Welcome to season 2 of The Continuing Educator! Teachers have tremendously complex jobs and a constantly shifting ecosystem of expectations, yet despite shifts across so many other areas of educational practice, building student agency remains a key desired classroom outcome that educators generally recognize as an area of need. This conversation will give teacher voice to the importance of student agency, varied practitioner views on the opportunities and challenges related to building student agency, and a frame for the season that will prepare listeners to hear about topics ranging from supportive environments and goal setting to meeting the unique needs of students with disabilities and emergent bilinguals.
Jacob: Welcome to "The Continuing Educator." I'm your host, Jacob Bruno. Teachers never stop learning. In this ongoing professional learning podcast, educators can listen in on some of the most influential and expert folks in teaching as we have open conversations about the important issues facing teachers today. We'll share strategies, we'll go deep on the latest research, and we'll talk about what success looks like. You'll be ready to bring new ideas that will help you and your students grow. "The Continuing Educator" is produced by the experts of the NWEA professional learning team. Each episode will explore big ideas within a larger frame of the season. In Season 2, our focus will be building student agency. We'll explore student agency from different angles and perspectives, dissecting many of the factors that influence student ownership in their own learning journeys, and the various ways educators can create connections and opportunities for students to gain belief in themselves as learners.
Along the way, we'll share plenty of practical tips and expert advice for building effective student-centered instructional practices in your classrooms. Here in the first episode, we're gonna explore the concept and practice of building student agency, and why it's critical to teaching and learning. I'm so excited to be joined by two wonderful educators in today's conversation. The first is a teaching hero of mine, somebody I've known for quite a while, but I will say to you, she exemplifies what excellent teaching and service to the craft really looks like. Sarah Brown Wessling was the 2010 National Teacher of the Year. She's been a national board-certified teacher since 2005. She serves currently as the senior advisor for the National Teacher of the Year program. She's the vice-chair of the executive board for the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. And importantly, she's been a high school English teacher for the last 23 years in Johnston, Iowa. Sarah, welcome.
Sarah: It's great to be here, Jacob. Thank you, and thank you for those warm words. Appreciate it.
Jacob: Absolutely. Thank you for all you've done for kids and for the profession over your career, for sure. I'd also like to welcome Anthony Swann. Anthony is the 2021 Virginia Teacher of the Year. He's also recently been appointed to a four-year term to the Board of Education by Governor Ralph Northam. Anthony is a fifth-grade teacher at Rocky Mount Elementary in Franklin County, Virginia. There's a lot of things that are inspirational about Anthony, the way he teaches his class, the story that he represents in education. I'll say one of the things I love about your service to kids, Anthony, which I know is central to you, is this program you've started, and we'll get into that I'm quite sure, Guys with Ties. You started it in your school and has expanded to your district, wherein you teach young boys about integrity, respect, honesty, and great citizenship. Anthony, thank you for being here. Thank you for joining the conversation.
Anthony: Thank you so much for having me, and it's an honor to be here.
Jacob: Great. Let's get after it. As I mentioned, the theme of this season is focused on student agency, but a lot of times in education we call similar ideas or concepts by different names from classroom to classroom, school to school, district to district, state to state. I want to start with each of you. Anthony, we'll start with you. What terminology do you use to describe student agency? And how do you define it in practice?
Anthony: So, the terminology I use is basically students taking ownership of their own learning and becoming responsible for how they react to the things that they are learning in order to help them move forward within their educational sector, as well as them taking responsibility to keeping up with their grades, tracking their grades, tracking their feedback. So that's how I would define that.
Jacob: That's great. I can't wait to come back to you because I wanna dig into how that looks for you with your fifth-grade students at Rocky Mount Elementary. But, Sarah, let's go to you. How do you define it? Do you use different terminology? And why does it matter to you?
Sarah: Yeah. Well, so first of all, I would definitely echo everything Anthony just said, which I'm guessing is going to be a theme of this conversation. But in addition to that, when I think of the word agency, I think of the smaller word inside of it, that idea of being the agent. So when I think of agency, I think of action, I think of where the force behind the learning is coming from. So if you are the agent of your learning, you are the catalyst, you are the force behind it. And I think for me, whether we call that student agency, student voice, student-centered, learner-centered, they're all of these terms. The thing that's really important to me is this idea that the learner has to do the learning. And a lot of times in schools, just because of the nature of the systems of schools, sometimes that gets turned upside down where the teachers are doing all of the work instead of the learner actually lifting, right, doing the heavy lifting when it comes to that cognitive load.
Jacob: I love that. Anthony, I'd be interested in your response, but one thing that's resonating for me, Sarah, is a lot of times in classrooms, inadvertently, we end up, if you will, a paint by numbers or helping students step over the small cracks, but not make the bigger connections that Anthony referenced and certainly, you did as well. Anthony, how do you think about what Sarah shared?
Anthony: I think that is very true. A lot of times, as teachers, sometimes I've had plenty of conversations where the teachers will say, "I'm tired, this has been an exhausting week." Whereas students are supposed to go home and say, "I'm tired." And the reason being is because if they take ownership of their learning, if they're doing the learning versus the teacher, then they're supposed to be worn out by the end of the day and not the teacher. So, that's how I look at it.
Jacob: That's great.
Sarah: I love that. I love that. But it's so hard to live, don't you think, Anthony? That's like a hard thing for teachers to actually live because we have this... I don't know. It's just like this innate quality that we're gonna fix everything and we're doing our job really well when we do all of the heavy lifting. And so I think one of the things that's underneath some of this conversation is also the kinds of permissions we have to give our teachers. So, teachers have to have a new set of permissions about what hard work looks like. I don't know if I could ever leave a week of school and not be exhausted, but what I hope is that I leave the week of school being exhausted about the right things, that I didn't end up doing the things that my students could do for themselves. I could be exhausted about other stuff.
Jacob: I love that.
Anthony: Can I add something to that?
Jacob: Yeah. Please.
Anthony: So, I thought about how a lot of us as teachers we play multiple roles where teachers or parents, we have coaches, but the greatest correlation I would say a teacher is, is to a parent because sometimes it's hard for parents to relinquish control. And it's the same way with teaching if we feel like...if we are trying to promote collaboration, we don't want everybody in the classroom talking at the same time. Whereas, actually, everybody in the classroom is supposed to be talking at the same time because it shows that the students are engaged. But sometimes teachers have a way of not relinquishing the control because they feel like that this is my room, this is my classroom, I want to have control. Whereas you do have control if you allow the learners to do the learning like what Sarah said.
Sarah: You're reminding me of this moment with one of my children. And you're so, like, these worlds of parenting and teaching just intersect all the time. So, it's probably about, I don't know, maybe two years ago, my oldest son, I had a conversation with him before school started and I was like, "I'm not gonna be making your breakfast anymore. You got to make your own breakfast." And so we have this conversation and the school year starts and I'm still making the breakfast. I'm like, "Ethan!" I have this day I just loon, I'm like, "Ethan, we had a conversation. This is your responsibility. You're gonna leave the house soon, you gotta make your own breakfast, man."
Sarah: And he looks at me in this really straight face and he said, "Mom, it's not that I don't want to make my own breakfast, it is that you have never taught me how to do it." And I was like, "Oh, no."
Sarah: Because the thing is, it's so much faster for me to make the breakfast. It is so much slower to teach someone else how to do it. And it's true in the classroom also. When I create more space for student agency, I have to have a conversation with myself and give myself permission to not cover the same amount of content because we are gonna be skill-focused, the content that we do look at and do examine, we're gonna do that really well. I'm gonna teach you how to become self-sufficient, I'm gonna teach you how to not need me anymore.
Jacob: I love that. And let me just jump in to say, I think the synergies that we're talking about here I know will resonate with educators, everybody that listens to this, probably parents as well. Put on your teaching hat, put on your parent hat. It's not that the work, to your point, Sarah, isn't still gonna be hard, it's just how we spend our time. What do we prioritize in what we do? And so this conversation is flowing where I wanted to go next. We know that this is not necessarily the easiest thing to do, and yet to the point of your son, he'll need to eat breakfast for the rest of his life, it's important he knows how to do it. Same with learning. How do you develop this ability that extends beyond, Anthony, the fifth grade math text you're working through to the rest of your life? How do you set goals? How do you reach those goals? So, can we take a minute? And Anthony, let's start with you. How do you foster student agency in your classroom?
Anthony: So that's a good question. So the very first thing that I'm big on is relationships and communication. Just building those relationships, making it a safe environment for my students to express if they don't understand something or to express if they still have questions. Because sometimes it's hard for students to be an agent for themselves because they feel like their peers will talk about them or make fun of them if they ask questions. And I also am their relatable teacher, meaning that if I make a mistake, I always highlight that as a teachable moment to let them know, "Hey, I'm your teacher, and I still make mistakes, but I'm still trying." And so I remember one time I taught this math lesson, and I taught the entire lesson. About the end of the class, I realized I taught it wrong. And so I was standing there at the board and I was like, "What should I do?" And so I told the kids, I was like, "You know, guys, I'm sorry, but we did this whole thing wrong."
And of course, they were so upset, like, "Oh, my God. I can't believe it." And so I just told them... I was like, "You know, math is over for today, but we'll do it again tomorrow." But I used it as a teachable moment to let them know, "Hey, guys. I don't know everything. Sometimes I forget." And so it makes them comfortable knowing that if he's my teacher and can share his mistakes, and can share when he needs help, because there's been times where I've had to call my instructional coach in my classroom because I didn't know how to do certain things. I would do it in front of the kids to let them know, "Hey, I'm a lifelong learner as well. And so if I can advocate for myself, then so can you." So, that environment, it plays a big role in student agency, in my opinion.
Jacob: Well, I love the modeling. Certainly, making mistakes is a part of lifelong learning. I love that you model that for your students, Anthony. And the importance of sharing, it's part of the process. You can own your own path. Sometimes Sarah's son is gonna ruin the eggs. But that's okay. He still needs to know how to eat. He knows how to do it better next time. Sarah, how do you think about this?
Sarah: Yeah. Well, I love where Anthony started. And first of all, I just have to tell you, I would just love to be in your classroom. I just would love to be in there. I can just imagine how warm and safe and just affirming your spaces are. And I love the idea about the relationship. Certainly, agency is risky. So, if you're gonna be an agent for your own learning, you have to take risks. And in some small ways, that's like saying I need help, or it's asking a question in bigger ways that agency I think can look like the application of using your voice with the, you know. And the relationships are key. I think the relationships are key, first of all, because of what Anthony's already said. You have to know your students, you have to know how they learn, they have to trust you. You have to trust each other. But I also think relationships are really important with your parents or your community or your administration because if you're really going to create learning that embraces student agency, it might look a little bit different, it might feel a little bit different, it might not be as cut and dry, there might not be a right answer all the time. And that makes lots of people feel uncomfortable.
So, that relationship piece really is more... it's more than knowing your student, it is creating these larger spaces where people trust you just to do the right thing with the students, with the children. I think in addition to that, for me, I think about two words. I think about relevancy, I think about if we want students to be agents for their own learning, how do we make that learning really relevant to them? And then I think about authentic experiences. So if one of my colleagues that teaches down the hall was here right now, I'm pretty sure they would all say, "Sarah is saying, like, she wants to create an experience. That's what she's trying to do." And I think that's really, really important because when we put experiences and opportunities in front of our students, it forces us to step back, it forces them to step in to their own learning. And when we can do that in front of authentic audiences even, that's even like another layer of what this can look like. So, I think those things are all really crucial.
Jacob: Thank you both for that. I love how we started answering the fostering student agency. And rightly so with, one, the culture we're creating in our classroom, that community, Anthony, that you spoke so well to. Then the logical extension of safety within that community where you're modeling what making a mistake looks like and owning that. And then, certainly, Sarah, thinking through the types of experiences and the elements of what those experiences ought to entail for students, it leads me to think, really, about...and I know, I'd be interested in your thoughts on this, but the level of student agency we're talking about, one, probably can't be achieved in a cookie-cutter format. Anthony is gonna do it different than Sarah, he's gonna do it different than Jacob. And yet, we know it's necessary. I think about John Hattie's work. If you look at the top two effect sizes from his research, what he refers to as assessment capable learners is really this idea that the kids that can make the fastest growth in the most time are ones generally where we are able to articulate "Where am I going? How am I gonna perform?" There's a level of clarity here around what I'm learning, why I'm learning it, and the sense of ownership.
I know how I'm going to perform because I've been engaged in the ways, Anthony, you and Sarah are saying. I guess the number one is teacher collective efficacy, so this concept relevant to this podcast of us as educators talking about our practice. Sarah's colleagues down the hall, "Oh, Sarah wants to create an experience. Well, great. Let's all iterate on that and let's see what those experiences look like." I'm curious, when we start getting into the specific content, Anthony, be it fifth grade, you pick the topic or, Sarah, high school English. When you start thinking about the standards, when you start thinking about the ways that content progresses through learning progressions, and the need to meet students where they are, how do you think about those instructional decisions you're going to make as they feed into this need for student agency?
Anthony: I think about how students will look back on the experience within the classroom. I think about how... I'll be honest, I have students that I taught years ago and they're in their 20s. And every time they see me they say, "I remember when I was in third grade and you were singing about the water cycle. And because of that song. I know about..." Just making it, like what Sarah said, an experience that they will never forget. It's seared in their hearts, it's seared in their minds. I think that makes all the difference with student agency and with students learning within the classroom is just those experiences.
Sarah: Yeah. I agree. We are of the same mind, I think, Anthony, because I was thinking about... I know when I am creating these spaces when my students forget that they're in school. The thing that we're doing is more important than school. They stop asking about their grade. That's usually a good sign, or sometimes it's a really good sign if they're like, "Is this actually English class? What are we doing in here?" Because that means it's interdisciplinary, it means that it's bigger than a quiz, it is bigger than a test. So, I was trying to think of a couple of examples. And so I think in some ways, teachers can take first step. So this could feel really overwhelming. If you are a teacher who's saying, "I would like to have more student agency, but I can't create some big project, I can't find some authentic audience." I think there are a couple of ways to start. One is to check yourself and ask who's talking the most. So, the person doing the talking is the person doing the learning. So, if we are talking more than our students, we're not creating enough space. So, that's number one.
And then I also think really not being afraid of silence because this student voice, student agency, and ownership, it takes time to think about. And so it's okay to ask a question, and for there not to be an answer. It's okay to have quiet in learning. It doesn't mean that people are disengaged, it doesn't mean that they don't know the answer, it means they're thinking. So I think in some small ways, that's a way to think about it, some of those habits or practices. And I think a lot about audience. So, I'm an English teacher, we do a lot of writing, obviously. And so I'm always thinking about audience, and sometimes I just kind of let the students create an audience. So, maybe instead of writing the fourth literary analysis paper of the semester, they're writing a letter to a person in their life who needs to read the book we just finished, and they're going to tell them why. And that's kind of a smaller way to get started. And then I think of bigger things that I've done.
I spent over a decade doing this thing called The Grant Project with my students, and they essentially created these non-profit organizations within the classroom. And they had to interview non-profits in our community, come up with an organization that would meet the needs of a group of people in our community who's not meeting their American dream. They came up with budgets and all this kind of stuff. And then they pitched their ideas to this society for the American dream who had $500,000 to give away. I always knew I got them when the students would say, "Wait, you actually have $500,000?" I was like, "No. That part is not real. That's the fake part." But, again, those projects, those audiences I think make a huge difference in our students' ability to really know how to use those voices.
Jacob: Yeah. I love that. It's this idea, a lot of the learning that we've all experienced as learners. And certainly early in our career, generally, I'll say the work is, as you've said, Sarah, the person doing the most talking. So, a lot of my early teaching was...it was transmissional. I'm talking to students. But I love that you guys are honing in on the experiences of students. And then the real-world application is you're saying that generalizing what you've learned to new and unique contexts is a real good example of when student agency is happening, when student ownership is taking place. So I'm really interested. You've probably heard... I think Roy Sadler was the first person to coin these three questions, and I think I already made reference to them earlier, but they're utilized by a lot of different folks.
Where am I going in terms of, you know, think about teacher clarity on learning targets or unit goals and the like. Where am I now? So, that kind of pre-assessment or a sense of efficacy in a particular area. And then what are the next steps I need to take to get there? How do you guys think about those questions? And if, again, we can edit out if we need to. But if those aren't the germane questions to kind of help guide students in your own planning for thinking about student ownership within certain learning experiences, as you say, Sarah, or within a unit of study, regardless of grade level.
Anthony: So I'll start with an example. When my school was taking the math test from NWEA, students had to set their goals, and we actually will pull up their data and they will see their learning curve. And I will show them their targeted goal, but I had some students to say, "I think I can do better than that." And so they will set their goals higher than the expected goal. And then I also teach my students on the power of the word yet. So, sometimes they'll say, "Well, I can't do it." And I always try to encourage them to say yet. There's always hope, but the key to it is to work through the kinks and to work through the hardships in order to move forward. And so just making them aware that they are the ones that are ultimately responsible for whatever they do in life. And I also share my life story with them to let them know, "If you had this hard of a time, Mr. Swann, and you still decided to make something of yourself, then I can do the same thing." Because a lot of times I teach students who have the same background that I had when I was their age. And so just sharing that personal story, it helps them to have in their minds where they wanna go in life, what they want to do, and how they're going to do it to get there.
Jacob: Love that.
Sarah: I love that too. I really love the way that you're talking about making visible for students, their learning. So, instead of you as the teacher owning the target, you're saying, "No. This is your learning, this is your target, this is your goal." I really love the way that you're taking the things that we sometimes just overlook because there's so much for teachers to manage, there's so much information for teachers to hang on to. Sometimes we overlook the importance of just opening that up and just sharing it with students. I just think that's really, really powerful. I also think when we're talking about targets, that it's...I guess for me my question that I ask myself is not as much about the target. I really use learning targets in my preparation and in my design of assessment, but in between those spaces, I would say I'm relying a lot more on the question, "What do my students need to learn? How do I need to teach them to get them there?"
And those are my daily questions. Those are the ones that I wake up with every day, those are the ones I go to sleep with at night because those questions are very people-centered. Sometimes I talk about the difference of the two questions that we can ask when we go to school, one which I've asked 1,000 times, "What are they going to do today?" The problem with the question of what are they going to do today is that in my mind, honestly, I see paper and tasks. And when I shift it to what are they going to learn today? What do they need to learn today? It goes from paper to people. So then I see faces, it's like their names, and then I'm like, "Oh, this is not about the paper, this is about the people." This is about exactly what Anthony just was talking about. This is about turning over those goals and that learning directly to our students.
Anthony: When we do the target goals for their math testing, I wish that you could see how seriously they take it. It's like when they're taking the test, I see my students glancing at that because they... It's like a bookmark, and it's on their desk when they're taking the test. And when they meet or exceed their goal and I go over to them, their first thing is, "I did it. I exceeded my goal." And so that right there, it gives them a sense of hope in every other aspect. It lets them know that if I met that goal, I can meet another goal. And so I think it's very important for students to have that visual goal in front of them and not just say, "Okay. This is my goal." But if they have that sitting in front of them, they'll work toward it, especially if you built that relationship of trust and empathy within your classroom.
Sarah: I think you're really talking about purpose. You're talking about how purpose changes everything.
Sarah: When I go and workout, my coach tells me, "If you focus on your muscle like you're working, you're gonna get 80% more out of this exercise than if you just move your arm." And it's the same thing with learning. So when we, whether it's a purpose that is beside the computer screen when they're taking this exam, or whether it's a purpose that we give them through the nature of the assignment, or whatever it is, it changes everything because now there's a reason. There's a reason to strive, there's a reason to not just check off this task, but to show up for it.
Jacob: I agree and I think the thing I would highlight here is, and maybe this is a byproduct. It's not the purpose as you say, Sarah, but it's the eco benefit. When you and Anthony are talking, I'm thinking about the worksheets I did as a kid or the worksheets I gave to my students, for example. And that's pretty transactional and nobody, to Anthony's point, looked in the mirror and said, "Way to go, pal," when they completed their times test, hypothetically, whereas Anthony spoke so eloquently to this internal belief in self and the intrinsic motivators. The dividends that pays over time in a kid's learning journeys and in a kid's life, you can't measure it. So for my two cents, I am incredibly excited about what you're sharing. I wanna pivot, if I can, for a moment though, because Anthony, you had me thinking when you're talking about the learning goals, which are obviously personalized for kids.
This whole concept makes us think of personalization. Manifesting student agency will look likely very different from one kid to the other, even though you're setting up the conditions. And please feel free to push back on this, but even though you're setting up the environment in the same way for the whole class, etc., the ways in which kids engage with your teaching, with your lessons, with their own productive struggle manifest differently. So I'd love to spend a moment if you guys are all right with it, kind of talking about the personalization element of building student autonomy or student agency.
Anthony: Yeah. So, with me, it's different than Sarah, of course, because I'm elementary, and so you're able to mold and make them a lot easier. So I know when I was growing up, I did not have a positive male role model, and I did not have my father. And so a lot of times my students are lacking their fathers and so I like to build that trust level. And if something is wrong with them, I'll make sure that I address their humanistic self before I address them as a student. And that alone speaks volumes to the student. And they know and they can... It's been said kids don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. And so I remember I had...my students have to complete a writing assignment for the district. And the writing prompt was if you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go, and why? And so one of my fifth-grade boys, he started writing the assignment incorrectly, so I redirected him. And so when he started writing it correctly, I noticed that he just started sitting there.
And so instead of yelling at him and saying, "Get this assignment done. It needs to be completed." I realized that there was something going on with him, and I call them my children. And so I called him to my desk and I asked him, "What's wrong?" And he was telling me how he wanted to go to North Carolina because he never gets to see his father and he... It just really bothered him internally. And so I related to him and I told him how at my age, I always longed to see my father too, so I get exactly where he was at. And so I said, "You know what? You're done with this assignment today, so we'll pick up with it tomorrow." But just doing that alone, it personalized the learning for them because they'll take it more seriously if they see that you're taking them seriously as a human first, and then as a student. I think that is very important because sometimes as teachers, we can be so focused on the pacing, and wanna make sure that we stay on track and stay on target, until we forget the bigger picture that we're teaching humans before we're teaching students. And that is a major component for me personally as a teacher to make sure that my students know that I love them beyond the classroom.
Jacob: Yeah. Anthony, I wanna just thank you for keeping that thread throughout this conversation so far. It's easy to think about student agency in a content area. But to be able to connect that before you can build that agency and students, to your point, students need to know that they have worth. That you as an educator, as their educator, see them. And all your actions that follow reinforce that, the individualization of the interaction with kids. I love that. Sarah, reactions, and then how do you approach this idea of personalization for student agency?
Sarah: Yeah. So, once again, can I just come be in your classroom, please?
Sarah: But I do think that there is also the synergy that can happen where we get to know our students on a deeper level through the work. So, that's one of the things I really loved about the anecdote Anthony just shared, was that he learned this about his student because he was giving this child a compelling prompt. It was meaningful work, which I think sometimes we get this backwards as a profession. Sometimes we think we've got to know our students before we can do any work. But I think the truth is that we have to know our students through the work. We do it together, not one and then the other. Otherwise, you're just doing these random, not real icebreaker activities. And it does just the opposite. Those things, I think if they're not tied to this authenticity, the kind of authenticity that Anthony is talking about, I think they just become kind of random.
But I also think the very nature of student agency or student engagement, it does require personalization. It is just the opposite of a cookie-cutter curriculum, it is just the opposite, when I think back to the days in terms of lesson planning that were easier and more difficult for me. So, the truth of the matter is on the days when I do a whole class lesson. Those are honestly my easiest days to plan because I'm just planning for one basic thing. Did not take me too long to figure out that very rarely works. And so then when you're planning for small groups, more intense. And then when you're planning for individual students, that's also more intense in different ways. And the way I think this profession can manage that is by deciding what's actually important. So, for me, in order to plan those experiences, in order to meet each student individually where they are at, I try to hear everybody's voice every day.
And I have kids for 48 minutes. So, that's a little bit different when you have 30-some kids in a class. If you wanna hear everybody's voice, you got to be on it. But what that does mean is that there are other things that I'm letting go of. So, this goes back to the relationships. I tell my students, "If I have to choose between putting your grade in the computer and planning something really meaningful for you, I'm gonna pick the meaningful thing and I'm gonna tell you to trust me that I'm gonna put the grade in later." But there are these little bargains. We bargain with ourselves as teachers, I think, over and over again, and we have to be open to it. And we have to have other teachers around us, or in our circles to give us permission to keep being that teacher because it's sometimes really hard.
Jacob: Thanks for your transparency, Sarah. I'm stuck right now on this concept of the bargains and the trade-offs and the importance that both of you have highlighted in really knowing and responding to your students. I'm gonna have to take a left turn for a second and just... we're a few months into the school year now. And this year is a lot different than last year, but there's still this element hanging over us of uncertainty and the like. And so I'm curious, from both of you, has this concept...we've been speaking generally about practice with student agency, but given the interrupted learning that most students have experienced, the distance that we've had between our students, and what's transpired in their lives and in the world since a couple of years ago the last time we had a regular school year, have these at all impacted the way you think about, Anthony, the culture we create, the relationships we have, and or specifically, the ways in which we're able to build student agency after such a hard time or in a virtual or remote environment?
Anthony: I think the realm of uncertainty has solidified my philosophy of building the student agency and building those relationships. Because if students know that you count on them when they have to quarantine or where they have to go virtual, they'll log in online. For instance, I had some students last year whom I was teaching simultaneously the virtual and in person, and so I had students who knew that I counted on them and they would log in virtually, and they would be at daycare. And they were responsible enough to say, "I still have to tap into class." I had other students who were tapped into class virtually and they didn't see other students in and they would say, "Hold on one second, Mr. Swann," and they would call them on their cell phone and get them to log in on class because they held each other accountable. And so I think, once again, building those relationships and showing children how much you guys can count on me, but I need you guys as well. It's just not a one-way street.
And then with students having those relationships and they see the importance of friendships now because they were just ripped apart from their friends, it's like every chance they get, "No, we got to be in class because I wanna see you." I think, honestly, it has caused the students to take a greater ownership of their learning because they realize, "If I don't do it, then sometimes it won't get done," especially those students who don't have the in-home support. They realize that I have to be able to do this because mom and dad or grandma, or whomever, they still have to work in order to take care of me. So, the least I can do is take ownership of my own learning. And so I think this time of uncertainty has caused students to really step up in certain ways.
Jacob: Well said, Anthony. Thank you. Sarah, your thoughts?
Sarah: Yeah. I think you're absolutely right about the nature of uncertainty. Trauma is not new to schools. I mean, schools have been dealing with trauma a lot longer than we've been talking about it. But I think the uncertainty on top of the trauma has made this time especially trying and especially unique. I am so hopeful when I hear you talk about these moments with students. These are real bright spots, these are our, I think, moments that really speak to what happens when we take the time to build those relationships and build that community. And in a lot of ways, it makes me think about what I think, largely, the thing we have to get over in schools is playing school. When Anthony talks about his classroom, he is talking about a family. He is not talking about playing school, he is not talking about these are the rules we're gonna die on, he is talking about this is how we treat each other because we care about each other.
And this is what we have to work towards, and this is what we have to get over. We spend so much time playing school that we displace all of the energy that we could be using in these really authentic ways for the parts of school that are inauthentic to learning. So, I don't know if I added, really, to that, but I just hear what you're saying, and when you're describing your classroom it's like I can see it and I understand what you're creating and how important that is to agency. Agency isn't a lesson plan.
Jacob: I love that.
Sarah: Agency is a way of being.
Jacob: Anthony, you first, sir.
Anthony: Yeah. No, I was just saying you're so right. It comes easy for me because I know what I needed at their age. And because I know what I needed, I have just...honestly, that's why I wanted to become a teacher because I wanted to give children what I needed because I know the importance of having that role model and having that family that I didn't have. And so I never want my children to leave feeling like, "I hate school." I always want them to be the type of children, "Mom, I'm sick, but I wanna go to school. I don't wanna miss school today." And so you're so right. And it's imperative that when we do talk about agency, I thought about how when you're a secret service agent, you're advocating and you are an agent for something, you're fighting for something. And so as teachers and as students, it boils down to purpose. What are you fighting for? Why are you here?
Jacob: I'd like to stop right there, Anthony. That is a, I think, such a good synthesis of why this topic is so important, why we as adults in the education system to your word, Sarah, need to pay real close attention to when we're playing school versus when we are intentionally fostering authentic experiences that manifest in the types of cultures and student ownership and lasting impact that building this kind of agency can provide. I'll yield though because I wanna give each of you an opportunity. Final thoughts. Be it a motivation for educators, something to keep in our minds as we head into the classroom around the importance of this work or however you'd like to spend the time. So, Anthony, let's start with you, sir.
Anthony: So, I'm going to try to do this without being emotional, but I just want to remind teachers and educators to remember their why. We talked about the uncertainty, we know that teaching has become an even harder profession. We already didn't get paid what we felt like we were worth. And now we have more things that's added to our plates, but if you just remember your why, if you just remember your purpose, and that you have the ability to change the trajectory of student lives. It was a public school educator who changed my life because I know where I was headed. I was placed in foster care in the middle of a school day in front of my peers. Taken, but it was my fourth-grade teacher who gave me words to live by, and she stuck by me. And so I just want to tell the teachers I know that it's hard, I know that times are uncertain, but if you just remember that you have that ability and that power within you to change the trajectory of a child's life, and they can grow up to become something because I did, all because of a public school teacher.
Jacob: That's beautiful. Thank you, Anthony.
Sarah: You're just such an incredible gift to everybody who walks through that classroom of yours. I think about how important it is to remember that the invisible is at work. If you're talking about student agency, we're not talking about the kind of learning where you see big changes between Monday and Tuesday. It's the kind of slow work that reveals itself over time. So when we're talking about those personal relationships, or even if we're talking about how uncomfortable it is for students to actually own their learning, how uncomfortable it is for them to become metacognitive enough to talk about their learning, it is a slow process, it is not a quick one. And I think it's easy to get discouraged when we don't see quick changes, quick results. We're so, especially in our society right now, we are so driven by the immediate feedback. This is not that kind of work.
So, again, just reminding teachers, when you are planting those seeds, when you are asking those questions, just remember the invisible is at work. And you may not even get to see how beneficial your efforts were. It might be the teacher next year or five years from now, or it might be in the phone call that you get 10 years from now, but it doesn't undermine the purpose, the authenticity, the relevance, the humaneness of what we're about.
Jacob: Wow. I think that if I can synthesize, to bring us home, this work of student agency, as I'm listening to you is not the work of a lesson plan, it's not the work of a unit, it's the work of a career. And as Anthony reminds us, its impact can be felt for a lifetime. Sarah, Anthony, it was such an honor to spend this time with you today. Thank you for sharing your voices, your perspectives for the good of all of us. Thank you.
Anthony: Thank you.
Sarah: Absolutely. My pleasure. Thanks.
Jacob: And for those of you that have taken the time to listen today, we're honored that you did. We hope you've found nuggets in this conversation that are directional, motivational, and certainly helpful. So, have a great week of teaching. Thank you for tuning in to "The Continuing Educator," and we'll talk to you next time.
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