Choice Words

May 23, 2014

I had the pleasure of working with a wonderful group of educators today who are really digging in to what scaffolding and assessing student agency looks and feels like.  As we talked strategies, scaffolds and assessments I did a visual sweep of the room and noticed faces of fatigue. The thought of “doing agency” well exhausted and overwhelmed them. As I reflected on this experience I realize that I likely fed part of this frenzy (being as passionate as I am about agency), when I could have neutralized it a bit by providing a more accessible entry point.

I just finished the book Choice Words by Peter Johnston-a gentlemen who was ahead of his time for the agency craze (the book was written in 2004). While it’s a simple little book about teaching literacy, the message is powerful. In chapter one he writes “ Teachers play a critical role in arranging the discursive histories from which children speak. Talk is the central tool of their trade. With it they mediate children’s activity and experience, and help them make sense of learning, literacy life and themselves”. He then continues to enlighten his readers on the power of our words-in particular as it relates to promoting agency in students. In retrospect I could have lowered the barrier for my colleagues if I had given them the following entry point: Simply think about the ways in which our language could help foster agency in students by using any of the following sentence frames that Johnston writes about:

  • “How did you figure that out?”- I like this one because it forces kids to reflect and help them be strategic in how they approach their work or challenges. It also supports a power shift that the teacher doesn’t have to be the sole source of knowledge in the classroom=BONUS!
  • “What problems did you come across today?”-This one is great because it normalizes challenges and again gets students to think about how they attacked it and can apply that to future dilemmas-good for persistence and grit.
  • “That’s like Kevin’s story. He started off telling us his character is a lonely boy to get us caring about the main character. You [looking at Kevin] made a conscious choice”- I talk to my 3 and 4 year old about making choices, just like I did my 10th grade students. I do this very intentionally because I want them to realize that even at a young age they are empowered because life is about making choices. Similarly, this sentence stem helps students see that they have the power to make choices that will guide their learning trajectory-this is the heart of ownership of learning (AKA agency).
  • “Why”-simple but beautiful. I like this one because it’s open-ended and gets to the heart of inquiry. Johnston also adds that this question “helps develop consciousness and hence ownership of their choices”
  • “Why would an author do something like that?”-This one is a hidden gem. Johnston made me see that by asking students this question it “opens up the possibilities of doing things differently”. Not only are kids now thinking critically, but they are thinking about the ways in which they can reimagine not just what they read but the world!

As I think about the type of learning climate necessary to foster agency, the ways in which we speak to our children matter. While this idea doesn’t sound overly complex or riveting, I think it’s so simple it could be overlooked or forgotten about. So in the midst of sexy assessments and exciting scaffolds for agency, take pause and think about the little things…the power of your words.

We are loving & learning from Jenny’s blog posts! Read more from her here on her blog where this was orignally published.