What happens when students have the freedom to know themselves as learners, and lean into their agency?
Today Debbie Miller and Emily Callahan join us to talk about fostering student agency in the classroom. Debbie and Emily are co-authors of I’m The Kind of Kid Who…: Invitations That Support Learner Identity and Agency. Their book presents readers with a series of “invitations” that welcome students to explore their own motivations and choices.
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Brett: Debbie and Emily, let's start with this. How did you two meet and decide to work together on this book?
Debbie: Well, how many years ago was it Emily? When we very first met in north Kansas city?
Emily: Well, my son is almost 10, so I was pregnant with him. So over a decade ago. Yeah.
Debbie: Yeah. So over a decade ago I was doing some staff development work, professional development in north Kansas city. And so most often my work is working with a teacher. We plan together and either I teach or we co-teach and then teachers watch, and then we debrief and talk about what we saw, what we're wondering about, what next steps might be. And so it was through that work, I got paired up with Emily luckily, and it just seemed like we clicked right from the beginning. And I could tell like, okay, I'm going to learn as much from this teacher as she's going to learn from me. And so it was really a decade of, I was in your room so many times, right? And we would clean and then we would do things and it was just that's how we met. And so then all these years later, I was doing similar kind of work in another district.
And I met this child, Jude, and we were doing some work in this classroom around non-fiction work and the teachers and I were trying to figure out, so how are kids going to show they're learning? How are they going to show what they know? And all kinds of things came up. And I finally said, what if we just asked them how do you want to go about showing your learning? How will you show what you know? And so there was a little bit of like, oh, I don't know if we should do that. Teachers were worried. And I said, let's just try it. And so that's when there was this child over in the corner, just building a tower out of books and there's all this like, oh my gosh, you better get over there. What's happening? And I'm thinking, let's just stand back.
Let's just wait and see what happens. And so the more we watched, Jude made this tower and then they got a piece of paper and started drawing and then another paper and started labeling and was talking about trusses and using the book from yesterday. And so we were just kind of in awe of what had happened. And so then afterwards, when I was doing some reflecting with teachers, but also on my own, I just thought, wouldn't it be something, or how could we instill that sense of confidence and the sense of agency really within all children that Jude just seems to have all on their own. And so I tried to think about what might that be? What might that be? And that's when the whole idea of what if we invited kids. That was a whole invitations came into play.
And so I thought, but now I don't have my own classroom. How am I going to go about that? And then later that night, Emily's face just popped into my head. And I thought, okay. I wonder if Emily would be willing to think about invitations and how we could go about trying something out with children that would give them that sense of identity, that sense of agency, that sense of I'm the kind of kid who knows what I need, who knows how I learn, who knows what I need to thrive. And so that's when then we kind of reconnected. I guess we were never disconnected, but that's when we got together again to think about what a book like this might look like.
Emily: The second Debbie called me, she was like, "Hey, do you want to like work on this project?" And I didn't even hesitate. I was like, well, yeah. When Debbie asks you to do something, you do it because she's amazing. But yeah, so Debbie and I just started thinking about these different invitations we could offer kids from things like what if you could choose where to work to what kind of materials to what if you could make your thinking visible. And they kind of got more sophisticated, but that's what our last few years has been. Just inviting kids to make choices and constantly asking them to reflect along the way about what they're learning about themselves, who they are, how they learn.
Debbie: What we realized was that yes, it was about choice, but you just can't have a bunch of choices without thinking about, so what did I try? So here's my choice. What happened, to build in time for kids to think about. So what happened here? What did I learn about myself? And that was what we learned that was key was the whole reflection piece, because without it, it just didn't stick. It was just about choice making. This, I think, took it in into a deeper level of getting to know who you are, thinking about identity, developing that sense of agency that we wanted so much.
Brett: Emily, I wonder if you could talk about how important it is to have reflection. It's a big part of your classroom culture. I wonder if you could share a little bit more about your classroom culture and how reflection comes through.
Emily: When I think back to my early years, I set up my classroom, I kind of launched things a lot differently than I do now. Now from the very beginning, kids know that I'm not the one that's going to be making all the decisions from the get go. I'm going to ask them to try things out. And it's just a very, no pressure here. We're going to try things out and we're going to learn about ourselves and we're going to learn a little bit more about ourselves today than we did the day before. And Debbie first called and was telling me about the Jude story. I was just thinking there's so many Judes in our classrooms waiting to be discovered. I don't think they're an outlier. I think there's so many kids like that, that just need to have the opportunities to try things.
And then again, it's not just about making, you can give kids markers and sticky notes all day long, but if you don't stop and ask them, like, so what'd you try today? What were you making? Why were you making it? So how did that influence what you chose to use? So just really thinking about the purpose and intentionality behind the choices, and then giving them the stems. So what'd you learn about yourself? So I'm the kind of kid who... And when you just give them that little piece, they'll surprise themselves. They're like, oh, I'm the kind of kid who needs to spread out. I need this giant piece of paper because I'm doing this really big project.
And then you stop and go, oh my gosh, guys, look what JJ's learning about himself. He knew that he was doing all this thinking. He was reading all these dinosaur books and he just really wanted to put his thinking on the page and he needed a big space. So JJ's the kind of kid that he knows what he needs. And you say, "JJ, what'd you do yesterday?" "Well, I was just reading. So I needed a comfy spot." Oh, so you are really thinking about your purpose. So constantly tying it back to reflective questions. And then when we're constantly sharing and reflecting about what we're learning about ourselves through the choices we make, then we're learning about each other. And then we're building that collective sense of agency. And then we get to know not only ourselves, but each other and who we are and how we learn and what we need.
Brett: I think what I love about that so much Emily and Debbie is through those reflections, through those critical questions that you have throughout the book and the questions that you've just talked about a little bit, it really helps students advocate for themselves as well. They're learning about themselves, but then in the dialogue with their teachers, they're able to advocate for themselves as well. Debbie, I'd love for you to talk a little bit about how critical it is to really listen to students when we ask these questions. We're not just asking these questions as like a placeholder or anything. You're really inviting us to really listen when we ask these questions.
Debbie: Right. I think it's maybe threefold when we think about that, because absolutely for us, it gives us great information about how a kid, how are they going about reflecting on about who they are and what they need and how they're learning. So it's great for us to get insight into a child and where they are. And it also gives the child an insight that it's in there. But if we don't ask the question, they're not going to take the time naturally. I mean, we hope that it becomes a natural part of what they do when they're trying something. But in the beginning, it's hard sometimes for kids. Some kids do it right away, but I mean, if we keep with it, then they develop a deeper insight into thinking about themselves in that way. And so that also, it's important for us, it's important for children.
And it's also important when, if we do it, like sometimes kids are on their own and sometimes we're all together. So then think about if kids are reflecting and then other kids are listening in, and then I believe they're getting a deeper understanding of how we're kind of headed in the same direction, but we get there in different ways. And then we begin to value not only how we figure things out, but how other kids figure out things in different ways. And it's all good. This is just the kind of community we are. We're the kinds of kids who really think about who we are and what we need, and we listen to everybody else. So it gives, I think, kids also an insight into, I think there's a piece of acceptance in there of others. I think there's a lot to think through there that it's almost everything if we can help kids. Becomes natural for them.
Emily: The conversations we have now when kids are sharing what they tried, it's not, well, can you say more about. Nowadays they're like, well, I tried this because I was doing this and I know that I need this. And so their reflections now at this time of year are so much deeper than they were at the very beginning. And Debbie, when you were talking about how we learn about each other, then there become so many kids in the room that can help each other. They don't need to come to me. If Lila did this for something, then they know that they can go to Lila now. And when Micah decided that he was going to track his whole process reading a series, that inspired four more kids to try something similar. And so it's just kind of we inspire and we influence each other, and that built... that's a huge part of our culture.
Debbie: There's that great quote when it comes to agency. Peter Johnston has it in his book Choice Words where he says, he's quoting Anne Dyson, where he says "A child must have some version of, yes, I imagine I can do this." And then she says, "And the teacher must view the present child is capable. And on that basis, imagine new possibilities." And so when we think about agency and when we think about invitations, it is about offering kids new possibilities to get to know themselves, to get to know each other, for us to get to know them as kids, as humans.
And so it's not only within invitations, it becomes just the way things are. And so Emily and I, sometimes we just think, oh my gosh, if just this, if we just gave kids opportunities to make choices to figure things out for themselves, how amazing would that be if we started in kindergarten and just moved on? And it isn't hard. That's the thing. We tried to think about how can we make this feel doable? And so all of the different invitations, in the beginning, we went through, Emily, what she would try, but there's lots of ways in. Basically we just want kids to view themselves as the kinds of kids that can figure things out on their own because they know who they are. That's the goal.
Emily: And Debbie, this is where I think about not just developing agency in kids, but I'm thinking about my work with you the past 10 years and how you've helped me developed a sense of agency as a teacher. And I think through a ton of reflection and figuring things out, I've started to believe that I'm the kind of teacher who can figure things out. And when I have that stance myself, I'm much more likely to offer it to kids because I know the excitement of when I figure something out through our work together. It's so exciting then to offer that to kids.
Debbie: Because you have confidence, right? Just doing the same kind of work that we're asking children to do, that helps your lessons, your conferences, because you've actually done it. And then think about how kids, if you've done it's like, okay, I'm going to do that too. You have some credibility.
Emily: Yeah. You've lived the process and you understand that journey. And so it's much more authentic and real when you talk to children about it.
Brett: Emily, I kind of want to go stick with that for a minute. So if I'm a teacher who hasn't been on that journey yet, but I want to get on that journey, I want to start that work. And I'm not really sure yet how I'm going to factor in time into this, but I really value student agency. What advice would you give that listener, that reader who's hearing this and is looking to kind of take that journey?
Emily: Going back to what Debbie said about doing the work that we're asking our kids to do, I think regardless of time or resources and whatnot, I think even just that right there is whatever I'm going to ask students to be doing today, I need to think through it and do the work myself. Whether that's thinking about materials, whether that is thinking if you have a certain reading passage that you need to do, whatever. Like just thinking again, what's the goal here? What am I asking kids to do? I need to do it as a learner first. Then I kind of reflect on it. Like, what did I do? What were my pitfalls? Where did I get stuck? How did I get unstuck? How did I make my thinking visible? And then so when I really reflect about that process to get there, that was a game changer for me. And thinking about how I really focused on the process.
Debbie: I remember Emily when I was in your classroom, you would actually chart it in front of kids. You were being so honest about what it is you're doing, where you weren't understanding. That is exactly what you're talking about. And sometimes you show your work to kids, but other times you don't. But ultimately it's just being aware of your mental processes and what you do as a reader, a mathematician, a writer, a thinker.
Emily: Because if we are not the reflective teachers, the kinds of reflective teachers who can figure things out, it won't be nearly as impactful for kids. Because again, we have that collective sense of agency.
Brett: Debbie, when I think of your writing, when I think of you as an author, I always think of you as bringing some much needed optimism. And you always bring hope and joy in your words. And this book with Emily really carries that. So I wonder, and we'll end with this. What inspires you both to remain hopeful and joyous in education today?
Emily: I think every day what's so great about being a teacher is that every day I'm going to learn something new about a child that I didn't know the day before. And I know that every day I'm going to kid watch, I'm going to listen in, I'm going to confer. I'm going to write sticky notes to kids to show them I see them. And I see what they're learning about themselves. And the greatest thing about this work is I know I can always count on and that a kid is going to do something that I never expected. And it's just going to be amazing. And that's just the best part ever is what we learn about each other each day.
Debbie: Well, see, this is how we think alike. Because when I was thinking about this, what inspires us, me, brings joy, it's kids. And so what we're hoping is from looking at all these kids, that you'll see kids in our book that are just like your kids. And so Jude's at the beginning, Anuli at the end. We just can't help but be inspired by children. And that's what keeps us at this for year after year after year, because kids are all that is I think where we are.
Debbie Miller is a teacher, author, and literacy consultant. She taught in the Denver Public Schools for thirty years and now works extensively with schools and districts on long-range planning and development of literacy programs. Debbie is the author or co-author of many resources for teachers, including What's the Best That Could Happen?, Reading with Meaning, No More Independent Reading Without Support, and the forthcoming "I'm the Kind of Kid Who...".
Emily Callahan has taught for nineteen years in the Kansas City, Missouri area. She currently teaches in the Liberty Public Schools, where her daily workshops offer children the gifts of time, choice, response, and community. Emily serves as an instructional leader in her building, and she has presented at numerous local and national conferences. Emily and her students have been featured in several professional books that focus on literacy learning.