires and necessitates higher level thinking.  It’s a complete win, and we invite you to try it with your students. So in that spirit, we are gifting you a week of Wordles to play with your kids! The phonics principle is homophones, with a fun riddle on day 5: Wordle. Please let us know if you try it with your students, and how it went.

by, Jenn Hayhurst

What can I say for myself?  How can I explain my long absence to my friends and colleagues?  You are all people I admire, and respect both professionally and personally. You are the expert sources I have relied upon to keep learning and growing. I can only share my story. To be honest, telling it brings some shame and embarrassment. A true learner does not disengage and retreat.  My sense of identity is deeply connected to believing in my personal sense of power, my ability to be a part of making positive change.  How can I be that person, when I feel beaten and overwhelmed? When we passed the two year mark into the pandemic, it hit me hard that this school year has been the toughest one ever.

Looking back, in preparing for the start of school,  I planned on hitting the ground running with a primary focus to lessen or close academic gaps… If I don’t lessen or close academic gaps there are serious repercussions for children – how could this not be  my top priority?  Then the kids came back.  Although I anticipated that children would have social emotional needs; anticipation, was no substitute for first-hand experience. I thought things were getting back to “normal” but no, nothing felt normal. The severity of all their needs hit me like a tsunami. What do I do with the constant worry I have inside of me?  In my mind’s eye, I imagine the teachers I know; their kind faces shaking their heads, “Yes, we understand.” They know that the energy it takes to be a teacher right now is just  immense.  I don’t think it is really being acknowledged by society, but anyone working in a school or with children during these times is most likely living with some form of trauma.  

“It’s heartbreaking. The pressure is overwhelming,” Bouchard said. “I feel like a horrible teacher. I’ve been teaching 22 years, and this might be the lowest self-esteem I’ve had.” Hannah Bouchard, a 2nd grade teacher at Platte Valley Elementary in Kersey, Colo

EdWeek: Teachers Are Losing Hope That This Can Be a Catch-Up Year

Once November hit and the pandemic took a turn and came back in full force. I felt like my legs were swept out from under me and I was drowning again. Sometimes, you have to let yourself float to conserve your strength so you can go back to treading water and then try to swim back to shore. That is what I have been doing, conserving my energy because I had no other choice.  All that I have had has been focused on the students in front of me, the faculty I work directly with, and the community I serve. That is why, before today you have not seen me tweeting, or posting, or engaging in public spaces for learning. Please believe me when I say I have missed you, and I think I am ready to rejoin the conversation. 

A Close  Relationship Energy & Agency 

Now that the pandemic seems like it is waning, again…  I have the benefit of some perspective. It’s kind of a funny thing; before now, I had not noticed how visually similar the words energy and agency are. Maybe if I had not lived through this experience I wouldn’t have understood how deeply connected the context is for how they operate. Albert Einstein once said, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.”  Now I believe that energy is the  currency that fuels agency. Agency is the embodiment of all of our efforts, all of our beliefs, it is a mirror reflection of the energy we put into living our lives with a sense of purpose and self-belief.  

So my answer to my question, “What do I do with the constant worry I have inside of me?” When it comes to meeting students’ academic and social emotional needs, I plan on turning to the children themselves to find the answers. When putting academic interventions in place I am going to honor their voices. I am going to use their feedback, not as an aside, but as a critical tool to create the intervention. I am going to believe in them and let them lead the way to monitoring success and to design for what comes next:

Building Professional Relationships Built on Agency

Here is a tool Jill and I shared during our presentation, 103A – On-Demand+: Coaching for Agency: Small Moves for a Big Impact. These are some tips to build a professional culture around agency for teachers. Please reach out and let us know if this, or any tools we offer, are useful in your work.

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.