Advocating for Agency

When I was growing up, like many others,, I loved to watch Charlie Brown. Looking back, perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the show is the way that the writers chose to depict adults. It is especially interesting to me now to think about the portrayal of Charlie’s teacher. You never see her face and her talking sounds like nothing.

The only help she provides the students is a monotonous tone that helps them drift to sleep. It is easy for me to immediately dismiss this portrayal because it seems to have very little in common with the way I view myself as a teacher. But in my reading of the next two chapters of Choice Words, I realize that this depiction may hold some kernels of reality.

I once heard a speaker in a professional development say that the people who learn the most at school are the ones who spend the most time talking. Seems like common sense right? Unfortunately, even in our differentiated, small group, collaborating classrooms of the present, teachers generally are the ones who spend the majority of the time talking. It is an easy trap to fall into – sometimes I catch myself trying to move through things so quickly that I would rather give a student an answer than let them problem solve on their own. The more I give them the answers, the less agency they develop and the more that they will seek answers from the “all-knowing teacher”. It is a vicious cycle.

This week in Choice Words, we read about helping students to develop a sense of identity and agency. In Chapter 3 on “Identity”, Johnston talks about the power of referring to students as poets, readers, writers, mathematicians, etc. I was excited as this is something that I do daily in my classroom. But then Johnston took it one step further. He said that in order to have intentional conversations building students’ identities, it first “requires developing an understanding of what poets [or scientists or mathematicians or authors] do, and the students construct these understandings and way of talking and acting in the classroom” (pg. 23). I had to really take a step back and think about whether or not my students have the depth of knowledge of what each specialist does. This is something that I think we are still building and that I plan to evaluate throughout my teaching. It is not enough to simply refer to students as scientists – first they must understand exactly what that means.

One of the other challenges that Johnston offered to his readers is to “tape-record some class conversations around books and around writing, such as writing conferences, and to listen to them in terms of the issues [of helping students build an identity” (pg. 26). I have heard that one of the best ways that that teachers can evaluate their own practice is by actually listening to what it sounds like on a day to day basis. This is something else that I am taking away from this chapter and plan to implement in my classroom.

Chapter 4 in Johnston’s book centered around helping students to develop a sense of agency: “If nothing else, 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” (pg. 29). I can support my students in this development by saying things like “How did you figure that out?” (pg. 31), “What problems did you come across today [and …] what can you do?” (pg. 32, 33), “What part of you sure about?” (pg. 34). Statements like these build upon students’ strengths and show them that they can do a lot completely on their own.

Agency is about as crucial as things come in a child’s development. “Developing in children a sense of agency is not an educational frill or some mushy-headed liberal idea. Children who doubt their competence set low goals and choose easy tasks, and they plan poorly. When they face difficulties, they become confused, lose concentration, and start telling themselves stories about their own incompetence” (pg. 40). I often notice myself becoming frustrated when students doubt their abilities or rely on my too heavily for help, but I did not realize that I am part of the problem. The way that I talk to them and the questions I ask can often hinder my students from developing this keen sense of agency. This is something that I am eager to reflect and build upon as I continue ruminating on Johnston’s text.

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2 thoughts on “Advocating for Agency

  1. I have to admit, the part of your blog that said, “I often notice myself becoming frustrated when students doubt their abilities or rely on me too heavily for help, but I did not realize that I am part of the problem” hit SO hard today. Today was instance after instance of me getting frustrated at students shutting down or coming to me every step of our math process. I recognize external factors were at play (Super Bowl ‘Monday’ is rough for all), but you are exactly right. I needed to turn the mirror toward myself to see what kind of environment I had unknowingly neglected to build in my room. I know I need to turn more attention to allowing students to develop and discover their roles as mathematicians, for instance, and build the type of learning atmosphere that allows students to make mistakes and know how they, too, have the power to shape their learning. Agency is really powerful when teachers can utilize and emphasize it in a classroom. It can also work very powerfully when a classroom setting lacks it. I know this chapter opened my eyes as to my identity and role as a teacher and how I don’t let my students shape their own identities as much without promoting my own agenda. I guess, like you said, I need to work towards not being the modern-day version of the Charlie Brown teacher. Thanks for your post!

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  2. I love how we all read the same chapters and we all walk away with a different connection or perspective. I love the Charlie Brown reference. I have intentionally saved tedious teacher tasks (ie: stuffing homework folders) for my students’ independent math time because I, like you’ve mentioned, get frustrated and give away free answers rather than letting my students struggle and problem solve. It has helped some, but then I can’t identify their problems because wasn’t there next to them during the struggle. The cycle really is vicious. I need to really work on this and now that I have the language (provided by Johnston) I will be better able to walk my students through the process rather than fumbling over words, getting frustrated, and giving answers away. As much as I hate it, I think I will try the tape recording suggestion and see if there are any patterns that I’m unaware of. Thanks!

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