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Transferring Agency from School to Home: Amping Up Agency Blog Series

Last night as I was reading my kids a few chapters of our nightly bedtime book, my third-grade daughter grabbed a huge stack of sticky notes and a pen off of the nightstand and started writing as fast as she could. This isn’t unusual behavior for her. We frequently find little love notes, vacation packing lists–even notes to our Instacart shoppers on the porch. Last night’s note served a very specific purpose: she has a recently re-ignited passion for Harry Potter and has been playing wizards on the playground with her friends. She wanted to end her day with a plan for the next recess, and she knew writing down her thoughts would be the best way to capture her big ideas. 

My daughter’s at-home writing: A reminder of all of the Harry Potter items she needed to be a pretend wizard at school.

Most people attribute her love for writing to my love of literacy. After all, she’s my kid so she should love the written word, right?

But there are specific moves I have made that have established her agency as a writer at home.

If you are looking for ways to increase a young writer’s agency at home–either as an educator or as a parent–here are some things you might want to consider.

Find Inspiration

We know our kids are constantly taking in ideas and information from the world around them. One of the key ways writers can develop agency outside of school is to have plenty of ideas to explore in their writing. Ideas can come from almost anywhere, including:

  • Mentor texts. Use the books that are already shared with a developing writer–read alouds and bedtime stories–to spark both ideas for writing and new strategies to try. Start by adding some conversation about writing to reading routines, and when possible give your writer access to the text.
  • Shared experiences. Our students have many experiences out of the classroom. Encourage kids to spend time capturing these ideas with jots in a notebook or writing longer pieces in narrative format when they aren’t in the school setting (and model doing the same).
  • “Expert” sources. Encourage kids to turn their learning into writing. Whether they learn new information from a visit to a museum, a shiny book full of facts, or a YouTube video or documentary, learning something new always sparks ideas–and questions–that independent writers want to write down.

Tip for Teachers:

Cultivate your students’ attention to ideas–through books, shared experiences, and new learning–and teach them how to write when they want to capture their thinking. Bring in a model of your own writing from outside the classroom to demonstrate how this is a skill that goes beyond the work writers do at school. 

Tip for Caregivers: 

Ask your writer lots of questions as you read, go on adventures (both big and small), and learn together. 

Set the Stage

One of the reasons my daughter can write so freely and “in the moment” is because she has access to the tools a writer needs. I keep various paper and sticky notes, markers and pens, and other tools that keep writing interesting in places where my kids can access them as needed. She has a space to write and the time to write if she wants to do so. 

Schools can support this work by providing “take home” kits for students and teaching them how to care for and use the tools that are included. Many parent-teacher organizations, grants, and community businesses love to help out by sharing school supplies and resources with classrooms. 

Beyond the typical writing resources (paper, pens, etc.), here are a few special items to consider:

  • Note cards. One year, we gave my daughter a large set of notecards for her birthday, and it was one of her favorite gifts. She wrote letters to her grandparents, made birthday cards, and left sweet notes of apology when she annoyed her brother. Note cards can be fancy, homemade, or as simple as an index card.
  • Journals, sketchbooks, and notebooks. Just like adults like to see their ideas and thoughts collected over time in a book, this is powerful for kids, too.

Tip for Teachers:

Alongside the tools kids will need, also teach them the strategies for creating a writing routine. For example, students may wish to create a calendar of writing they want to do at the beginning of each month. Students may also benefit from duplicate copies of class anchor charts and checklists to help support learning transfer.

Tip for Caregivers:

Think about ways your writer can use resources independently at home. Does your child have a space to write? Can they access paper and writing utensils without the help of an adult? Do they know how to take care of their tools and clean up after themselves?

Become a Strong Supporting Actor

When my fourth-graders would write nightly at home in their writer’s notebooks, they typically came back with work that fell into one of three categories: minimal or missing work (not enough support), written with the direct enforcement of a caregiver (too much support), or written with care and agency (just right support). When families questioned me about strategies for building independence–especially in reluctant writers–I usually made one of the following recommendations:

  • Make time for storytelling. Passing down stories is one of the most timeless and treasured ways to share our histories and ideas. Spend time sharing memories, exchanging daily anecdotes, and playing storytelling games is one of the best ways to support kids in learning “how stories go.”
  • Establish a writing routine. Writing at the same time and in the same space whenever possible sets it up as a daily habit–not an afterthought. 
  • Write beside the child (parallel writing). Whenever your child writes, try taking out your paper and pen to demonstrate a writing habit. Even if you’re only making a grocery list or filling in your monthly calendar, you’re modeling that writing has purpose and value.
  • Co-write with your child. Passing a notebook back and forth is fun for writers of all ages and abilities. In co-writing, one writer begins a piece of writing, then passes it on to another writer to add on, and so on. This approach provides slightly more scaffolding than parallel writing because it requires full and focused engagement from both the child and the adult. It is fun because it allows both writers to take a story or a written conversation in the direction of their choice as the pen passes back and forth. 

Tip for Teachers: 

Reinforce to families that students grow as writers when the child is the one doing the writing. Build agency by inviting families to share stories or write in front of or with their child (instead of for them).

Tip for Caregivers:

Show your child that you are a writer, too. By telling stories or writing in front of or next to your child, they will see that sharing language in words and writing is something that everyone does.

Give a Round of Applause

Never underestimate the power of positive reinforcement, especially in the form of your time and attention. Sitting down to read your child’s writing together is one of the best ways to encourage more agency in writing at home. By giving specific praise, celebrating shared memories, and reinforcing authentic writing opportunities, you are providing a child with the knowledge that their writing is meaningful and worthy of celebration.

Tip for Teachers:

Model language for families that will build agency through weekly communication, family literacy events, and conversations at conferences. Show parents how their attention to their child’s writing will reinforce the writer’s desire to write more and more.

Tip for Caregivers:

Practice giving feedback! Here are some ideas (click here for a printable version to share):

Look for Encore Opportunities

When my son was a first-grader, his class engaged in a unit of writing in which they wrote a series of fictional stories. Toward the end of the unit, he came home with a carefully decorated paper-covered cereal box that held several a series of stories about a boy named Charlie and his dog Max. At the time, he read them all to us and gave the box of books a place of honor on his bookshelf. 

A little over a year later, his second-grade year came to an abrupt halt thanks to COVID. During our time at home that spring, we brought out the Charlie and Max books again and, within a week, my son–a much more reluctant writer than my daughter–had added two more adventures about the boy and his dog to the series box.

After bringing home his 1st-grade fiction series, my son decided to add on to his Charlie and Max series a year later while we were home during the spring of 2020.

Writing has come home in my children’s backpacks at all ages and stages of writing development. Keeping the gems–especially the ones they are most proud to show off–and bringing them back out in the future provides opportunities for young writers to not only see their growth but also to improve or add on to the original piece of writing.

Tip for Teachers:

Be intentional and strategic when sending home student work. Send it home with suggestions for rereading, saving what matters, and using it for future inspiration.

Tip for Caregivers:

Go through your child’s writing together. Save the pieces that matter and revisit them from time to time to spark new ideas and celebrate how your writer has grown.

Keep Agency at the Center of the Work

Sometimes it feels easier to do the work for our kids. From tying shoes to packing lunches, doing the heavy lifting is much more efficient (and often less painful) than giving kids the time, space, and tools to do the work themselves. However, it is in giving independence and choice (both in the classroom and outside) that we promote growth. The lessons our writers learn from mistakes foster agency. 

Whether you are a teacher supporting kids in transferring agency outside of the classroom or a caregiver building agency in a child at home (or serving in both roles!), it is important to remind ourselves that writers grow over time. Agency is the result of kids having opportunities to make choices, being supported in trying new things, and receiving patience as they try new things. A writer with agency is the product of environments that allow them to spread their wings and try.

A handout for caregivers to support agency at home.

Amping Up Agency Blog Series Book Giveaway

Throughout the week, we’d love to hear your thoughts. We even have a book giveaway for those of you who share comments!

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Engaging Literate Minds: Developing Children’s Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Lives, K–3 by Peter H. JohnstonKathy ChampeauAndrea HartwigSarah HelmerMerry KomarTara Krueger, and Laurie McCarthy. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Engaging Literate Minds, please comment on any of our blog series posts by Noon EST on Sunday, February 12. Leah Koch will use a random number generator to pick the winner whose name will be announced in the blog series wrap-up post on Monday, February 13. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Leah can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book to you. 
  • If you are the book winner, Leah will email you the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – AMPING UP AGENCY BLOG SERIES. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

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