What: Plan for Agency and Understanding 

Believe in the children, fight foolishness, and learn who our children are and the legacies they bring, education expert Lisa Delpit (2013) implores us in “Multiplication Is for White People.” The foolishness she is referring to is wasting teachers’ time keeping track of non-instructional tasks in regimented, teacher-proof curricula. As a result of this foolishness, educator Zaretta Hammond (2015) explains in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, too many culturally and linguistically diverse learners become dependent—let teachers carry the cognitive load and wait passively for learning to come to them, limiting their opportunities to experience the neuroplasticity that inspires growth. This dependency is the opposite of the agency we seek to foster. 

Planning for agency and understanding involves designing purposeful and meaningful learning experiences that invite students to use their good minds to solve worthy problems. This is a complex endeavor that takes us beyond teachers’ guides and online resources. This planning requires us to ask big questions about why we are doing what we are doing, what learners really need, and how we can nudge them toward the important goals of confidence and competence. When our purpose is to draw forth the wonderful thinking of all students in our care, we need to plan tasks that motivate and engage learners, providing appropriate amounts of guidance and structure while letting students’ curiosity lead. 

If we are striving to cultivate student agency, we also need to be agentic: to own the work of designing rich learning experiences, to see commercially produced curricula as resources and guidelines, and to begin our planning with our students in mind: Who are they? What do they need? From here, we build the bridge between learners and our learning intentions through inquiry, rich tasks, and an abundance of enticing invitations. 

This chapter is focused on big picture planning, which has implications for daily planning, though that will be explored in greater depth in Chapter 4, “Workshop.” Take a few moments in Figure 2.1 to reflect on some aspects of teaching for agency and understanding.

Planning for Agency and Understanding Is . . . Planning for Agency and Understanding Is Not . . . Your Thinking . . .
Keeping learners’ needs, interests, and strengths at the front of our minds Doing what we did last year
Providing interesting, meaningful, challenging work, perhaps drawn or modified from commercial curricula Making up everything from scratch
Embedding intentional instruction of process skills within content-rich learning experiences Assigning tasks and hoping kids already know the requisite skills
Scaffolding learners’ independence throughout a purposeful series of tasks Distributing a packet of topic-related activities for learners to complete alone

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