Problem Solving with Agency


We had a problem.

My students weren’t reading.  Upon reviewing their 40 Book Challenges (a project to record and celebrate the titles of the books they read independently), I discovered most of my students had only read the required book group books.  Despite continual reminders of our two-hour-a-week independent reading expectation, and regular 40 Book Challenge check-ins, the reading wasn’t happening.

I flipped through their reading reflections, and got continuous confirmation of this:

  • I am not able to read every day.
  • I have not found a good book this year.
  • I didn’t read outside of school.
  • I need book recommendations.
  • I read way more last year at this time than I have this year.

What was happening?

I thought over the beginning of the year.  Due to the amount of curriculum we had to cover in class, my students hardly had independent reading time.  They certainly didn’t have regular independent reading time. My classroom library was still not organized or easy to use, and we hadn’t even visited the school library yet.

My students and I had been doing amazing things, but cultivating our independent reading lives wasn’t one of them.

This made me think about student agency, because while most of the class wasn’t independently reading, there were several students who were reading a tremendous amount.  Several students, who despite the lack of support from our classroom structures, were finding good books, going to the school library, and making time to read.

Why were they able to succeed while other students were not?

Building on my thinking about agency,  my current hypothesis is that a lack of agency comes from a perceived lack of options.  Moving forward with this, my job, then, was to help my students figure out what their real options are.

To do this, I decided my students and I were going to take some time to practice problem-solving strategies.

I gathered the students in our mini-lesson area, and opened the lesson by having them help me brainstorm solutions to a problem that was affecting all of us; a problem that I perceived as my fault: the complete lack of organization in our classroom library. (Our classroom library was still Under Construction)

For the lesson, I took some time to prepare my own writing in my Writer’s Notebook, a strategy I have been working on this year, after being inspired by Mary Ehrenworth’s advice.

First, I provided the context of the problem.  Then, I used thought prompts, which we’ve been working on in class, to push my thinking, and explore what this was really about: a lack of time. After that, I outlined strategies I felt like I had to organize the classroom library and explained why they were unsuccessful for me.

My Writer’s Notebook, after the students helped me brainstorm solutions.

Then, came the work of the students.  I explained that a lot of times, I think a lack of agency comes from the difference between the options we feel like we have and the options we actually have.  Looking at the “Strategies I felt like I had” column, the students and I realized there were many more options than only the ones I identified.  I asked them to help me brainstorm ideas.

After a turn-and-talk, I recorded their thoughts.  They were full of solutions and excited to volunteer ideas and help.  (You can read their ideas above)

After that, we moved into the next level of problem-solving: institutional solutions.

We discussed how people have control over their behavior, but many times, there are things institutions can do to help set people up for success.

In my example, while it was absolutely my responsibility to get our classroom library organized, there were small changes the school could’ve made that would have made a big difference for me. At first, the students seemed to struggle with the idea of institutional support, but after I gave one example of this, they got it.  They turned and talked, and then chimed in with lots of other ideas.

Now, it was my student’s turn.  Moving into workshop, their job was to apply this problem-solving strategy to their own lives.

Here were the steps for workshop:

Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 8.25.47 PM

And here are some examples of the work they produced:

This reflection nailed the heart of the problem: Class wasn’t structured in a way where reading felt important.
This student’s work reminded me that we don’t really have class structures in place to help students find interesting books.
This student and I discussed a strategy which could make the commute more productive: audiobooks.
For students who were successful with the 40 book challenge, they brainstormed ideas to make our class reading community stronger.  We talked about how even if they were successful individually, reading would be a lot better if everyone in our class was reading and sharing ideas.


Gotta love the student honesty.

At the end, we made a plan, and students did a write-out.  The write-out question was, “What’s the one thing Ms. Gould should really do to help?”

You can see their plans and write-outs reflected in the work above.

My plan for the classroom library.  (Please ignore the fact that I spelled “labeled” wrong in my hasty demonstration writing.)


After reading through their reflections, I made a list of strategies I can use, as a teacher, to help.

Here’s the changes we’ve made:

  1. We take the last ten minutes of class to read.  No matter what.  I set a timer on my phone, and no matter what we are doing, we stop, and read.  With time, I know my lessons will adjust to this, and I will be able to plan so it won’t feel like we have to stop what we are doing.
  2. We set up the classroom library.  We took 30 minutes of class to sort and organize books.  It’s almost done.  We have a committee of students who are taking independent reading time now to help finish getting it set up.
  3. We did a class activity swapping book recommendations.  Students completed a write-in on the best books they’ve read in the last year-or-so.  Then, we did an inner-circle/outer-circle partner interview, where students shared their recommendations.  The best round was when students were challenged to give a recommendation based on what they knew about the specific person they were talking to.
  4. We visited the school library.  I set up a time to meet with the school librarian.  She came to visit our classroom, facilitated the book recommendation activity described above, and then took us to the library.  She pulled out books that were new and displayed recommendations for students.

It’s not perfect.  Not every student has the right book yet.  Heck, the classroom library still isn’t all-the-way put together.

But we’re acknowledging and addressing the problem, and slowly but surely, we’re making gains.

So now, the next steps are on my mind.

Now, we are ready to:

  1. Spend time addressing expectations for independent reading time in class. I notice some students get settled and focused right away, and others aren’t using the time (which they advocated for!) wisely.  We will be having a discussion about what independent reading should look like this week.
  2. Negotiate how frequently we visit the school library.  I wonder if my students want to set up a bi-weekly or monthly time to visit, or if they would prefer to go individually or in small groups when they need books, or if there’s another way they would like to approach the library.  I am going to ask them for their preferences this week, and we’ll make a plan together.
  3. Set up classroom structures for swapping book recommendations. I am playing around with the idea of creating a google doc where students can share their 40 Book Challenges, ideas, and recommendations.  I need to think more about this, but creating structures for students to share ideas with each other is something I want to do.

Overall, we are taking this as a learning experience.  I agreed with the students that institutionally, I can be doing more to help their independent reading lives.

However, we also discussed that moving forward, into high school and beyond, teachers or other adults are most likely not going to be creating space for independent reading.  Therefore, our goal is to get strategies and structures in place for students to support themselves and each other in their independent reading lives.

This is a project we will be working on all year, and a learning an adventure in independence that I am looking forward to.

Under Construction


It is the
   First-day-of-School Eve

Lessons are planned
Seated charts are composed

And yet there are still
     things to do

But as I sit down
   one last time tonight to think about

I remember, one thing matters:

The Kids.

I get one chance to meet my students
   for the first time

One chance to welcome my classes
   and lay the first-day groundwork

One chance
   to start this crazy learning adventure

So the fact that the books aren’t sorted
   Materials haven’t arrived
   Technology isn’t set-up

Doesn’t matter.

The Kids do.

While attempting to sort out my classroom library, I discovered the book Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid by Nikki Giovanni. I saw Giovanni speak at UW-Madison a few years ago, and her quick wit, sharp voice, and spunky demeanor have stayed with me. I immediately tucked the book into my backpack for a weekend read. The text is a collection of essays and poems. Reading Giovanni’s work inspired me to write in verse. 

On the Power of Diverse Texts

In the last month, I’ve felt like everyday I’ve left my classroom inspired by my students thoughts, background knowledge, and critical thinking.  I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.

What has helped us grow to this point?

The materials we’ve chosen to surround ourselves with.  These were some of my strategies:

  1. I made a commitment to only purchasing books from diverse authors.  In our well-resourced school district, books featuring white, straight folk are easy to come by.  My classroom is full of them! I made a personal commitment to only spend district dollars, donors choose fundraising dollars, and personal dollars on books written by and about people with diverse experiences.  My focus has been on people of color, people who are LGBTQ+, people of multiple religions, and people with disabilities.
  2. I used picture books and graphic novels as an entry point into reading about diverse literature.  I wrote a Donor’s Choose Fundraising grant for 50 picture books and graphic novels that featured people of color, people who are LGBTQ+, people of multiple religions, and people with disabilities.  Then, I worked with the school librarian to pull together a text set of about 250 graphic novels featuring diverse characters.  Using these materials, we did a graphic novel mini-unit.  During the unit, students learned a reading skill, applied it to a picture book, then applied it to a graphic novel they were reading.  Students were required to read at least two graphic novels from the text set.
  3. I was honest with the students.  Before beginning our graphic novel picture book unit, I had an honest discussion about diversity in children’s literature.  We looked at this graphic.  We discussed the concept of books as windows and mirrors (Thank you Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop).  We set an intention together of challenging to read books and perspectives we might not otherwise read.
  4. I paid attention.  After seeing students read graphic novels and picture books, I was able to better understand the topics and social issues they paid attention to.  This continually helps me make recommendations for individual readers, assemble book group text sets, and offer choices for read aloud.
  5. I made a commitment to only offering books from diverse authors.  Choice is a fundamental tenant of my teaching philosophy.  Students have choice of their independent reading novel, their book group novels, the novels they read for class, and even our class read aloud.  However, this year, I made a commitment to assembly text sets solely with books that feature diverse characters.  Students have ownership over their learning, and access to windows and mirrors they may not have otherwise found.
  6. I dedicated aloud time to narrative nonfiction.  After our picture books, graphic novels, and realistic fiction novels, students were ready to read more about real life stories.  I pulled together a text set of books for students to choose from for read aloud, and every book we’ve read has captivated the students.  Title include: Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bombs Survivor’s Story (Caren Stelson), Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March (Lynda Blackmon Lowrey) Loving v. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case (Patricia Hruby Powell), In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives (Kenneth C. Davis), Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Phillip Hoose)
  7. I wrote a year-long essential question and focused guiding questions. Our year long essential question is, “How does society impact an individual’s happiness and well-being?”  We study this question in every unit, and then create guiding questions for each individual unit, including our dystopian novel unit, family unit, and justice unit.
  8. I chose 5-8 vocabulary words per unit.  These words help us focus our text analysis. Vocabulary words this year have included: conformity, social norms, identity intersectionality, society, justice, internalized oppression and resiliency.
  9. I utilized to study current events.  The amazing folks at Newsela make social justice teaching easy.  By covering current events, resistance movements, and pro/con articles, all at grade-appropriate reading levels, the authors make complex situations and difficult conversations accessible to my middle schoolers.  When reading narrative nonfiction, we often visit Newsela to read more about our topic.

My students’ critical thinking, analysis of text and topics, and reflection has impressed me more than I can possibly express.  I feel they’ve tried on and developed new lenses with which to view the world, and been exposed to new ideas, perspectives, and experiences.

My students have been genuinely into their reading and thinking. As they move forward in their learning, I wonder, will they continue to seek out and hold diverse perspectives?  If it is not the priority, have we explored enough to give them the lense to keep asking tough questions, to keep analyzing the materials they are using to learn?

Time will tell.