“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.”
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…
“…(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.
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
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.
In some classrooms, the last day before a holiday recess tends to be a time to host a class party, watch holiday videos, or do crafts. We look at this day as our last chance before a prolonged break to spend some meaningful time with students. We want our students to go into their time off with energy and excitement around learning. Today was a day full of celebration, fun, and excitement, and it packed an academic punch. We hosted our informational museum exhibits, and the students had great experiences. Children went to work setting up their displays and materials to get ready to TEACH other students. Our second graders taught first graders all about:
What dogs need to live
How volcanoes erupt
Different types of tornados
What different baby animals eat
Different planets in the solar system
What tigers eat
All about baby pandas
How whales use their bodies to survive
Different types of clouds
Different things dinosaurs eat
What damage a hurricane causes
As you read through this list you get a little glimpse of who these students are and what they really care about. The topics all belonged to them, and how they presented it to their first grade students was completely their decisions. It can be done, kids really can take control over their own learning. When we allow it we will always be amazed because we will know them even better. We want to make the most of every single moment in school and we want it to be joyful.
We walked our students out to the buses as holiday music played throughout the gymnasium. We will be off for two weeks. It is important to us that we keep our blog connected to students, so we will be back on January 6, 2020! In the meantime, you can find us hidden away in a corner of Panera writing. We are deep into revisions with our book, WIRE for Agency Four Simple Moves That Transfer Learning. We hope you have a happy and healthy holiday. Please take some time out to renew and gear up for all the great learning ahead in 2020!
Jill’s class is currently celebrating a reading unit of study where they learned how to grow personal knowledge about a topic. One intention Jill had going into the unit was to share control of the learning with her students. Another intention was to create experiences where her students could work with more independence.There were a few little tweaks to traditional practices that made this possible:
Instead of assigning, or limiting choices for topics, allow students free choice. Let them decide what they will study.
Instead of controlling every aspect of the unit, allow students to take ownership of their work throughout the unit.
Instead of being fixed with potential products for the unit, allow creativity to bloom and take full advantage of the high levels of students’ motivation.
Jill decided to embrace the plethora of opportunities that choice, ownership, and flexibility affords. All of which, made students’ learning more meaningful, relevant, and fun. Here is a description of how we did it.
Getting Setup to Learn: We let students tour the library and gather books on a topic they’re interested in. They made their own text set. The work focused on finding support for the books they chose that are outside their instructional band. If you try this, you may make recommendations of books to include in the text sets afterwards, “Look what I found, would this go with your topic? I was thinking about you when I saw this book.”
Intentional Reading: Then it was time to read and explore the books. Students were able to make decisions as to what books remained in their text sets or what books were removed.
Collaborative Work: Children invited other students to share their text sets. Some text sets started to be merged, or expanded to include each others. So for example Aine was reading books about pandas, and her friend Olivia was reading books about mammals. They decided to work together on a piece about animal babies. Chris was reading about sharks, and La’Nyah was reading about sea creatures and then they decided to work collaboratively.
Creating an Action Plan: Culminated into museum pieces. They are getting ready to teach visitors about their topics. There is an option to work independently or collaboratively with a partner. They firm up their text sets combining and discarding texts to make their text sets reflect their topics they’re going to teach about.
Planning for Transfer: Now they mark up their text sets to pull the information that they plan on teaching. Then they have a choice as to how they will share: a speech, a poster, book, sign, did they want to act it out, do a dance, create a physical model or structure, or if they thought of something different that’s ok too. This is the time of year when teachers will tell you, “Students’ energy is off the charts!” We certainly agree! Many students are very excited to spend this special time with their families and friends.The result is that many children are often restless and unfocused. However, this is not the case this week in Jill’s class. Children are engaged, and intentional because they are happy in their work. Meaningful work, is a very gratifying thing for us all.
Anything we do with kids, it is our mission to embed it in authentic learning. We want these experiences to mirror what they will do in real life. We don’t write to a prompt, we don’t read for other people’s interests, we don’t solve problems in isolation. Instead, we write to get our work out into the world, we read to fuel our curiosity or meet our own internal needs. We often share what we read, because in the real world reading is usually a social endeavor. When we solve problems they are typically connected to some sort of real life difficulty. Usually we don’t even solve them all on our own, we collaborate to gain more insights and perspective.
The problem with school is that sometimes if we’re not careful we forget reality when it comes to learning. We try to teach sophisticated thinking without the benefit of meaning making or lived experience. Deep learning stems from authenticity, and requires some practical or social benefit to the learner. They can’t learn deeply just because they want to please us. We’ve said this in prior posts (and our blog isn’t even that long yet) but it’s not about us, it’s about them. So how do you get to authentic deep learning? It’s all around you. It’s waiting in the library, when your typing an email, when you are walking down the hallway to lunch. Children are attempting to make meaning all day long and they want to share it with you. There are teachable moments everywhere you look, we just need to keep our minds open.
Teaching children to be literate is a complex undertaking. It requires hours of study, observational work, critical analysis, and ongoing practice. That is the truth, and Jill and I are just teachers working in a school. Sure, we are engaged, we are educational writers, and we are in constant search of ways to better our practices. Since we really are educators working in public schools, we know full well that when it comes to teaching nothing remains static.
We prefer to stay out of the fray of political pundits who advocate for reform. Jill and I both know that when it comes to teaching children how to read, how to write, there is a process. Teaching into a process requires many different approaches. Some children need to increase their volume, others need specific skill work, while others could benefit from short term strategy use. Learning how to be a strong teacher requires a lot of time. So, we would much rather put our energy into learning more about instructional practice than participating in divisive discourse that feels tribal and unproductive. However, after Jill and I read a recent NY Times Opinion piece, we thought we would lend some practical wisdom.
We agree that phonics instruction and language learning are important; however, it is our experience that they are not the only two pieces for comprehension. Readers make meaning from what they already know and using their unique perspectives. There is not only one way to learn. This is why Balanced Literacy works. It is a flexible framework that accommodates students’ needs in a variety of settings. This approach underscores the thinking that when teachers draw from a wide repertoire of strategies, they will be more responsive.
Time is not a teacher’s friend. It can be an unwelcome guest that comes to the classroom with lots of baggage. Teachers worry about time slipping away. We fret about lessons taking too long. If a student is taking too much time to share we may even start to sweat. Even when there doesn’t seem to be a single moment to spare, it is never a wrong time to listen to children. Perhaps the most important way we take back our power over time is when we decide to be fully present and in the moment with students. We lean in with genuine interest, we show them that we are totally “all in” and ask, “Tell me about yourself. What do you enjoy? What would you say you are really good at?” These are generous questions that are implicitly positive.
In many ways a teacher is like a biographer. We are writing narratives for our students to inhabit. Narratives where our students are the heros. As we watch our students day-in-day-out we are learning about who they are. We are telling them their stories back to them with enthusiasm and sincerity. “Wow! Did you notice what you just did? You said you liked to draw pictures, and now it’s completely clear to me! You are an illustrator.” That observation becomes another page in their book. Pages that are filling up as the year progresses and students grow more confident.
JC used to play soccer, but he didn’t like it because sometimes he didn’t understand what the coach was saying. Now, he really likes Karate and also wants to try basketball. The thing he likes best about school, is writing. He likes that he can write his own stories about anything he wants. He also enjoys being an illustrator. He thinks drawing pictures is a lot of fun. He wants to tell his stories and have people read his books.
It takes time for students to grow into their identity. They are trying things on and learning about themselves along the way. JC sees himself as a writer and illustrator. That is very important to acknowledge before any academic work can begin. This is an entry point for us to build upon to nurture his sense of self, his identity. It is our job as teachers to take the time to listen to our students, to honor what they say and to celebrate how they see themselves. Maybe we really misunderstand time. Maybe we should just unpack its bags and invite it to stay knowing it is well spent anytime we sit side-by-side with a child to honor who they are for this brief moment that is now.
What belief systems have you built up around your students? This is an important question because belief systems are very powerful things. It is our beliefs that slant our perspective and sway the action we take. Our belief systems for students are built around trust. We trust them to show us the way into their learning process.
Children have a more flexible view of the world and are open to more possibilities that might stay hidden to adults. They see the world with beginner’s eyes. So what does that look like in day-to-day instruction? How do we take advantage of their unique view of things? We trust them to set their own learning goals. Your students have a sense of who they are and what they need that is independent of our assessments of them. By trusting our students to self-select their goals we are handing over the big work of learning to them. Genuine student ownership necessitates shared control. This is the part where some teachers might say, “Wait, what? That sounds risky, not sure if that will work for me.” The thing is it’s not about us; it’s about them. It’s our students’ learning process and their learning can only come to life when it holds meaning and relevance.
The insights we garner from students’ self-selected goals give us an opening to see the world of learning as they do. Elliot understands something about “How to Draw” books. Typically they do have a lot of steps! He is also a rule follower and that adds an interesting layer as we think about his goal. He likes order, he wants his book to look like a realistic drawing book – that’s important to him. Whereas Jose is all about action. His how-to book needs to capture the excitement of “moving people” to hook his audience. Two boys working in the same UOS with very different goals. As we observe these boys we are learning more about who they are, what is really important, and how to best meet their needs. In other words, this is (authentic) differentiated instruction made easier because students are leading the way.