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Putting students in charge while we navigate the path and expose the possibilities, student agency.

The minilesson has just finished. The students have been dismissed to writing workshop with a simple, “Happy Writing!”  As I place my hands on the arms of the chair to stand students gather in front of me, “Umm, Mrs. Frazier, I was wondering…. or Can I…, or Where is, or Can I go…” Does this sound familiar to you?

Student interruptions can compact the precious time we have set aside to confer with students. Whether your interruptions are before you begin conferring or, perish the thought, DURING a conferring session, interruptions rob our students of valuable minutes of writing. The time they’re standing in front of us is time they could be writing.

So how can we disarm the interruptions, the robbers of our time?

Student Agency

Student agency allows students to follow their interests, choose topics, tools, and writing spaces that are appropriate to their needs and purpose.  When students are driving their learning the work is meaningful, students are empowered, and students are engaged.  When we put our students in front of the learning, they are no longer wondering, “Can I… ” because they already know the answer and they are eager and ready to write.

The Guiding Light

Structure, accountability, and redirection are key factors in student-driven learning and decreasing interruptions. As the teacher we must work as the navigator, exposing paths, making expected outcomes known, and redirecting our students when appropriate.  As teachers, we see our students and the curriculum. With these in mind, we point out possibilities,  ask guiding questions, and enable our students to take control of their learning.
Extend Student Agency

While the student’s ability to make decisions about their writing and how they write is a crucial factor in lessening interruptions it does not stand alone. When we put our students in the driver’s seat, it’s important to make sure they have the physical tools they need.  Writers will need to have anchor charts displayed in clear view or accessible in the classroom. Whether it’s an anchor chart illustrating a writing strategy, craft, or word work. If it was important enough for a lesson, writers will need it for writing. These charts support writers as they work to transfer the skills taught in our minilessons to their writing. To ensure our writers know the purpose of the charts, we need to take time in our lessons to show them how to use the charts, be explicit and tell them why we made the chart and why it’s important in their writing.

My teaching team and I often joked, “Want to have some fun, try not having enough paper in the tray for writing workshop!”  We all knew nothing shuts a workshop down faster than running out of paper!  Plan for the “Where’s the …” interruption.  Keep a back stock of tools accessible to your students and make sure they all know where to find the stock!  Take it a step further, make a class job to check the writing supplies after each workshop, so it’s fresh for tomorrow.  Students won’t be asking “Where is…?” because it’s always right there, or very nearby.

Another common interruption is the “Can I go…?”  It’s important as the guiding light of our classrooms we work with our students to establish clear expectations of when and how students leave the classroom and how they and you will know who is out of the classroom.  How many can be in the bathroom at one time? How many can visit the library at one time? How many can work in the hall? What happens if I am sick?  You might be surprised to learn our kids really are the best to determine how many kids should be allowed to visit the bathroom or library at one time. They know their limits (and their temptations) far better than we do and I have found when we allow them to decide, they hold each other accountable, and they don’t need to ask “Can I go…?” they’ll already know the answer.

Students’ ability to be independent problem solvers comes with giving the students agency. It seems ironic that what we need to do to make our kids more independent is to do less! I stepped back and put my kids in front of their learning about six years ago.  It has changed how I teach and deepened my respect for students and who they are as individuals.  Children are honest and motivated to learn, let’s make sure we aren’t standing in the way.

November 2017 Twitter Chat


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  1. This is such a great reminder. I think I need to readdress some of my procedures and routines at this point in the year, because my 8th graders need to move a little more toward independence. It also doesn’t help that I tend to “hover” as a teacher – I had this realization when reading a classroom management book – so I need to take a step back too! Like you said, kids know what they can handle and can often hold themselves accountable – thanks for the reminder!


  2. This topic is one that I circle back to with my colleagues regularly. We have a curriculum that is student-centered and is based on choice with limits. I began reaching out to a wider audience through blogging and have done trouble-shooting with my students as well. I still have the “Can I go …” groups and those who chuckle when they interrupt a conference and I say, “Is the room burning?” I’d love to read more on this and hear other’s suggestions!


  3. I was just thinking of how to make my second grade writers more independent. I love the idea of having a classroom job to check on writing supplies each day.


  4. I love the idea of giving the students choice and decision making over the answers to their questions. One strategy we use often in our co-teaching room is telling students, “I trust you to answer your own question.” This is giving them confidence and power over their choices and also minimizing interruptions to the valuable writing time.


  5. My 3rd graders often ask questions out of habit or a need for reassurance. When I am certain they can answer the question themselves, I have been working on responding, “Can you answer your own question?” and just smiling at them silently. Nine times out of ten, the kid will have a revelation after just a second or two. I check in with them later and praise them for their independence.


  6. I spend may hours setting up a writing workshop and am sometimes dismayed at how many questions that are confidence-based pop up in the first minutes of independent writing time. I pop on my little plastic crown and say that the queen is conferring with a student and that I can only be interrupted when the 5-minute session with that student is over. Sounds like a book I can use!


  7. I struggle teaching writing as it is, and then when the lesson is over, ALL of the questions that I THOUGHT I addressed in the lesson, come flooding back. I need help!


  8. As a middle school ENL teacher in NYS, I do a lot of co-teaching and have some of the same sorts of questions as kids: “Where is the extra paper? Pencils? Glue?, etc.” This entry reinforces the need to make sure the kids as well as all the support staff know where everything is. Having time and “tours” in the beginning of the year make a lot of sense. Thank you!


  9. It took a while but my fifth graders have stopped asking questions, Can I write about this? Can we do that? I did this through Sacred Writing Time. I am happy to say that about 90 percent of my fifth grade writing students love to write. I am still working on the other 10 percent!


  10. We were just discussing these concerns and possible solutions in both our first and fourth grade Professional Learning Communities. The book would be wonderful to reference support for student learning.


  11. I also stepped back and gave my learners more voice about 6 years ago. It is scary at first but I was amazed at the results, impressed by their ability to direct their learning. I also felt less stressed and became a much happier and creative teacher.


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