This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. Please be sure to visit her there to read more Digilit Sunday contributions.
When Margaret suggested the word agency as our topic this week, my first step was make sure I was using the term correctly. This Merriam-Webster definition confirmed my working ideas about agency:
“the capacity, condition, or state of acting or exerting power”
The next day, a teacher came to me with concerns about one of her students. The teacher felt that Anna (not her real name) wasn’t decoding well or understanding what she read. The teacher had administered a Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment, which indicated that Anna was reading in the instructional range for her grade level expectation. Because it’s still early in the year, and this assessment had just been done, the teacher really hadn’t tried anything to address her concerns. But it was clear she wanted something specific from me—an intervention, a strategy, anything that might improve Anna’s reading behaviors.
I was at a loss. The information shared by Anna’s teacher was so general, and none of Anna’s previous teachers had ever expressed concerns about her. So I suggested that I come in to visit and read with Anna so I could get to know her better and understand the teacher’s concerns.
Arriving in the classroom during independent reading time, I noted that Anna was intently reading a book that looked like an appropriate choice. I observed her for several minutes as she read. She sub-vocalized in some spots, used her finger to guide her in others, and seemed completely engaged with the book.
After about five minutes, I went over to her and asked her to tell me about her reading. She did a fine job retelling what had happened in the book so far. Then I asked her to read the next page to me. She didn’t hesitate and read the first line fluently and expressively.
Just as I was wondering why there was such a disconnect between what the teacher had observed and what I was seeing, Anna stumbled. “Cloud giants” became “could grants.” This made no sense, and she knew it, so she stopped and looked at me.
Let’s stop for a minute and think about Anna. Everything I had seen suggested that she did have agency when she read. She was reading an independent level text independently and with understanding. She even knew that meaning had broken down for her and she stopped. As we know, many students would have just plowed ahead!
When she said, “that doesn’t make any sense,” I praised her for noticing that and asked her what she could do. She knew that sometimes rereading helped, so she tried that. When that didn’t work, she tried looking for a smaller word she knew. She found “ants” in “giants,” but because she didn’t know (or wasn’t sure about) soft /g/, this strategy didn’t help. I asked her what else she could try, but now she was truly stumped. Her go-to strategies hadn’t helped, and there were no visible supports in the classroom to help her.
I noticed that the picture held a lot of information that might help her, and she hadn’t even glanced at it. After I reminded her that sometimes readers use the illustrations to help them, she took one look and the light bulb went off. She went back to the text and read it easily. We talked about what she had done to figure out the unknown words, and she told me that using the pictures was a strategy she would use the next time she came to new words.
Now I was feeling a little frustrated. It wasn’t Anna who didn’t have agency. She was doing the best she could with the skills she had. But there were supports that should have been in place for her that weren’t. Where was the anchor chart for this reading unit? And why hadn’t her teacher already had this conversation with her?
I began to wonder if I had provided too many scaffolds for Anna’s teacher in the past. Had I swooped in too quickly when she came to me with questions about students? But isn’t that my job as a literacy specialist?
This is the tip of the iceberg for my work with Anna’s teacher. By sheer coincidence, yesterday I watched Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan’s session about listening to and learning from our students as part of The Educator’s Collaborative’s Online Gathering. (If you missed this, go there now and watch as many sessions as you can.) They confirmed what I had done when I sat down with Anna. “Every single day, when we slow down and get to know the people around us, that’s data.” But sitting down with Anna not only helped me get to know her, it gave me insight into how I can work with her teacher to develop her agency. Watching Clare and Tammy’s session together will be our first step. I anticipate many many follow-up conversations, and I’ll be sharing more about our work together in the future.