Agency in the Classroom

I’m pretty new to this whole blogging world. Honestly, I didn’t start blogging until the spring of 2017 and that was as a requirement for one of my graduate classes. I never turned on the “public” settings, so basically, only my professor and classmates had access to the words I put out there in my first attempts at blogging.  I’m both anxious and excited about blogging in a more public arena.

What exactly is agency anyway?  I found myself asking that question early on in my quest to achieve my 316 certification.  After researching and writing a piece on it, I think the best explanation I can give is that agency refers to the culture and mindset within one’s classroom. The mindset of both the teacher and the students that leads to greater ownership on the part of the students.  Ownership over portions of the learning, both physical and academic where students have a voice and a choice. The simple fact is, when students have more ownership over the how and why, engagement goes up significantly.

I chose to start with the topic of agency because it has personal meaning for me as an educator.  Not all that long ago, I felt as though I was stuffed into a teaching box. As a side effect, I felt my students being placed in boxes as well.  Only able to choose from the book bin that had books on their “level”. No books above, none below. They couldn’t even choose within a grade level band, only the bin that had their perceived “level” based on one piece of evidence.  As a teacher I felt stifled, disheartened, and angry. The experience left me thirsting for the knowledge and expertise derived from decades of research that purports the value of agency. I started reading whatever I could get my hands on that supported my thinking about student agency.  So you can imagine my joy when I opened up Regie’s book to find an entire chapter on engagement!

Engagement is a huge piece of agency.  Regie states, “How can we engage students, spark curiosity, and promote inquiry in a manner that propels a burning desire to read, write, question and learn more?”  She goes on to say, “Without a passion for learning, students don’t remember much of value or consider the time spent on a topic, an assignment, or a study worthwhile. And neither do we.” (81) I have seen this firsthand within myself and with my students. When they have no voice, no choice, in what and how they learn, behaviors increase and engagement drops significantly.

I find that there’s a caveat though…this delicate balance between offering too much agency and not enough agency.  I struggle with it. Every. Single. Year. Partly because, despite having 21 years of teaching under my belt, I seem to have this problem of releasing the students to independence too quickly in the fall.  I want them to be ready, like the students who left me the previous spring, but somehow that doesn’t usually pan out as I envision. The best scenario happens when I have looped students multiple years. Then…yes, they are ready more quickly because they have been in my room, know and understand how things run in my classroom, and can help mold the newbies into students for whom agency early in the school year is successful.  

I love how Regie includes that student engagement is largely a thinking shift. Moving from “How do we get kids to revise and edit? to “How do we engage students’ hearts and minds in a highly relevant, meaningful way?” (83) I believe this shift begins when we truly know our students and value things that are personally meaningful to them. I read a post last fall, although I can’t remember exactly who posted it….about learning ten non-academic things about each child in your class before being ready to teach them.  It’s a challenge I embraced that really made me more mindful of my students when planning reading and writing activities. When we truly know them, it makes finding that engagement piece and being able to offer agency a whole lot easier.

Agency in the classroom is something that I believe all educators, literacy leaders, principals, and parents need to advocate for.  I think Matt said it well in his post titled “How Do We Create a Community of Readers. It’s that “Shared understanding of the WHY, that creates buy-in.”  Allowing students to have some agency…an opportunity to have some ownership over not only their learning, but also the physical arrangement of the room, that creates a different kind of culture of learners.  A culture where kids truly are a part of the decision making that drives the what, where and how of their educational experience.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website, including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials. 

Author: deschane

Ryanne Deschane is from Northern Wisconsin. Currently a first-grade teacher, but has been an elementary school teacher in the same school for the past 21 years. She has taught kindergarten, first, second and third grade. She has also taught multi-age in a k/1, 1/2, and 2/3 combination. She just acquired her Rdg. 316 license through the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and is continuing to pursue her passion for literacy learning by taking courses for the Rdg.317 specialist license.

6 thoughts on “Agency in the Classroom”

  1. Powerful post, Ryanne. I appreciate how you wisely connect student agency and engagement to a school and classroom culture where students have choices, their voices are heard and respected, and “we truly know our students and value things that are personally meaningful to them.” With admiration, Regie

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  2. Great post on an important topic! I appreciate your vulnerability in saying that you still struggle with the balance of too much/not enough agency. This is a real challenge for most teachers. I wonder if the timing is less of the concern, but rather whether it’s something we’re always striving to work towards. I also think, for the most part, a teacher “knows” when that right time is for her students. Let us trust ourselves in this venture! We know kids well. Thanks for the post!

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    1. Thanks Annie, I agree that it’s something we are always trying to work towards, so perhaps it isn’t as much timing as it is striving toward a goal. Thanks for your thoughts. -Ryanne

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  3. At my school I am very vocal about doing away with leveled classroom libraries. Part of being a good reader is knowing how to recognize a book that will be enjoyable and within one’s own reading ability. I have reading intervention groups, and many of my students used to be (I changed them!) hyperfocused on their reading levels – and they’d tell me that their teacher wouldn’t let them choose a book from the classroom library that wasn’t their level. So part of my intervention lessons was dedicated to “how to skim and choose a book” – to find something interesting to read. My students are so much more empowered now, and love to tell me about the books they’re reading in the classroom. I actually had a student ask me last week if I could write a note to her teacher saying that it would be alright for her to choose any book in the library and not worry about the level (!).

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    1. I applaud you for advocating for your students. If we continue to bring knowledge and research to our colleagues about the danger of leveling our students and/or classroom libraries, we will have arrived. 🙂

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