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As always I hope that you are all happy, healthy, and loved. I think the administrators out need some extra love they have been going through it. Administrators have become Covid testers, substitute teachers, playground aides, buffers to unhappy parents. Many are spending their nights and weekends calling families about test results and are still in charge of professional development, attendance, and etc., etc.

Agency and Independence

Developing students’ agency and independence has been on my mind quite a bit lately. As I walk through classrooms and demonstrate lessons, I imagine ways to improve my craft as an educator. How do I know I am leaving students with a set of skills and strategies they can use with confidence no matter what grade or the school they are in?

I love discussing and unpacking problems before students go off to solve them. However, I have had to ask myself, “Am I teaching the students how to unpack problems when I am not there?”

Unpacking Strategy

Last week, I went into a second-grade classroom. My goal was to teach the students to use the ‘stop and jot’ strategy when reading or listening to problems.
Each sentence of the problem is read aloud. When you get to the period or comma, you stop reading and have the students quickly jot down an image or notes that match the wording of the problem. Continue with this process until every line in the problem has been read aloud and recorded.

I read aloud, “Josh has five grapes.”

The students in the class did not record anything on their papers. The students sat there and stared at me. I assume they were waiting for me to tell them exactly what to jot down.

Instead of giving up, I stopped, backed up, and tried the stop and jot strategy using a different approach. I asked myself, “Why aren’t the students writing anything down?”

I did a think-aloud.

T: “Who is in the story, I asked?”

S: Josh.

T: “How can we jot down Josh? Do we have to spell his whole name, or can we just jot down the first letter?”

S: We can write the first letter.

T: “Do we have to write a letter, or can we make a stick figure for Josh?”

S:  We can make a stick figure.

I invited the students to jot down either one of those options. (Getting to the answer had to go out of the window. I had to focus on their ability to comprehend the problem since agency and independence was my goal. I knew getting the correct answer would come as a result of their understanding.)

T: “Josh has 5 grapes,” I repeated.  What could we jot down next?”

S:  Silence.

After I stayed silent for 20 seconds. Someone finally said, ” Grapes.”

It was pulling teeth, but we finally got there. I refused to let students use me as their easy way out. I was not the only strategy in the room.

I said, “Okay, let’s do this again.”

Taking A Different Approach

I posed another very similar and simple problem. Again, I was pulling teeth to get the students to jot their thinking down. I stopped. I looked at the kids, the kids looked back at me, and then a thought occurred to me.

I read a sentence aloud, then I asked the kids to repeat the sentence back to me.

They couldn’t!

The kids listening comprehension skills were so underdeveloped that they were unable to listen and repeat. You can forget stopping and jotting if there is no listening and repeating.
I put the stop and jot strategy down for the day and picked up the repeat, repeat, retell strategy.
The teacher reads a sentence aloud. The students repeat it. After the entire problem is read, the students retell the problem to a partner.

Peeling Back the Layers

Last week was not the first time this has happened. Students stopping and staring at me for the answer occurs in primary, middle, and upper-grade classrooms.

I don’t like it when this happens.

I constantly have to stop and peel back the layers of the students’ behavior. I have to identify the underlying issues that are preventing the students from fully participating in the representation of their ideas on paper.

Students’ who struggle with repeat, repeat, retell typically:

  • are expected to respond with one or two words to the teacher’s questions
  • are not in the habit of explaining why they did what they did to solve a problem
  • are not in the habit of explaining the behaviors of a character in a book
  • are in a classroom where only some of the students are expected to explain themselves
  • do not participate in conversations at home

The repeat, repeat retell strategy is effective because it is easy to implement. Repeat, repeat, retell is used by many second language learnings apps like Babel, for instance.  Students have to listen in order to repeat, and their ability to retell the details of a problem improves dramatically over time.

Telling students what to do is a quick-fix strategy that does not lead to students’ agency or independence. We cannot give in, give up,  and give answers. We can instead stop, peel back the layers to determine what our students need to be successful, and empower students with thr tools they need for agency and independence.

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