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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Mindful of the Messages We Send About Their Book Choices #TeacherMom

My 8 year-old has recently discovered how much she adores graphic novels. I don’t know why it took me so long to help introduce her to the genre; after all, I already knew how much she loves comics, and I could sense that while she’s a strong reader, she just isn’t yet ready for text-heavy pages. So the floodgates have opened:

Jennifer Holm

Ben Hatke

Ben Clanton

Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Raina Telgemeier

Dana Simpson

Geronimo Stilton

Even as we have enjoyed discussing each of these books (and laughing at how quickly she devours them), I can’t help but wonder: what if I held the common belief that comics “don’t count” as reading? What impact would that have on her growth as a reader? What impact would that have on our relationship?

Yet, when I consider my 4 year-old’s reading choices lately, I realize my response has been much less supportive. The reason? They all consist of massive encyclopedia-like texts that are just not fun for me to read to him. Books like:

Clearly, both my readers need equal support and enthusiasm from me in order to feel that their growing reading identities are valued and valid. I realize it’s time for me to spend as much time browsing the library shelves and placing holds for my son’s reading preferences as I do for my daughter’s, not to mention to embrace his bedtime story choices!

Only when we work to catch our sometimes subconscious responses can we find ways to do better to nurture our diverse readers.

What messages, good, bad, & ugly, have you sent to your kids over the years? How has that adapted? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments.

Self-Selected Bedside Reading, Co-Written With My Kids #TeacherMom

As educators, we know the importance of student-selected text. We also know the importance of setting up a reader-friendly environment (ie, organized books, cozy reading nooks, time to read, etc). So I’m not sure why it took me so long to apply these principles to my kids own reading spaces. Oh, we had lots of organized, accessible books throughout the house, but I mean the most important self-selected reading environment: the bedside!

Over the last several months, we have since rectified the problem. It hasn’t taken much: a flashlight here, a ledge shelf there, but OH, have the results been extraordinary. It resulted in late-night giggles, stories shared with the baby across the room, and altogether, growth in my kids’ sense of identity as readers. Here are some of their comments about their bedside reading spaces.

7 year-old’s bedside interview:

What’s your favorite part about your bedside reading space?

“I love that I get to turn on my lamp when I want to start reading. I also love that I get to have some pictures that remind me of books and fiction.”

What are your favorite kinds of books to have next to your bed?

“Chapter books because they always have a surprise for you in each chapter. I also like comics because they are funny and give me good dreams. I also like mystery books because they have big surprises at the end.”

How is bedtime different now than it was before setting up your bedside reading space?

“There was no mystery or comics or chapter books to give me good dreams.”

3 year-old’s bedside interview:

What’s your favorite part about your bedside reading space?

“To read under my covers.”

What are your favorite kinds of books to have next to your bed?

“Star Wars.”

How is bedtime different now than it was before setting up your bedside reading space?

“Now I get to read with my lamp on.”

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Are Choices Only For the Well-Behaved? #TeacherMom

Readers here know I love a good quote. But in the swirl of the large volume of mental input/output, it’s rare one will stick around. This one from Greg McKeown definitely has taken up more longterm residence in my mind today:


Pernille Ripp also referred to it when writing about students’ reading choices. She makes an excellent case that all our students need choice in what they read — not just those who are already confident at making reading choices.

Which takes me to a closely related line of thinking when it comes to kids’ behavior. When our students misbehave, we tend to remove their choices. You’re going to be disruptive at the table during group work? You’ll be sitting by yourself now. You don’t do your work while sitting in the flexible seating area? Sorry, guess that means you need to be back at the desk. You abuse the privilege to use the bathroom when needed? Guess you’re using a limited pass from now on, my friend.

And this all makes sense, right? After all, logical consequences help our students understand cause and effect and to develop accountability for their actions. I’m certainly not one to dispute the importance of this kind of follow-through.

What I do dispute is the way these consequences tend to follow kids who struggle with school, day in and day out. Of course we need to work to minimize disruption, and sometimes that does in fact take more longterm action, such as behavior contracts to help students learn to recognize and correct their behavior.

But if we start to preempt kids’ behavior with curtailed choices, you can absolutely bet that helplessness is sure to follow. Particularly if they feel like they’re the only one who never gets a fresh start each day.

Contrast that path of helplessness with this message of hope — one that every child deserves to hear:

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Keep ‘Em Busy or Facilitate the Best Busy-ness #TeacherMom

When we are stressed out by our kids’ busy-ness, how do we respond?

My youngest has recently reached an apex of busy-ness I never thought possible from such a small person. The term “relentless” is probably his most readily identified descriptor.

And for the sake of maintaining my sanity, I have definitely been in the camp of trying to keep my own children busy long enough to let me hear my own thoughts from time to time.

With our students, it can become a strong temptation to do something similar — particularly when we are trying to work with small groups.

Norah Colvin’s recent post had me thinking more about this notion. She writes:

“What about a busy toddler? Toddlers are some of the busiest people I know. And they are generally quite joyous in their busyness, demonstrating the true meaning of being in the present moment. For me, being busy is a joy when the activities are of my choice and for my purposes. I have no need to find things to keep me busy. There is more I wish to do than I will ever have time to complete. I resent tasks that keep me busy and away from what I’d rather be doing.”

No matter how much our kids grow, we can help them uncover the busy-ness that will spark that joy within. But not when it’s overly contrived and designed around our agenda — it seems that for whatever reason, even the most engaging endeavors become less so when kids sense there’s an end-game for distraction for grown-ups’ benefit.

For our classrooms full of vastly different, busy students, this means to providing authentic choice. It means teaching them to regulate their own time and interests. It means facilitating the very best kinds of busy.

And for my house that seems to be bursting at the seams with a busy 1 year-old, it means finding ways to just let go and enjoy this crazy ride together.

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Why Do They Want to Erase?

Last week, I came across this interesting tweet:

With how much I value process, I initially thought I’d just retweet with an “Amen!”

But then I started to wonder: why exactly do kids want to erase their work, anyway?

As a teacher, I used to think the answer to this question was simple: my fifth graders had been thoroughly trained that all that mattered was the product, and therefore anything that showed the process (or anything less than perfection) was undesirable.

And for many children, maybe this is the case.

But others, I wonder if it’s along the same lines for why I don’t publish my blog posts to the world with every edit in parentheses next to its original boring synonym, punctuation error, or run-on sentence. I want the final piece I’ve worked so hard to improve to take the spotlight.

What’s more, when I reach back further to my own childhood school years, I can recall a certain sulkiness when we were all forced to use the same writing tool for a given assignment. My desire to use a pen vs. pencil alternated many times throughout the day and different assignments. I always had my reasons, even if I couldn’t always articulate them (the ink was stuck in the pen; my pencil was broken and I wasn’t allowed to use the pencil sharpener; I wanted to shade my letters a certain way; I had a new glitter pen that I was dying to try).

 

If we are truly interested in helping students own their learning process, we need to remember that ownership and choice are inextricably connected.

So instead of making a single choice for them all, why not try instead:

  • Asking students to choose how they will share evidence of their learning.
  • Teaching students explicitly about the value of process vs product.
  • Helping students to cultivate a deeper sense of metacognition to focus their decisions — even simple ones such as choosing a writing implement — on what will best serve their learning process.

Ultimately, this is just one small example of how we can help our students take the wheel to drive their learning. But even small things add up!

 

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What is the Ship? What is the Sea? 4 Ideas for Vision #TeacherMom

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These words turn my mind to all the spheres of my life, past and present. What is the ship? What is the sea?

When I look at my children, the ship-building vision comes readily: raising healthy, happy, and competent individuals. It’s why I require them to wear clean underwear, to eat vegetables, to brush their teeth, to say ‘sorry.’

When I recall my 5th graders, a similar ship comes to mind: self-aware and self-driven people who can drive their personal learning and growth. It’s why I asked them to write in complete sentences, to reflect with peers, to study out evidence for thinking, to keep track of goals.

I find it interesting how easily these tasks and expectations quickly slip from being part of grander vision, down to dreary repetition. In isolation, no one much wants to do any of those things. But when we elevate our sights to that “vast and endless sea,” our days change. A few ideas come to mind when I consider how we can help our children and students catch the vision of the sea, not only for their futures, but for their present daily experiences:

    • Constantly ask why, and help them to do the same. It’s tough because there is always so much to do in a perpetually tight schedule, but it’s worth the effort to slow down. Ensure students aren’t just “getting it done” so we can get it done. I admire the way Katherine Hansen brings the why into a simple yet effective place in her classroom:

  • Deliberately cultivate creativity and inspiration. Show videos of awe-inspiring phenomena, mind-boggling inventions, and stories of perseverance and possibility. Help them find their personal passion to help them drive their daily efforts.
  • Let them experience natural consequences. This is not really about “tough love,” grades, or getting them to see how correct we are in our requests for them to perform the daily tasks. It’s about helping them gradually discover the need for these tasks and skills independently. And it requires a lot of metacognition instruction on our part to help them think more about their thinking process so they can identify what is going wrong and what is going right.
  • Cultivate ownership, choice, and voice. Yes, they still have to wear clean underwear and write in complete sentences. But when we give our kids as many choices as possible and let them in on the learning plan, it makes a tremendous difference in their ability to see beyond the mundane daily to-do list. Check out this fantastic example of student agency by Charlotte Hills.

If we’re not careful, life can become like one long series of “gathering wood, dividing the work, and giving orders.” Elevate the vision. Seek the inspiration. And help all those around you to also “yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

I would love to hear more ideas for ways you help your students elevate their vision! Please share in the comments!

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