WIRE for Agency


By Jenn Hayhurst & Jill DeRosa

The craziest school year EVER is coming to a close and we are thinking about students as we face an uncertain future. Yet the same old cycle  of making classes is alive and well and is currently happening in a school district near you. Students are being defined in very general terms and are being sorted into convenient categories to meet the task at hand of making “balanced” classrooms. This process not only limits our students, it marginalizes our expertise as teachers. The words we all agree to use in these collaborative settings sets up the energy and beliefs of the group.  

Language is a funny thing; it hides all manner of sins. When teachers refer to “low kids” and “high kids” what are we really saying?  We are saying, we don’t really know these kids at all. When we talk about kids as being “low” or “high” we are robbing them of their true identities. We could be measuring students’ strengths and building classrooms that are driven by an asset lens; instead, we are talking about “low” and “high” kids who are being bandied about from section to section to make sure teachers get a good mix of “high,” “average” and “low” kids. 

So, here are examples of some students who others have referred to as “low” kids:

  • He has parent involvement through the roof, he is content to think his own thoughts and does not feel pressure to conform and this is evident in the work he produces, it doesn’t look like a typical product. Big loopy letters, the brevity of his sentences mask his true brilliance. Once you look a little deeper, deep knowledge is revealed. Knowledge that extends beyond the initial appearance. Clearly, critical thinking is a gift to this boy. He is a divergent thinker who sees things in unique and important ways. Honor that.
  • His engagement levels are constant, he wants to learn and has a deep desire to be part of collaborative work but his language usage is still fledgling and he becomes discouraged. He is extremely perceptive and understands the nuance of social settings.  His awkward phrasing and overly general language usage is not a limitation, it is a badge of honor. He is brave and wants you to understand what he really thinks. Stamina is a gift for this boy, he can work for long periods of time and he believes in himself. Honor that.
  • She is eager to please and wants to be helpful but she seems to shy away from heavier intellectual work. Her current low level of academic performance is accepted by many as a given, and there is no real expectation for her. She appears to be disengaged during group discussion, but when you take the time to sit down next to her, you will soon learn that she is listening intently. She wants to understand everything, and has many insightful questions. Creativity is a gift to this girl, when given the space to really explore how she processes her learning we discover she has a real spark for learning. Her brilliance is revealed through her drawings, her artifacts, her movements, her songs. Honor that. 

To label these kids as being “low” is a crime. They’re not “low” they are complex, they are unique and worthy of our deepest consideration. Doesn’t it just feel right to talk about our kids this way? When teachers really know their students it becomes impossible to label all students as one thing. It is time to break free of the constrictive language that takes a deficit stance. The language that makes our students smaller, the language that makes our voices as teachers weaker. It’s time to recognize that teaching is more powerful than a classroom.  Asset lens teaching assumes an active stance that meets students in their homes, it follows them into their play, and informs how they think about themselves. My teacher knows me, she believes in me, and I believe in me too. Any classroom would be lucky to get me. All children deserve to think this way, and we can make it so.  

Sharing The Teaching

Sitting in the dining room, writing resources spread out in front of me, my thoughts were turning to ways we could offer students a chance to take more ownership over writing time. We are currently in a unit where we are writing about reading.  A close examination of the letters students have been writing made it clear that there were MANY experts in the classroom. Some students wrote the title with the correct capitalization. Others, were able to state their opinion about a book or character clearly and with strong emotions.  Some, gave several examples to support their opinion as they retold events in the story. They even quoted what the characters said and described characters’ actions in great detail. It felt like just the right time to put students in the role of teacher.

Coming up with a structure that would work in the classroom meant making room for students to practice teaching before working with their peers. We believe all students have something they can teach, and if we celebrate each child’s strength that would give them all the opportunity to teach it to others. When we open up our minds to see what all children have to offer we will never be disappointed. What did we know about our young writers? There were students who created an illustration that really helped persuade their audience, students that knew how to address their audience and other students who knew how to write their signatures on their letters. These may seem like simple skills but sometimes they are just the thing that other students need to pay close attention to. What would it be like if we all just celebrated our students and let them lead?

Think about a time when you had to do something complex. You have a plan, you know what it is you want to do, and you are ready to go. Now think about how that scenario would go if someone else was watching you. It’s a little different, right? Fear is real. Professional teachers learn quickly that their teaching will be on display from time to time. It is meant to help us reflect and grow. However, it is also tied to an evaluative end. We have skin in the game, so how do we get comfortable with discomfort? It ‘s one thing to feel uncomfortable, but we can power through it if we can set-up some conditions for a safe learning environment. 

A condition for safety is coming to mutual respect. When we focus on our strengths and use positive language overcoming those nervous feelings becomes a natural part of the process. Complex work, like teaching, requires so much risk because there are so many facets that go into planning.  Being uncertain about what another person believes about you, your values, or your performance undermines potential. However, we can take some control to feel safe. This is how it can be done:

  1. Know how to make your curriculum relevant to the real work of students.
  2. Have a deep understanding of how to support students’ developmental needs.
  3. Go into each lesson with a clear intention, with an array of potential outcomes. 

What’s true for us, is true for kids. Consider how you are creating a safe environment for your students to take risks. What would that look like in your classroom? We show students we believe in them by the way we speak to them, the way we show them respect and the kinds of expectations we set for them.  If we just look at what they can do we cannot go wrong. We are teaching them that they are safe, respected, valued, and only then will they take the really big risks

Our Students Amaze Us

We wanted to start this week by sharing how our students amaze us. We make it our practice to celebrate kids each and every day.  These are some things we observed our students doing today.

  • Yaakov finished his math problems and saw that another classmate was struggling. He quickly scooted over and asked if he could lend a hand.  Sitting side by side, he modeled and prompted ways to try it out. He took on the role of teacher as he taught his classmate how to do the subtraction work and even gave him a tool (number line) to help him out.
  • Olivia was engrossed in writing a letter about her favorite book Ivy and Bean. She wasn’t sure how she wanted to end her letter to get the biggest impact. 

Amalia eagerly offered to listen to her letter and gave her feedback on whether she should end with a question or a sound effect. Together the girls decided that a question at the end was just the thing the letter needed.

  • The children entered the classroom and gathered around the hermit crab. After the crowd dispersed Jake stayed back to talk to Alex who had many questions about what a hermit crab needs to grow bigger and stronger.  Jake has several hermit crabs as pets and spent some time answering Alex’s questions and helping him grow his knowledge about our classroom pet.
  • Kira came skipping down the hallway holding hands with a teary eyed kindergartener. I said, “Good morning” and she told me how she saw this girl crying on her way to class and she told her she would walk her down.  The girl smiled and said, “Kira is my new friend.”

These are just a few highlights of the generous and beautiful things that are happening every day in our classroom.  It would be easy to miss these moments, to get caught up in everything else that is going on around us. We choose to notice and to celebrate.

Sometimes someone else can see things that we take for granted. Having the benefit of a fresh perspective at something that has become an ordinary practice, reminds us of the ongoing importance of making agency a reality. Jill works as an Adjunct Professor at a college on Long Island. As part of this work, she opens up her second grade classroom to both student observers and  student teachers. Today was one of those days, Jill welcomed a bright engaged student observer to come spend the day with her class.  

The reading lesson was to use a reader’s notebook as a tool to help support the work of  keeping track of longer books. The students are experimenting with different ways to take notes to keep track of the setting, characters and their feelings, thoughts, actions, and to follow a story’s problems and solutions. The class was engaged, and Jill and her student observer were circulating the room. First they noticed a boy who was making a list of the setting, a question followed, “Is it important to know the sequence of when each setting was introduced?” The boy decided on numbering the settings and it turned out they were not in sequence. Now we know something important about this student. There were many students who were keeping track of their reading in many ways. 

At the end of every lesson, there is a time to share and reflect on the learning that happened.. Jill asked her students if they would like to come up and show their classmates how they are using their notebooks and other tools to do this work.  Volunteers eagerly raised their hands and excitement grew. Now was their chance to share their strategies with others. One by one, they came up and shared all the many ways they recorded their thinking using post its, sketches of the changes in the setting and character diagrams showing all they have learned.  Each way so unique to the child and their way of learning.

While children are sharing their work, strategies, thinking or tips, Jill dipped in and out prompting and questioning to help children make connections to real life learning.  Questions like, “How did they help you as a reader today?” or “How does this strategy help you to better understand the book?” or “So you did… and then you understood…” This language was generous and inclusive, she did not tell students what to say. Instead she asked them questions or mirrored their words back to them. 

 After the lesson was done, the student observer shared her surprise at the levels of student ownership, and how interesting it was to see each child’s approach. This less directive approach proved to be just what the students needed and this was a great surprise to her. These practices of giving students: a tool, a suggestion, or even just a positive nod was enough. Better than enough – just what they needed to take on the work themselves.

Teachers are being inundated with a need to collect data. Data is important because it is meant to inform day-to-day teaching. That looks like an examination of student writing, rubrics, checklists, and anecdotal notes that are driven by close “kidwatching”  inside the instructional day. Yet teachers are often faced with the need to collect data in a sequential way, to plot growth on a graph. When plotting numeric scores on a graph becomes the “thing of importance” many times that score is relating to oversimplified disconnected academic tasks that can be completed quickly and that do not require deep thinking. The problem is there is no quick fixes when it comes to transferable learning. 

To understand what students can do we need to gauge growth within authentic learning situations. That looks like:

  • There is a student in my classroom who is reading below grade level expectations. 
  • I decide to provide an intervention in my classroom: Guided Reading 3 times a week for six to eight weeks. . 
  • My progress monitoring is the RR that triggered the need for intervention and subsequent Running Records throughout the process. Those along with my anecdotal notes are the progress monitoring data. 
  • At the end of the cycle reflect and refine my practice to see if it worked, or if something needs to change, or if I need some help to come up with a different approach. 

When teachers are collecting formative data like running records and anecdotal notes they are capturing the intricial features of what the reading process is and what it is to  transfer learning. In the end the whole purpose is to actually read in the real world. To learning something it has to connect real life experience. Responsive teaching is driven by real interactions with students. It is not a form, a chart, a graph. We need to be careful not to oversimplify the process in service of a number, a level, a cut-points. Everything we do as teachers is in service to our students’ developmental needs. 

A seamless lesson doesn’t really teach you anything. It can make you feel good and build confidence and self esteem. But the lessons that really help you grow as a teacher are the ones where you make a mistake, you reflect on it and then you make an adjustment.  Mistakes are only as good as the reflection that follows them. 

This is what we  learned today. Jenn was asked to provide an intervention for a student inside the classroom. Part of the intervention had to do with letter identification. There was an alphabet strip out on the table and a big bag of colored, magnetic letters. Jenn said, “Sort these letters by color and you can use this alphabet strip if you need to see the way the letters go”. The child dumped all the letters out on the table just as she was asked to do.  The child looked at them for a while and then found an orange letter “A”. She placed it to the left of the big pile of letters. It was upside down and backwards. Jenn quickly realized that her wording of the prompt, “You can use the alphabet strip to see the way the letters go” had misdirected her student. Obviously the child was thinking of ABC order and not sorting by colors. Jenn changed her words, “When I said that you can use the alphabet strip to see the way the letters go, I meant that you could show the direction of the letter.  See how you can match the way the letter looks”.

Reflecting on our practices makes all the difference.The big worry here was that if Jenn did not reflect on her word choice, this lesson could have gone very differently.  The assumption could have been made that the child didn’t know her colors and letters when really she was not clear on what to do. The way the letters go and the alphabet chart, they all indicate to the student- alphabetical order.  This is what she was used to doing with these materials. Sometimes a mistake is a little gift. It gives you a chance to grow by reflecting on it and then fixing it. This would not have been a reality if Jenn was not observing the child closely.

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

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 love @Twitter because any day we can hear @VickiVintonTMAP & @KellyGToGo is a good day.

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!

Sometimes we think about all the energy it takes to teach and it feels daunting. Students are coming to school with a sweeping range of abilities and needs. Some days in the classroom feel as though we are making great strides, those days are the best! While other days it’s as though we aren’t hitting the mark, those days really don’t feel good at all… We have to pause to wonder, “Are we enough?” These thoughts pass through every thoughtful teacher’s mind.

The most important thing is that we keep showing up and doing our best. We keep trying to find solutions, we keep looking for better ways of doing things. Despite all of our vulnerabilities teachers put themselves out there and lead. We are working on the front lines of society and we see our students coming to school from all different circumstances. We worry, we celebrate, we plan, we try, we fail, we grow. Responsive teachers live a learner’s life.

Living a life as a learner means that we are indeed, enough. Our students can learn from our experiences as well as the content we teach them. They can feel safe because they know that we hold them in the highest esteem. Every time we see a student make academic gains, find a topic they are really interested in, or make a new friend we know we had a part in that. Yes, we are enough.

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. 

Jenn tweeted this last Thursday during #G2Great on Twitter:

This Is Balanced Literacy Chat #G2Great December 12, 2019 Click here to read Brent Gilson’s post

There were so many “likes” and “retweets” that we grew curious. This tweet prompted us to think more deeply about the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR).  Anything that is discussed widely by so many stakeholders in school is deserving of a closer look. We would bet most teachers think of the GRR in this way; I do / We do / You do. That is very memorable, and it is true, but to stop there would be an oversimplification of what it is really all about. We wondered if teachers actively think about the fact that the GRR is imbedded inside of the curriculum they teach each and every day?

From Theory

First a little history for the intentionality of the GRR’s theoretical design. Let’s go all the way back to 1983…

Gives us an idea of how long ago this was!

1983- The problem was that there was no comprehension teaching going on in school (Durkins 1978).  So, Pearson and Gallagher created a theoretical cognitive model to better understand the process for reading comprehension. It  was based on the work of Lev Vygotsky’s ZPD, or Zone of Proximal Development (1978). Otherwise known as the “just right” amount of scaffolding from an “expert” learner to a child. It had three stages:

  • I do it: Teacher models comprehension strategy like summarizing a text
  • We do it: Teacher works with the student to practice the strategy together, we summarize a text
  • You do it: Teacher observes students do it on their own, you summarize a text

2002- A new goal was being formed around using the GRR as a basis for lesson and curriculum design. Duke and Pearson moved the emphasis to embed the GRR as a part of daily practice.  They started to use it as a way to design programs and curriculum that would support instruction for reading comprehension. This was a step-wise approach of instructional scripts that teachers could follow. 

2008- The framework begins to shift again, this time moving toward a more student centered approach. Fisher and Frey included a fourth phase: a collaborative stage where students work on their own, together. The energy of the framework was being invested in creating spaces built for independence and a teacher’s observational work. Doing this opens up the learning process, I watch what you are doing and I respond with what you might need. This shift is a big step away from the GRR’s linear script to a more authentic student centered process. Students could move more flexibility throughout all four stages: focus, and guided, collaborative, and independent.

To Practice

Today, curriculum and standards are designed to be cyclical. Students are getting lots of repeated practice as their learning grows more complex over time. This is what is meant when we think about how the gradual release of responsibility rests on a strong vertical alignment in terms of curriculum. Teachers are growing a more sophisticated bank of  instructional repertoires in order to meet these higher standards and to accommodate the expanse of students’ developmental levels. The GRR has become a flexible dynamic tool that moves fluidly in order to meet the differentiated needs of our students. How do we do that in the classroom? Think of it this way: 

Three Important Questions for Your Consideration:

  1. In what ways can I work with students to support their independence?
  2. In what ways can students work either by themselves or with each other to be independent?
  3. In what ways can I monitor growth and/or adjust challenge over time? 

Our Take Away

We are facilitators for students’ learning. Students need to be driving the process, and our work is to create the conditions for that to happen. The GRR is the way to get there, it is so much more than just, I do / We do / You do.