WIRE for Agency


This post is dedicated to our friend and mentor, Dr. Mary Howard. She inspires us everyday to move our practices from “Good to Great”.  Mary, who believes in the potential for all children and works tirelessly to encourage us to be worthy of them.

Jenn, Mary, Jill

After years of working with very young children one thing we can say for sure is that childhood is full of complexity. Children are learning about everything. They are not just learning how to read (which is really hard to do), or how to be problem solvers in math (have you seen how math has changed?). They are also learning how to be more emotionally secure, how to be independent. Yes, in their world that may be how to ride safely on the bus, how to manage a backpack, or even how to get along with others in the lunchroom. Think about everything children learn in comparison to us adults. It’s astounding. 

So when teachers use words like our “low students” they are not honoring all who their students are and hope to be. When any student is denied access to more sophisticated work, they are being robbed of opportunities and may be missing out on important entry points into their learning process. When this happens, teachers are making assumptions and in doing so are most likely creating significant gaps that will be extremely difficult to fill. Why do some educators do this to kids?  Teachers care deeply about students so it just doesn’t make sense. Maybe they do it because students don’t meet their expectations for where they “ought” to be. Maybe they do it because they feel so much pressure to get high scores. We understand that pressure, all kinds of people analyze our data. Maybe they call kids “low” or refer to them as letters, or numbers from a misguided understanding of data and its role in school. We don’t know. One thing we do know for sure, it’s a problem, if we are discussing a child and we are not using the child’s name. 

In the end, does the answer to the question, why, really matter? What matters most is that we put a stop to it. Make a vow with us here today, I will not refer to my students as “low”. I will respect them and acknowledge all of their accomplishments and I will not let my own fear of failure get in their way.  We all have to believe in them if we are going to teach to make a positive impact. Yes, acknowledge the hard work that has to be done, but do that work by leveraging their strengths. There is always something to hold onto and celebrate. Be that teacher, the one who trusts in students’ abilities and hopes for the future.

Leaning in to observe children at work is a sacred time. We get to see the evolution of their thinking unfold, as they grow more aware of their sense of autonomy, and power.  One of the happiest moments in the classroom is when students come to know something on their own. Their facial expressions change when that blessed “Aha!” moment happens. This is when they realize they’ve learned something new.  Teachers who have a ”light touch” when it comes to delivering instruction know how to support students just enough. Read this exchange from teacher to student:

“How do I spell the word trade?” a second grade boy asks.
“Try it three ways.”  I say as I place a Post-It in front of him. 
Observation in Action
The first time he writes, t-r-ae-d – note that he knows how vowel teams work 
The second time he writes, t-r-a-d and mumbles “No, that’s not it.” – note that he understands how closed syllables typically work. 
The third time he looks at the first attempt, he looks at the second, “OH! A broad smile spreads across his face, and says as he writes it, “t-r-a-d-e!”
I say, “See, doesn’t that feel great you figured it out on your own!” He smiles and nods his head in agreement.

When teachers come into a child’s learning process with a set agenda we miss opportunities. When we pose an open ended prompt like “Try it three ways” we leave the work up to the student. It is better for the student, and for us. The student grows more confident and we get a window into their learning process.  It’s a beautiful thing to be both a teacher and a learner at the same time.

Fix a problem, fix a problem, fix a problem. There are so many needs and we care so much about our students. The attachment is real, and we want the best possible learning environment for them. There is a lot we can control to make a positive impact but there really are things that make negative impacts. Maybe some children don’t have what they need, maybe we don’t share beliefs with some of our colleagues, maybe there isn’t enough time to do everything we think needs to get done. When we feel this way, it almost feels like we are drowning. The work ahead is so big that we don’t always see the progress because we’re up to our elbows in the work. This is us losing perspective.

We are human, and when people are stressed, focus narrows. If we only see the needs  in front of us we can’t appreciate the growth. That is compounded when sometimes it seems as though the people all around us have it all under control everything is light and airy and they just don’t seem to share the same sense of urgency. We have to ask ourselves, what’s wrong? There is so much pressure when instruction is rooted in authentic learning experiences and we are teaching for transfer for higher level thinking, and then we are held to these assessments that don’t match up to the methods of instruction. It doesn’t feel good to worry about not  having the results you want when you work so hard.

We know it’s not our job to “fix” our students they don’t need fixing. The goal of our instruction is to help students become more confident, and to build up their identity as learners.  There is nothing wrong with us – we just care a lot. Step away from the stress and open up to listening to another’s perspective! Sometimes we need people who aren’t in the day-to-day work inside the classroom, because they can more easily see evidence of the growth students are making.This is how we maintain a more balanced view of things. Finding people who share our values. People who are expert listeners and who help us with the reflection process makes a huge difference.  We are not so different than our students we have needs too and the same thing that helps our students will help us. Find people who believe in you.

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.

We are teachers and we want to make our students’ work shine. Whenever we come to the end of a unit we celebrate, so it’s natural to want to put students’ work in the best possible light. In an effort to make their work look polished and finished, it can be easy to get hyper focused on the end product, or to follow only one line of focus. When this happens we could potentially lose opportunities for some important learning along the way.  Learning for transfer is steeped in feedback and reflection, so if we just made a beautiful product like an oral presentation, or piece of writing, we want to be careful not to separate it from its process.  

We are all for a finished product, we want students to be proud of their efforts – that is very important. However, we get into trouble if we decide to interfere with the level of their work in an effort to make it “look good”. Once we start down that road the product begins to reflect us not the students. We are asserting our power and by doing so diminishing theirs. Instead, we see an end product as the beginning for what comes next. A finished product is like a blip on a line graph. It’s a representation of a  moment in time in this child’s school year, and should be celebrated for its own merit. Really, an evaluation of the end product gives us lots of information to carry forward to help students understand that learning is a process.  

The way to make these products more powerful is to seed them with feedback and reflective practice. In doing so we are hitting three important elements:

  1. We are putting the “audience” in an active stance during a celebratory share of their classmate’s work. When we ask students to evaluate, to connect, or question what was shared we are teaching them how to be responsive learners.    
  2. We are honoring the process of those students who created the product. Teaching children how to offer and receive feedback is essential. Students quickly learn their work matters and is not just a “one and done” scenario. Instead, this pushes learners to consider what else they can do, or gain insight for new goals. 
  3. We are growing reflective practices that will extend learning for each child so they may see things through another’s perspective. What was the impact of my work? How do I know? What worked? What could be changed?

If we decide to celebrate finished work by honoring the process we open our students up to a  beautiful experience. Instead of just waiting for their turn to share they are giving feedback and are actually learning from their peers! When we encourage children to be reflective we are deepening their learning so that they may grow more insightful and self-assured. 

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

Hello! Come on In…

We just finished a round of parent-teacher conferences. Our hallways were full of smiling families who were there to support their children. It was a beautiful thing! Caring adults who stopped to read pieces of writing, or who took some extra time to pay a visit to the school librarian, leave us feeling so very inspired and hopeful.  Conferences went well, and as meaningful conversations tend to do, we were left to wonder about how we may better enlist the support of parents for the academic, social, and emotional demands for the classroom of today.

Reminiscing about an idyllic past

Parents send their children off to school and as they do they are reenacting deep rituals that feel so familiar. Lunch boxes, library books, and sneakers on Wednesday revives old scripts – this is how we do school. Yes, that is school. However, problems arise when we think all school is identical to what it once was because that’s not true. The world is not the same and as the world changes the demands of schooling change too. Academic, social, and emotional expectations are entirely different than they once were. So it might be disorienting to parents when they expect to repeat academic scripts, meaning they expect to see worksheets, spelling tests, and book reports. These are basic tasks that yield neat and tidy results. They are either right or wrong with smiley faces or red checks. We think of those traditional practices as reminients of schooling from the past. In a changing and uncertain world it can be very tempting to embrace those old expectations and to resist the new.

It is hard to (really) remember the day-to-day work of school. Instead parents tend to remember special moments like Halloween parades, guest readers, Valentine’s boxes and other fond  traditions. Yes, of course we still make room for these types of experiences but this is not the true goal of learning. Another layer to consider, if you had a great school experience then you may want the same experiences for your children. On the flip side, if you had a bad experience with school, you may want a totally different experience for them. Many parents have memories and expectations of the kinds of places school should be. All of these varied expectations influence conferences, and sometimes when we meet with some parents, there may be a disconnect between what was school and what is school. For example, math is no longer about getting the right answer but instead about showing a variety of ways to solve problems.  Writing is no longer the beautifully rewritten product we used to produce but instead the writing process is more visible, that means writing may look messy because we are attempting to reveal a students’ process. 

Getting on the same page

Current day expectations for students are wrapped up in words like flexible, creative, and plurality. There is no one “right way”; instead there are many possibilities. Children are learning how to open multiple perspectives for problem solving. They are learning how to collaborate and grow their thinking collectively. We are teachers, and it is our professional charge to enlighten and inspire parents to embrace a hopeful view of their child’s future. We do that work as we assure these caring adults who show up for conferences that their child is remarkable, and has something unique to offer the world. We educate and inform about current standards and best practice. Why do we have children learn a variety of ways to solve problems? We do this so that students get a deeper understanding of number sense and are not just following a step by step procedure that they don’t truly understand. Why does the writing look that way? We have children use different color markers so we can see their process.  When we see black we know this is their original writing, blue shows their revisions, and red shows their ability to edit their work. We tell our parents this so they gain new insights as to why we do the things we do in the classroom. All the while these conversations are happening, parents are getting an estimation of who we are, and how we regard their children.

Time Is on My Side

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.

Meet J.C.

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.

Being is Believing

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.

Student Centered learning is where we want to be.

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. 

Welcome, to our blog From Practice to Print. I am Jenn Hayhurst a Literacy Coach working on Long Island NY and it is my pleasure to introduce you to my colleague/ writing partner/ best friend, Jill DeRosa. Jill is an extremely talented Second Grade teacher. We are here to share our thoughts and experiences as we work with students and teachers to advance the concept of agency for all.

The first time I heard the word agency was when my friend Kim, attended a coaching conference at Teacher’s College at Columbia University. She said, “Living environments begin when students have a sense of agency. I thought of you right away Jenn.” Kim thought of me because Jill and I had just written an article for Heinemann’s Digital Campus: Teach Writers Independence with an Interactive Learning Wall and this word agency seemed to describe everything we were working towards. Agency, we rolled that word around and around – Jill and I were hooked. Since then we went on to read quite a bit about agency, one of our favorite definitions came from Peter Johnston.

“Children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals. I call this feeling a sense of agency.”

Peter Johnston, Choice Words (2004)

We have devoted many years of practice to developing a metacognitive framework to make agency a living presence in the lives of our students through our day-to-day teaching. We have come to understand that agency is more than a strategic move – it is a powerful belief system that energizes learning into tangible change. Agency makes learning actionable meaningful to students and so changes the trajectory of their progress. It helps students to understand their own sense of power in their world:

“We like to describe agency  as a  state of mind built on a belief system that your actions can and will make an impact.”

Jenn Hayhurst & Jill DeRosa
For release with Benchmark Publishing Spring 2020