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!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

In Which The 7 Year-Old’s Blog Post Gets More Comments Than Mine #TeacherMom

Last week, my daughter came home commenting about a new bathroom rule at her school: all girls now have to use the restroom 2 at a time due to the fact that girls keep writing on the bathroom walls. As a teacher, I understand why the rule was implemented. As a parent, I understand why she feels frustrated.

Since she just recently asked me to help her set up her own “real blog” (ie, can be read by a real audience), I asked her how she would feel about blogging on the subject. She took to that idea right away — especially once we figured out the speech-to-text feature so she didn’t have to keep fretting about spelling (teacher note: I really like the way speech-to-text requires the kids to pause & reflect to figure out exactly how they will verbalize each sentence).

Once she had her post written, “Fair School,” I, of course, went ahead and shared it with my PLN.

She was amazed to watch the comments pour in, and even took action on a couple of their ideas. She has since shared the post with her teacher, and she plans to try and see if she can meet and then introduce her classmates to their custodian(s) to create more empathy (Thanks, Abe, and everyone else!!)

This has also led to a lot of discussion about how we can inspire people to do good things rather than just try to get them to stop doing bad things. Not an easy task for anyone, that’s for sure, but a very rewarding approach!

Once again, I have found this whole experience to positively reinforce the concepts of digital citizenship, flattened classroom walls, and #StudentVoice. When we provide opportunities for students to share their authentic voices on things that matter to them, powerful learning happens.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

The Magic of “You Can”

In an article on TED-Ed clubs this last summer, one tip particularly stood out to me:

“Don’t tell them ‘you can’t’ even if the idea is crazy, tell them ‘you can’ and you will see the magic.”

On the same day I read the article, I had also read about a boy who has invented a small device intended to save babies accidentally left behind in hot cars.

It’s clear from this video that this is a child who is told “you can” on a regular basis in a loving environment. But what if he weren’t?

The naysayers in Facebook comments on this story were abundant, insisting that this idea would just encourage lazy parents, or that it would be futile against extreme heat anyway. And while many of these people are just exhibiting the unfortunate behavior typical of those who don’t see themselves as digital citizens (ie, they enjoying the roles of anonymity, consumption, and sidelines over authenticity, contribution, and involvement), they completely miss the beautiful picture here:

A 10 year-old child has actually devised a prototype in an attempt to better the world around him!

It still makes me wonder, how often do we, as the grown-ups, shut down our kids’ ideas, though they might have potential for brilliance? With my own children, I know I can sometimes have a much greater tendency toward anticipating the mess and the the improbability and the disappointment.

The point is, even if there is validity in our grown-up criticisms (it will take forever to clean up; it won’t help as many people as you think; it will be way slower to do it your way), when a child exhibits any kind of enthusiasm, compassion, and initiative, do we really want to shut that down?

So again, I remind myself:

“Don’t tell them ‘you can’t’ even if the idea is crazy, tell them ‘you can’ and you will see the magic.”

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Choosing Courage Over Fear

It’s now been over three years since I’ve been in the classroom. Three years. And while I miss being in the classroom, I can honestly say that thanks to the many incredible teachers in my PLN, not a day has passed that I haven’t learned more about how to return to the classroom a better teacher.

A powerful example came recently when I read this thought-provoking post from my friend Abe (@Arbay38). One of his comments perfectly articulated one of my fears of shifting toward more student voice, choice and ownership:


The rest of his post greatly assuaged this fear, but I’ve continued to reflect on this question over the past couple of weeks. But then, he shared something else on Twitter — something so profound, that I think I can finally put this fear completely to rest:


This child has reminded me once and for all that the bottom line is doing what’s best for kids. Withholding opportunities for autonomy now for fear of future constraints is like refusing to build the ship for fear of future rough waters.

Isn’t the possibility that they may not experience this kind of autonomy in future classrooms all the more reason to help them cultivate it now? To help them reflect now why it matters, and how they’ll respond to its absence in the future?

Our students deserve the very best we can offer right now. And as we regularly ask them to choose courage over fear through risk-taking and the growth mindset, we can be the first to model that back: choosing courage over fear.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

In Which Twitter Shows My 6 Year-Old Her Voice Counts #TeacherMom

Two weeks ago, I posted a list of “not-boring learning books.” When I shared it on Twitter, I tagged several of the authors in case they got the chance to see their books made a 6 year-old’s cut.

I’m sure most probably just didn’t see it. A few hit “favorite” and a couple retweeted. But Bethany Barton, author of, “I’m Trying to Love Spiders,” responded:

I read it to my daughter. She squealed and responded:

And then one more reply from Bethany:

This was pure gold. Not only did it completely make my daughter’s day, but it reinforced to me the value of Twitter (and other social platforms) for our children and students everywhere. The way it creates possibilities for real, meaningful connection. The way it brings to life faraway names and places. The way it globally amplifies a voice, and then brings audiences back down to a personal scale.

It also reminds me of all the other wonderful examples of this that I’ve seen recently, many of which I shared on Monday with the staff at my old school as I ran a few PD sessions:

My daughter and these other young children can’t yet navigate these platforms independently. But they are already starting to catch a glimpse of the digital world and their place and power in it. And I rejoice for such positive and meaningful introductions. I wonder what would happen if students everywhere had similar experiences…

featured image: Case Wade

Evolution of the Narrative in Picture Books (& Ideas For Your Next Library Visit)

I just finished putting a slew of new picture books on hold at our local public library.

Some were new releases by more contemporary beloved authors, like a new Jon Klassen (Another hat book! “We Found a Hat”), Andrea Beaty (“Ada Twist, Scientist”), and Oliver Jeffers (“A Child of Books”).

Others were by newly discovered authors like Amy Young (“A Unicorn Named Sparkle”) and Dan Yaccarino (“I Am a Story”).

And one was Doreen Cronin’s “Click, Clack, Moo,” which I should really just go ahead and buy already, because my 2 year-old is obsessed with cows.

As my mind sifts through all these authors’ styles, I’m struck by the huge amount of creative narrative voice out there these days. And even more by how dramatically the narrative seems to have evolved over the course of my lifetime.

Classics I enjoyed in my youth, such as Tomie Paola’s “Strega Nona,” Rafe Martin’s “The Rough-Face Girl,” James Marshall’s “Miss Nelson is Missing,” and Ellen Jackson’s “Cinder Edna” (publications ranging from the 70’s to the 90’s), almost always used a more traditional third-person narrative and voice.

A larger flux of first-person reads comes to mind when I think of the 2000’s, like Melinda Long’s “How I Became A Pirate” and Jane O’Connor’s “Fancy Nancy.”

And today it seems like most of the books I check out have incredibly unique narrative techniques and voice–so much so that it’s hard to neatly classify them. There’s Adam Rubin’s playful way of alternating speaking directly to the reader (“Hey, kid! Did you know dragons love tacos?”) and to other characters (“Hey, dragon, how do you feel about spicy taco toppings?”). Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett’s “Battle Bunny” with its dual narration. And of course, B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures” is truly in a narrative league of its own.

The upside of this shift is obviously our literary enjoyment.

But a potential downside/caution can arise when teachers get stuck in a rut on what a story should look like. Especially if they haven’t familiarized themselves with these modern classics that don’t always comply with the rules. Especially if they push the upside-down V story map so hard that students’ creative voices are quelled when their stories lack a setting (like Mo Willems’ Pigeon books) or when their pictures–not their words–illustrate the problem (like Mac Barnett’s “Sam & Dave Dig a Hole”).

In the end, I think the most important take-away is that it’s easier for us as teachers and parents to embrace the creativity if we stay current on it ourselves. If we stay stuck in the nostalgia of how things looked in our childhood, we may miss incredible opportunities to re-imagine and push the status quo.

new-picture-books

featured image: Kurt

10 Tips for Tough Conversations between Home & School

I was devastated. It was my first email from a parent expressing unhappiness, and I struggled to take it in stride. After all, I was devoting all my intellectual, emotional, and even physical capacity toward my students’ success and well-being. Yet the parent reported that her daughter had been spending longer and longer evenings frustrated over homework, culminating in one tearful 2½-hour evening of math.

What I hadn’t yet recognized was just how difficult it can be for parents to send such emails to begin with. Despite the fact that they entrust their children to our care for 7+ hours a day, parents often face debilitating intimidation to reach out.

So this is a post for those parents, who worry that despite their best efforts to impart concepts of self-worth and love, their children go unseen at school. Who fret that the learning is losing its joy and wonder amidst all the pressure. Who ache when their children seem to struggle for belonging in vain.  

But this is also a post for teachers like me, who worry that despite their best efforts to impart concepts of self-worth and love, they have overlooked a student’s needs. Who fret that the learning is losing its joy and wonder amidst all the pressure. Who ache when their students seem to struggle for belonging in vain.

This is a post for us all. Because no matter how fleeting, these moments are real–and raw, and messy, and dark. And no one, not parents, not teachers, and especially not our students, should have to face them alone.

#1

Parents: Just click send. Have courage to speak. You can spend the rest of the year worrying and hoping for things to improve, or you can open the channels now for clarity and support.

Teachers: Recognize and validate that courage. Look at every email from parents as an opportunity to build trust and understanding.

#2

Parents: Don’t underestimate your voice. Yes, teachers and administrators are professionals, but they are also human beings. And most are striving for positive change and growth every day. You have an opportunity to be part of that change if you only let your voice be heard.

Teachers: If you make sure you daily revisit your priority to find better ways to reach your students, the rest will follow, including recognizing the value of parent voices in that pursuit.

#3

Parents: Recognize that criticism doesn’t equal disrespect. Even while facing serious concerns for their children, I’ve heard parents express, “Well, they’re the professionals, right? So I should trust what they’re doing.” Again, even the most phenomenal teachers and administrators can and do make mistakes. You can absolutely convey concerns without being disrespectful.

Teachers: As hard as it can be, take it in stride. Even if some parents seem undiplomatic in their communication, remember that you are united in the common goal of promoting their child’s welfare.

#4

Parents: Remember that they “cannot solve problems that [they] don’t know exist.” (George Couros) Depending on the issue, it may be better for parents to encourage their older children have these conversations with teachers themselves, but especially for your younger children, if you don’t communicate the problem, who will?

Teachers: Except for the rare occasions of absolutely wild and unfounded accusations (we’re talking extremes here that are an entirely different blog post), each of these emails are an opportunity for you to reflect. Remember to seek support from your administrators, particularly when problems stem from a more complex source.  

#5

Parents: Acknowledge the big picture. To minimize an accusatory tone, include what is going well, and, if applicable, acknowledge possible extenuating circumstances you’ve observed that may be contributing to the problem. However, be sure to remain clear on what you have observed to be an issue.

Teachers: Try to be proactive in communicating with parents to begin with, giving them abundant opportunities for interaction, as well as a window into what’s really happening in their child’s classroom. Problems sometimes stem from differing or even misguided notions of pedagogy, but if you give parents a chance to thoroughly see the why behind what you do, you are more likely to bridge those gaps.

#6

Parents: Be specific. Give details, examples, and anecdotes of what you are observing. It’s easier for teachers and administrators to address what’s going on if you can give them a clear picture. If possible, try to volunteer in the classroom at least once before sending the email–chances are, either you’ll find it unnecessary after all, or else you may find additional details you may want to include in your communication.

Teachers: Remember that there’s a difference between just saying you welcome volunteers and facilitating an easy way for parents to volunteer. Create a Google Spreadsheet outlining what you could use help with and with slots to volunteer (see an example I designed for our entire 5th grade team here).

#7

Parents: Express your genuine willingness to help the situation. In the words of Tina Fey, “Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.” Offer to meet for an in-person discussion, or to come in and volunteer. To further make it clear that you would like to be part of the solution, you may also find it helpful to use phrases such as, “I have a question I was hoping you could help me solve,” or “I was wondering what I can do to help address an issue I’ve noticed.”

Teachers: Take advantage of any offer parents make to contribute to the solution. Warmly acknowledge that offer, and be flexible in arranging meeting times.

#8

Parents: Don’t just accept the status quo. “It’s always been that way” should not command blanket approval. It’s not just ok to ask for the supporting research–it’s essential if we hope to move beyond outdated practices within our educational system.

Teachers: Make sure that you refuse to accept the status quo, too! The burden of asking why lies on everyone involved in education.

#9

Parents: Don’t assume. Remember that as you express your concern, do so as objectively as possible. Simply share what you have observed, and allow your teacher/administrator the opportunity to investigate and share the the cause.  

Teachers: Ditto. Resist the temptation to assign motive or labels to the parent.

#10

Parents: Recognize appropriate channels. It can be difficult to determine whether to direct your issue to the teacher or an administrator. Generally, if it is related to happenings within the classroom, it’s better to email the teacher; if it seems to be a more widespread or policy-based issue, it may be better suited for an administrator. When in doubt, email teachers first, because they can always pass it along to the administration if it is out of their hands–and you can always follow-up with the administration later if you are unable to reach a resolution with the teacher.

Teachers: Don’t assume that a parent is trying to go over your head if they email your principal first–they may simply be unsure how much power you have to address their concern.

Returning to my above-mentioned email, in the end, I was simply grateful. That parent’s email gave me the chance to reinforce what a priority my students’ well-being was to me. During our next class meeting, we revisited that priority, we listened to others’ experiences on homework, and we reminded everyone that sincere effort, balance of time, and best judgement are valued over simple completion of assignments. And all because one parent had the courage to share.

featured image: deathtothestockphoto