Setting the conditions within which an environment of student agency is possible is not something that happens by accident. This episode will explore elements of culturally responsive teaching, supportive environments, and the actions that educators and leaders can take to create a space where students belong, feel valued, and thereby are more likely to take risks, make mistakes, and build a sense of self-efficacy that will serve them well in their academic journeys and in their lives beyond school. Our guests: Benjie Howard is Benjie Howard is the executive director of New Wilderness Project, an outdoor education program focused on developing youth leadership for equity and land justice, and he is the co-founder of Youth Equity Stewardship (YES!). Lindsay Prendergast is a former principal, guidance counselor, and special ed teacher who is now at school improvement coach at NWEA.
Jacob: Welcome to "The Continuing Educator." This season, we are jumping in and looking at student agency and how we as educators and leaders can help build that. Today's conversation is gonna be around setting the conditions within which an environment of student agency is possible and not something that happens by accident. This episode will explore elements of culturally responsive teaching, supportive environments, at the root, equity and the actions that educators and leaders can take to create a space where students belong, feel valued, and thereby are more likely to take risks, make mistakes, and build a sense of self-efficacy that will serve them well in their academic journeys and in their lives beyond school. I'm so excited to be joined today by our guests, Lindsay Prendergast and Benjie Howard. Lindsay is a school improvement coach here at NWEA. She has been a principal, a guidance counselor, a special ed teacher in the U.S. and abroad. She's an eternal optimist, a systems thinker, and a believer in the capacity of education to improve society, but also a realist who sees a lot of the challenges that we need to overcome. Lindsay, welcome to the podcast.
Lindsay: Thanks so much, Jacob. It is definitely exciting to be here and I look forward to the conversation. Thanks for having us.
Jacob: Absolutely. And our other guest is Benjie Howard. Benjie is the co-founder and executive director of the New Wilderness Project, a musical performance group and an arts-based experiential Outdoor Education Program focusing on developing youth leadership for equity, environmental sustainability, and social justice. He's the co-architect of the Youth Equity Stewardship, an intergenerational process for growing soulful, inspired, brave, and inclusive educational spaces, and inspiring authentic community transformation. Benjie, welcome to the program.
Benjie: Thank you. It's really nice to be here, Jacob.
Jacob: I'm so glad you're here. So, you guys, this idea of student agency, in the past episodes, we've looked at what is student agency and how can teachers lean in to develop it? In the last episode, we talked with a couple of thought leaders around the interplay of responsive teaching and assessment capable learners. But I'm really excited to lean in with the two of you today because something that's come up again and again in these conversations is, yes, the academic or disciplinary contexts are important and learning targets. And the ways that we engage with content are important to kids, and we'll come back to that in later episodes. But the thing that has come up again and again is the environment, the ecosystem for learning that kids find themselves in. And I'm really excited to talk to both of you with your experiences to share your perspectives on the role of culturally responsive environments, teaching an equity-centered approach within the classroom to create the space where student agency can flourish. So, Benjie, let me start with you. What's your perspective on this? What's the centrality of the role of the ecosystem and our responsibility in building it for student agency?
Benjie: Well, I have to say I'm really happy about two things right now. One is that you're using the concept of student agency as opposed to student voice. I mean, we did sort of student voice work for so many years, which is great. Young people have so much to say and we need to be listening, right? But I think in the last few years, we've been really concentrating on closing the distance between student voice and student agency because I think the dynamic often is that adults really wanna listen to kids, and then we create spaces where we are, and then we don't do anything about it. And I think agency means something entirely different, which means we're really putting... And you're talking about this in the context of equity, that we are getting young people at the equity table so that they are partners in decision-making so that their perspective has a role in how we do discipline.
I mean, so many of the youth equity stewardship ambassadors are having a say in discipline policy. They're having a say... And when they do that, when you get kids at the table, what happens is you close some of those gaps. You get rid of some of those disparities, especially with regard to disciplining black and Latinx kids in school. So, it has real outcomes. So many... You know, we know that BIPOC kids are less likely to see themselves represented in what they read in school. They're less likely to see someone that looks like them teaching a class. And so they can have a say in how that... We even see kids having a say in hiring, you know, in school. So, I think that agency is everything right now. And with regard to the... The other thing I loved about your opening is this idea of school being an ecosystem. And so many of us struggle, you know, maintaining even what we had before with regard to educational spaces with the...
You know, for 18 months, we were doing youth equity stewardship from right here, you know, in Zoom boxes. And I think you can maintain cultural responsive practice. You can create the right kind of energy for learning to flourish. But there's a lot missing when we're not with human beings. And I think the opportunity now that we're coming back into school spaces is to think more deeply about that ecosystem like you're talking about, and do it different. I mean, there's a lot of pressures, and there's a lot of barriers, and there's a lot of challenges right now. But I think we're also in a really exciting time with regard to also putting kids at the table around, how does school feel? How do we foster belonging and how do we grow kind of spaces where it's really exciting to learn? And we're seeing a lot of really innovative thinking emerge, you know, from this year of kind of doing it all differently. So, I think these are challenging times but I also think they're really exciting times both with regard to the ecosystem that you refer to and really amplifying that student agency and putting young people at the table to make decisions around how school happens, you know.
Jacob: Yeah, definitely, Benjie. I appreciate that. And I'm excited to dig into some of the innovations and I'd say iconoclastic approaches that you're seeing and we're seeing in the field. And as I hand it over to you, Lindsay, for your perspective on this question, you know, Benjie's comments bring me back to there's a lot of different phrases that are synonymous with student agency. So, you know, Benjie, in your work prior, you know, looking at student voice, or I think of the Quaglia Institute's Voice and Choice or Tripod surveys, etc., that is one aspect for sure. But if we kind of boil this down, student agency as being imparting to students the understanding and the enablement to act on their own behalf within their learning. That that is a destination that requires a lot of different levers. And obviously, we're talking about environment and culturally responsive elements and equity today as those. But Lindsay, let me turn it over to you, what are your initial thoughts as we enter this conversation around the role of these things where student agency is concerned?
Lindsay: Sure. And the wheels are already turning, no doubt about it. I mean, just when Benjie is bringing up this idea of the difference, for instance, between student voice and authentic student agency, I think about... And this is a little bit of a delicate word to use, perhaps, but the power dynamic in schools. So much about when a student walks into a school, it's set up that we will do this to you. We will deliver this instruction for you. And we will tell you how it's going to be. Bringing students to the table to have a voice is a wonderful opportunity, no doubt. But the minute that we gather their voice or listen to their voice, get their ideas and do nothing with that information, we've just reaffirmed the message that the adults are in charge and that their voice is not authentically heard.
So we have to create those situations where agency can be employed, where students are not just at the table, but they are driving the problem-solving. They are determining the solutions and they're enacting them in the school setting. They're bringing them to life for not only the adults in the room but also their classmates, their peers, the students that are younger than them, for instance. And I think that's something that's applicable to all students at any age level. You know, you might misconstrue that as something that's only a possibility for older students. But they have a lot to say but they also have a lot of capacity to act and a lot of capacity to support and facilitate the changes that we may say we wanna see put into place, but then they can really help us live it out as a school.
So, thinking about those opportunities, again, where students are able to actually do, not just to speak, can be a pathway for us, if you will, to really actually begin to see more actual agency on the part of students. I think in terms of as well, you know, we have this mindset that as students get older in the education system, they disengage. You know, they see a message being said to them pretty consistently to be kind of sad, cynical, if you will, honest about it, that it is just a place for them to arrive, show up, sit down, open their ears, listen, and receive. And not agency, they're not actively a part of the problem-solving process here. They're not actively a part of creating that future.
Jacob: I appreciate that, Lindsay. And, you know, it leads me to think if, at the heart of agency, we wanna empower kids to act. You know, let's stick with that word for a second, if we want them to act within their own learning, the elements that both you and Benjie have brought up so far, they need to see us as the adults acting on the feedback they're providing, acting on the directions that they need and want their learning to go, you know, where appropriate. I wanna come back to this question, though, of building student agency, thinking about the environment, the ecosystem, the classroom, and equity. And so I want to ask each of you, what are some of the key levers that you see really make a difference in the way that equity is approached in schools, specifically to this idea of creating supportive environments where agency can flourish? Lindsay, do you mind if we start with you, and then we'll jump to Benjie?
Lindsay: Yep, absolutely. So when we think of a supportive environment in which we can actually say every student feels supported, not just in words, but in actions, to me, a key lever to approach that is really teacher effectiveness, if you will. Teacher quality, teacher preparation, but that individual that is in the room, and maybe they've been in the profession for 20 years, and maybe this process of opening their eyes to biases that they may possess or to experiences that may have informed the way they think things should be done, those are questions that need to be approached and unpacking those things and presenting those opportunities for them to grapple with that idea, that change may be necessary in order to really equitably meet the needs and support every single student.
Conversely, those who are coming into the profession more recently or maybe they're in a teacher preparation program right now, that's a huge opportunity, for instance, to think about, so what exactly are we doing to train future educators that creating a supportive environment for every single learner, and that means addressing equity for all, is not something we just say, "Check, we filled that box. We're done. We took a course on it, moving on," but that it's something that is constantly re-examined and that is guided by effective leadership. So, continuing to pose those questions, continuing to address those kind of just disparities, if you will, that we see in a school setting or that we see in a classroom and support those teachers themselves to also have a supportive environment in a safe environment in which they can explore and try and, you know, consider new options, consider new ideas so that they, in turn, can then support those students.
Jacob: Yeah, I appreciate that, Lindsay. There's an element there, you know, synonyms, of teacher collective efficacy that the leaders are helping calibrate approaches between teachers learn from, you know, think of the Lesson Study models, but kind of in aggregate at the environmental level. That's interesting. Benjie, what's your take on the question?
Benjie: I think... I mean, some of the mechanisms that we've kind of employed in the last few years, one, are kind of creating student advisories around discipline, grading policy, curriculum, history texts. Just, you know, creating places where circle conversations are happening, and you kind of reduce that power structure that Lindsay was talking about. And you have adults, and kids, and circle together. Some of that can be based on sort of restorative practices. We've seen all those have, you know, really powerful results. Let kids take over your assembly and guest speaker series for the year. Let them make the decisions on who comes in and informs the community from outside.
So there's a lot of mechanisms, I think. One of the key ones for me, though, is kind of flipping...creating spaces and especially for secondary students to educate adults. So if you have parallel tracks of learning, if you have professional development happening around equity, also create that path with kids so that there's alignment with the conceptual framework that kids and adults are sharing the same language. And if you have that kind of foundation of learning for both adults and kids, you can start to create intergenerational learning spaces and you can have young people informing adult practice. So, one of the things we do kind of has grown out of some of my father's work. My dad is Gary Howard and, you know, he wrote a book called "We Can't Teach What We Don't Know: White Teachers in Multiracial Classrooms" in the '90s. And then the more current work is "We Can't Lead Where We Won't Go," which is the other side of that Malcolm X quote, which is really a process for professional development and systemic change in public schools.
And so we've taken... One of the pieces there is these seven principles of cultural responsive practice. And there's a lot of models like that. So we'll take that as kind of a rubric to then have a conversation with young people about how are they seeing cultural responsive practice show up in the classroom and then how are they seeing areas where teachers could do better to reach their intelligence, you know? And I won't go into it but there's kind of three areas, the front porch, the kitchen, and the table, sort of, like, the front porch would be the invitation into the house of learning, things like teacher... Like I get it that my teacher gets me. Like, they understand my cultural reality. They know something about who I am in the life that I live. The second principle is, you know, I get it that my teacher likes me, that there's actually a relationship there beyond just the professional sort of job of teaching. The third one is around spaces, like you mentioned, how are our educational spaces culturally inviting and exciting places for young people to learn that?
The principles four and five are really about belief. So, four is, like, kids get it that we believe in their brilliance. But the fifth principle is really critical. And this is the kitchen. So we kind of look at this as like this is where education gets cooked up. The belief and child brilliance gets cooked up in the kitchen and it's like it's not just the belief because, you know, that's kind of going back to that whole voice versus agency thing. I think every school in this country has something in language about their belief in all students' ability to learn. But then do we really do it? So the fifth principle is, can my teacher dance with me? Can my teacher sing harmony with my brilliance? You know, and that's that differentiated instruction. And that's where that comes in. So, you use kind of colloquial phrases around the seven principles and then you give young people a chance to sit down and talk about what does this look like when it glows and then what does it look like when teachers really need to grow their practice around one of those principles or one of those, you know, areas in the house of learning, the front porch, the kitchen, and the table? And we find that, when we have these conversations, it's really interesting. Some things emerge like the fact that most kids have more good to say about their teachers than bad.
Benjie: The list of what they see great happening is always bigger than, you know, the list of things that they see teachers could grow. And also, just the level of thinking always blows my mind. I think, in general, we're having more interesting, depthful conversations about culture responsive practice with kids than we are with adult professionals. And that's not to say anything bad about teachers. I mean, teachers are the best people on the planet. You know, I'm a teacher. But, you know, it's interesting to kind of listen to young people. And this is more on the secondary level but we're also having these conversations with fourth graders, and fourth graders have a lot to say about their experiences in school.
Jacob: You should talk to my third-grader at any time.
Benjie: You got a third-grader?
Jacob: Oh, man, she's got opinions. But look, Benjie, and I wanna give Lindsay a chance to react because I think, you know, the listeners, you know, our producer, everybody listening right now understands why I was so excited to have you on the program. The work of your father, the work you're leading, the way you've just laid it out is super compelling and approachable for educators. And to your last point, there's a lot of great that teachers are and have been doing for a long time. But it is, again, I would offer, are habits. The way we were instructed, the way we've come to be comfortable in teaching that often are the unintentional inhibitors to the greatness that we can achieve and help kids achieve for themselves. So, I love that you went there and talked from the front porch to the kitchen and broke those things down. Before I take us further. I wanna pause, and Lindsay, give you a chance to interact with Benjie's thoughts, ideas, anything that resonates with you.
Lindsay: For sure. And I love that phrase you just used, the unintentional inhibitors, because as he's speaking, I'm thinking these questions just generating in my mind, what changes? When they become a teacher, what is it that has changed in them that has led them to think that these are these kind of baked-in ideas and beliefs and practices that this is the way that it has to be, for instance? You know, the youth are telling us these insightful ideas about what it could be, and they're generating their reflections on the way they are receiving it, for instance, right? So what have we created in education as a field that conveys to teachers that this is the expectation, this is the way it's done and don't you dare take any risks? Right? Where have we stopped them from feeling that willingness, that readiness to try new things, to put themselves in a place of vulnerability, potentially, which ultimately, you may be in a position of vulnerability when you face the fact that you don't necessarily know everything about the lives of the students you teach. But you can open that door. You can open that door.
And as those phases that you kind of just described, I love that idea that, you know, the student looks at this teacher and sees someone that would dance with them and that harmony with them. The first step is being willing to. And that's, you know, facing your own internal, pre-existing beliefs and notions, for instance, for sure, but then taking the risk to put yourself out there. And you may not fit this framework of some preconceived notion we have of what a professional educator looks like, sounds like, talks like, behaves like. So what? So what? Honestly, how else are we gonna change if we don't support teachers as leaders, for instance, to be willing to take those risks and to, again, put themselves in a position of vulnerability perhaps, but go forth, and the kids will probably lead the way there? Those are some wonderful things to be thinking about. Thank you.
Jacob: I wanna ask you guys, the questions are bubbling in my mind. I'm gonna try to pick just a couple to keep us, you know, in the vein here. And I don't mean this question to be loaded. Okay? I don't mean it to be leading. I mean it earnestly. Is student agency possible for all students if we don't address equity and the environment in which learning takes place?
Lindsay: What do you think, Benjie?
Benjie: I was gonna ask you because that's a big question. And I tend to land on the radical side of that question. I think we need to make radical changes in public education to really get to that place where all students meet... All means all. And success means something beyond just college and career ready. But success means that we are really thinking deeply about preparing our young people to be contributors in a participatory democracy.
Jacob: That's right.
Benjie: That our students coming out of our systems have to have the capacity to discern disinformation because the pipeline of bad info right now is greater, and faster, and more abundant than it ever has been. I mean, we've always had to navigate that stuff but kids need to be ready for the world, and to work in a diverse workplace, and to give back. I think these are the things that I hope and I think for us as educators, it's a challenge because I think in order to really do that, student agency doesn't just mean that they have a say in school policy and that that impacts what they learn in school. We have to have the bigger picture as a part of this conversation. And that is, what do we want for kids? What are we preparing them for beyond just college and career ready? I mean, you can do great in school, and get into a great university, and then go work for a big bank and do a lot of damage in the world, right? So, you can be totally successful and be not a contributor, but a taker. You know, so what are we...? We've been really inspired by our indigenous colleagues in this work to really think about indigenous models for excellence and success. And most of those have to do with your ability to give back to family, community, and the land, right?
Jacob: Yeah. Yeah.
Benjie: And be prepared to meet these challenges. The social and environmental challenges that these kids are walking into, they've never been faced in human history. And so, it's a big question. I don't know how to... I don't have any answers for that. But I think we should be asking the questions.
Jacob: I appreciate that. And I'll hand it to you in a second, Lindsay. But I love what you said, Benjie, there is this element, right? As we think of student agency, certainly, we can think about it in my ninth-grade algebra class, right? So there is this disciplinary context. And that's great. I think that what you call out is that there is a greater good that intended or unintended consequences, when you focus on student agency in the right ways, for me, your comments harken back to, you know, am I my brother or sisters' keeper? This social contract of the times we're living in, I would answer the question, no. I don't think we can have student agency for all if we don't talk about equity, if we don't talk about as you brought up earlier, disproportionality in disciplinary practice and the environments. I love the call out to the traditional ways of native cultures and kind of thinking about not only self but of community in practice as well. And obviously, those are my words, right? So I'll own that, but just making connections in real-time. Lindsay, I'm gonna hand the mic to you. Your reactions to the question about the interrelation between equity and student agency, and certainly anything that Benjie shared as well?
Lindsay: Sure. And, you know, I've said I'm an eternal optimist, but I should add that I have a healthy dose of cynicism that's based on experience. And, again, I don't mean to be negative, but I align with your belief there, Jacob, that I don't think that we are in a position to truly see student agency for all until we do fully see equity for all. And I think a large part of that is currently, you know, existing in this education system that really is designed...was written by, you know, our founders, our forefathers, from a dominant culture's perspective. And there's not a lot of willingness to relinquish control of that necessarily, and resources in the classroom and, you know, the priorities of what we teach and what we expect students to show learning of.
Going back over to what you said, Benjie, of this just predominant belief that it should be all around college and career readiness. What exactly defines that? How are we defining that? That proficiency on the SAT? How do we define career readiness at the middle school level? What does that look like? Do we even really know, right? I spent a lot of time reading Dr. Yong Zhao. He's an incredible education thinker. And we had a conversation with him not too long ago. He said, you know, we've talked so much so proudly about the fact that we're preparing students for the future. We don't know what the future looks like. We said, "We need to prepare them or support them in their preparation to create the future. And that's that idea of, again, giving back...the idea of not just voice but that voice that will lead them to develop agency and taking control and ownership of the problems that we have. We haven't solved them, you know, and that's just a fact. That's a reality, right? So, how are we gonna cultivate that option, that opportunity, if you will, in young people that they can confidently step forward? Well, we need to really examine the classroom environment, the school environment, as a place where every culture is respected and given equal opportunity, every background is respected, given equal opportunity for that agency.
Jacob: There are so many elements of this conversation. I wanna pull the thread on so many things right now. I'm gonna stick for a second with this idea. Benjie's brought up a couple of times, you just hit on it as well, Lindsay. For me, you know, trying to help in these conversations, the individual educator or the group of educators are the leaders in a building, we know, I think, intrinsically that the environment in Mr. Howard's class might come to be quite different than the next period I'm in Mr. Bruno's class. Right? And so, there is this systems-ness approach. I'm interested in your thoughts of helping students and I know you've done a lot of this work at the building and systems-level, Benjie, and you as a leader as well, Lindsay, you know, how do we help manage students navigating the written and unwritten rules of the social contract from classroom to classroom as we think about student agency, thing one, and thing two that's come up is what does this look like at the primary grades, the intermediate grades, the secondary grades? And how can we as colleagues, again, connect the experiences of kids in a developmentally appropriate way to build student agency? Big question, I know, whoever wants to jump in first.
Benjie: Go ahead, Lindsay. Or if you want me to, I can.
Lindsay: I was gonna say I'm stewing a little bit. So go for it.
Benjie: Me too.
Lindsay: There's a lot there, Jacob. It's good.
Benjie: I mean, I think K through 12, you know, this conversation about collective efficacy, I think is critical but in the context of equity. And I think that equity and inclusion aren't... It's not really something we do. I mean, we need to learn this. This is sort of like you learn and you do, but it doesn't really manifest in real significant shifts in, like, having an impact on the really consistent disparities that we see in education until it becomes something like of who we are. It's a culture shift thing beyond. So it's a collective of a school building as an organization, a district as an organization. And there has to be some collective efficacy around, how do we share good practices, but also hold together the vision for what we want for kids. So, language is key. I mean, there's so many... PD is key.
Jacob: Shared planning time.
Benjie: Yeah, like all those things. And, like, I was referring to the idea of the seven principles earlier that we use, and, again, that's just one of many models to think about cultural responsive practice. But it's not just about one teacher. It's like I pulled up one of our reports. So we do these reports, and we have conversations with kids, and they tell us kind of... So I pulled one up on the kitchen. So that's, again, the belief in a student's unique brilliance and then a teacher's ability to harmonize or dance with that way of knowing. And kids say some really incredible things, like the joy and the why of a teacher are directly connected to a student's brilliance. That's from a 10th grader, right?
Jacob: Wow. Yeah.
Benjie: Making subjects relevant for us unlock our smarts. Right? And here's the one that I think connects to what you're asking, I hope anyway. When one teacher finds the key to reach a kid's intelligence, it has to be shared with other teachers. We all remember that one teacher, but we should be remembering all of them.
Jacob: Love that.
Benjie: So there's that collective efficacy piece that comes in. So, you know, we share these with adults and it's really enlightening. Again, that's the kitchen. One kid says the teachers provide the ingredients, but it's the students who need to do the cooking. Cooking in the kitchen together is more fun with other people. Lecturing is like cooking alone. You know, so I think there's just some student brilliance that comes in and actually feeds into that bigger picture of how it has to be kind of connected to this collective. We still operate on kind of an individual focus. And I know that's kind of a big topic right now because I think one of the central pieces in why equity and Inclusion are so controversial in our country right now is this conversation between the individualist paradigm and a collective paradigm. Most cultures on the planet are collective. You know, that's just kind of how kids are raised. But I think that's at the core of this kind of disinformation around, I don't know, equity being Marxism, and cancel culture nonsense, and all that. I think that there is something in there, though, we need to be thinking about how are we doing this together and how are we growing together so that we can transform our systems to meet the needs of kids better with a picture that's very clear in our mind of where we're going, what we want for them?
Jacob: Benjie, you've blown my mind. You're just a new lens to think of, right? There's even teacher collective efficacy, which I've thought a lot about, but as a barrier, this individualistic notion of classroom practice versus this need for a broader and calibrated lens across schools, I mean, across classrooms, within a school or schools within a district. Lindsay, I wanna give you a chance to weigh in here as well,
Lindsay: For sure. And, you know, I'm kind of pulling away here and this idea of looking at this from the more leader perspective, in a sense, and that idea of an effective leader is one that creates or facilitates those conditions. As an example, you describe a classroom over here where a student feels like, you know, I'm valued, my voice is heard and respected, understood, and I'm listened to, and I go five minutes, passing through to the next classroom, and it's a totally different environment. What is a leader creating an environment there as a community where that student has the opportunity to bring their voice forward and give those feedback cycles and include that in the ecosystem and the evolution of that school? Not to target any one individual teacher but to move away from this paradigm, this really historic, traditional way of teaching where I walk in my room, it's my room, I shut the door, and it's mine. This is what I do and it can't be touched, right? But it is an ecosystem.
And those students in those communities, bringing that voice to the table, giving them that agency to say, you know, there are these pockets here or the way that we function as a community is too individualistic, for instance. What are we gonna do about that? Let's have that conversation. Let's identify actions that everyone can participate in at the appropriate levels. Not everybody has the exact confidence or the desire or the, you know, interest necessarily in participating head-on. But look for those talent spots where they can. And the leader cultivating that piece of framing the conversation, opening the door, bridging the gap between students as one entity, teachers as another entity, that never the two shall meet. You know, that's no longer going to work for the future that we want.
Jacob: I don't wanna take a hard left turn here but you're both making me think about this notion, frankly, of modeling. You know, Benjie introduced the concept early in the conversation around student voice but then calling out that we need to take action on student voice. And I can't help but think about, you know, from Gallup, the sad numbers where teachers don't feel agency in their own profession. And Lindsay, your comments really brought that home for me to think about how powerful it is for teachers to see principals taking action to build teacher agency, and for students to see teachers empowered with their own agency to help build their own student agency. Am I wrong in seeing a pyramid scheme here?
Lindsay: For real. I think more of, like, flowing back and forth, right? There's gonna be always at the top.
Jacob: Well, yeah, right. I say that tongue in cheek. But Benjie, what are your thoughts, sir?
Benjie: Well, for one, I think COVID really shone a clear light on an expanded vision of what marginalization looks like in this country.
Benjie: And you have frontline workers. And, you know, I have friends in healthcare. I have one friend who works in the COVID unit in our local hospital here in Bellingham, and she's done. Like, it's been too... Like, it's past what a human being can do. And I think teachers are there too. Teachers are our frontline... Not only frontline as far as, like, with the pandemic, but frontline...this is the next generation. And teachers just, in general, are a marginalized population. So, I think we need to think about that. And what Lindsay is bringing up around leadership, I think, is a key piece. How do we offer teachers the agency... How are we really gonna give kids agency if our teachers don't feel absolutely empowered in their profession?
Jacob: Yeah. Absolutely.
Benjie: And that can't be just teaching to the standards and trying to get the kids to test well. It strips the artistry around what good teaching actually looks like. There's no kid that graduates from high school and looks back at how their teacher got them up to grade level because they were applying all the standards and they were, you know, like... Oftentimes, it's the teachers that kids look back and remember, they're the teachers that are breaking the rules. And I hate... Yeah.
Jacob: Oh, no, go ahead, Benjie. Sorry.
Benjie: No, I just hate... I mean, I'm just tending to go there but at this point, there are states where in order to be a good teacher and to be relevant with kids, because that's what they're asking for, they're asking for relevancy, you're breaking the law at this point. That's not agency.
Jacob: That's right. And Benjie, I wanna take this opportunity to come back to a place... You started to take us in your introductory comments, which is, you know, school year '21, '22, coming out of the pandemic or, you know, we're still in it, I suppose, but schooling is looking shades more normal than it did last year. You called out that you're seeing some innovative practice that can really help us think about equity, supportive environments, and the roles they play in student agency. Do you mind spending a few moments kind of listing a few of those things that you're seeing?
Benjie: Yes. I think I mentioned a few of them. One was these advisories, really, so making sure that young people are informed. I think there's a fear with some of us adults, I've definitely experienced, and probably expressed this fear that if I really ask kids, what's up, they're just gonna tell me everything that's wrong with school and they're not gonna... Like, so how do we make these conversations intergenerational and productive? So, you know, I mentioned like learning. I think co-learning, students learning with adults is so great, you know, to kind of mess with the power structure a little bit and look at school as a place where we all get to learn, teachers learn, you know, like I do. Every good teacher that you know has some sense that when things are really going...that they're learning more than they're teaching. You know, and so, to dive into that, and there's some... We're seeing that happen, but just physically, like, these advisories on curriculum, grading, because grading is becoming more and more equity issue. We're looking at grading policy as something that really needs to shift to be more equitable for kids. Discipline. So, those advisories are great.
Kids leading PDs and innovation that we didn't come up with, we saw that in school districts that we worked with, and we thought that it was a great idea. So have your... You know, every school is got a certain number of days in the year where teachers are learning, at least do a few of those where they're learning from students. And students can lead really good PD if they've got a foundation of language and they've got some activities and engagements that they can lead adults through. I'm seeing schools spaces shift. There's a school in Arizona that's really looking at equitable spaces, how are classrooms organized? What is the movement of a student through a building and the day that best sort of creates the sort of ecosystem is the word you used for learning? So looking at spaces and shifting spaces.
It's an elementary school, they have a slide in the building that comes down. So you go from like classroom to the library in a slide. So, bring fun into it. You know, I think that that's also... I mean, we're hungry for fun right now. And sometimes I think while elementary school is really fun and then it gets less fun as you get older, you know, why not do that in high school? why not create those fun...? Learning should be exciting.
Jacob: For sure.
Benjie: The idea that school is boring, and so many kids are gonna say that is an equity issue. Like, let's do the work of making school not boring anymore.
Jacob: That's right. It runs counter to this whole thing that we espouse of wanting to create lifelong learners. Well, if learning's boring or not...
Benjie: And you associate that way, right?
Jacob: Yeah. Then why would I ever want to learn? Right?
Benjie: Yeah. Yeah.
Jacob: Well, very, very thought-provoking, Benjie, and Lindsay. I really, really appreciate the conversation we're having that we've had. I guess before we go, I just wanna call out, again, this notion that has emerged through both of your comments around the intentionality of student agency, the interrelation with the environment, but importantly, the thing that I'm walking away with is the echo effects of how not student agency alone to students interacting with their content that they're learning, but students interacting with themselves and students interacting with one another. These are the things I think that are often overlooked when we think about student agency, the outcomes we want, not just for kids, for all kids, but for our communities, and for the lives that our kids are living. I don't know if there's a question there, Benjie, but certainly, freedom to kind of share last words, last thoughts here as we wrap up.
Benjie: I heard yesterday, I was in a school district here in Washington State, and I heard... I used to kind of avoid the term kindness because if I'm really honest, I think back when I was young, even though I grew up in a family that was equity, diversity-oriented, a family where we learned that, you know, public education is the beating heart of a democracy, that it doesn't survive unless we have knowledge and we can contribute to that democracy. But I also think I had the misconception that equity and inclusion was just about being nice to people. And it's so much more than that. But I heard this kid say yesterday that kindness has gotten really difficult, just where we are as a nation, where we are as a world, and that we need to remember how to be kind, especially to people who believe different than us, who have a different worldview than us, that live in communities that are strange to us. You know, I think that that kindness, it kind of came back to me as critical. If we can really learn to be kind, and kind to ourselves, learn how to be kind with people who we disagree with, learn how to be kind to the earth that sustains life. Like I said, like, I kind of went away from kindness because I was rooted in this misconception of what diversity and inclusion meant early on in my naivete. But I feel like I'm coming... I heard that kid yesterday and I heard that, like, that kindness has gotten more difficult, and we need to do the hard work of being kind.
Jacob: Benjie, I still appreciate that it is bringing home for me this reality, frankly, that student agency is also...and again, I'm pressure-testing this with you both, is also this understanding... Sure, you can think about it in Carolyn Duac's, you know, terminology as a fixed or a growth mindset but I wanna offer here based on the comments of this student and under the context of student agency, that part of student agency is accepting both myself and those around me in this supportive learning environment as in process, that where I am now is not where I will always be and not necessarily the destination of where I'm going but that I have the ability to engage today with my community, with my content, with my teacher, with my peers around the content and the culture that we are working within and working with to be able to drive to those places I as an individual want to go for myself. That may be too lofty, Benjie, but what are your thoughts?
Benjie: Yeah, I have a lot of thoughts. I mean, I think we've kind of gone to a 30,000-foot view in some ways. But I'll bring it back because I think that... I've had this experience in quite a few... And I hope this is connected to what you're asking. But I've had an experience with young people a lot where you open up a conversation about race. And for some of the students of color in that conversation, that feels like water when you're thirsty. Finally, we're in school and we're talking about stuff that matters to me and my experience, right? And you'll see kids explode into that conversation in really powerful ways. And you'll see some of the white kids may be standing back, like, "Wow, I haven't seen this before. Is this just for kids of color?" Right? And there might even be a sense of, like, "I feel bad for being white." It's essential to some of the narratives that we're hearing right now around equity.
And then you move through that though. You get to a place where agency emerges not because we don't address the very real issues and the violence that's being committed in our communities around the country. It only emerges... Agency means that somebody is paying attention and sees that my reality is a real reality. If I come from whatever that marginalization is in my community, whether that's around sexual orientation, or gender identity, or religion, or immigration status, or body shape and size, or race, ethnicity, you know, the language that I speak or the languages that I speak, whatever that marginalization is, we don't get to agency until we address the fact that those are realities in communities. And to deny them or to pretend that race doesn't exist or to sort of say that we're in a post-race era in America is to basically cancel that narrative, is to cancel somebody's real lived experience.
And I think for those of people like me, I'm a white kid from a rural part of America, right? Like, I'm a country boy. And I had a lot of conservative values, you know, that I grew up with from my small town. And for me to bear witness to other American experiences doesn't mean that I'm giving up my America or who I am and where I come from. But I have to get to that, right? Because as a white guy in America, I haven't experienced those levels of marginalization that a lot of my family members, and my colleagues, and my good friends have. And so, if we're really talking about student agency, which is your opening, I don't think we go there unless we are willing to figure out how to love this country and know its history, and know the experiences that people have who have had a different American experience than me. So, I think there's an underlying piece there with agency. I mean, empowerment is more difficult than it sounds.
Jacob: Absolutely, Benjie. Such insightful and compelling thoughts. You're making me think of, has student agency in the historical context of our schools been a zero-sum game where there are winners and losers? Only some can have agency, not all. And what we're talking about here is fundamentally different.
Benjie: Yeah, I think it has to be, right? I mean, we're not in agreement on that at all across the country. I'm with kids every day, you know, somewhere in America, and I don't see a clear path unless we are able to be courageous, and be honest, and listen. You know, I think that's the key thing, the capacity to listen. I remember, you know, we did some work with Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. for a number of years. And I remember I asked him, you know, kind of, how do people like me get engaged in really thinking about racial equity and racial justice? And he said that, "The first thing you need to do is just listen to people of color and listen to people who have a different American experience than you do in your own community. And when you listen to them, believe them." So, this denial of other people's experience is at the heart of really stripping kids from agency. You've gotta be able to listen, to believe, and then like we said earlier, to act, right?
Jacob: Right. Absolutely.
Benjie: And it's just hard work. It's not easy. But it is good for everybody. It's not a zero-sum game. There's no losers when you expand the narrative of who we are and where we come from, and what it is to be an American, what it means to be a student in this country, what it means to be a citizen. You know, when we expand that notion, it doesn't mean that we're stripping somebody else their identity away from them. Like, it just makes us more.
Jacob: That's right.
Benjie: It's not a zero-sum game.
Jacob: Benjie, thank you. Unfortunately, our colleague, Lindsay, had to leave the conversation a bit early but I wanna take this moment to thank you, Benjie, and thank you, Lindsay, for joining this conversation. As Benjie said, these conversations aren't easy, and I don't think that we are going to ever arrive at a place where our work is done in this space. But I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with both of you today to address the elements of equity, supportive environments, and cultural responsive teaching, and their impact on student agency. So thank you again.
Benjie: Thank you.
Jacob: And thank you, listeners, for joining us again for "The Continuing Educator." Remember to follow us, check out our blog, "Teach Learn Grow," and to come back next week, where the conversation will continue on "The Continuing Educator."