Extending Engagement: An Invitation for Agency

Extending Engagement: An Invitation for Agency

by Jenn Hayhurst and Jill DeRosa

There was a buzz of excitement in the classroom. Do you know what we mean? That way of speaking that students take on when they are really on task, doing the work. The noise bubbles up and down to match the thinking that is going on behind their jubilant voices. Yes! We want school to offer lots of engaging experiences for students. Engagement is great; it has the potential to invoke an emotional response and facilitate memories to long-term storage. Engagement is such an important piece, but it is not enough. Classroom experiences can be more than just engaging from moment to moment. The experiences we create for students can be long-lasting and meaningful when they have more skin in the game. When students drive the learning, it becomes an extension of themselves. They believe in themselves because their actions really make an impact on what happens in the classroom. When students believe their actions matter, this is learning with a sense of agency. The question we ask is: How do we make the shift from engagement to agency?  

Watch for Understanding

Let us show you what we mean. As you read this piece, flex your kid-watching skills: What do you see? What do you hear?

There are marshmallows, string, spaghetti, and tape ready on the tables for them to use. A challenge has been set: “Who can make the tallest tower using just these materials?” Four groups of students all looking to find their flow—how would they work together to build the biggest tower? 

Zoom in on Brenden’s group: everyone debating and trying out their ideas. Would the stickiness of the tape be the game changer? Would the thickness of the tower cause it to fall? All working as a cohesive team. 

Zoom in on John’s group: he has a vision and the others are frantically trying to make it come to fruition. The marshmallows were their demise. Sticky, sticky pieces of marshmallows on fingers, desks, streaked across broken spaghetti. They were working even if nothing else was.  

Zoom in on Ava’s group: four fledgling towers swaying side by side. No one was willing to give up their design and join together as a team. Supplies were beginning to run out and the negotiations were beginning. The pressure becomes too much, and this is when Ava begins to cry. 

Zoom in on Sofia’s group: one group has nothing except patience. Each member carefully observed how the others were working together: marshmallow base (check), skinny strands of spaghetti that formed a pasta tepee (check). Quiet, covert, and deftly efficient as they learned from their competition—destined to be the Marshmallow Champions! 

Take Time to Honor Students  

So you might have noticed John. He is the kind of boy who likes to take control and tell everybody what to do. You may have noticed how Ava's group members all did their own thing and ran out of both supplies and time. Or maybe you noticed how Sofia’s group was doing their own kid-watching, looking to see what others were doing so they could plan their next steps. You may have noticed something we missed. The point is, you are watching to understand.

While watching students, some questions to consider might be: What are students invested in? What matters to them? How much risk will they take for learning’s sake? Goodman and Owocki (2002) remind us that “the primary goals of kid-watching are to support and gain insight into children's learning by (1) intensely observing and documenting what they know and can do; (2) documenting their ways of constructing and expressing knowledge; and (3) planning curriculum and instruction tailored to individual strengths and needs.”

Collecting formative data through a highly engaging lesson and finding the answers to these kinds of questions will inform how agency moves from a concept to a reality. We are suggesting that teachers can promote agency for students (a belief system that their work matters) through careful study of who they are as learners. By watching students, we know a little bit more about what motivates some to learn. We also know what might be an obstacle for others. For example, knowing how students express knowledge—do they write, do they think, do they have to talk it out to understand—helps us build those conditions inside classrooms for those students.

Taking time to watch students informs classroom spaces and curriculum choices, opening up pathways for agency. Now is the opportunity to build a classroom space that is brimming with resources that will inspire learning for
these students. We are using student identity to transform the classroom space to mirror their interests. Bringing in what is familiar and beloved will make learning about the new and strange more inviting. Giving students access to the things that matter most shows them that their teachers are invested in them. Agency is there for the taking.

Tips to Try

  1. Bring in items from home to extend students' identities to the classroom.

    1. Items for writing

    2. Gallery walk commenting on each other’s items

  2. Hang self-portraits, photos of family, or photos of students with their signatures for display spaces for their work

  3. Get book recommendations going quickly.

  4. Carousel some meaningful open-ended questions:

    1. What do I need from my teacher?

    2. What do I need from my parents/family?

    3. What qualities make a great classmate?

    4. What topics are you interested in?

    5. What strategies do you use? 

  5. Each child creates a classroom map that tells what spaces are the most meaningful to them and why. Students may write or discuss this.                  

Any one of these activities will feel great, and kids will be eager to share with teachers and their peers. The instructional choices that follow will rely on what has been learned about students. But what about curriculum and standards? Yes, teachers know “what” they are responsible to teach. We are saying agency is how teachers meet those big goals and make learning meaningful to their students. It becomes meaningful when students have a voice and choice to sway the direction their learning will take. 


Intentionally Instruct and Learn

Teachers are given curriculum and standards that map the plan for our school year. We do not want to diminish the importance of curriculum and standards; we understand that they provide concepts, strategies, and skills that are proven to be important in preparing students for success. Instead, we do want to strive to make this curriculum more agentic by moving from the “what” of curriculum to the “how” and “why.” We do this by turning to our students and letting them serve as our guides to help us navigate the curriculum. We can bring it to life by having a conversation with kids to uncover what motivates them to learn. Then offer them back options for how we know they learn best considering their motivation for learning. 

We believe curriculum is not something to passively follow; instead, it can be something we actively engage with, using student identity to lead the way. Cornelius Minor (2018) addresses the need to create a curriculum rather than merely dispense it this way:

It would be criminal to just hand students, especially those coming from trauma, a textbook curriculum. If kids have no support at home and you add academic trauma to the mix, it’s horrible. Teachers should be utilizing students’ individuality and their passions to reach their kids—build a curriculum that accentuates all the best parts of them.

We are not saying that students will not engage if provided with a set curriculum; many students like to take part in school and work for teacher praise. What we question is, will that type of learning be meaningful and does it make an impact on long-term learning? Is it agentic? Learning becomes agentic when: student voices are a part of the conversation, teachers provide choice to share control and power over learning, and teachers and students collaborate to create shared intentions. 

Let us show you how we made room for agency within our curriculum.

Our second grade class is studying the different ways Earth can change both slowly and quickly. The curriculum calls for us to study a variety of natural occurrences involving wind and water such as erosion, weathering, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, droughts, etc. Next we will look at the effects of these natural events and possible solutions. Learning all about this topic will be very engaging for most students because we could show videos, create models, read aloud, present dramatic performances, and use a variety of other possible options.  

How did we move from engagement to agency? The simple answer is we created an opportunity for shared intentions by inviting students to take ownership over the learning. This did require time; however, it was time well spent because it made the learning more relevant. Here are some ways we were able to do this:

  • The students asked themselves, “Which of these topics matter to me?” Then they chose which natural events they wanted to study and were provided with a variety of resources. 

  • They thought about, “Who shares my interest and motivation?” Then they decided whether to work independently or to collaborate with others.

  • As students worked, they were encouraged to ask, “Does my learning help me see the relevance of this information to my life?" Then they explored a variety of solutions and evaluated which ones would best help our world. 

  • Then it was time to decide, “What is the best way to get my information out into the world?” Students presented their information through videos, TedTalks, speeches, posters, displays, dramatic performances, and written reports. 

  • Students sought out feedback from their peers to see if their ideas made an impact on others. They tried out different solutions including benefits and pitfalls. Then they learned to ask themselves if they were flexible thinkers who allowed others to make an impact on their learning. 

  • Sometimes a grand conversation was held where students shared what they were learning and debated different solutions. This is where they practiced using their voices to see if they were able to make an impact on others. 

  • We found that an added benefit was that more efficient learning happened naturally. They were meeting standards from a variety of content areas, specifically reading, writing, and mathematics.            

This was one example of shared intentions with students over the curriculum to make room for agency. Students took on an active role in how to engage in their learning, and learning became agentic.   

Tips to Try

  1. Have students create goal folders to gain insights into their goals, and then shape curriculum to include their voices and create shared intentions.

  2. Offer choices in topics, books, writing modes, strategies, and requested materials.

  3. Be conversational with children about what they want to accomplish. Listen to understand rather than to direct. Try to use their words to drive the discussion and the learning within the curriculum.

  4. Set expectations for student voices with an understanding that students’ voices are able to have long-lasting impacts on others around them. Ask—don’t tell—how they might get their ideas into the world. Then help them make it happen. Follow-through is extremely important when teaching for agency.

  5. Engage for long-term learning rather than just short-term success. Learning does not end with a unit celebration! Instead, build on learning by connecting its value throughout the school year. For example, show students how asking questions will help them learn as readers, writers, mathematicians, historians, and scientists. They will be learning how to extend a sense of agency into other areas of school or “real life.”

Reflect to Refine Our Focus

Children are learning all the time, but what makes their learning stick? Taking time to reflect, to think deeply, about what has been learned so learning is integrated into their existing knowledge base. When learning sticks, students can make a plan for how they will apply their learning for what comes next. Patty McGee (2019) shares her thoughts that “reflection is feedback for yourself” and “reflection is the stickiest superglue for learning.” 

Reflection helps us see how far we have come and what we have done well, and to see more clearly the work that needs to come next. This is how we push ourselves to become more than we are now, or maybe it is to appreciate how far we’ve come. Either way, reflection is necessary when engaging in challenging work because that takes endurance. It is both that external and internal dialogue: “Now I know… so that means...” or  “I don’t understand… I am going to keep trying.” Paying close attention to the language that follows challenging work can be evidence of potential transfer: “This worked well for me, so I will use it to” or “Oh! I get it! If I… then…” When you hear these kinds of declarative statements, make sure to take some anecdotal notes so you remember to look for that learning next time. Agency comes from self-belief, so when teachers prioritize agency, they are also teaching students to reflect and to believe in themselves. 



Tips to Try

Tucking in time for reflection so that it becomes a habit of mind is important for us all. Reflection fuels a sense of self and one’s place in the world. Engaging in reflective practices daily will help our students (and ourselves) realize that learning goes on beyond the moment and the possibility to have a bigger impact. Pushing engagement to agency makes learning more long-lasting. 

Reflect for Teacher Agency

Reflect for Student Agency

  • Work in a 3-minute transition between lessons to think & jot.

  • Write a sticky note reflection in your plan book.

  • Buddy up with a teacher down the hall or on social media. Devote a set amount of time each day/week toward reflections.

  • Engage in peer coaching to gauge teacher impact for instruction.

  •  Videotape your own teaching and watch it with the lens of a learner.

  • Work in 3-minute transitions for students to Think, Jot & Chat. 

  • Create a bulletin board space for students to curate reflections. 

  • Twitter book reflections—Students reflect in a notebook and other kids make connections and write responses to each other.

  • Provide time for students to reflect on feedback from peers and respond to it.

  • Let students record a video reflection about their learning each day.


Please Respond: The Benefits of Saying “Yes!” 

"Yes" opens the door to agency by coming together with students to develop shared intentions through a more balanced form of decision making for learning. Saying yes to agency means saying yes to using the most valuable of resources: time. Giving time for deep thinking around learning and its value to the learner is like a gift that keeps giving because students are learning for themselves. Saying yes comes with an understanding that classrooms are built by students, not for them. If teachers say yes, they are rewarded with agency for themselves as educators. If they say yes, they will have the privilege to see agency reveal itself through students’ actions.

As we move into the new school year, let’s build our capacity for trust and hope. Trust in ourselves and our students. Hope for a future where our students can take agency over their learning so they learn to believe in themselves and their ability to make a positive impact on the world. 


Read More!

In the face of great adversity, agency showed up. In the blog post Agency From Start to Finish, authors Jenn Hayhurst and Jill DeRosa reflect on how meaningful learning overcomes the steepest obstacles when we learn with a sense of agency. Read it now! 

What's Next?

Join authors Jenn Hayhurst and Jill DeRosa for a free PD webinar, Agency for All: Transformative Practices That Empower Students (and Teachers Too!), now available on demand. What is agency and how does it motivate joyful learning? Explore a framework for developing agency through responsive teaching and a student-centered approach. Watch now! 

About the Authors

Jenn Hayhurst

Jenn Hayhurst is a creator and co-moderator of the influential weekly Twitter chat #G2Great with Mary Howard and Amy Brennan. She is a literacy coach with a focus on Grades K-3 and has worked as an Adjunct Professor for graduate students completing their practicum at Long Island University, Riverhead. Jenn is the co-author of W I R E for Agency: Four Simple Moves That Transfer Learning.


Jill DeRosa

Jill DeRosa is a second grade teacher and a district lead teacher charged with providing professional development for her colleagues. She is also an Adjunct Professor at Long Island University, where she teaches preservice teachers. Jill has taught in both private and public school, with a focus in Grades K-3. Jill is the co-author of W I R E for Agency: Four Simple Moves That Transfer Learning.

You May Like: W I R E for Agency: Four Simple Moves That Transfer Learning

When teachers cultivate children’s agency, students achieve. It’s that simple. In W I R E for Agency, two dynamic educators name four simple moves that lead to self-efficacy in students and to responsive teaching. Teachers learn to:

  • Use a framework of Watch, Intend, Reflect, and Engage as a daily tool in Workshop or any literacy program

  • Address all aspects of agency with concrete actions, including cultural responsiveness, self-regulation, engagement, and growth mindset

  • Envision curricula and environments for student-centered learning

  • Design collaborative learning experiences that give students practice with goal setting, taking action, and reflecting on progress