In this conversation, we venture into the domain specific ways we, as educators, can empower students within our classrooms. How is building student agency in ELA different than in mathematics or science? How can we leverage our curriculum, content-specific learning progressions and practices to build in students a robust belief in their abilities to master academic content and apply their learning in new contexts? We ask what roles do mathematical practices, next generation science expectations for emerging scientists, and the ELA expectations play in building student agency, then discuss how we as content area teachers leverage our content areas in impactful ways to build, not just content knowledge of students, but the deep belief in themselves to master grade level expectations and beyond. Our guests are Miah Daughtery (Literacy Director of Content Advocacy and Design at NWEA), Ted Coe (Director of Content Advocacy and Design at NWEA), and Fenesha Hubbard (Content Designer at NWEA) -- all three of whom came to NWEA with years of experience in classrooms.
Jacob: Hello, and welcome to "The Continuing Educator." I'm your host, Jacob Bruno. This season, we're talking about building student agency. The conversations we've had already have touched on a number of topics important to educators, and importantly, important to students. Today, we're going to dig into student agency in the disciplines, specifically ELA and mathematics. This conversation is going to venture into the domain-specific ways we as educators can empower students within our classroom. Really looking at how building student agency in ELA is different, potentially, than it is in mathematics. How can we leverage our curriculum, our content-specific learning progressions, and practices to build in students a robust belief in their abilities to master academic content, and apply their learning in new contexts? "The Continuing Educator" is a professional learning podcast that works in harmony with our blog, Teach. Learn. Grow. to provide a host of resources, ideas, considerations for the practicing educator. So, please check out our blog, Teach. Learn. Grow. We're so glad you've joined us for this conversation.
Our guests today are some of my favorite people I get to work with. I'm going to introduce them now. Miah Daughtery is the director of content advocacy and design with a focus on ELA. In previous roles, she has been the executive director of content and PL at Odell. She was the director of ELA and Literacy at Achieve. She was a literacy coordinator for Tennessee Department of Ed. And, I'll let you know, Miah is an avid cook. I think she started her first cooking business when she was a kid. And if you're ever on a video call with Miah, you can be guaranteed, there's something on the stove, And your video will be up on the refrigerator so she can cook while she talks. Miah, welcome to the show.
Miah: Hi, Jacob. I'm so excited to be on the podcast today. And I'm glad I've made it to your list of favorite people.
Miah: I'm excited to be in the conversation.
Jacob: Absolutely. Thanks for being here. Our next guest is Ted Coe. He is the Director of Content Advocacy and Design and Mathematics at NWEA. He was the Director of Mathematics at Achieve, the Assistant Dean of Education at Grand Canyon University. He has a PhD in mathematics education from Arizona State University. And, importantly, he has over 20 years experience teaching mathematics at high school and college levels.
Ted: Oh, hey. Thanks. I'm so happy to be here, and I'm also happy to make your favorite-people list.
Jacob: Oh, I'll let you know, spoiler alert, it's a big list. I like a lot of people, but you guys are fantastic, for sure. And my colleague and friend Fenesha Hubbard. Fenesha Hubbard is a professional learning design coordinator here at NWEA. She is a long-time PL expert who has served for years, the Chicago public schools, and, really, schools around the country. What you should know about Fenesha, she is also a life coach or has been a self-care speaker. She's an author focused on equity in the classroom. And, frankly, when I think of Fenesha, the first word that comes to mind is that she's an inspiration. Fenesha, thank you for lending your voice to this conversation.
Fenesha: Oh, Jacob, thank you so much for welcoming me into the conversation. And to be one of your favorite people is an honor.
Jacob: That's great. That's great. Well, thank you guys all. Let's get into it. I know that student agency is important to you. As we kick into this conversation, I want to ask each of you briefly, what do you think student agency looks like outside the classroom, and how do we know that our efforts in the classroom are having an effect there? Miah, do you mind if we come to you first?
Miah: No. That's the perfect question for me today because of something that happened to me last weekend. Last week... I'm in Detroit right now and there's the Van Gogh Immersion Experience. If you've never been, you should. It's amazing. There are three rooms of Van Gogh art, and each room has a collection of art pieces and music that fill the entire space. You are literally immersed in a digitized version of Van Gogh. I have a 7-year-old cousin, his name is Brandon. He is in second grade, and he likes to draw. So my aunt, his grandma, decided we would take him to the exhibit this weekend, and so I tagged along. So, the very first room... And remember, he is 7, so he is a beginning reader, he is an emergent reader. He really likes to draw, he likes school, he likes texts. The very first room of the exhibit is nothing but text. It's the selection of articles and letters between Van Gogh and his brother Theo. So the whole first room is full of texts that is written for adults about Van Gogh and his life.
We walked into the exhibit. My 7-year-old cousin sees the first, like, big block of texts and says he wants to read it. So, of course, we're like, "Okay, you can read it." And we stop. And I look at this little 7-year-old try and navigate the text. And he is with my aunt who was a retired teacher. So I'm standing behind my aunt and my cousin, and I'm looking at the second block of text. And you guys can't see it, but I took pictures, and so, I can read a little bit of it to you. The text reads, "An exhibition on a renowned painter without the paintings themselves. An impossible task transformed here into an incredible opportunity. An opportunity to embrace, not only a remarkable body of work, but also the freedom with which Van Gogh saw his craft and the world around him."
The text goes on for several sentences. And I'm looking at my 7-year-old cousin literally read the text. Like, he is verbally reading the words out loud. He is, like, reading the texts and I'm mind blown, so I'm texting my colleagues like, "Can 7-year-olds typically read this?" And they're like, "No." But his word-attack skills, his phonics were so strong, he could decode really complex texts. And as we're going through the exhibit, he would get to a word he doesn't know. And I'd physically watch him take his right hand, cover up part of the words to segment it into small sections, sound out the pieces he can, move his hand again, sound out the piece that he couldn't, and then blend them together.
And so, we're in an exhibit that's meant for adults that's very text-heavy, full of music, full of art, and I'm watching this 7-year-old because he has had, it's clear, direct, explicit instruction in phonics, bring all of those skills to bear as he's trying to make sense out of texts that is rich, that is complex, and is written in a language much higher than, like, sight words for 7-year-olds. So we took this experience...or I got left from that experience, when you teach children how to read and you expect them to do so consistently and they know how to do it, they will bring everything they have to bear to new texts that's not in school, that is not connected to an assignment. I'm watching him try to make meaning. And we had an amazing day where he is interacting with the text. And he didn't really understand a lot of it. But this little boy left with a better understanding of Van Gogh than most adults I know, because of the literacy skills he brought to bear, and because of the agency he had to practice those skills outside of school, because someone taught him how to do that outside of school.
Jacob: Miah, thank you for that. What a great opportunity for you to witness agency in action with your own family and see that play out. Ted, let's go to you. What do you see student agency looking like? And take your slice, in the classroom, out of the classroom, how do we know it's working?
Ted: Well, I think I want to play off of the direction that Miah was just going with the out of the classroom. And, it got me thinking as she was talking, right? In my view, you can't separate agency from identity. And that is how the students think of themselves against, in my case, the mathematics, or who they are with respect to the mathematics. And the question that I would just, kind of, put out there is, in Miah's case, you know, the example is, when the student is outside of the classroom, they can see who they are, and the power that they have to use, the content comes to life. But in the world of mathematics, we want to step back and go, "But are the students doing the same? Are they able to see, when they're in a separate situation, that they have the power to be users of the mathematics? And is that reflected in the classroom as it is in the real world, or do the students in their own minds, kind of, see two different types of mathematics, the real world mathematics where they do have some agency, and then the classroom mathematics where, perhaps, it's a completely different thing, there's a completely different identity, a completely different aspect of agency? So, to me, I was thinking about, "How do those things, sort of, tie together, and are they as uniform in our mathematics learners as might be able to transition in the case of the ELA space?"
Jacob: I love that. You know, as a mathematics educator myself in a previous iteration of my professional career, I know full well that constant struggle of, "Mr. Bruno, why are we learning this? When will I ever use this?" Which is often reinforced, you know, outside the classroom by friends and family that the students have, so I love that lens. I also love that you brought up this idea of student identities. And I'll pivot to Fenesha because, Fenesha, I know this is a primary interest of yours, the interplay between teacher identities and student identities. And I'm curious if you could speak to that, especially where building agency is concerned.
Fenesha: Sure thing, Jacob. And I also would love to answer the first question, and then draw that connection.
Fenesha: OECD, which is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, they define agency as, "When students are able to..." Time out. Sorry. I want to quote it exactly. OECD defines agency as a student's capacity to set a goal, reflect, and act responsibly to effect change. And so, you asked, "What does this look like outside of the classroom?" And I think when students are agents and they're learning, then they've learned how to learn. They show more of a leaning towards inquiry, and the world then becomes their classroom. So, what they're able to do is take the skills, and strategies, and information processing, and make it accessible beyond the classroom. So, for example, questioning might be a skill that the teacher has modeled for students, so students know how to ask effective questions about things that they're curious about. So then, if a student has agency that's exercised beyond the classroom, they're able to transfer that skill to their daily lives. And then, in that way, learning takes more and more of a personal and social dimension for them. So when we think about a student's identity and how that's related to agency, you're really talking about, "Well, what do I believe about my learning? How do I feel about my learning? And if I have a healthy identity, then I probably have a leaning towards confidence in my learning. So, I then, am able to go out with a lens of inquiry and ask questions about the world, and then I become the owner of my learning."
Jacob: I really appreciate you threading those two pieces together, Fenesha. Yeah. No, that was a terrific answer, and I think really provides clarity. It's a nice summation of what agency looks like out of the classroom, and the interplay between agency and self-efficacy and what we need to do to build that. I want to just pause for a second. I don't know which one of you wrote this, because I know you guys work together a lot. But something that I have read of yours recently is this idea that... And we have to come to this. You know, Fenesha, I'm thinking about student agency and identity, and I'm thinking about teacher identity. And so, this phrase that, "We understand that the impact of our actions outweighs our intent with those actions." And I think about agency as, you know, we talk about all the synonyms, all the aspects that lead to agency, kind of a forest for the trees mentality. And so, while there are a lot of good intent, a lot of good things we try, not everything yields in agency equitably for every student. I ask that because I'm so excited to have you all here to help us as content-focused practitioners really think about not student agency generally, but student agency specifically within the domains.
I'm aligned with you all, and I know that you all believe all students deserve high-quality literacy and mathematics instruction, and experiences that push them to their highest potential and leave them better than when they entered the classrooms. As you paint that vision for what's possible, putting students at the center, I'm curious if we can dig into now, specifically, as a mathematics teacher, if you don't mind us starting there, Ted and Fenesha, you're the mathematics experts here today, as an instructor, as a teacher, how do I think about building those types of learning experiences, that type of mathematics instruction that begets student agency, student efficacy, increased confidence as Fenesha has indicated?
Fenesha: What I hear you asking, Jacob, is a question about equity. If we look at equity through the lens of access, access to content, access to high-quality instruction, then what we're really talking about is, "How do I, as a teacher, help my students access the various ways of thinking about math, and how do I provide a space for students to explore their ways of doing that?" Now, Ted is going to talk about ways of thinking and ways of doing, because that is his specialty. And I think when we look at that through the equity lens, then we're really asking ourselves as a teacher, "How do I prepare myself to ensure that all of my students have access to content, and in doing so, I am helping them have a well-developed sense of agency?" Does that make sense?
Jacob: Makes great sense. And I would love to pass it to Ted. I think he's ready to pick up the ball.
Ted: Fenesha, I'm going to go in a little different direction. I want to step back one layer, one big step backwards, if you will, before we do that, and before we get into the ways of doing, and the ways of thinking, and that component of it, and say, where is the mathematical authority in your classroom? And so, what I mean by that is the authority in the mathematics itself, or is it in something other than that? Is it in the teacher? Is it in the textbook, right? Where do you as the instructor put the mathematical authority? Sometimes, it's tempting to say, "The textbook is, basically, you know, it's etched in stone and handed down on Mount Sinai," right, that kind of thing. That the... And, I saw, Fenesha... Let me come back, and I'll... With respect to, say, the role of the textbook in the classroom, right, is that handed down from God, and that that's the ultimate authority? Or is it everything the teacher says that's the ultimate authority? Or is it in the sharing of ideas, and who can make the best case, and what sort of arguments, and what makes sense, and what kind of meanings are attached that we've put into it in this classroom, right? There's different places you can put that kind of authority, and that is going to enable what kind of agency can come into the classroom.
Fenesha: That was a great point because I think when it comes to math specifically, there's this hidden rule that the authority has to lie within the teacher. So we really have to ask, "How do we help students truly feel confident in being a student of math and a learner of math, and not letting the authority lie in the textbook or in the teacher?" Really good point.
Jacob: Yeah. I mean, it makes sense to me, and I think about all of the places... And it's ubiquitous, it happens everywhere, and it's natural...I think, you know, especially, we find, generally, at the beginning of our careers...when we get to later in our careers, we look back and say, "Oh," it's a common refrain, "I wish I could apologize to those students that I had my first couple of years because I've learned, I've grown." But I love this notion of, "Where does the power lie?" Because if all the power and the agency lies with the teacher, that is a major barrier, as I think you're naming, to ever building efficacy. It's a hardwired dependency on someone else, which the very nature of it undercuts the idea of building agency within a student themselves.
Fenesha: But we have to understand that we... Really good point, Jacob. And we can leverage identity to achieve agency, right? A lot of the agency that a student has depends on the teacher. So it's going to lie with the teacher, but it's up to the teacher to transfer that agency to the students.
Ted: Yeah. You know, I have this sign in my office here that says, "Let math be the ultimate authority." And it wasn't a sign that I built myself. It was one that some teachers had given to our team as we were delivering professional learning as a message that when we push this with them, it really resonated so much so, that they had it, you know, etched into wood and made into signs as something to keep as a constant reminder that it's not you that's the authority, it's not the textbook that's the authority, it's the mathematics itself and how it plays out in the classroom that's the authority.
Jacob: That's great. And I want to come back to you both in a moment and talk about that phrase you just said, "It's how the mathematics plays out itself in the classroom that's the authority." I want to focus in, just signaling for you, you know, whether we talk about mathematical practices or, you know, both of your thinking around ways of thinking, habits of thinking, formative conversation starters in the content areas, ways of doing to get to bigger things, I want to come back to that, but I want to jump to Miah first and ask you, Miah, about this idea of agency that Ted and Fenesha just spoke about, what it looks like, what are the barriers, what are the considerations in math. What does that look like in literacy from your perspective, Miah?
Miah: So, I want to build on Ted and Fenesha's answer of where does the power lie and also ask, what are we doing it for? So, ultimately, why are we teaching literacy? Why are we teaching reading and mathematics? For me, one thing I've been saying... Actually, I got this from my mother who is brilliant and a retired educator and principal. We got into a discussion. That's what I call our conversations when she tells me I'm wrong. But we got into a discussion a couple of weeks ago. And she said to me, "Miah," she goes, "Teachers think they're doing good. So teachers think they're teaching phonics so kids understand the A sound. They're teaching phonics so children have choices when they graduate. They're teaching phonics, because reading and literacy is the pathway to liberation." So the reason we teach reading and literacy is, ultimately, for students to have choices, for them to have freedom, for them to be able to navigate society once they've left us. And if teachers forget that that's the point, for them to be independent thinkers and for them to take the skills they've learned with us and do something meaningful with it to advance the course of their lives, then we've really missed the boat.
So I'd like to add onto that question, why are we doing this? In the literacy classroom, for me, it looks like the ability to create, expand, and execute outside of me. So it doesn't matter how I interpret "Hamlet." What matters is, do you understand how to navigate the text, and then do something meaningful with it?
In my last couple of years in the classroom, I taught yearbook. I loved teaching yearbook. Yearbook was a two-year course, a middle school two-year course, so students would come to me in seventh grade, and they would stay throughout eighth grade. And eighth grade students were given...well, they were able to become editors, so they had a leadership position. And I said to my eighth graders, "Leaders lead. You do not have this title in name only. If you want to be a leader, then you have to lead, which means, you have to problem solve." And if you've ever taught yearbook, you know there are tons of problems, there are tons of problems to be solved through. So, the way we taught yearbook in my class is, again, students would come in seventh grade, they would stay through eighth grade. And, one year, my editors, these children I'd worked with for two years, they were brilliant kids and I expected high things from them, I expected them to be brilliant, so I said to them, "You do not come to me with a problem without a solution. If you come with a problem, you know Miss Daughtery is not going to listen to it unless you have a solution."
So they came to me. They're my eighth grade editors at the end of seventh grade. They're new to being eighth grade editors, and said, "We have a problem, Miss Daughtery." And I said, "What's the problem?" And my students said, "This year, Miss Daughtery, there was a lot of drama in yearbook." And there was that year. I mean, there was a lot of drama, middle school drama. And they said, "We don't want to do that again. We think we need a better selection process for how kids get into yearbook." And so, I'm thinking, "Well, what could this be?" Because middle schoolers, you know, they can be clique-ish. So I'm like, "What does this look like?" And, they said, "Well, you told us never to come to you with a problem without a solution, so we have a solution. We want to run a yearbook boot camp and do, like, a trial and error with interviews." And, I said, "What do you want to do?" And they said, "We want to run a yearbook boot camp." They said, "We need to make sure people that come to yearbook care about yearbook. And they want to do the work, and they don't just want drama." So my little eighth graders, absent of me completely, really, they came to me with the full plan, they said, "All you have to do is order a pizza." They created a plan where the sixth graders who were interested in applying did an application, and they would run an hour-long yearbook boot camp. And in the boot camp, there would be three separate sections. And so, my photo editor chose a bunch of photographs that were discarded. And she made copies of them. And she goes, "The kids in this group, we're going to give pictures, and we're going to see if they can design a layout and write a caption." My newspaper editors said, "What they're going to do for newspaper, I'm going to take one of my articles and make a bunch of grammatical errors, and see if they can fix the grammatical errors and write a good lead for an article." And my marketing people, because I had a marketing team too, [inaudible 00:24:03], "We've got to sell these books, and Miss Daughtery, you can't sell the books." So, my marketing team said, "In order to be in marketing, you have to have a lot of personality and not be afraid to talk to people. So, we're going to have them go out during lunch time and make an announcement to the entire lunch room and see who can do it and who can't."
So, these children came to me with a problem, "Here are some things we've noticed about our yearbook class. We think it can be better. But, also, Miss Daughtery, here is the solution. And the solution is, students have to be able to execute the skills needed to be successful in yearbook. Can you write a copy, can you write captions, can you write a lead?" And so, I'm looking at these children that I've had for two years, literally, I had to pick my jaws up off the floor. And they said, "Really, all we need from you is to order pizza." We even created a schedule. We think this will take about 90 minutes, so we have to do it over lunch time." And so, what I said was, "Okay, guys, I'll order pizza." And, that year, I let them run a yearbook boot camp. And to my knowledge, and I left that school several years ago, the students still do that. So, in the English language arts class, it's understanding the content, then being able to do something meaningful with it. To create, to expand, to explore, to execute. So doing something meaningful outside of my class.
Jacob: Miah, I appreciate you sharing. What a vivid example of agency in practice. And I want to jump back for a moment to, you know, you mentioned your conversations with your mom. And, you know, really naming that literacy is an equity issue that affects somebody's entire life, right?
Jacob: It's a barrier. It's a phase gate to realizing your potential in a number of areas, not just academic, but economic, social, etc. So, thank you for bringing that out. I think you're also the person that first, kind of, alerted me to the Kofi Annan quote that, "Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It's a tool for daily life in modern society. It's a bulwark against poverty, etc., etc." I mean, you're speaking to that. Now, I think the question that I know that I have listening with your yearbook example is, what happened the two years prior? How did you get them to that place? What were the practices, what happened in the classroom that that came to be?
Miah: So, that was my third year at the school. The program I ran was a complete overhaul of the program that existed. So three years prior, the teacher who had run the program left the school, and she ran a program with a very heavy hand and tight fist. Like, children could only do what she said do. The book had no words in it. She said, "Nope, they're middle school, they don't know how to write captions. The more they write, the more mistakes there are going to be and I want a perfect book." As I saw an old yearbook and thought, "Who are these people? There are no names in this book." And so, I came to that class brand new to the school. That's how I got yearbook. You know, last hire, they were like, "You get yearbook." I'm like, "Okay, I guess I'll figure this out."
But I came to the experience and I said to my students, "This is an English class. You guys know that, right? This is not a photography and run around during lunchtime class." And I said, "In the English class, you have to write." So the first year was very rough because the students I had were so used, honestly, to not having the expectation that they write captions, or they write copy, or they ask journalistic questions. They had none of the expectations. That first year was rough. The second year, unless they understood that I was neither going to bend nor break, and I said, "Guys, this can be fun, I found us external resources," so I sent all of my kids to yearbook camp, and I went with them, "We're all going to learn how to do this together." During the year, what I did was, I sat down and I thought, "Okay, what must they know how to do for this book to be good? At the very least, they have to understand how to write captions. And they have to understand how to take a picture with people's faces in it. And they have to understand how to write a semi-decent copy." So, that first year, I invested a lot of time in, like, the must-dos in terms of the content for students to produce a book that was good.
Jacob: Sure. Sure.
Miah: And then, by that third year, all new kids... At this point, these children only know this program. I've grown as an educator, so I'm layering on, "Okay. Well, I can teach captions and a lead. Let me see if I can ask them how to write compelling questions." So, each year that I taught that class, I grew in my practice as a yearbook advisor and teacher. But, because I grew, I also held kids to that exact same standard. And, some of it, to be honest, was because of necessity. So at the same time I was teaching inclusion English and honors English, my plate was full, and so, I would say to my students, "You have to do this work. I can't. I cannot do this work for you. And if you're going to get an A in yearbook, that means you have to do these things."
Miah: And so, I just set really high expectations and kept my own learning. And every time I learned something, I brought the kids to the same expectation that I brought myself.
Jacob: I appreciate that, Miah. And I want to connect that to...I mean, to me, I'm synthesizing for me, I guess, at this point, it seems like there was a real element of teacher clarity around what needed to be taught. How could you, to Fenesha and Ted's words, transfer the ownership, that clarity and the agency, frankly, for learning, the types of experiences you were able to curate, to bring that clarity to practice and have it cement to kids that allowed them to get to the place where they were, right? Where they could apply in a new scenario and set up a structure that apparently still stands today. That's fantastic.
Miah: Like, I'll just end with this. My first year, I realized selling yearbooks is a lot of work. And so, I said, "I don't want to do this again. This is not something I want to do." So I added on a whole another little group called marketing. Not that, "Oh, I've got to do this," but...
Miah: And so, I brought in a little girl. Her name was Ashley. Amazing personality. I mean, this child was fearless. And I sat her down and said, "You're going to be the marketing editor." What's that Miss Daughtery?" "Well, we're going to figure that out." I said, "But, basically, Ashley, you're in this class to make sure we sell these books." And I'll never forget, Ashley was a straight-A student, an honor student. And it's an elective, so middle school students are, kind of, used to getting an A. I did not run my classroom like that. I said to Ashley, "Here's the deal, Ashley. If you don't sell books, you don't get an A." So, I worked with her and we set goals and targets, and we developed a whole marketing plan. But I said, "Ashley, I don't care how nice you are. If these books don't sell, if we don't come out black in the end, you will not get an A." So, I also, you know, like you said, transferred ownership, set very high expectations, and I held students to them. But, I also provided resources and support along the way. And, I allowed them to make a lot of mistakes in a very non-threatening environment, "You can make as many mistakes as you want to. Let's learn from them and figure out how to make it better the next go-around."
Jacob: All right, I appreciate that, Miah. There's so much there to unpack. Let's pivot to mathematics. And, you know, you've been listening to Miah, the experience in literacy. As you go back to the, be it, the habits of mind or the ways of thinking, the types of things we need to curate our teacher clarity in the mathematics classroom, jump in for us, what are the things that we as educators need to do that, maybe, are similar to, or different from what we heard Miah talk about in the literacy-based classroom? Ted, do you mind if we start with you?
Ted: Yeah, sure. Thanks. And thanks for that great story, Miah. You know, once we've, sort of, established, like, where does the authority live in the mathematics classroom, and once students have this understanding that they are doers and users of mathematics and not victims of mathematics, right, it's not something that happens to them, we want to talk about, you know, this notion of, "Well, what's really involved in learning mathematics? What is it that I'm really trying to get through to the students?" And once we're through that, right, we've got to talk about, "What does it mean to really learn the mathematics? What's involved with this?" And so, the framing that I like to come back to, because it's accessible, it's easy to grab onto and hang onto is that mathematics learning involves at least three things. It involves ways of thinking, habits of thinking, and ways of doing, right? And, too often, the ways of doing is what takes the precedence. And, if all you're talking about is ways of doing, right, then the most mathematically...if all we're talking about is the ways of doing, then all we're really reinforcing is the kind of mathematics that, say, computers can do, right?
Ted: And not the kind of things that bring the humanity into the discipline as well. So, I like to say it this way. I like to talk about, "Hey, when we're talking about mathematics learning, it's ways of thinking that are empowered by habits of thinking along with an ability to make sense and use some ways of doing to do something bigger with the mathematics." And, sometimes, people ask, "Well, what do you mean by ways of thinking?" And it's an example that I might pull out, you know, I might be like, "Well, look, if somebody says... Here is the example. All right, how about this? Have you ever used division of fractions in real life?" And now, when you think about it, you go, "Yeah, I have." And then, you go, "Oh, wait. No, I haven't." I actually haven't used division of fractions in real life." "And why is that? Because when you were in younger years, in the younger years of elementary, you were taught all of these meanings for division, "Oh, I can think of it as equal sharing, or I can think about it as repeated subtraction, or I can think about it as comparisons." But then, when it got to the point in the curriculum where you were talking about division of fractions, it just became mechanical, it just became a way of doing. It wasn't connected back to a way of thinking, right? And so, we have to make sure that whenever we're doing these ways of doing, we're connecting them to ways of thinking, because that gives you the power to go do something bigger with the mathematics, right, not just do that mathematics, not just be a victim of division of fractions, but be able to take it, run with it, and do something with it.
Jacob: Mathematics as empowerment. I love that. Fenesha, what would you add here?
Fenesha: Yeah, I was just thinking about mathematics as empowerment. And Miah had me stuck on two key questions. And the first one is, why do we teach math? And then the other question is, what is math? I think it's...the onus is on educators to really explore those questions for themselves. When we think about what is math, the definition of math has changed from the 1800s up until the 21st century. You can define it as an abstract way of making sense of the world. You can get very specific and talk about the branches of mathematics. Ted has a great book there, "What is Math Really?" I've got a book here called The Unknown Quantity: A History of Algebra. And so, I think it's important for teachers and educators to really explore, "What is this thing that I'm teaching, and why do I teach it?" And I was reminded of a quote that says, "Freedom is what you do to what's being done to you." And when it comes to math education, a lot of times, students feel like it's something that's being done to them. They don't feel like they are participants, or that they have agency in the mathematics.
So how do we help people develop a commitment to improve their access in society through mathematics? Like, how do we help people understand the real-life application and the purpose of why we're learning math? That's definitely something that I want to explore a lot more, but I encourage educators to do the same.
Jacob: Those are some lofty questions. You know, what is mathematics? And having a solid philosophy or understanding of that to drive the types of... Well, you know, as Fred... Sorry. To drive the kind of questions that Ted mentions, you know, an emphasis on ways of thinking, habits of thinking, and ways of doing, these are really important things for us to consider. I'm wondering, in the mathematics classroom, then, you know, Ted, you spoke a lot just now around what equated to me, you know, the old kill-and-drill skill focused, or even knowledge focused, but without some of these pieces, you know, you call out, "We're falling short." So, when I'm curating, or doing lesson or unit planning, what kind of experiences in the mathematics classroom do I need to attend to, do I need to plan for, do I need to wear appropriate inner weave to help build this knowledge and agency? This is a question for both of you and Fenesha, Ted.
Ted: Well, to me, it's like understanding that students are building up ways of thinking, and to try to leverage that. And a mental picture that I use is to ask folks, "You know, when you finish learning mathematics, the last mathematics course that you took, was it like you had a box with 1,000 puzzle pieces in it, and you shook it up and, you know, you could hold it by your ear, and you could hear it rattling around, and you figured, it somehow made some great big picture, it told some story, there was some plot line here, or was it just a bunch of disconnected, random things that you, kind of, buggy at doing, right? And so, it's, kind of, this notion of, "Is the mathematics endeavor itself just collecting a bunch of random things, or is it about putting together a whole systematic sort of way of thinking that all of these things interact with each other?" None of the mathematics stands alone, right? What's the irony, what's the irony in the notion that all of the mathematics connects to the mathematics, right, and it all makes perfect logical sense, if you will, right, when you get into what we're teaching in the schools? But yet, you know, we hear about, you know, the students leaving classes, and they say, "This mathematics doesn't make sense," you know? And, that's the resounding cry, "This just doesn't make sense." But yet, it's the discipline that should be making the most sense. So, how do we really start to emphasize the sense-making? Well, you get back into finding out how the students are thinking about these things. You don't just look at the ways of doing as evidence that they've got things put together. You have to talk to them, you have to ask them questions. Fenesha, let me toss it over there.
Fenesha: Well, I want to give a shout out to an organization called The Young People's Project. And, I believe that they're doing just that. It's an organization that was started by Bob Moses who just recently passed away. And he was the brainchild behind math literacy workers. Math literacy workers are groups of young people, typically high school students, that make sense of mathematics. And then, they help to build student agency and students that are younger than them. And I think that's a great model and a great way for us to think about how we help students build agency.
Jacob: Fenesha, Ted, you're raising really profound and important questions, considerations for the mathematics educator. From your call-out, Ted, of the way that we do this is by digging into student thinking, right? Hearing from the teachers, "How are they thinking about the mathematics?" To, Fenesha, your call-out of Bob Moses' work in The Young People's Project of really creating cohorts of kids that are thinking about mathematics. And if I'm an educator in the classroom, be it primary grades, intermediate, high school, advanced mathematics, can you just say a bit more about how you would recommend we weave in this discovery of student thinking, this transfer of the power of thinking about mathematics along with, to your earlier point, the curriculum, to the standards, to the scope and sequence I get from my district or my administrator? How do I reconcile those in a way that creates coherence in my mathematics classroom?
Ted: This is a great question, Jacob, right? Because, in some ways, it's new space, right, to really push into getting at how are students thinking, how are teachers thinking? How do we have meaningful conversations about mathematical meanings, right? These are not the stuff that has typically been, you know, what we as math ed professor... It's not typically the things that, perhaps, we've engaged in over the course of our careers.
Fenesha: And we have to give ourselves permission to be open to various ways of thinking. Because if you think about an educator who might have an identity that is a little fixed when it comes to certain math topics because they haven't been exposed to other ways of thinking about it, they have to give themselves permission to be open, particularly, to the various ways that their students might think about a topic.
Jacob: I appreciate that, this modeling of mental flexibility, I suppose, and struggling or perseverance through struggle of applying new thinking to new contexts is powerful and, I think something that will certainly help all of us, and in turn, help our kids develop the kinds of identities, to your earlier point, the kinds of efficacy and agency we want to see. Miah, I'm going to pause for a second, because I'm curious. You know, you've heard all this conversation just now about changing thinking and changing approaches to teaching mathematics. Is there a corollary here with the science of reading? We hear all the time about literacy wars or the like. How does this manifest in the literacy classroom?
Mays: I'm going to answer that in two separate ways. So, my first answer is going to be specific to the foundational skills, foundational skill instruction, K-3 up to K-5, do not play around. Absolutely, teach reading using a science-backed approach to reading instruction which includes direct, explicit, systematic instruction in the foundational skills, right? So we know, if students miss the window in reading and they leave third grade without having solid foundation in phonics, phonemic awareness, oral language comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, they are going to struggle mightily for the rest of their lives. So, for my early-learning educators who are listening, early literacy is not really the space to be exploratory, especially for the foundational skills. But, I'm going to put that to the side for a minute and talk about literacy writ large.
So I was an English teacher, but I would argue that literacy has a place in every single classroom where students encounter text, not just the ELA space. Students should be expected to read and write and to a high degree, in science and in social studies, in ways that advance the thinking, and the learning, and the content of science and social studies.
So, the corollary for me is not about, how do we do English differently, it's how do we think about literacy differently, so that across the school day, students are getting as many high-quality experiences in literacy, and they're being consistently held to high expectations regarding reading, writing, speaking, and listening. So I would posit a rethinking of what literacy is, and all the many places it shows up, and all the many ways students are expected to execute the skill across the day. That's where we need to be thinking differently, more progressively, bolder, broader, and with an eye toward making sure students are advancing toward learning the content, but using literacy as a tool to get them there.
Jacob: That makes perfect sense. And I know it's a passion of yours. So as we think about this from literacy to disciplinary literacy, all of us as being responsible for building the agency of our students, even if we're not an ELA teacher, for example, what are a few things you would call us to do in our practice that will help us? Just as Ted and Fenesha talked about, you know, ways of thinking, habits of thinking, and ways of doing. Is there an aspect there that the general education teacher, the non-literacy teacher, or even the literacy teacher can lean in together on to build agency with literacy?
Miah: And so, Jacob, what I'm hearing in your question is, what are some practical, tactical things that teachers can do to bring literacy more to life in their classrooms day to day? So the first thing I would say is for all teachers, understand your text, right? So I'm going to use myself as a student just for a moment. I was very good at reading literature. Like, still am, really good at it. I struggled mightily in reading any mathematics textbook I ever got, really, like, understanding how to navigate any printed material with math on it. And so, I would say to my math educators, and I'm curious to hear what Fenesha and Ted would say, understand the text that you're asking students to navigate. And so, if you understand it, you'll be better prepared to help students figure out how to think through it, how to navigate it in a way that advances your content and what you want them to be able to do.
For my social studies teachers, I will say, right now, and I know teachers do this already, when you're looking at your primary sources, spend a lot of time thinking about author's position and perspective, and helping kids understand that a primary source document was written by a person, and that person came to that experience and wrote that text from the perspective that they brought to bear. Someone else who witnessed the exact same event is likely going to have a different primary source. So, for my social studies educators, I would say, help students understand when they are reading primary sources, the importance of author, author position, author perspective.
And I will say for my science educators, I will spend some time thinking about how your text functions. So I won't get into the specifics here, because, you know, blah, blah, blah, I'm a nerd, boring, but science text actually functions differently than literature or poetry, primary source documents. The way the syntax works is different. So, I would say to my science teachers, spend some time exploring and investigating the kind of texts you want students to read. And you should walk into that text thinking, "They are never, ever, ever going to learn how to read that in English. Never. They're never going to learn how to read science in English, so what do I need them to be able to do? And, therefore, what do I need to be able to teach them how to navigate through this text?" Does that help answer your question?
Jacob: It does, definitely. I think this clarity of, you know, understanding the text, understanding the intent or the...
Jacob: Yeah, purpose, perspective, and source documents, etc., certainly helps the literacy instruction, and I'm inferring in your comments, also help students gain that same level of clarity and understanding, and therefore is a building block to their agency within the practices of literacy.
Miah: Absolutely. So, I mean, hopefully, you know by now, I have tons of stories. One of the best eye-opening experiences for me as a teacher was when I was working with some students who were striving readers. They hadn't quite gotten that competency yet. And I was sitting with a young man and we were going through a text. It was a hard text. It was a Frederick Douglass speech. And I'm reading it with him, and the language is a little antiquated and it's hard. And so, we're going through it and he came to some words and there's no context in the text for those words to make sense. And so, I said, "Well, what does this word mean?" He stops and he is, like, guessing around. And he guesses wrong every time, because there's no context. Finally, I said, "Well, what are you doing?" And he goes, "Well, Miss Daughtery, I'm looking for context clues." And I said, "Why? Like, there aren't any." And he said, "There are always context clues." And I said, "No, there are not." And he said, "That's what we learned in elementary school." He goes, "So there are always context clues." And so I was teaching eighth grade at the time. And, here I am sitting with a struggling reader, a striving reader who has spent his entire life using one strategy that works some of the time, but not all the time and is walking away guessing at words completely confused, and completely confused while everybody else can understand what's happening.
So, the next day in my honors class, I asked my honors students, "How many of you guys look for context clues?" All their hands went up. And then I said, "Well, how many of you guys do something else?" I said, "What do you do when there's no context?" And my honors students said, "What are you talking about? There's always context. That's what we learned in elementary school." And so, that experience said to me, "You have to teach students how texts functions, because they're taking a strategy they learned in elementary school which is good for third grade, and they're bringing that exact same thing without any depth of thought, without any nuance, without any questioning, "What do I do when this doesn't work for me?" and you have to teach them a different way to navigate through text. So, I always say, for anyone working with any kind of text with students, do some work in understanding what it is they assume about the text that might be wrong, and figure out ways to help them learn how to navigate the text. So, "What do you do when there's no context? How do you know there's no context? And how do you figure out the meaning of the word aside from just randomly guessing because of the words around it? So, that's what I would say.
Jacob: That's very helpful, and I'm sure, helpful to all of the listeners right now. I'm mindful of our time together. And I could speak to the three of you all day, and I know that we would learn a lot all along the way. Unfortunately, our time is drawing to a close, so I'd like to ask each of you to consider this question within the mathematics or literacy disciplines, what would you leave teachers with in terms of suggestions, or the importance of, or actions they can take tomorrow around building student agency in their classrooms? Ted, do you mind if we start with you?
Ted: Sure. Yeah. And thanks for the opportunity. You know, we've talked about, sort of, setting up the authority in the classroom, where does that live? And then, helping the students to see themselves as users, not victims of the mathematics, to set up our own goals where, yeah, we've got ways of doing, but we're also attending the ways of thinking and habits of thinking, that these are there. But we also want to make sure that we don't lose track of setting up the right kind of classroom culture. And, I think about, even from my own teaching experience at the college level, trying to change that culture into one where it's about a safe place to share ideas and to interact and not just be told how to go do something. That's a pretty big lift, right? So, creating that culture where ways of thinking are celebrated, where it's safe. Where you're not wrong, you're developing, right?
Ted: You're putting things together, and you've got your own ways of thinking. And they're different from the next person's, and the next person's. But we're going to get there, and we're going to be stronger math students, mathematicians, math users because of that. Not ever losing that human side of it. We're not trying to create robots.
Jacob: Thank you for that call to action, Ted. That's compelling, certainly. Miah, do you mind if we come to you next?
Miah: I would love to be next. And I want to build on Ted. I 100% agree. And what I was thinking is, these are the three things I would leave teachers with. Remember that your students are a person first, someone's child second, and your student sometime after that. So, third, or later. So I will encourage teachers to remember that the children you see in front of you are children first, someone's child second. And so, it's part of the job to create cultures that honor children as individuals, that are designed to uplift them and push them to their potential. It's our job to create conditions and experiences where they are challenged and have the right and opportunity to be wrong and try again. So, the goal of school is not always to get the right answer, it's to learn how to think better so you can do something meaningful with the information or with the process at a later time. So, I would just encourage teachers, to build on Ted, to build a culture that encourages exploration, encourages inquiry, encourages trial and error. And remember, through all of that, all of our students are children and people first.
Jacob: I wish I could have been in either of your classrooms. I really appreciate that call to action as well, Miah. Fenesha, last words to you, friend.
Fenesha: I'm sorry. I just spent all this time writing it out and I'm like, "Oh, now I can't say it." Teachers, educators, and all the other supportive adult stakeholders in our young people's lives have the responsibility to help our students develop healthy identities. And we have to remember that the identities are the dispositions and beliefs that we have about a topic, and specifically about math. Our identities are not fixed, and so, the onus is on us to constantly shape and develop our identities. Teachers and students have these identities, whether we're aware of them or not. So, our call to action is to become aware of what our identities are, and how it's shaping our teaching and learning experiences. I think, for students, their experience in the classrooms are going to experience how they engage with the content. It's going to influence the thoughts and the feelings that they associate with learning. And all of that impacts their identity. The teacher's identity is going to influence how they engage with the content, how they engage with pedagogy, how they engage with their students. So my question for teachers and for educators is, how can we leverage our identities to achieve agency? Your answer to that is going to be your call to action.
Jacob: I think you just lived up to the inspiration that I billed you as at the beginning of this podcast. Fenesha, thank you. And thank you again, Ted and Miah as well. You've given us a lot to chew on. You, and I knew you would, are pushing our practice, are pushing our thinking about our practice, and for all the right reasons, for the equity reasons, for the agency reasons that, really, are the outcomes we want to see in our classrooms. So, again, I want to thank each of you for coming and sharing your expertise and your thoughts with our listeners.
Fenesha: Thanks for having us, Jacob.
Miah: This was fun. When can we come back?
Jacob: Well, thank you all again, and thank you all for listening to "The Continuing Educator." This has been a dynamic conversation. A lot to chew on. We appreciate you listening. And remember to go to our blog, Teach. Learn. Grow. to continue the conversation and pick up other ideas, resources, etc., to inform your classroom instruction. So thank you for listening. We'll see you again next week on "The Continuing Educator." Don't forget to subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts.