Inventorying a Culture of Agency at Home #TeacherMom

When I read Edna Sackson’s “Building a Culture of Agency,” my first thought was to bookmark it for when I return to the classroom.

But as another typical day progressed with my 3 small students, I kept thinking of Edna’s post. I realized I could definitely benefit from inventorying my culture of agency at home, not least because of how I’ve learned that more agency leads to less classroom management — and we could really use less “classroom management” in our home right now!

The questions in bold below are her overarching questions, to which she also attached sub-questions for more in-depth reflection (be sure to check out her post to read those)!

“What sort of language will you use?”

Overall, we have good metacognitive dialogue happening, including naming learning skills (“Wow, you are making an interesting connection right there!”) and referring to my students as authors, scientists, etc.

Two questions that stood out to me most as opportunities for growth were, “Do you talk about learning, rather than tasks and work” and “Do you ask the learners’ opinions and really listen to what they say?”

It’s so easy to get swept away by all the tasks that must be accomplished each day, and it becomes a temptation for me to focus on the work, as well as to multi-task everything. But I have noticed that when I do make time for undivided attention, it goes a long way in the culture of agency at home.

“How is the environment organised to foster agency?”

This one is always a work in progress, but overall, I feel like we’re moving in the right direction for agency.

“What sorts of opportunities are offered?”

Right now, I’d say that many of our learning opportunities come from the books my kids select at the library. For my oldest, she also has the choice to share her thoughts for a broader audience on her personal blog (see “In Which the 7 Year-Old’s Blog Post Gets More Comments than Mine“), Youtube (her stop-motion video-making is still going strong) and even occasionally here on this site when we co-write posts.

As I reflect on opportunities for my two- & four-year olds, my thoughts turn to games, blocks, Lego’s, play dough, and other creative experiences we could engage in together with more regularity. I think that especially as my daughter starts school again, I could renew the self-selected magnet schedule below for my 4 year-old to consider the possibilities for his time.

from “What Child Autonomy is Not”

“How is time managed? 

Self management of time has often been encouraged, and our approach is constantly shifting (especially to make sure my kids aren’t wasting their time “waiting for the teacher”). In addition to the magnet schedule above, we have tried…

…the week wheel:

from “Rethinking Calendar Time”

…general week/month planning:

…planning hours to scale (½ inch = 1 hour)

from “Agency is not just for school”

…digitally shared to-do lists:

from “No Secret Parent Business Either”

“What dispositions do you model?”

All three sub-questions Edna asks here regarding openness and vulnerability fluctuate with my emotional state. I notice that when I’m feeling stressed and behind-schedule, I am less likely to discuss my process with my kids.

However, my kids are merciful; when I share how I’m feeling, they tend to be patient. All the same, I would like to do more to explain my strategies for getting back on track so they better comprehend self-regulation.

“What routines are in place to encourage agency?”

I actually just recently added a visual prompt for our morning and bedtime routines. Secured to the bathroom mirror with packaging tape, these little pictures help my kids get on with their daily routines independently. 

“What kind of expectations are clearly set?”

We’re always having conversations about the importance of intrinsic motivation. But there’s definitely still a major learning curve for initiative over compliance. Part of this may be that initiative still looks pretty destructive for my 2- and 4 year old boys. But I am working to adjust my expectations and our environment to meet their needs.

Here’s a recent example: from time to time, we check out what’s called a “Discovery Kit” at the library, a themed box including new toys, books, puzzles, etc. We love playing with them, but it’s difficult for me to keep track of everything, and the fines for missing pieces/late dues add up fast.

One day I was telling my 4 year-old that I didn’t know if we could get another discovery kit because he had misplaced one of the pieces. Later, I expressed my concerns to my husband, and he thoughtfully said, “Well, he is 4. Maybe it’s just that the discovery kits require us to supervise them.”

Another option would be to stop borrowing the kits for now, but I see now that I would want to make sure my 4 year-old knew that it wouldn’t be his fault.

We have high expectations for responsibility, but developmental readiness must factor into those expectations.

“How do interactions foster agency?

I really like the question, “Can they tell that you trust them to learn?” It’s clear through his expression that even my 2 year-old can tell a lot about what I’m feeling about him and his choices. When I work to reassure him, especially when he’s trying new things, he grows in his confidence to act independently.

“What small action will you take to shift the culture in your class?”

Processing my thoughts through this inventory has been a great step for me today. As parents and teachers, we need to be honest but kind with ourselves in this process. Working with kids is messy, but as we work toward a stronger culture of agency, they will astonish us with what they are capable of!

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Questions When You Join a PTA Board #TeacherMom

I decided to sign up to help with our local school’s PTA this year as secretary. Especially because I only have a few years left before I return to the classroom, I am excited to dig deeper into the parent side of school.

I’m hoping that because it’s an entirely new board, my continual question-asking will be seen as constructive rather than just annoying. But even as I have started to consider my role, I felt that writing a post might help me synthesize my thinking, as well as to share ideas for others.

  • What makes your school unique? What challenges does the community face, and what are some advantages it possesses? How can you find out more first-hand?
  • What are ways the school already fosters relationships between teachers, parents, and students? What are ways the PTA can facilitate even stronger connections?
  • How might inventorying past and potential events/programs benefit your school?
  • What are the ways parents prefer communication? How might you find out?
  • In what ways can you convey to parents that all their voices matter, even if they can’t attend meetings?
  • In what ways might you be responsive to the needs of parents, teachers, admin, and students as a PTA?
  • How might the PTA collaborate with the administration?

I am hopeful that we can find opportunities to strengthen connections among parents, teachers, and students!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

“Where’s The Mom?” #TeacherMom


Sure, they may be building independence, problem-solving, time-management, confidence, physical health, risk-taking, and more. But the neighbors don’t see any of that. What they see & think is, “Where’s the mom?”

Never mind that when we were kids, such unsupervised play with a pack of neighbor kids was the norm.

Never mind that contrary to popular belief, the world is actually safer today than it was when we were kids.

Never mind that outdoor play actually addresses dramatically more threatening issues our kids face today, such as anxiety and diabetes.

When a someone recently told me that “Where’s the mom?” is the question asked when they see my kids play, it led me to revisit the way unstructured, unsupervised play has declined since when we were kids (sidebar: what about “Where’s the dad?” If we’re going to be judged, at least let it be equal opportunity judgement!). I have started to wonder whether this is less about protecting kids and more about protecting ourselves from judgement (offline & online) from other adults.

Ultimately, we need to find the courage to set aside those fears and focus on kids’ needs. We have been told, “You can’t be too careful when it comes to kids’ safety.” But the truth is that “an obsession with safety carries its own risks,” not least of which include a child’s diminished sense of autonomy. (see “Child Safety Up, Child Anxiety Up. Hmmm.“).

As a teacher, this seems to have direct parallels in the classroom as well. Both teachers and parents are pressured to make all the decisions in the name of safety or future success. Both are put under such an intense microscope, challenging the status quo is risky business. Both face an ever-present risk of severe judgement.

As a result, child autonomy is suffering, but we have the power to change that. We can:

And of course, it always helps when we find our tribe! There are many Facebook groups (one example here) and Twitter hashtags (#StudentAgency & #studentchoice) where you can find supportive teachers and parents who are similarly working toward childhood independence.

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The Third Teacher At Home #TeacherMom

I’ve often mentioned the importance of creating a rich environment to help invite learning (rather than relying on more contrived programs and flashcards that put learning on the adult’s timetable all the time). But like everything else, this has been a bit of a journey for me.

Weird fact about me: I have subscribed to the magazine Better Homes & Gardens since I was 13 years old. (A major influence on my continued loyalty was when they replaced a copy that my very helpful then-2-year-old had “put in the bathroom.” ie, watery toilet grave. I still hope that email with my pitiful story and request for a new copy is pinned to some break-room somewhere).

So while I’m nothing even close to an expert on interior design, by the time kids came along, I had some difficulty consolidating my notions of home decorating with kid-friendly-play.

So for today, I thought I’d share today a little of what that learning environment currently looks like in our home. Some of the learning environment elements include…

Sensory Play

At first, I restricted access to all sensory play (like the box of beans below and play dough) so that they would need to ask each time they wanted to play, because who wants to spend days constantly cleaning this up?? But then I learned how wearisome this can be for all parties involved, which ultimately inhibits play.

I ended up replacing the box with one on wheels, storing it under a daybed where the kids can slide it out to play as desired; play dough storage became similarly accessible. As for picking up stray beans, it turns out the dog really likes them, so that helps with the mess factor. But most importantly, sensory play has become a more readily-available choice in our home.

…Book access

I mingle the toys with the books, and try to provide a cozy spot nearby (like the sheepskin rug pictured below) so that reading is always a convenient option. I’m also always shifting the way our books are organized and displayed (more on that in last week’s post).

when I saw this print by a local artist, I knew it needed to be framed near our books.

Open-ended play

I try to provide “toys” that have open-ended possibilities. Our loose parts toys (photo below) are one of my favorite ways to watch my kids’ imaginations fly, but another factor has been simply arranging toys together. Safari LTD animals near a school bus near wooden trays.

…occasionally setting up invitations to play

Leaving shelves open so that we can find new ways to invite play on their level has been helpful here. This little “dining area” has been set up for a while so my kids have largely forgotten about it by now, but it’s often the first thing visiting kids notice when they come over to play.

Design for togetherness

This has been perhaps the most influential element of creating a rich learning environment at home. I used to think that I needed to keep toys and books corralled in a corner so that the grown-ups could enjoy grown-up space. Now I know that when I integrate play into the design, I can cultivate more comfortable spaces in which everyone feels they belong, which in turn invites more shared play.

For us, this looks like no separate play room, plenty of seating for everyone use the space, and shared bookcases arranged so everyone has what they need on their level. But of course, the possibilities are endless and should be based on your family’s needs.

What about you? What are ways you provide that “third teacher” at home?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Ever-Evolving Book Environment #TeacherMom

Our books have seen a lot of different kinds of arrangements. And most of what I’ve shared here has been of the pretty kind:

Bedside reading:

Display for our books from the library:

Spring cleaning sorting by author, size, and collection:

Variety is key, and it’s not always super pretty. It’s all about access. Which means it should be ever-evolving, based on our observations of our kids’ shifting needs. And access wins over pretty every time.

This might look like…

…pulling out books from our tightly-packed shelf onto the display area with the library books to remind our kids of gems they’ve forgotten.

…giving them their own shelf to organize favorite books (and to keep them safe from book-shredding little brothers for now).

…letting them go to town arranging their own personal “library.”

What are ways you help encourage book access with your kids at home? How does that shift over time?

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

She Just Asked Google To Remind Her to “Read All the Books On the Bottom Shelf” #TeacherMom

A few days ago, I overheard my 8 year-old adding her day plans to our shared daily to-do list (more on that here). Using the speech-to-text feature, amid other typical tasks, I suddenly heard her say, “Read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

Teacher mom that I am, of course I was delighted. 

But then I turned to reflect once more on our journey of her literacy:

The pressures I felt to ensure she memorized the ABC’s before kindergarten.

The way I felt like a failure as a teacher when she would not cooperate with my beautifully laid-out magnetic letter play.

The constant tension I felt between whether I should let her choose her own books or drill her on-level basal reader or sight-word flashcards to push her to the next reading level.

The nagging worry that I was denying her opportunities by turning down programs with the label, “proven to be successful in improving the reading skills of every student who participates.”

The way I wondered if I was wrong to yield to her book-making efforts over any worksheets that came home.

Yet amid all the angst, here we are to nearly the start of 3rd grade, and not only is she a fantastic reader and writer, but she’s adding items to her to-do list like “read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

It makes me wonder. Had I pushed all those academics and level advancement on her from my place of stress and worry, would she be making such choices for her summer? My suspicion is that had I pushed my agenda on my strong-willed child, she would want little to do with books today–especially on her “time off.”

It seems that those of us raising kids today are given every reason to believe that to trust our kids’ autonomy over their learning is tantamount to negligence. We are constantly bombarded with ads that offer promises of confidence in our children’s future success. We are so stressed by questions on whether we’re doing enough for our kids, that there is little room left for noticing the learning that quietly and naturally unfolds each day.

This is where I’ll share and re-share this quote from Brene Brown (see it also on Preschool, Kinder-Prep, & 3 Things Kids Need Most):

There is an abundance of learning and growing happening within our kids each day. Recognizing, embracing, and celebrating that from a place of love will always outperform operating from a place of not-enough stress and fear. Not because it will guarantee some future Harvard acceptance or a job on Wall Street, but because it will cultivate a lifetime of joyful learning.

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On Taking Their Learning Autonomy Seriously #TeacherMom

I watched him eagerly build. Forget that parking garage we’d given him; his backdrop for his car pretend play needed to be a magnificent double castle. It was clear that for him, his make-believe was thoroughly real and satisfying and rich.

And I wondered how often I have not recognized such pretend play for what it really is: self-constructed learning experiences.

Now, as I watch my kids play and explore and learn, I am filled with questions.

Do we recognize their fantastical play of equal or greater value than “real world” play?

Children use fantasy not to get out of, but to get into, the real world. ~John Holt

Do we see a child at play or a person constructing meaning for themselves?

Do we believe that play has its place, but that that place is still below drilling shapes, colors, and counting if the child has reached a certain age?

“Children naturally resist being taught because it undermines their independence and their confidence in their own abilities to figure things out and to ask for help, themselves, when they need it.” ~Peter Gray

Do we allow panic of “readiness lists” (for any grade or age) to override our child’s autonomy over what they’ve indicated they are ready for? 

And most personally relevant: will I avoid the same mistake I made with my oldest (from which her own stubbornness saved us both), assuming that unless I assert my agenda and timetables and learning, my preschooler will fail?

Even as I work to provide a learning environment, I will try to remember an equally, if not more, important role: to trust them enough that I take their own learning autonomy seriously.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto