WIRE for Agency

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.

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.

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.

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. 

Welcome Back!  We were very fortunate to have had a two week break and today was our first day back to school. As soon as the kids came into the classroom there was so much energy, so many smiles, and so much anticipation for what comes next. New Years and hopeful beginnings are so closely intertwined, on one hand we don’t know exactly what really lies ahead, and on the other we feel like we can accomplish great work together.

An Idea to Share

To get us focused and talking about our time away, we began the day with a carousel activity. The children wrote and talked about the following questions:

After a long break, kids come in excited to share about their time away and this type of activity takes that into consideration. It is also a great way to get them focused and able to share what is important to them,  in a controlled environment. As I walked around, I could support their language usage, by asking open ended questions to spark elaboration such as “What did that feel like? and “Why did you pick that to share?” Kids were excited to share and when it was time to start our day, they were on task and ready to go. Here are some things I learned:

  • One child went to Florida to check in on her new house
  • Like myself, one girl got a new dog
  • Several students took the time to go see the tree and Times Square in New York City
  • Many students had special visits with grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins from different states including Pennsylvania and Virginia

If we had just gone into the day without time to share the things that were a special part of our lives when we were not in school, things might have felt more disconnected, noisy and there would have been some untapped energy.  This activity helped direct the flow of energy into something productive for us all.

So keeping this in mind, we came up with our one word for the year.  Our word is “EMBRACE”.  

  • Embrace opportunities
  • Embrace imperfection
  • Embrace success
  • Embrace challenge
  • Embrace other perspectives
  • Embrace the humanity and emotional piece of teaching and learning

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.

Join us Thursday at 8:30 pm est to chat about Balanced Literacy on #G2Great