About half of our coaching staff is engaged in a book study of Peter Johnston's Choice Words. We meet once a month before school at a local coffee shop that offers three essentials: big tables, caffeine and protein. Each month we read and discuss a chapter. Our fourth meeting is focused on Chapter 4: Agency and Becoming Strategic which Peter defines as, "If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals."
After partner reading a section with my colleague and fellow coach, Amanda Adrian, we talked about how agency, an agent, and agentive thinking didn't fit our schema for Peter Johnston's references. Agent 007 Secret Squirrel from the cartoons of my childhood stuck in my head. I needed a different term to help me connect.
What Johnston highlights in the agency chapter is the power to use our actions and language to convince young and less young people alike that they are little engines that can and will climb the mountain. Johnston includes this quote from David James, "Any time you can get them to think, that's kind of a victory right there." In my mind I began to think of it as the "sense of little engines."
Recently I had the opportunity to put a sense of agency or little engines into practice while co-teaching in a third-grade classroom. Mr. Bruin (pseudonym) told me he has many reluctant writers, "They don't know how to get started writing. They wouldn't know a creative idea if it bit them."
We had been co-creating a nonfiction unit of study, slowly transforming Mr. Bruin's whole class writing instruction based on stapled worksheet packets into a writing workshop. He'd read Ralph Fletcher, liked the workshop idea and wanted it to be successful, but he just wasn't sure how it could be with "this group."
Tuesday morning we were brainstorming about that day's minilesson while the students were out at recess. "I'm sure after we do the minilesson there will be at least eight blank stares and untouched papers," he predicted. He invited me to do the minilesson after we decided to focus solely on the topic of 'getting started.' As the kids were filing in I said, "I believe the kids know what to do to get started. I'll just take notes on their strategies in the minilesson."
And then we began. "Look to your left," I said. "Look to your right."
"You are surrounded by writers. Today I need to hear from you about tips on how to get started with writing because that's not easy for me, Mr. Bruin or any writer."
As the kids turned knee-to-knee, eye-to-eye with a neighbor, they brainstormed ways to get started writing.
The whole group then listed their ideas, one after another, growing braver as each suggestion was accepted and validated.
This was their list:
I look at my notes.
I look up at the ceiling for a little while.
I need to talk to someone.
I look around the room for ideas.
I pick up my pencil and write one word and then the next one.
I tap my feet on the carpet (quietly).
I just start.
I would contend that this list wouldn't be much different if I did the same brainstorming with adults. The introverts need to go inside; the extroverts need to talk. The kinesthetics need to look around the room and tap, and the artists need to create a visual. Some begin at once, while others gather courage to face the page. This is how real writers get started.
"So today," I said, "You might try one of these tips on the board."
Then I asked Mr. Bruin to model with me."I'll pretend to be the student, Mr. Bruin, and you be the teacher. We're going to ask the students this question after we model – 'Who was doing the thinking?'"
In the role play, Mr. Bruin walked up to me and I showed my blank page.
"Why haven't you started writing, Mrs. Rader?" he asked. I shrugged.
"What ideas do you have for writing?" he asked. I shrugged again.
"Do you think you might write about soccer?" he asked. I shook my head no.
Then I re-engaged the students, "Who was doing the thinking?" They all pointed to Mr. Bruin. They knew.
"And Mr. Bruin already graduated from third grade! So who needs to be doing the thinking and the work?" I sang.
This time Mr. Bruin asked me, "Why haven't you started writing Mrs. Rader?" and I shrugged.
Then he said, "Will you use an idea from the board or one of your own to get started?"
I said, "I was thinking of drawing a picture and then talking to someone about my idea."
"Who was doing the thinking?" I asked the class.
"You were!" they responded.
On a typical writing day, if the students weren't writing within five minutes, Mr. Bruin walked around and began to tell the kids to pick up their pencils and get started. But on this day, we simply went around asking the students how they were getting started and trusted them. Within ten minutes, the kids were all writing.
"Just look at all those willing writers."
The following day I hosted a writing scoring workshop for teachers. As they signed in, balancing stacks of their students' writing and coffee, we began by annotating a common rubric. We discussed our own scoring biases, and read the anchor papers out loud. (Anchor papers are pre-selected student papers that a leadership team deemed illustrative of each of the rubric levels during an earlier gathering called "range finding.")
In the past, once the scoring commenced, I watched for teams flipping their name tent from horizontal to vertical to signify the need for a discrepant scorer to discuss a paper that was not agreed upon. Then I would read the paper. I would find the closest match in the anchor set. I would explain my scoring reasoning. Who was doing the thinking? I was.
Reflecting back to Peter Johnston's quote, I revised it to match what I was trying to achieve with these adults. "If nothing else, teachers should leave the scoring workshop with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals."
This time I took an inquiry stance. I asked, "Which anchor paper did you think was the closest match?" Sometimes they'd call out 4A or 2C and sometimes they scrambled to find their anchor papers. After they shared a match I asked, "Why?" and they gave me their scoring reasoning. Most of the time I nodded and said, "Good call. That's consistent with the rubric and the anchors." And at times I gently disagreed and said, "I see closer to a 3 because . . ."
My language and actions matched my belief that teachers with the right tools can be accurate and consistent scorers of student writing.
Successful Protagonists Abound
When Johnston poses, "How do we arrange for children (or teachers) to tell many stories in which they are the successful protagonists?" I think about Mr. Bruin's third graders who were entrusted to start writing, and my colleagues who did the thinking about scoring simply because I took a questioning, and not a telling, stance. I will continue to search for ways to give learners an opportunity to be at the center of their stories. No matter how tall the mountain or how big the task, we all need a sense of little engines . . . or Secret Squirrel 007 Agency, perhaps.