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Agency and the Teaching Profession

“Among the . . . young, you see people who have been raised to be approval-seeking machines. They act active, busy and sleepless, but inside they often feel passive and not in control. Their lives are directed by other people’s expectations, external criteria and definitions of success that don’t actually fit them.”

David Brooks, “The Agency Moment” (11/13/14 Op-Ed in NYT)

I’m excerpting David Brooks recent Op-Ed piece slightly out of context to make an important point.

There was a moment in our recent past as a nation when the idea of providing agency for the majority of our experienced K-12 pubic school teachers was given serious consideration.

Unfortunately, this moment coincided almost precisely with the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk.

Since the somber and foreboding narrative of A Nation at Risk made for far more compelling reading than its more upbeat twin, the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy’s 1987 Teaching as a Profession, the latter publication never made its way into the public consciousness with the force and resonance of its dark sister.

This is particularly unfortunate in light of the 30 year narrative that has come to dominate our national discourse on public education: Our schools are “failing;” our most disadvantaged students are served by teachers who are “grossly ineffective;” teachers unions are so hell-bent on preserving the “broken” status quo that they must be fiercely resisted and, whenever possible, destroyed.

Unbeknownst to most of the too unwary public, however, the Carnegie Forum’s Teaching as a Profession did have far reaching and perhaps more important consequences for the future of public education in this nation than the national “reform” movement that grew out of the concerns raised by A Nation at Risk.

The report recommended setting up a National Board of Professional Teaching Standards that would follow the practice of those seeking to become “board certified” in one or another of the fields of medicine. Highly respected professional educators would gather together to devise rigorous and demanding forms of assessment for their peers, and similarly highly regarded educators would serve as evaluators of their fellow teachers’ performance on these assessment instruments.

The recommendations of this report were subsequently adopted, a “National Board of Professional Teaching Standards” constituted, and portfolio assessments in virtually all subject areas and grade levels created, over the next few years. While this program has had a somewhat low profile in our era of Common Core testing, school “choice,” and teacher evaluations based on student test scores, it has by no means disappeared. Veteran teachers with at least three years full-time experience can pay the rather steep price of signing up to hopefully become “Board Certified,” and they can pursue a two year program, occasionally assisted by a nearby university, to endeavor to achieve this lofty goal.

In the manuscript I’ve reproduced below, two of my colleagues from San Jose State University and I describe a program for beginning teachers that prepares them for the sense of “agency” that veteran teachers often say they have experienced through the process of endeavoring to become Board Certified. We believe that providing our beginning teachers with opportunities to develop this sense of personal agency is among the most important tasks we can set for ourselves in the field of teacher training.

As Daniel Pink has frequently and inventively reminded us (see here), the core issue in the development of a competent and committed workforce in any area of endeavor is that of motivation. We have neglected this common sense fact about our teaching workforce for far too long.

Instead, we have been persuaded to follow our darkest forebodings concerning what we have been led to believe are deep flaws in our public education system.

It is high time for us to begin to turn towards the light.

Rewriting our Teaching Using Joseph Harris’s Metalanguage for Revision

Brent Duckor, Carrie Holmberg, and Jonathan Lovell

[MS submitted for consideration for the May 2015 issue of English Journal]

About two years ago, a group of us at San Jose State University began to consider the applicability of Joseph Harris’s approach in Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts to our work supervising beginning level teachers of English. The jumping off point for our work came from the somewhat surprising fifth chapter of Harris’s work, where he suggests that in “revising” what they have written, student writers can apply the same “moves” he describes in his initial four chapters to their own writing, considering their draft as another “text” to which they might respond.

The four questions Harris suggests that student writers ask themselves about what they have just written are the following: What’s your project? (What do you want to accomplish in this essay); What works? (How can you build on the strengths of your draft?); What else might be said? (How might you acknowledge other views and possibilities?); and What’s next? (What are the implications of what you have to say?).

“While these questions are straightforward,” Harris observes, “they are not easy. Revising is the sort of thing that is fairly simple to describe but very hard to do well—like playing chess, or serving in tennis, or teaching a class” (99, emphasis ours).

What if we began to guide our beginning teachers towards regarding their just-taught lesson or lessons as strictly analogous, in Harris’s terms, to a draft of an essay they were in the process of revising? What might be accomplished, that is, by shifting our approach from direct instruction (if you do this or that your next lesson will be better) to a focus on providing our students with a metalanguage that would assist them in reflecting on their own instructional practices?

After our first year of using this approach with beginning teachers, we realized that what was good for the goose was very likely even better for the gander. Therefore, over the length of a week-long summer institute for Teacher Consultants from the San Jose Area Writing Project, we introduced this approach to a group of experienced teachers. Some of the reflections on their teaching that evolved out of this group’s work together over the summer will be included in what follows below.

Harris’s Four Moves

Harris provides clever and inventive names for the four “moves” he deems important for the difficult process of thoughtful revision. The first he calls “coming to terms,” the next “forwarding,” the third “countering,” and the fourth “taking an approach” (7). In the following pages, we will describe each of these moves in greater detail, providing examples from both experienced and beginning teachers, as well as observational notes written by Lovell in his role as a university supervisor to beginning teachers in their final semester of the English Credential Program. In doing so, we hope to show how the use of this metalanguage can help to guide both beginning and experienced teachers towards reflecting more profoundly on their day to day lessons and longer range units of instruction.

 Coming to Terms

As a university supervisor of final semester beginning teachers, Lovell uses “narrative observational notes” of the classes he’s observing to help his student teachers “come to terms” with the lessons they have just taught. In this respect he is observing a practice that corresponds to one Harris suggests at the end of his “Coming to Terms” chapter. “You might find it useful to begin to think about coming to terms with a piece of writing while you are in the process of drafting it,” Harris writes. “To do so you should define your aim in writing your draft” and “comment on the present strengths and limits of your piece—those aspects or sections you’re pleased with and those you want to work more on” (32).

Here is an example of Lovell using his observational notes to assist one of his beginning teachers in “coming to terms” with a class she has just taught:

“Using the document camera, you are now projecting a “completed” essay from a ninth grade student from one of your other classes. You are using this “completed” essay to demonstrate the corrections you would like your present students to make on their not-yet-turned-in essays to make them more “grammatically correct.” However, if writing is largely performative, like learning to swim or ride a bike, those seeking to improve their performance will be less likely to do so if they are stopped at a too-early point in order to minutely examine their efforts. If you asked a beginning bicycle rider to pay attention to how his or her left foot rested on the bike’s left pedal, for instance, how likely is it that the young bicycle rider you were coaching would ever ride with facility or grace?” (observation of 10/24/13 class taught by Kathleen S.)

And here is an example of student teacher “coming to terms” with a unit on argumentative writing she is in the midst of teaching her 7th grade students, as reflected in her responses to the interview questions posed to her by her supervisor:

Supervisor: “What about the vocabulary for argumentation that was used in the handout you provided your students: a handout that called the topic of an argumentative paper an “ID,” the thesis a “Claim,” and the reasons in support of this thesis the ‘Direction’?”

Supervisee: “That was my least favorite part of the lesson. I even skipped over parts of the handout that used this language. If I taught this lesson again, I would explain these terms using more straightforward language. I would say ‘when you see the term ID, ask yourself ‘what am I talking about’; when you see the term claim, ask yourself ‘what do I think about this topic’; and when you see the term Direction ask yourself ‘what are the reasons for my opinions.'” (10/27/14 interview* of Cory M by Jonathan Lovell)

And finally, an example from one of the experienced high school teachers who attended our summer institute:

This morning, in my first and second period sophomore classes, I taught Dave Berry’s humorous article ‘The Ugly Truth about Beauty,’ which I’ve used before as an introduction to my rhetoric unit. Today the article was a hit with first period and a miss with second, which left me frustrated and annoyed. Second period reacted with scorn to the article and only tittered once or twice to lines that usually have the whole class laughing, which is what happened in first period. To get two such different responses to an article that is tried and true tells me that something that happened in my delivery was the cause of its failure second period.” (10/15/14 “coming to terms” reflection by Kate F.)

For Harris, the answer to “What do you want to accomplish?” serves as a starting point for a plan for revising an essay. It should be no different when experienced or beginning teachers reflect on their lessons, viewed as if they were a draft of an essay-in-progress.


To further aid revision, Harris has writers ask of their latest draft, “What’s working? How can I build on the strengths of my draft?”

In “forwarding,” reflective teachers bring to conscious attention their present areas of competence. As Harris notes, one irony of the revising process is that beginning writers, quite like beginning teachers, “often become so preoccupied with fixing what isn’t going right . . . that they neglect to build on what is” (113).

The task for university supervisors, therefore, becomes helping the beginning teacher to articulate what was genuinely working in his or her just-taught lesson. In so doing, university supervisors can begin to determine the extent to which the creation of effective learning environments is the result of conscious decisions by the student teacher.

Here is an example of a commentary by Lovell on “what’s working” in the just-taught lesson of a supervisee:

“Your Do-First exercise is very clear and do-able. I like how you use your opening prompt to ask students what different responses a beginning skateboarder might have about his future skateboard abilities, depending on whether his abilities were being observed and critiqued to from a ‘fixed’ or ‘growth’ mindset. It’s a prompt that virtually everyone in your 9th grade sheltered English class will be able to answer successfully. Good way to start today’s lesson!” (observation of 10/30/13 class by Eric L.)

And a reflection, during a mid-semester interview, by another beginning teacher:

Supervisor: “Was it your awareness that only a few of your students were contributing to your whole class discussions of Hamlet that led you to try using a Socratic seminar approach?”

Supervisee: “Exactly. The Socratic seminar was so great because I just let go, and I just let them talk. However the conversation went, that was perfectly fine. I didn’t have to comment at all, and I thought that was fantastic because it wasn’t just the same three people that were talking. It was twelve people that I had never heard from, and I thought that was great.” (10/28/14 interview* of Nicole G by Jonathan Lovell)

Assisting beginning teachers to become more conscious of “what’s working” in their lessons is important so that we as university supervisors can be more strategic in our responses. If beginning teachers are not aware of what’s working in their lessons, university supervisors can help them focus on what is working. If student teachers are aware of what’s working in their lessons, mentor teachers can focus on helping beginning teachers build on what’s working and to apply these perceptions to new, more challenging contexts. This process starts a beginning teacher on a path toward “conscious competence.”

Similarly, focusing on “what’s working” by experienced teachers can help them to come to a deeper understanding of what they wish to preserve in future lessons. Here is an example of such a “forwarding” reflection by an experienced teacher at a high needs high school, on the challenges posed by a unit she has just taught her students based on the film Spellbound:

“About a third of my students wrote their film reviews of Spellbound with a modicum of success, and a few, as is generally the case with any assignment, wrote stellar reviews. Most of the other students wrote fairly well, while helping me understand where I need to be more clear in my instruction or take more time with instructional strategies. Many of the students did provide their own very strong opinions of the film, while not relying too heavily on the sentence frames. Most of them wrote very strong hooks, as we have been working extensively on this skill over the course of the year in all of our writing. Most were able to skillfully weave the introductory/informational aspects of the film into their reviews in the opening paragraphs, and I think reading the mentor texts of the professional critics was key to this particular success.” (11/7/14 “forwarding” reflection by Marie M)


When revising a draft, “countering” means asking yourself “How might I acknowledge other views and possibilities?” (Harris, 99).

When applied to the context of helping beginning teachers consider other perspectives on a just-taught lesson, negotiating this move is our most challenging job as supervisors. The very fact that this move is so challenging, however, is a healthy sign that what we are doing can lead to the sort of “deep revision” that is entailed in consequential reflections on one’s teaching practice.

Countering matters because a supervisor’s skillful noticing and questioning can bring insights to beginning teachers that have the potential to change their practice in significant ways. These changes often lead to improved interactions with students, and, by extension, countless future students with whom these beginning teachers will inevitably engage.

Here is a “countering” reflection by an 8th grade English teacher interviewed by her supervisor at the mid-point of her student teaching semester:

Supervisor: “What would you describe as the strengths and weaknesses of the unit you have just finished teaching, in which your students compared and contrasted how Sherlock Holmes was depicted in selected print and film excerpts?”

Supervisee: “While I think that helping my students develop their skills in close reading was one of my strengths, I would say that in the future I would start having students select examples sooner, when they are just beginning the reading. I did this after they had finished reading the [Arthur Conan Doyle] story, following this up with telling them how to pull evidence and make observations or claims from that evidence” (10/30/14 interview* of Christina H by Jonathan Lovell)

Not too surprisingly, more experienced teachers are often quite willing to be harsher in their “countering” judgments of themselves, since they are more accustomed to the experience of “great units” falling flat when “the wrong students walk in the door.” Here is an example from one of our veteran teachers, concerning his junior level students reading works of American literature:

“To state it in a provocative manner: I think I need to stop thinking of my class as one centered on American literature. The dispositions and skill sets my students bring to class make reading a long text fairly close to impossible. Even what seems to me a manageable amount of text–Arthur Miller’s The Crucible–is now being seen by the students as undoable. This year, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was not read (or at least not comprehended) by anyone outside of the classroom reading activities. Urging students not to access online summaries is a quixotic endeavor. Even if students read assigned pages (many will say they have read “part of it,” or “some of it,” or “most of it,” but the qualifications are more important than the assertions)—even if they have read, they ‘don’t get it,’ or ‘don’t understand what happened.’   Bookrooms full of class sets of novels are, in reality, like the public libraries in our district: full of books gathering dust. I have to find different things for my students to read.” (11/5/14 “countering” reflection by Jerry D)

Since this is the reflective thinking “move” that is most direct and often most disturbing to beginning teachers, we’ve found that those observations that invite novice teachers to imagine several different possibilities tend to be the most effective. This requires patience on the part of the university supervisor, since wait time and think time on the part of the student teacher are essential. It may also require encouragement. If student teachers are deeply dispirited by the apparent failure of a lesson they have just taught, the “magic wand” approach can also be effective. “If you could wave your magic wand and the scenario would be improved, what would be happening?” Sometimes that’s all it takes to lift student teachers’ spirits and to give them a renewed sense of the possible.

Taking an Approach

University supervisors can be of immense help to student teachers by simply asking them to answer the “What’s next?” question about their just-taught lessons or unit plans. Harris calls this move “Revising as Looking Ahead” (116).

Just as Harris observes that powerful essays end by answering both the “So what?” and “What’s next?” questions, we suggest that powerful “mentoring conversations” do the most good when they get student teachers to consider these same two questions.

We want to highlight the university supervisor’s role in listening as student teachers review their just-taught lessons or unit plans, encouraging the question “How might these just-taught lessons point me toward new work, new teaching?”

While it is understandable that university supervisors may wish to answer the “What’s next?” question for themselves, we believe that effective mentoring in this final arena requires a self-conscious extra dollop of patience and wait time. If beginning teachers can truly arrive at their own answers to this crucial “What’s next?” question, how much more valuable they will be as one’s future colleagues.

Two final examples from a beginning and a third year teacher point towards how this might be done:

Supervisor: “How would you describe your main goals as a teacher–goals that would characterize what you’re teaching of both your 1st period 8th grade intervention class and your 4th period regular 8th grade English class?”

Supervisee: “I think I would just say I’m trying to be attentive to each student’s needs, and to push my students to fulfill their individual potentials. Because in 1st period they all seem to struggle in different ways, and in 4th period I find that it’s the same idea. I have EL students; I have students that are so above the content they’re not challenged at all. So I really want to focus on being as attentive as I can . . . I mean in practice I can’t help 35 students as much as I would like to, but I really want to find ways to introduce activities that challenge all levels” (10/29/14 interview* of Sarah A by Jonathan Lovell).

And finally, this insightful “Taking an Approach” reflection by an experienced 4th year teacher:

“It has come to my attention that I am still talking too much and sharing my insights instead of handing it solely to the students. I must dampen my enthusiasm to pontificate my findings and let the students do their own searching; I have in a way been robbing my students of the opportunity to practice. Another goal is for my students to write more, and write in a way that builds them towards the larger goal. I am seeing how I can do this in other units.

“I am working with an instructional coach and am focusing on the bigger picture. How will I use a text or text to teach what skills? I had no plan for Romeo and Juliet this year (and that’s why it became “let’s just understand this text”), but I did have one for To Kill a Mockingbird. One of my colleagues shared her unit with me, and I borrowed the focal aspect of literary devices in this text. Students found, defined, and analyzed a number of literary devices throughout their reading of the book. As I move forward, I will spend more time planning units around skills while incorporating outside connections and technology. In TKAM my students will now look at the Scottsboro boy’s case and a current race-based case (unfortunately, there are far too many to choose from) and then find a way to publicly address whatever they find to be the motivating factor behind the cases. We shall see how this fares’ (11/2/14 “taking an approach” reflection by Erica K.)

So What? What’s Next?

Re-thinking, re-enacting, and mentally revising one’s just-taught lessons, particularly after a hard day, is neither natural nor obvious. Without sounding pious or trite, it does require a new stance.

Just as becoming a better writing coach requires a redefinition of what it means to “coach” the emerging writer, becoming a more reflective teacher or more helpful university supervisor means rethinking what we often take for granted as re-considering the just-taught or “enacted” lesson. The lesson is, in many cases, one of many possible rough drafts. By analogy, lesson enactments are full of conventional “errors,” which may include odd lesson openings, uneven pacing, bumpy transitions between classroom activities, and more than a few choppy “endings” that fail to tie anything of importance together for the students. How we help our experienced teachers become more productively reflective, and how we help our beginning teachers to reflect on and revise their just-taught lessons in relation to such conventional “errors” as those described above, may depend on our own mental models of what makes a good lesson.

Our argument for the analogy between revising an argumentative essay and reflecting on the just-taught lesson is rooted in another literature–one that is close to us as writers and teachers. The art of formative feedback is an essential piece of the puzzle Harris puts before us. Experts have demonstrated that formative assessment is one of the most powerful ways to raise student achievement (Black and Wiliam, 1998; Hattie, 2012). However, we do not always know which practices are most effective, when to deploy them, and why a particular combination of practices actually works for a particular student in a particular classroom. We often hear that the best feedback practices must be “specific,” “addressable,” “timely,” “on-going” and “content-rich.” But to many experienced teachers seeking to become more effectively reflective practitioners, making the right moves at the right time is part of the learning curve. And especially with beginning teachers, building a sense of trust and a commitment to a “collective project” may be the first step for supervisors who see themselves assisting their student teachers to “come to terms,” “forward,” “counter” and “take an approach” to their just-taught lessons (Duckor and Holmberg 2013).

Guided by the moves Harris has defined for college level writers, and that we have applied to a teacher’s just-taught lessons, both experienced teachers and university supervisors of student teachers can begin to re-assess their sense of how to look ahead and look behind to situate their ongoing “work-in-progress.” Our aim, similar to Harris’s, is to see how revising individual lessons is an integral part of one’s teaching practice as a whole. It is essential to becoming a better teacher, and to understanding how, as either an experienced or a beginning teachers, one can “rewrite” each of one’s lessons as if they were the best possible draft for the moment. Seeing the formative potential in a just-taught lesson means re-imagining the enterprise in which all teachers are engaged, as well our particular role as supervisors, in a whole new light.

*The full videos on which these transcripts are based, along with a number of other videos of Lovell asking Harris-based questions of his supervisees, can be found by visiting Lovell’s YouTube channel (see here).

Alternatively, one can google “YouTube,” search “Jonathan Lovell,” scroll down to the 7th option (a photo of Jonathan and his wife Ellen) and click on that option.

Works Cited

Black, Paul & Wiliam, Dylan. “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment.” Phi Delta Kappan 80.2 (1998): 139-148. Print.

Duckor, Brent & Holmberg, Carrie. “Helping Beginning Students Uncover the Art and Science of Formative Feedback.” California English 18.4 (2013): 8-10. Print.

Harris, Joseph. Rewriting: How to Do Things With Texts. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2006. Print.

Hattie, J. Visible Learning For Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. London: Routledge, 2012. Print.

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  1. Agency and the Teaching Profession | jonathan lovell's blog

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