Agency and Action | Facing History & Ourselves
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Agency and Action

The activities in this learning experience support students to reflect on the concepts of power and agency in order to understand the societal forces that play a role in an individual’s ability to make decisions.


At a Glance

activity copy


English — US


  • English & Language Arts


  • Culture & Identity


About This Learning Experience

Part of being human involves facing choices and making decisions, both independently and in concert with others. Sometimes these choices and decisions are of little consequence; other times they have a large impact on our lives and quite possibly the lives of others, such as family, friends, or members of the community. When we call students’ attention to the concept of agency, both in literature and in life, we can help them understand that they are not only acted upon: they themselves, in a variety of ways, are actors in their lives and their communities. We can also provide opportunities for students to examine the societal forces that may play a role in increasing or limiting an individual’s agency to make decisions, take action, and have control over things in their lives

The following activities support students in analyzing key moments of decision-making in the text in order to explore a character’s agency and the societal factors that influence their decision-making process. If, as philosopher George Santayana has written, art provides an imaginative rehearsal for life, opportunities for students to examine complexities of the human experience through literature can help them to develop the tools they need to reflect on their own lives and to recognize the impact of their choices.

In order to deepen their understanding of the text, themselves, each other, and the world, students will . . .

  • Examine how their identity is a combination of who they say they are, who others say they are, and who they hope to be in the future.
  • Analyze the author’s representation of individual and collective agency in the text and compare and contrast it to their own beliefs and experiences in the world. 
  • Analyze the internal and external conflicts that characters face and the impact these conflicts can have on an individual’s choices and actions, both in the text and in the real world. 
  • Recognize that their decisions matter, impact others, and shape their communities and the world.
  • Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues and existing knowledge.
  • Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas interact in the text. 
  • Draw evidence from the text to support analysis of what the text says and what can be inferred about characterization, setting, conflict, and/or theme.
  • Prepare for and participate in conversations to practice expressing ideas clearly, building on others’ ideas, and incorporating evidence from the text.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before using this learning experience, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Facing History learning experiences are classroom-ready activities that you can incorporate into your lesson plans. They are designed to be modular and adaptable, so you can use them over and over again with a wide range of texts to help students explore characterization, point of view, perspective taking, setting, and thematic development through a Facing History lens.

This learning experience is divided into three sections—Introduce, Explore, and Extend—which increase in complexity and depth of analysis, but they don’t need to be used in sequence. The entry point depends on students’ familiarity with the concept and the level of complexity they are ready to tackle. Educators might choose to incorporate just one section into a lesson plan, teach all three over the course of one or two class periods, mix and match, or repeat one multiple times during a unit to help students track character or thematic development.

  1. Introduce: The first activity introduces a concept and helps students develop the schema they will need for deeper exploration. It may involve vocabulary work, schema building, and opportunities for personal reflection and pair–shares.
  2. Explore: The second activity engages students in a deeper exploration of the concept and helps them apply it to the core text of the unit. It includes opportunities for close reading, literary analysis, collaboration with peers, and rich questions for small-group and whole-class discussion about the text and how it connects to the real world.
  3. Extend: The third activity invites students to produce a reflective, expository, analytical, or creative piece of writing (or other form of expression) in order to explore connections between the text, key concepts from the learning experience, and/or their own lives.

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Before class, familiarize yourself with the Four Corners teaching strategy. Make four signs—Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree—and hang them in the corners of the classroom.

Before introducing students to the concept of agency, we recommend that you start by asking them to reflect on power, since the two are directly related. 

  1. Pass out the What Is Power? Anticipation Guide handout and have students complete Steps 1 and 2. Then debrief using the Four Corners teaching strategy. To provide space for everyone to share their ideas, have students share with others in their corner why they chose that stance before facilitating the class discussion. 
  2. Then have students complete Steps 3 and 4 on the handout. They can share their definitions in pairs or small groups, adding any new ideas to their own. 
  1. Explain to students that they will be learning about the concept of individual and collective agency. Pass out Introducing Agency . Depending on your students’ familiarity with the concept and their reading skills, you might read aloud as a class or have students work in pairs. There are stopping points built into the reading where students can process what they are learning in different ways. 
  2. Debrief by asking students to work in pairs or small groups to come up with one question and one comment about the reading to share with the class. Discuss their questions as a whole group. 

Students will be discussing scenes in the text that you choose or that they identify where one or more characters face a choice. In their discussion, students will consider the characters’ choices, decision-making process, power, and agency. We recommend that you choose scenes that are robust enough for students to focus on one to three pages of the text. 

  1. Let students know that they will be examining scenes in the text to better understand how power and agency can influence a character’s decision-making process. As in real life, when a character has agency, they feel like they can make decisions, take action, and have control over things in their lives. There are many factors that can influence this process that contribute to whether or not someone feels like they have agency, as well as actions that others can take to instill agency in individuals. 
  2. Review the definitions of individual and collective agency. Then use the Jigsaw teaching strategy and divide the class into “expert” groups. Depending on your text, “expert” groups can analyze the same character at different moments in the text to consider the relationship between agency and context, or they might examine different characters at the same moment to consider how aspects of their identities and relationship to social systems and power influence their  agency.  
  3. Pass out the Analyzing Actions and Outcomes handout and read the instructions together. Model the activity on the board using a character and moment the students are not analyzing. Circulate to encourage students to support their reasoning with evidence from the text. Then have them move on to the discussion questions on the back of the handout. Before moving students into their “teaching” groups, have them place a star alongside three ideas on their handout that they want to share. Let them know that they don’t have to share the same ideas as others in their group.
  4. Move students into “teaching” groups. Have each student share their three starred ideas and discuss connection questions 3 and 4 together, looking for similarities and differences in their characters’ experiences. Then discuss the final question as a whole class. 

Have students identify and explain in writing an example of individual or collective agency in the world today. Remind them that having agency—the power and ability to make decisions and take action on their own behalf in order to reach their goals—doesn’t have to include participation in movements or lead to sweeping changes. They might choose to write about a family or community member, a mentor, or a friend. Or they might have read about someone in a local or national news source. After they identify their subject, they should explain in a piece of writing how they see the subject having the power and ability to take action, explain the factors that may influence the subject’s agency, and reflect on what they can learn from this individual or group. 

Materials and Downloads

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Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif