Let’s think about agency in relationship to four domains: identity, mastery, belonging, and efficacy. To experience agency, you must first feel that your core identity—your ways of being, learning, and knowing in the world—is valued. Tunison (2007) notes that “lack of identity, lack of voice, and low self-esteem” can damage the learning spirit—an Indigenous concept that spirits travel with individuals and guide their learning, providing inspiration and the unrealized potential to be who we are. Author and founder of the abolitionist teaching movement Bettina Love defines spirit murdering in schools as “the denial of inclusion, protection, safety, nurturance, and acceptance because of fixed, yet fluid and moldable, structures of racism” (Love, 2013).
The second component of agency is mastery, framed as the ability to build knowledge and demonstrate understanding as a learner. To experience mastery, students must be able to show what they know in nontraditional ways. Pencil-and-paper tests not only trigger acute anxiety for many learners, they also lack the nuance and texture of street data. In reality, they are micro-versions of standardized tests that function like satellite data inside the classroom. Why did the student solve the problem the way they did? How were they feeling when they took the test? What happened earlier that day or morning that may have impacted their performance? With traditional assessments, we are left guessing. Project-based learning, performance assessment, and discussion-based classrooms, on the other hand, create an infrastructure for students to explore, construct, reflect on, and publicly demonstrate knowledge. Students become agents in their own learning rather than consumers of curriculum. For example, when our BALMA students presented their findings to a community forum of two hundred people, they enjoyed an authentic audience to share their learning with. This held them accountable and raised the stakes on their work in the best possible way.
At my second teaching job in Oakland, California, I was asked to create a graduate capstone project for seniors. I was teaching ninth and twelfth graders, almost exclusively Black, Latinx, Southeast Asian, and first generation to college students. My seniors would be the first class to present and defend their capstones to a committee of teachers, peers, and community members. I vividly recall Alberto—a young man who had left behind a life of stealing, stripping, and reselling Honda vehicles to become a budding scholar—presenting his capstone in a beautiful guayabera shirt, translating each part into Spanish for his proud mamá. I was Alberto’s advisor and English teacher, so I had the privilege to coach him through the process. He had meticulously prepared, did a fantastic job, and when the committee announced that he had passed his capstone, he broke down in tears. Why? He felt an overwhelming sense of agency in having shared his knowledge publicly in ways that honored his family, heritage, and language. What test could possibly capture that?
The third component of mastery is belonging, which is encapsulated in the statement, “I see myself, and I am seen and loved here.” Belonging emerges in a classroom characterized by deep and caring relationships. Author Zaretta Hammond frames relationships as the onramp to learning, particularly for marginalized students who may have little reason to trust their educators (Hammond, 2014). Herb Kohl describes the phenomenon of “willed not learning,” whereby students resist being intellectually vulnerable in the face of teachers who don’t authentically care about them (Kohl, 1995). Deep learning can only happen in a classroom where a child feels a sense of belonging.
Despite piles of research on the importance of relationships and connectedness to the neuroscience of learning, many Black and brown students experience an acute lack of belonging when they enter their school buildings. According to Californians for Justice, a youth organizing group, one out of every three California students cannot identify a single caring adult on campus. I have worked with districts where that number rose to 50 percent. Meanwhile, 30 percent of African American students and 22 percent of Latinx students in California enter high school only to drop out before graduating, a data point replicated in high-poverty regions across the nation. We have a crisis of alienation in our schools, driven at the highest levels by the insidious messages of satellite data, in effect: “You are not achieving on these measures; therefore, we have to fix you with interventions.
By extension, you don’t really belong to this academic community. You are a problem to be solved, a gap to be filled.” It hurts my heart to write those words because I know that so many young people experience school this way.
Fostering a sense of belonging does not mean plastering our classrooms and school walls with ethnically diverse posters and inspirational sayings or celebrating “diversity days”—the so-called Heroes and Holidays approach (Lee, Menkart, & Okazawa-Rey, 1998). Rather, it demands rigorous attention to systemic racism, school and classroom cultures, and the micro-interactions that characterize a student’s passage through the school day. This is why shadowing a student delivers such powerful street data: It gives us a ground-level view of the ways in which children are included, excluded, marginalized, or just plain invisible in their learning environments.
Finally, agency is about nourishing students’ sense of efficacy—a feeling that “I can make a difference here.” Collective teacher efficacy, the shared belief among teachers in their ability to positively affect students, has emerged in John Hattie’s research as the number one influence on student learning (Hattie, 2008). For our purposes of assessing student agency, efficacy means the learner’s ability to set an intention and produce a desired result, and it is absolutely critical to healing from and transforming oppression. Scholar Shawn Ginwright describes the importance of helping young people take “loving action, by collectively responding to political decisions and practices that can exacerbate trauma” (Ginwright, 2018). Taking action via project-based learning, peer surveys, organizing a walkout, or building a resource for your community vests students with a sense of power and control over their lives, which research has shown is one of the most significant factors in restoring well-being for marginalized groups.
Shane Safir provides equity-centered leadership coaching, systems transformation support, and professional learning for schools, districts, and organizations across the U.S. and Canada. After teaching in San Francisco and Oakland, California and engaging in community organizing to launch a new public high school, Shane became the founding principal of June Jordan School for Equity. You can follow her on Twitter at @ShaneSafir.