Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Skills and strategies

Over the past few months I’ve had many instances when teachers have come to me frustrated with the lack of progress they see in a particular student. Regardless of the grade or age of the student, the conversation often sounds like:

“I’m about to pull my hair out with X! We have worked on short vowel sounds [or silent e, or blending, or sight words] until I think I’m going to scream! He’s still at a DRA __ after all this time and so now I’m starting to think it’s a processing problem [or attention problem, or issues with home life, or laziness]. Can you PLEASE help me??”

Usually I ask to see the student’s running records and together the teacher and I begin analyzing the student’s errors. During this process, I’ve come to two realizations: 1) many teachers are not very comfortable analyzing running records, and 2) the tendency in analysis is to look at skills the student is missing rather than also taking into account behaviors the child is missing.

The two points are obviously related. In the past, I think we’ve “covered” analyzing running records in the same quick, all-inclusive manner that the Red Cross uses when questioning you before you give blood. “Do you asdflkjl? In the past 3 months have you lksleksjfl? Do you now or have you ever had awoiuo, weoioux, or qoiuoxghr?”

Well, maybe not that quickly. But we make the mistake of assuming the listener has as much experience with this task as we do, and so we don’t slow down and really delve deeply into the purpose of “records on the run”, which is to put ourselves in the place of the reader and open up his or her head. We really want to be able to see the text as the reader sees it, and from there determine what the reader knows and needs.

Which brings me to point #2. Too often we look only for the skills we believe a reader is lacking. But skills are only half the story. What a reader does with those skills – the strategies he or she employs – determines whether a reader is successful or not. Oftentimes a teacher and I can put our heads together and realize that what the student reads is complete nonsense. This student needs to ask himself, “Does this make sense?” and begin to self-correct his errors. Other students are obviously not using picture clues and would become much more efficient readers if only shown how.

I propose that we use a form like the one below when analyzing student reading:

What is this child definitely able to do?

What would be most helpful for this child to learn next?

Perhaps by changing the way we look at students, we can change the way they look at text.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pet Lessons

Recently I was riding my bike along the wooded path my husband and I have built on our property. It’s not a long ride at this point – much less than a mile – and so I tend to ride in circles and figure eights, frontwards and backwards, in an effort to get a workout without getting bored.

I’ve learned that my two dogs are not equally suited to joining me on my afternoon rides. My Border Collie always starts the ride with me, but as we begin our second lap she soon realizes she can cut corners and wait for me, or better yet, cut bait and go straight home to wait on the porch. She’s willing to go for part of the journey, but she’s not wholeheartedly committed.

My elderly Labrador Retriever, on the other hand, is such a people-pleaser that he would run himself into the ground following my every step. He struggles to keep up at times, but refuses to stop and wait or to sit out a single lap.

It occurred to me, on a recent ride, that coaches encounter people of similar disposition in our daily effort to create change. Some of the teachers we work with are eager to please and will try much that we ask them to with very little complaining. They’re open to new experiences and are optimistic, and yet we need to be careful not to ask too much of them for fear of running them ragged.

Other teachers are more like my Collie: cautiously optimistic, but quick to head back home as soon as it looks like our efforts at change are regressing and becoming circular in nature. If we can show what’s in it for them, they’ll stick with us. Otherwise, they’ll leave us to do the work while they watch from the sidelines.

And then there are the cats. They refuse to follow at all, but create their own path. Some of them are housecats and are perfectly comfortable sitting in the windowsill taking a nap. We could tie a rope to our bike and drag them along, but the cat would not be convinced and we’d each most likely end up nursing serious wounds.

What’s the lesson I learned? Perhaps this: take care not to ask too much of your Labradors, demonstrate to your Collies what’s in it for them, and never take a cat on a bike ride.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Verbalizing Our Strategies

In our elementary building we have quite a few students who are in the 2nd or 3rd Tier of RTI instruction, and we usually pull the students needing the most individualized attention during the morning breakfast period, when students are arriving for the day. Several of us work with these students attempting to fill the gaps they have in their reading knowledge, and the other day one of these teachers asked me for specific advice about her work with a student. Her question was a good one: is it important that he be able to discuss the strategies he’s using, or are we just striving for him to use them, regardless of whether he can name what he does?

It’s a question that’s been discussed in the comprehension instruction texts, such as “Catching Readers Before They Fall” and by Harvey and Goudvis in “Strategies That Work”. When I think back over my own reading, I realized that even though I was a proficient reader as a child, I had no idea about the comprehension strategies themselves. I was not consciously aware of how I inferred details or when or with what evidence I synthesized textual implications, and I didn’t even pay close attention to my inner questions, though I must have had them. I do remember being aware of visualizing, however, and realizing that my inner movies were merely compilations of my memories of places I’d actually been.

The same goes for grammar rules, as far as that goes. I still don’t know what a gerund is, and as a child I wasn’t aware of compound complex sentences or dangling participles when I wrote. I just knew it didn’t sound right. However, once I did learn the names of these parts of speech during high school and college, it allowed me to more clearly analyze the errors I was making. By having this explicit knowledge of grammar I was able to name what was wrong with my writing and more easily correct it. Once I knew a dependent clause was supposed to have commas at either end, it was easy to make my writing more understandable to others.

Perhaps the same is true for comprehension strategies. Proficient readers aren’t aware of their use of these strategies, but they feel their absence when they encounter difficult text. Explicit knowledge of these strategies comes in handy once a comprehension problem rears its ugly head.

Even proficient readers will deal with difficult text at some point in their lives, and they can clarify their misunderstandings of the text if they have an understanding of what to do. They may realize the need for more background knowledge when reading a confusing college chemistry text, or they might realize that the technical manual they’re reading for work isn’t making sense because they are reading too quickly and without internal questioning. Being able to name what they are not doing will enable them to change their behavior.

The students we’re working with in the mornings have been struggling for quite some time with decoding and/or comprehending texts. It may be that they struggle because no one has taken the time to explicitly show and name for them the strategies that proficient readers use. The least we can do for them is name them, and give them the tools they need for when the inevitable reading problems arise.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


The importance of listening has been underestimated in the job of coaching, in my perception. Too many people think a coach's job is to impart wisdom about literacy to teachers. The thought is often that the coach is the expert in their academic area and so must convince the other teachers in her building to come around to the "correct" way of teaching. The coach then works her heart out leading after-school professional development sessions and scheduling modeled lessons, but ends up frustrated by the end of the year when only a few pioneers, the teachers who will try anything, are applying her strategies. The coach grumbles, makes plans to readdress it next year, and the cycle continues. After a few years of this, the coach begins to believe either a) "there's something wrong with these teachers" or b) "there's something wrong with me" and in either instance wants to quit. Sometimes they do quit, but continue to remain in the position of coach.

Granted, there can be lots of reasons that coaching doesn't "work" at a school. But I think a huge part of a coach's success has to do with his or her willingness to listen to the teachers she works with. And by listen, I mean truly listen. William Isaacs says we have trouble with this because:

If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate, we hardly listen at all to what is being said.

I don't know how many times I've done this, but I know it's a lot. In his book "Dialogue - the Art of Thinking Together", Isaacs says "People do not listen, they reload". I have been guilty of this many times in my life, ignoring the person talking to me in an effort to pre-argue my point in my head so I can jump in at the earliest opportunity to get that point across.

And yet those people in my life that I value most are the ones who I feel have truly listened to me. The childhood teachers I felt closest to were the ones who made me feel cared about and listened to. The leaders I've worked for whom I most respect were the ones who respected me right back by listening to my opinion - really listening, and considering what I had to say.

As coaches, we should be offering that focused listening to the teachers with whom we work. If we truly listen, then oftentimes we'll learn something. And when people feel listened to, more likely than not they'll be more willing to listen right back.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Delicate Dance: Teacher Conferences

This past week I’ve been following up some earlier professional learning on guided reading by offering to give feedback to teachers one-on-one as they work with a small group of kids. It’s always intimidating for teachers to be observed, mainly for reasons that I’ve already written about: teaching is a profession where we think for a living, so any comments on our actions is really a comment on our character.

I’ve tried to help by avoiding the “O-word” (observation) and instead have phrased it as “offering feedback”, and I’ve been using the same form with the teachers that they used with me when they observed me working with a group of students during our professional learning.

Working one-on-one with teachers is some of the most delicate work we do as coaches. A slightly different choice of words can be the difference between building confidence or building a wall between the coach and teacher. I always try to think of how I’d feel sitting in their chair if someone came in making suggestions, and it’s helped me to realize how innocent I often am of the judgmental way words can sound. I’ve found that using the words “I wonder” has helped. As in, “I wonder if you’d tried a meaning-based prompt here if he would have figured out the word sooner?” or “I wonder if he’s waiting for you to provide most of the help? What do you think he’d do if you just waited him out?” The trick, of course, is to truly wonder about whatever I’m asking. People can smell a fake question a mile away and nothing turns people off quicker than feeling manipulated.

The other thing I’ve discovered about individual conferences with teachers comes from the wisdom of Donald Graves, writing workshop guru. He has always said, “Teach the writer, not the writing. Focus on one important thing that will make this child a better writer after the conference is done.” Helping a teacher home in on one big thing that can help them with many students, not one particular student is critical. But this is often difficult if there are a plethora of “next steps” to address. By choosing one, and not overwhelming the teacher, the time spent in conference will be well worth it.

Graves also says, “The student should leave the conference wanting to write.” If we use the right language, and can be transparent with our feedback, teachers will leave our conference wanting to teach.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Fog of Teaching

I’ve spent the last couple of days at a “retreat” for one of our grade levels where we have spent very valuable time discussing the meat of what we do as teachers. We’ve interspersed really deep discussions about curriculum and instructional strategies with hilarious stories of bathroom mishaps and “the things children say”. It’s been both intense and relaxing, and we’ve gotten an incredible amount accomplished.

If only teaching could always be like this.

Unfortunately, too often we can’t or don’t spend time discussing the “meat” of our teaching with our colleagues because the clutter of daily school operations gets in the way. Meetings become clogged with lists of complaints or field trip details and organizational tasks take up the planning time we could so much better use to reflect on our teaching effectiveness. And no one knows better the flustered feeling one gets when eight kids need to go to the bathroom, someone spills their drink on the carpet, and the technology won’t work, all as the principal enters the classroom with her clipboard for an observation.

The best teachers are able to teach on the fly and adapt as needed, but for many teachers daily life in the classroom can feel very much like “the fog of war”. I think of it as the fog of teaching.

The fog of war is described as the degree of uncertainty and lack of situational awareness that occurs in a large battle. It’s the confusion that tends to stop forward progress and sometimes even cause instances of friendly fire. In the classroom, at least, we don’t have to worry about fatalities due to the fog of teaching, but there are casualties. If we succumb to the sense of confusion we feel in the midst of the daily bombardment of information and operational/classroom management requirements, then we lose our forward momentum and the vision of where we’d like our students to be.

How do we prevent the fog of teaching? In actuality, I don’t think there’s a way to completely avoid periods of time during which the fog descends. There will always be report card weeks that fall on a full moon and a holiday weekend. But for the times in between, we have got to set aside sacred time to discuss the meat of teaching. We have to ignore the operational and discipline issues in order to focus on the curricular and instructional decision-making that is at the heart of teaching, and then share these ideas with our colleagues. Just like a soldier working through the sleep-deprivation, harassing orders and harsh conditions of boot camp in order to condition himself to think clearly on the battle field, as teachers we have to force ourselves to maintain intentional practices even in the most adverse of conditions. Otherwise, we’ll all just wander around in a fog.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Commander's Intent" in the classroom

When I was a new teacher, the first few years of my career, I remember struggling with the tone of my classroom discipline. I started out with the intention of being like those favorite teachers I remembered from my own childhood – so likeable and strong of character that we students would do anything to please them. But without much idea of how to make that happen, I found myself gradually reverting to a list of rules for kids to follow: keep your hands and feet to yourself, clean up your own mess, walk in the hall, raise your hand when you want to speak, etc. I had an elaborate system of rewards and punishments to enforce these rules, and it worked. My kids were well-behaved. But I was exhausted. And my bank account was dwindling as I spent more and more on prizes to entice the kids to follow the rules.

I began to value the good behavior of the kids more than the evidence of their learning, and became annoyed by eager interruptions and messy activities. Around my second or third year of teaching this newfound power to control behavior began to seriously conflict with my beliefs about active learning for kids. I had to make a decision about which I valued more.

Fortunately, I moved to a new school with an experienced principal who helped me realize that I didn’t need to spend quite so much energy on discipline if my instruction was strong in the first place. Kids who are engaged and challenged are rarely off task.

The number of rules, rewards, and punishments does not determine the quality of classroom management, she taught me. Rather, rely on something the army calls “Commander’s Intent”. The army famously believes that “a plan never survives its first contact with the enemy”. Therefore, a group of soldiers is advised of their commander’s intent for a specific battle: “defend the south side of the village” or “take control of that hilltop”. When the inevitable manure hits the metaphorical fan, every soldier in the group is able to adjust and make decisions on the fly because they know their commander’s intent – the ultimate goal of this battle.

The same applies to a classroom. If the teacher’s intent is made clear in simple terms – “be kind to others” or “we’re all here to learn” – then when troubles arise, students can be taught to make all decisions around that one principle. If Billy is interrupting classroom discussions by sharpening his pencil or calling out, he’s interfering with others’ learning. The same applies for bullying, running in the hall, stealing, not completing work, etc. One simple rule can summarize the intent of an entire discipline plan, and all decisions thereafter revolve around it. It’s simple for kids and for the teacher, and it gets at the heart of why we’re at school.

Think about the message you send to your students each day in your classroom. What do you think they believe your commander’s intent to be? Is it the message you want to send?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

First Week

It's Saturday after the first full week of school, and I have spent the day in recovery - mostly napping and rubbing my feet, trying to recharge the batteries. I always seem to forget how tough beginning the year is once the adrenaline and excitement wear off.

It's different as a coach, of course, and this time of year is when I miss having my own class the most. As coaches, we end up supporting classroom teachers as they set up rules and routines during these first weeks, and it's still exhausting work.

Yesterday evening, as I finally left the building, I thought back over my week of duties which had frankly felt more like putting out forest fires than anything truly constructive, and I felt disappointed by the lack of true coaching duties I felt I'd performed.

But as I reflected on it more, I think it may be a natural phase every year, perhaps at every school, that we focus more on operational procedures during those first days, and less on refining our instructional practices. It's a necessary thing to have all hands on deck to make sure classes proceed through the lunchroom on time, kids make it out of the building safely for the first fire drill, classes are balanced as new kids arrive, and kindergarteners find their classrooms. I may not be able to look back over the first days and feel like an effective coach, but it's very similar to what we tell teachers: spend those first weeks working on rules and routines so that you can be more effective in your instruction later on. Our time spent making sure teachers have enough textbooks and passing out "Welcome back to school" treats will pay dividends later on when we ask them to trust our opinions and as we coach through tough classroom situations.

However, it's critical that we don't get stuck in these operational tasks. We have to be able to step back after a week or so, find our true purpose, and pass many of these duties on to assistant principals or others whose job it truly is, or otherwise we'll find ourselves halfway through the year with nothing to show from our job as coach. I'd much rather end the year as exhausted as I began it, but from having coached my heart out in the months between.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Underlying Messages

A couple of days ago I was given the name of a struggling student I’ll be providing with reading interventions during the coming year. I haven’t met the boy yet, but I know he’s a fifth grader and so I anticipate that along with his difficulties in reading will come a great deal of other emotional baggage that has accumulated over the years. I expect that he’ll be dreading the beginning of school (though he has no idea that his homeroom teacher this year is one of the best in the business). He’s probably expecting to be pretty quickly discovered as a failure and is perhaps already making plans on how to avoid the difficult work headed his way by either clowning around with his peers, claiming sickness or excessive bathroom breaks, or simply melting into the background and becoming invisible.

Working with older students who have struggled with reading is always more difficult than the younger ones because they come as damaged goods. Their self-concept has been torn down and unevenly grown over with scar tissue. They still want desperately to do well, but they no longer believe they can.

I’m reminded of something I learned about working with this type of student from a wonderful friend of mine, Sherry Boone. After I relayed to her a story about a successful tutoring session with an older struggling student and my effusive praise for him on his progress, she gently chided me for my overt enthusiasm. She explained that it’s not just what we say, but how we say it that matters more. When I was excitedly saying, “You did it! You figured out that big long word!” my underlying message was conveying not just excitement, but also surprise. He was hearing, “You did it! And I didn’t think you could! I’m so excited because you surprised me with your progress.”

Instead, if we praise a student calmly, the message we send is more reassuring: “You did exactly what I knew you could do all along! I’m not at all surprised that you made progress because I’ve been expecting it.” In our work with older students, we have to work twice as hard on their attribution theory or, in other words, to whom these students attribute their success. Too many times, kids who struggle with reading see themselves as helpless regarding school. They can’t seem to do anything successfully, and if they do they tend to attribute it to luck. “Oh, I just guessed at that word. I didn’t do anything intelligent or strategic or intentional. It was a lucky guess.”

Our job as teachers is to combat this attitude and give the struggling reader control over reading so that he can begin seeing himself as the type of person who knows what to do once a difficult reading situation is encountered. And once empowered, they will no longer feel the need to be invisible in our classrooms.

Friday, July 30, 2010

One-minute Fluency Measures - Skewed Views

I just finished reading “One-Minute Fluency Measures: Mixed Messages in Assessment and Instruction” by Theresa A. Deeney in the March 2010 issue of “The Reading Teacher”. She has some excellent points, among them:

One-minute fluency measures (such as the DIBELS Oral Reading Fluency or ORF and AIMSweb) only measure rate and accuracy, but they don’t measure what are arguably two other very important aspects of fluency: prosody, or what we’ve traditionally called expression, and comprehension, which has a recursive relationship with fluency in that readers who comprehend what they read usually end up sounding fluent, and readers who sound fluent are more easily able to comprehend their own reading. Since traditional short fluency measures don’t measure prosody and comprehension, our working definition of what fluency actually is has gotten skewed. She argues that we’re confusing fluency assessment with fluency instruction, and because we’re focusing only on rate and accuracy, that’s what we end up teaching as well. In an effort to increase the scores on these quick assessments, we give students more short texts to practice reading quickly and accurately. Students end up with a skewed message about what reading is and how to know when you’re good at it.

Her other point about one-minute fluency measures is that they don’t take into account the need to develop reading endurance in students. She demonstrates this using the readings of eight students reading at least one year below grade level. Each of these students was able to read within the recommended guidelines for accuracy and speed on a one-minute reading. But when asked to read for longer periods (4-5 minutes) most of the students read much slower and much less accurately. Her point is that we’ve helped improve readers’ speed and accuracy on short texts at the expense of these same qualities on longer texts. Some students were able to keep their accuracy fairly high over time, though their speed decreased. These students most likely needed practice reading longer texts and developing stamina. However, some students decreased both in their speed and their accuracy, indicating the problem might lie deeper. The reader has evidently not become automatic in her word recognition and would need help with either sight words or decoding unfamiliar words. To determine this we have to go deeper than typical one-minute assessments allow, and do a miscue analysis on the selection.

One-minute fluency assessments have their place – they allow us to see which students need further work on rate and accuracy. But they don’t tell us how the reader does on longer texts or why the student might be having difficulty. As always in education, we have to find a balance. In this case, we need a balanced view of the definition of fluency and the causes of dysfluency.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I’ve been reading Jim Knight’s book “Instructional Coaching” and finding it refreshing. Despite having read more coaching books over the past 3 years than I can immediately count, Knight’s book offers new perspectives written with a clear, entertaining voice.

In his chapter on communication, he simplifies the idea by describing it as process whereby a speaker expresses an intended message to an audience.
“A funny thing happens to the message on the way from the speaker to the audience, however. Interference messes with the message…Consequently, the audience receives a modified version of the intended message – we call this the perceived message. Unfortunately, the perceived message can be quite different from the intended message, but the audience doesn’t know that and believes the perceived message is real.” (p. 59)
Knight goes on to describe various types of interference, from external interference, such as extraneous noise, to internal interference, such as distracting, off-topic thoughts or preconceptions or lack of prior knowledge.

That intended messages can be distorted by the audience is not new information for teachers. Children misinterpret our communication with them quite frequently. When I worked as a parapro at my college laboratory school I had to reinterpret for a Kindergartener who was fearful after the Kindergarten teacher said, “Line up to go outside, boys and girls. It’s time for us to go get our blood moving around.” After seeing the shocked, disgusted look on the child’s face, I quickly told her, “Sara, he means INSIDE our body! Get the blood moving inside our body.” Another time I inadvertently let down one of my second graders because I told him I’d bring in some pumice, a volcanic rock that floats. After demonstrating what I thought was a quite impressive display of a floating rock in the classroom sink the next day, a disappointed Daniel told me at lunch that he thought the rock floated in AIR and why couldn’t I have brought a rock that could do that?

Of course, these are misinterpretations that I know about, but how many times did I send my intended message only to have it be received very differently, unbeknownst to me? As teachers, we often feel that we’ve done our part by presenting our intended message to our students – here’s how to find the product of two 2-digit numbers, this is the reason Eleanor Roosevelt is famous, here’s the difference between a subject and a predicate. As educators, though, shouldn’t we do more? It seems to me to be the difference between someone who “teaches curriculum” and one who “teaches students”. The latter requires that we be constantly tuned in to our message as we give it, and be ready to adjust it or clarify at a moment’s notice. It’s something I aspire to, and hope to learn to do better.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Addressing Classroom Management

Jim Knight, in his book “Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction”, says there are 4 Big Areas that coaches should focus on when working with teachers: behavior, content knowledge, direct instruction, and formative assessment. What’s different in how he describes these areas, however, is that he states they should be addressed in sequential order. In other words, if a teacher expresses a desire for help with her writing instruction, as a coach you must first help her to analyze her behavior management system to see if it’s effective and be sure she has a strong understanding of the content knowledge that’s needed for successful writing workshop.

As I was discussing these ideas with another coach the other day, she almost jumped out of her chair in agreement as she realized why a particular coaching partnership had not worked well in the past. As she and the teacher had worked to improve guided reading instruction in her classroom, the coach had tried to ignore what was for her a huge elephant in the classroom – the complete off-task behaviors of the students at literacy centers: some students were huddled in the classroom library with the hanging chart stand blocking the teacher’s view from what the students were actually doing, another group of students was sitting on the rug tossing marbles into a plastic cup for no discernible reason, and other students freely roamed the room looking for other things to do, all as the noise level made hearing the guided reading group difficult. At no time did the teacher redirect the students, however, since she felt perfectly comfortable with their activities and the noise level.

In this particular instance, the teacher lacked both the content knowledge regarding the purpose of literacy centers (more than just busy work for students while the teacher conducts small groups) but also the necessity for consistent rituals and routines to focus students and maximize learning time. For the coach to be truly effective in helping this teacher improve her instruction, she was going to have to address the classroom behavior first, and then provide her with the content knowledge she needed. Simply going in and modeling a guided reading lesson would not be enough.

As coaches, sometimes we feel that behavior management is a personal decision by the teacher – some teachers are more lenient than others, and comfort levels with noise differ. I agree that there are certainly many ways to organize classroom behavior, and no one way is the “best” method. But if we are to be truly effective as coaches, and if students are going to benefit from the teacher’s instruction, we’re going to have to become more comfortable discussing classroom behavior with the teachers for whom it is a problem.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Book Review: "Preventing Misguided Reading"

Earlier this month I finished “Preventing Misguided Reading” by Jan Miller Burkins and Melody M. Croft, and I found it to be a thought-provoking re-visitation of guided reading packed with concrete suggestions. It’s obvious that Jan and Melody are working from experience in the classroom as they describe so many of the problems that have accompanied guided reading as it’s become a pervasive practice across the country. Among their arguments:

• reading is a balance between print and story cues, and instruction should reflect this balance;
• the traditional instructional level of 90-94% is too low, and is based on Clay’s work with individual students – they suggest 95-98% as instructional;
• the student should be doing the majority of the work during guided reading, not the teacher;
• actual instruction should not happen during guided reading;
• guided reading is a part of the gradual release of responsibility model.

It’s these last 2 points that have become an epiphany for me. The authors argue, and I agree, that too often the elements of gradual release have become disconnected across the day – we might model self-questioning during modeled reading, have students help us find the rhyming words during shared reading of a big book, practice predictions during guided reading groups, and then have students read independently and record the beginning, middle and end of the story. Each of these parts of the day has become an instructional time, and they’re all focusing on different elements of reading!

Instead, Jan and Melody say, have the day make sense to kids by choosing one strategic focus and carry it throughout your modeled, shared, guided and independent reading. For instance, if during guided reading you notice students are only “sounding out” unfamiliar words and not using the prominent picture clues simultaneously, then during read aloud time model how you solve some unfamiliar words when you read aloud a picture book. Think out loud about how you used both the letter clues AND the pictures to figure out the hard word. Then, during shared reading, have students help you read aloud a big book, discussing how they solved several difficult words and their strategies for doing so. This makes the modeled reading and shared reading more instruction-heavy, and allows guided reading (which is actually just the step right before independent reading in the gradual release model) to be a much more student-driven session. The same instructional focus is threaded throughout modeled, shared, guided and independent reading.

The teacher’s chief job during guided reading should be to observe student behaviors and to step in with very broad prompts when needed. The student needs during this time inform the instruction you’ll provide later in modeled and shared reading.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Book review: "The Book Whisperer"

I just finished "The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child" and it makes me want to not only soak up as many books as I can read, but also to grab a nearby child and book talk them into reading as many books as they can as well. It's obvious from this book that Miller is a lifelong reader who is passionate about convincing children to be the same. She is a sixth grade teacher whose classroom rivals the school library in diversity and size. She expects her kids to read 40 books during the year they are with her, and though some don't make it (the fewest any child has read over the year is 22 books) they usually end up reading MANY more books than they had the previous year. She dedicates 30 minutes per day to independent reading for her students, and spends the other 60 minutes of her period on instruction. If I could find one fault with her book it's that I wish she'd spent more time on describing the instruction that happens in her classroom during the 60 minutes her kids aren't reading. Perhaps she's leaving room to publish another book at a later point in time.

She does go into accountability measures she uses to track student reading, her requirements that students read a variety of genres, and how this devotion to reading translates into test scores (her students regularly do very well on the Texas high-stakes assessment). She also addresses many traditional practices such as round robin reading, incentive programs, and book reports, and I think she does a marvelous job of justifying why she doesn't do them and describing her alternatives instead.

This is a wonderful book, particularly for upper grades teachers who want insight into how workshop can look for their students. She writes in a very readable, convincing style. Now if she'll just come out with her sequel!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Summer Reading

When I first started teaching, I didn’t read professional books. Granted, there wasn’t much out there to choose from. But it wasn’t just lack of selection that got in my way. When I did find some professional books I liked, I found that I could only read them during the summer months. If I read during the school year, inevitably I ended up feeling enormously guilty that my classroom differed so greatly from the shining examples of teaching I encountered in my books. The authors were always sensitive, knowledgeable angels of God with patience to spare and apparently no classroom discipline problems to deal with. The writing or reading responses their students came up with seemed so much more profound that what I could coax from my little ones, and the comparison was painful. So, I solved that by just avoiding it.

I chose instead to read professionally only during the summer. Because during those wonderful, lazy days anything was possible. This next year when I met my students they would all be sensitive, caring scholars who would do anything to please me. They would anticipate my every wish and need, surprise me with their intuitive responses to literature, and endear me to the administration, who would be in awe of my expertise in changing the lives of these little ones.

Or maybe not.

What I ended up discovering, by accident or necessity (I can’t remember which), was that if I just jumped in and tried to change my classroom one little bit at a time to reflect the brilliant techniques I read about, the students rose to the occasion. Rather than think, “Oh, what a great idea! I’ll try that with next year’s class” I began to implement changes as I went. I discovered that only 3-4 weeks after what had seemed like a major change I couldn’t imagine my classroom any other way. One year I gave up the basal mid-way through the year and went to small group sets of children’s literature. Another year I gave up the spelling lists and began individualized spelling. Only a few years ago I decided to try math workshop mid-way through the year, drawing from Marilyn Burns’ books for inspiration. Each time the change was a good one, and I ended up feeling grateful that I’d taken the plunge and changed mid-way through. And that has led to an unapologetic addiction to reading professional books, no matter what time of year it may be.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

LSD and reading

I used to race mountain bikes for fun on weekends, and after the first few races I began to realize that for folks who were serious about this sport, there were certain training regimes that gave them an advantage. Among those were nutrition, weight lifting, interval training, and LSD. No, that’s not the hallucinogenic drug from the 60’s, but instead stands for Long, Slow Distance. Typically, this was done in the winter, and involved going out for long rides at an easy, conversational pace for hours at a time. The idea was that it built endurance, heart strength, and automated your body’s use of its muscle’s energy stores. Once race season came near, you were supposed to increase the difficulty by doing interval training and more intense workouts.

It occurred to me on my bike ride today (which necessarily consists of LSD since I’m riding by myself with no one to push me – or maybe it was just L & S) that there’s an easy connection between this LSD concept and what Allington was talking about regarding text selection in his article . In order for me to become a better and faster racer, I had to step back and, counter-intuitively, go slow. With readers, we often want to push them to read harder and longer books, stretching their skills past what they can comfortably do. But by doing so, we run the risk of pushing them to the point of exhaustion. When this happens, students learn that 1) reading is hard and 2) they can’t do it very well. They’re learning, but it’s not what we want them to learn.

Allington is arguing that we need to allow students to read easier texts to build automaticity, in the same way that Long, Slow Distance allowed me to build my base strength as a cyclist. By spending time with these easier texts, readers learn to successfully apply the decoding and comprehension strategies they’re being taught. They also learn to be motivated, confident readers who will choose to read in the future.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Allington's Six Ts of Effective Instruction

Dick Allington is brilliant. He’s a wonderful researcher, but I consider his most brilliant feat to be making the research that’s out there so completely accessible to the rest of us.

He has written about the “Six T’s of Effective Instruction” before, but I think it’s worth summarizing here because it’s so brilliant. The excerpts below are all from his chapter “What I’ve Learned About Effective Reading Instruction From a Decade of Studying Exemplary Elementary Classroom Teachers” in “RTI in Literacy – Responsive and Comprehensive”.

Allington argues that good Tier 1 literacy instruction has 6 common features:

Time: Exemplary teachers balance out true reading and writing in their classroom as compared to “stuff”, which is what Allington calls the activities such as worksheets, test-prep, dictionary skills, etc. that aren’t real reading. In many classrooms it’s not unusual for children to spend only 10% of their day actually reading or writing, whereas students in exemplary teachers’ classrooms spend around 50% of their time really reading and writing. That’s approximately 150 minutes out of a 300 minute school day.
Texts: “Students need enormous quantities of successful reading to become independent, proficient readers. By successful reading, I mean reading experiences in which students perform with a high level of accuracy, fluency, and comprehension.” Students need texts that they are able to read.
Teaching: It sounds simple, but students need to be taught. Too many times, what teachers do instead is assign and assess. Allington promotes “the notion of active instruction – the modeling and demonstration of the useful strategies that good readers employ.” We can’t expect most kids to learn how to comprehend or decode or read fluently without being explicitly shown how.
Talk: “We observed the exemplary teachers fostering much more student talk – teacher/student and student/student – than has previously been reported. In other words, these exemplary teachers encouraged, modeled, and supported lots of talk across the school day.” These teachers tended to ask more open-ended, thought-provoking questions than less effective teachers.
Tasks: “Another characteristic of these exemplary teachers’ classrooms was greater use of longer assignments and less emphasis on filling the day with multiple shorter tasks.” The tasks these teachers asked students to engage in integrated multiple skills and strategies the students were taught, rather than isolating them. The researchers also found that students exhibited less off-task behaviors and more engagement because of the longer tasks.
Testing: “Exemplary teachers evaluated student work and awarded grades based more on effort and improvement than simply on achievement.” In other words, teachers were looking more at the process the students underwent rather than the product. Struggling students were rewarded for growth and improvement in learning, and teachers often used rubrics to help students see their progress towards their learning goals.

Allington’s Six T’s provide us a succinct way to evaluate our own instruction and whether we’d measure up to the exemplary teachers he studied. When scientists are seeking the answer to a problem, the first thing they do is research to see if anyone else has found the solution. It seems that Allington has done the research, and now it’s just up to us to use it to adjust our own teaching.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

In it for the long haul

I’ve always been amazed by those teachers who teach beyond their requisite 30 years. So I was quite amazed to read about this 93 year old calculus teacher who has been teaching for 75 consecutive years.

I’d love to see a side-by-side comparison of his first year of teaching and this current year. What’s the same? What is different besides available technology?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Book Review: Teach Like a Champion

I rarely, if ever, abandon any book that I set out to read, especially professional books. An eternal optimist, I keep hoping that it’s a slow start and that I’ll reach the good part in the next hundred pages. But this past week I found that I couldn’t continue reading “Teach Like A Champion” by Doug Lemov.

I’d read an article online somewhere months ago describing the work Lemov is doing to transform inner-city schools into bustling hives of inspiration, sending hundreds or thousands of kids to college who wouldn’t otherwise go. He’s observed the best teachers in these schools and compiled 49 techniques they use to “put students on the path to college”. My hope was that Lemov’s book would help pinpoint those critical teaching moves so that, as a coach, I could bring them to other teachers.

While Lemov does discuss some useful techniques, the majority of what he promotes in the book and accompanying DVD are very old-fashioned. Teachers stand at the front of the room, students sit in silent rows or stand beside their desks, and interaction consists of the teacher barking out information or questions while the students call back in unison or respond when “cold called” by the teacher. Most examples consisted of whole group instruction, and even round robin reading, or reading from basal texts. Check out some videos at this link to see some examples. Scroll down to “check out related media” and look for teaching examples.

It’s a very behavioralist methodology, and perhaps the only use I can think of for the DVD is as a contrast to the constructivist approach that I’d much prefer teachers use. Learning is not about regurgitation, or following orders, or rote memorization. Yes, it is about time on task, but it’s also about thoughtful participation, about individual opinions, and about groups of students working to construct their knowledge together. As a contrast, check out this 4 minute video on Teacher Tube by Lucy Calkins discussing the Reading Workshop approach. The contrast could not be sharper.

Last week I read an article from a British online magazine discussing Lemov’s book. Here’s what one teacher had to say:

Many of the points he gives are related to what you could call an autocratic style of teaching – constantly asking questions. There are fewer ideas to improve the dynamics of group work – if you were to pick up a British book on modern teaching it would be about how to create a dynamic learning environment. If you stood in front of a class of British schoolkids doing question-and-answer all lesson, you would lose them. It's not the way we teach. After reading this book, my perception is that British teaching is ahead of the game.

It’s disturbing to think that 1) new teachers might pick up this book and think it’s a good way to teach and 2) that other countries might judge us on the basis of this book. I’d hope that most people have moved into the 21st century and beyond this very old-fashioned way of teaching.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

She sees his face
staring from the old class picture
Surrounded by smiling 7 year old cheesy grins
his face is blank, his eyes empty
Why didn’t she see it then?
Did she do enough?
She wonders where his face is now,
years past the frozen picture moment.

The universal teacher’s prayer:
please let him be happy now,
Was some other teacher able to reach in
and turn the key that opened him?

~Heather Wall

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Breathing In and Breathing Out

The past week has been a wonderful blur of sleeping late, piddling in the yard, and fictional books that have nothing to do with teaching. It was the first full week off for summer vacation, and I reveled in it, to the point that when asked by a friend to discuss an educational topic towards the end of the week, I found that I didn’t have the “education-ese” ready at the tip of my tongue. My brain had taken a much-needed rest and had promptly forgotten so much of what I’d worked on for the past 200 days.

Sylvia Ashton-Warner, in her book “Teacher”, talks about arranging her day with the Maori children of New Zealand as an alternation between “breathing in” and “breathing out”. She felt that kids need to balance taking in new information with their creative impulses to produce something, and so she layered her day with, for instance, whole-group big book reading followed by independent writing time, then singing songs and reciting rhymes as a whole group followed by small group projects. This approach gives kids a chance to process and apply all the new information they hear during the day. It’s why a pure lecture method doesn’t work, even for adults.

As a teacher and coach, I find that I need to balance my “breathing in” with my “breathing out” as well. There are only so many professional books I can read, or even so many pages of one professional book I can take in, before I must take a break and put it to use. It’s also why I am a fairly slow reader when it comes to reading professionally – I spend a great deal of time staring off into space processing what I’ve read. The time spent staring is directly proportional to the unfamiliarity or originality of the material I read. But by balancing that breathing in and out as I read, I’ve been able to process the material by applying it virtually to situations in my classroom.

There’s a rhythm to a productive life, a groove that, once we fit into it, feels just right. And sometimes what feels just right is to piddle in the yard and take a complete break from breathing at all.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


If you try to teach a child the same
thing in the same way
over and over,
who's the slow learner?
~ Unknown

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Trip Back in Time

Today I spent hours cleaning out one of my filing cabinets, a task that has been long overdue and which is, for me, oddly satisfying. I love getting rid of old things that I no longer use. It’s like weeding the garden and suddenly being able to see organized rows where before there had been only chaos. It’s why, as I recently justified to my husband, I let housework get so far behind: it’s so satisfying to see a stark difference rather than only a slight improvement.

The cleaning of my files brought home the unexpected realization that I have now become one of those older teachers who has drawers filled with outdated, blurry worksheets with no discernible purpose or redeeming qualities. The opening of each file in the cabinet revealed another layer of the onion of the teacher I used to be. Why did I save an entire file on penguins? Did I ever plan thematic units on topics such as soil based on all the possible art, music, social studies and math connections? Or what about one whole file folder dedicated to “bulletin boards”? I still had papers I’d written in college, and even “activity” ideas that I’d inherited from a retiring teacher as I began my career almost 20 years ago. One index card was so wrinkled and coffee-stained I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away, despite the fact that it recorded the words to a song I had no idea how to sing.

Reading through the files brought back memories (and actual parent notes and classroom newsletters) of previous years, and I suddenly began to remember that teacher I used to be. People I used to work with, students I’d taught, plans I’d written, notes I’d taken in workshops and articles I’d clipped and taped together. There’s so much that I wasn’t aware that I didn’t know. Ignorance was bliss.

Sandra Cisneros has written about the years of our lives layering upon each other like the skin of an onion. In her short story “Eleven”, she discusses being eleven, and that when you turn eleven underneath you’re still 10 and 9 and 8 and 7 and 6 and 5 and 4 and 3 and 2 and 1. But all people see is the eleven-year-old you. All of us are like that. Even though the teacher/coach I am now feels like a fully-formed, independent person, I’m really just a composite of all those versions of me that came before. A mosaic of experiences, spread out on an office floor, or piled in an office trashcan waiting to be recycled.

Every once in a while it’s good to dig beneath the surface and revisit that earlier version of ourselves, if only to see how far we’ve come.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Final Day Blues

Yesterday was our final day of the school year. 180 days, more or less, under our belts. As a coach, I tend to miss being a classroom teacher the most during the shoulder seasons of the school year – the beginning of the year, when the challenge lies in creating a cohesive community of kids, and the end of the year, when breaking up that community results in tears and memories. Most years I can hold it together pretty well, avoiding tears by thinking ahead to the lazy days of summer.

But in the school at which I’m currently coaching, it’s the kids who leave crying each and every year. This was the third year I’ve coached here, and every time the 5th graders take their ceremonial final walk through the hallways on their way to the buses, it seems the entire school breaks down in tears, from 5th graders down to Kindergarteners. We teachers gather on the lawn to wave the buses off, and most of the kids are crowded to the windows, causing the buses to all list to one side, with tears streaming down their faces, some sobbing loudly. The boys are just as likely to be upset as the girls.

It’s a testament to the deep connection our teachers build with their students, and to the safety and comfort that the school represents in these children’s lives. When the rest of life is so uncertain, it’s comforting to know that your teacher loves you, and that school will always provide warmth, food, and opportunities for the future. We should all be so lucky to have a place like that in our lives. For it to be the place we work, well, that’s even better.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Panel of Experts

As the end of the year draws near (here in the South school ends the 3rd week of May), teachers and kids begin to get excited about the prospect of summer and the end of another school year. Some students can think ahead as far as June trips to the lake and perhaps Fourth of July fireworks, and no farther. But many students begin to wonder about the following year and what the next grade will be like. A few students feel increasingly nervous and, in my class at least, they began to feel nostalgic about our class community to the point that I began to receive an increased volume of love letters from students. Since these letters usually expressed the nervousness they felt about the “great unknown” that represented the next grade, one year I decided to put their minds at ease by compiling a “panel of experts”.

These “experts” were some of my former students from the previous year who were now much older and wiser for having been away from me and in the grade above for almost 180 days. On a day during the last two weeks of school I would invite 5-7 of my previous students to visit and be interviewed by my current class. Before their arrival we would brainstorm and chart questions we had about next year. Questions invariably revolved around the amount of homework, whether cursive was required, how hard math was and whether students were still allowed recess. But my students also wondered whether they’d be allowed to read books they wanted to read, if they could still write letters about their reading to their teacher, and whether students still were allowed to participate in writing celebrations. Uncharted, but still sometimes asked, was the biggie: “Is your teacher nice?” In reality, I think this question meant, “Does she care about you as an individual? Will she know how many brothers and sisters I have and understand why my homework wasn’t done because my uncle went to jail last night? Will she make banana pudding from the leftover breakfast bananas and come to my Little League game even if it’s at night?”

Despite some questions being left unasked, after my students had access to the panel of experts for a half hour or so, they felt much better about the prospects of the following year. The visiting “older” students enjoyed the reunion and reminiscing about old times. Oftentimes the entire group – alumni and current students – would break out in song, singing the multiplication tables as we’d learned them year after year.

Change is hard for anyone. Making the great unknown a little more “known” helped my students relax about the upcoming year and enjoy the last days of school even more. And their focus returned to where it should have been – the trips to the lake and the fireworks of July.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Re-awakening My Writing

Creaking, grumbling
The wheels begin to turn

Fifteen years of
flake off
the right side

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Finding Flow

Recently I’ve been rereading “Finding Flow” by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (“chick-SENT-me-high”). It’s an easy read, conversationally written, and in it MC discusses a phenomenon he calls “flow”: the feeling one gets when an activity is so enjoyable that one becomes caught up in it and loses all sense of time. Experienced chess players, surfers, and violin players all report experiencing this feeling, but so do regular people driving to work, traders on the floor of the NY stock exchange, and students preparing a difficult school project. Runners call this feeling “runner’s high”. Others call it being “in the zone”.

These flow experiences happen when an activity is challenging and the person doing them has a high set of skills to accomplish it. Both high challenge and high skill set must be present to experience flow. If the challenge is high but the skill set is low, the person experiences anxiety – the task is too hard. If the challenge is low but the person has a high skill set, she feels relaxed. If the experience is low-challenge and low-skills, then the person feels apathetic. Housework, watching TV and “just laying around” fall in this category.

MC argues that flow experiences are what make life enjoyable. He says:

“A person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification…..It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life.” [p. 31]

Reading this has made me reflect on my own flow experiences. I’m fortunate enough to experience flow many times at work – when a situation is at the cutting edge of my capabilities, and yet I feel that I’m able to do it well, I get “in the zone” and time seems to pass by in the blink of an eye. MC argues that flow experiences tend to occur when the goals are clear, and feedback is immediate and relevant. In other words, you’ve got to be working at the cutting edge of your abilities on a challenging task, know what’s expected of you, and be receiving feedback to allow you to adjust your actions as necessary.

How many of you or your co-workers experience flow at work? MC states that up to 40% of the population never has this experience. It seems a shame that some teachers might miss the opportunity to consistently feel that focused energy that comes from being “in the zone” and seeing “the light bulb go off” when teaching goes almost perfectly.

I’m still working through what this means for me as a coach. But couldn’t we increase the number of teachers who find flow in teaching? It would require that we be the sounding board to help them define their goals, and offer them honest, immediate feedback to help them adjust their instruction mid-stream. The alternative of living a work life without flow seems unacceptable.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Re-visioning Writing

It’s no secret that kids hate to revise their writing. I’ve had many students who enjoyed writing, especially once they realized our workshop was a safe community in which to be creative, but once a piece was written, it was done – notebook closed, pencil down, on to the next thing.

Katie Wood Ray, in her book “Study Driven”, says that revision should be the act of “re-visioning” your writing, a time to re-look at the piece with new eyes, often after you’ve taken a break from it for a day or so. But she also argues that in order for students to be able to re-vision their writing, they must have a vision for what it might look like in the first place. In her book, she describes various units of study possibilities (memoir, biography, editorials, etc.) by saying that each unit should start by immersing students in examples of the genre (what Ralph Fletcher calls “marinating” students in writing). That way, students have a “vision” for what their own writing might look like.

I had to do this exact process when I considered beginning a blog. Just 6 months ago I’d never visited a blog in my life. I’d heard of them but had no real working understanding of what they looked like, why people would want to “follow” them, or whether they covered any topics that would be of interest to me at all. It was an article in the Sept., 2009 issue of Educational Leadership that hooked me by describing various Edublogs and including links to the more popular choices. Once I’d “marinated” in the Edublogosphere for a few days, I had a vision for what blogging could be, and a tiny voice in the back of my head began to consider creating a blog myself.

Without that time spent exploring the genre, I never would have had a clear understanding of what this type of writing entailed. Recently I began to worry that my posts were getting too long, so I revisited my favorite blogs and looked them with new eyes – specifically looking at length. I was able to revise some of my longer drafts because I had a vision of what blogs looked like in the first place, and I used these blogs as mentor texts to help me “re-vision” what my own could look like.

This is why the concept of mentor texts is such a powerful one for students. Oftentimes as adults we make the assumption that kids understand what poetry means, or what an essay looks like, and we forget to provide them with the vision of what it is we’re attempting to get them to create. But if we allow ourselves to spend a few days at the beginning of a new unit of study really immersing our students in stellar examples of the genre, and then have those examples easily accessible during every writing workshop for students to peruse, I think we’ll find that they’re much more willing to revise. Because now they have an understanding of what they’re aiming for, and the drive to revise comes from within, rather than from the teacher.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Why the resistance?

When I became an instructional coach, eager and energetic and ready to change the world, I thought everyone would welcome me with open arms into their classrooms. After all, I was a classroom teacher too, just like them, and I was bursting with ideas to share. So I was understandably dismayed when no one came banging on my door begging me to come help them set up their room or read to their class or plan for their first writing unit. Some teachers were even actively resistant, turning down my offers with “thanks but no thanks” and a wan smile.

I was soon to learn that every coach deals at some point with resistant teachers. Many coaches have it even worse than I did, with folks who are outright rude about their desire to be left alone. Sometimes this resistance is due to the way coaching was explained to the staff – if teachers have the misunderstanding that the coach is there to “fix” them, or if in the past they’ve only known coaches to work with struggling teachers assigned to them by the principal, then they are understandably resistant to working with the coach themselves. Working with the coach then becomes an admission of incompetence.

But even if the idea of instructional coaching has been introduced positively to faculty members, coaches still often encounter resistant teachers. These are the teachers who sit inattentively in the back of professional learning meetings, if they attend at all, and then return to their classrooms to teach the way they’ve always taught. The temptation is to label them “afraid of change” or “set in their ways” and to inwardly feel like a failure every time you walk by their room.

However, in Jim Knight’s book “Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction”, he argues that may be the wrong perspective. Teachers are among the professions he calls “knowledge workers” and have a deep-seated need for autonomy. Knight quotes Thomas Davenport, an expert on knowledge workers:

One important aspect of knowledge workers is that they don’t like to be told what to do. Thinking for a living engenders thinking for oneself. Knowledge workers are paid for their education, experience, and expertise, so it is not surprising that they often take offense when someone else rides roughshod over their intellectual territory.

People who think for a living. When I read that for the first time, a metaphorical bell went off in my head. Of COURSE that’s why some teachers are resistant to unsolicited suggestions or interruptions in their carefully planned day. Because teaching is about thinking, any unsolicited comment can become a judgment on the teacher’s thinking. Even something as simple as beginning a “no fake reading” campaign in every classroom can become, to some teachers, a judgment on the worth of their prior instruction.

The key, then, is to create a nonthreatening coaching partnership with the faculty so that when the classroom teacher encounters a difficult situation in her teaching – a hole in her “intellectual territory” so to speak – she feels comfortable asking the coach for suggestions. This requires that the coach respect the teacher’s need for autonomy and choice. Many times this is easy, because most highly-effective teachers are also highly reflective, and are constantly searching for new and better ways to reach their students. I find that the best teachers are often the hardest on themselves, and they are the ones always asking me for more and better strategies for reaching those puzzling students that keep them up at night.

Resistant teachers are not necessarily resistant to new ideas – they’re resistant to feeling as if their prior ideas and experience have no value.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Drop-in Discomfort

Of all the things I do as an instructional coach, there’s one that has made me so uncomfortable that I can no longer bring myself to do it. That unpleasant task is making unannounced drop-in visits to teachers’ classrooms. My first two years as a coach I tried it, because for some reason I thought it was part of the job, but each time I felt uncomfortable and unnatural while visiting. I could never put my finger on exactly why it didn’t feel right, but one thing I’ve learned in life is to trust my gut instinct first, and analyze it later. I’m still analyzing this one.

As a classroom teacher myself, I never had an instructional coach just “drop in” to my classroom. If she visited, it was because I’d asked her to read with a child or help me model a book talk or help me analyze a problem with a lesson. My principal, on the other hand, regularly dropped in to squat next to a child and ask what he was learning about (invariably, she’d always ask the one clueless child, who had no idea of the point of the lesson. I quickly learned to seat the highly verbal, attentive children near the doorway). It made sense to me for my principal to drop in - I knew it was her job to check in on students and make sure that I was teaching well. I received my evaluations from her, and she had the responsibility of the entire school resting on her shoulders. From these “check-in” visits by my principal I got the same idea many teachers have – anyone who comes by unannounced just to visit is there for supervisory purposes.

It wasn’t until I began reading Jim Knight’s “Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction” that I found evidence for why my discomfort with drop-ins might be justified. Jim argues that the coaching-teacher relationship should act as an equal partnership. The coach is a colleague and peer of the classroom teacher – not necessarily the “expert”, and certainly not a supervisor or the “program police”, there to ensure that teachers are correctly using district-bought materials. The coach is a fellow teacher whose job it is to provide time and space for reflection about teaching practice. Together, the coach and teacher act as partners to address whatever issues the teacher identifies. Coaching works best if the classroom teacher is a willing participant and the instigator of the partnership with the coach. Oftentimes coaches are asked by principals to work with teachers, but those situations are rarely as successful because of the sense that the coach as been “assigned” to help. Choice is an important aspect of the coaching-teacher partnership.

And I suppose that’s why I’m uncomfortable with dropping into classrooms – there’s no choice in that act on the part of the teacher. Anytime someone drops into a classroom our prior baggage in the field of education tells us that the person dropping in is evaluating us, however earnestly they may deny it. It’s immediately thought of as a supervisory behavior. And it’s not a behavior that equal partners do to each other. How many of your fellow teachers drop in unannounced to your classroom with no agenda but to just listen to your lesson, talk with your students, and surreptitiously see how your teaching’s going?

Of course, there are times when visits do feel more natural – mostly when they’re announced and agreed upon ahead of time. I feel much more comfortable if, for instance, we’ve been focusing our professional learning for the past few weeks on tying literacy centers to standards and we have come to an agreement as a group on what that should look like in our classrooms. After a period of time I can tell teachers I’ll be visiting to see how our professional learning has impacted procedures in classrooms according to our agreed-upon criteria. If I ask them to email me with specific things they’d like me to look for while I visit, then I’ve reintroduced the element of choice, and it becomes a two-sided conversation about our practice, rather than a one-sided drop-in that hints of supervision.

The coaching partnership should be a dialogue, where both parties have a voice. Voice and choice are perhaps the heart of coaching.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Rocks and Sand of Coaching

If there’s one thing I hear more than anything else from other instructional coaches, it’s the frustration with the multitude of tasks competing for our time and the struggle to find the time to get everything done that we need to. So many coaches, myself included, look back on periods of time (the past week, month, day) and wonder what, exactly, we accomplished for all the energy that we expended.

Despite our district having a clearly defined evaluation tool that outlines the expectations for our job, coaches often end up spreading themselves an inch deep and a mile wide. It’s as if the evaluation tool is considered a “minimum bar”, similar to the “recommended passenger limit” on a subway car, and the school faculty or administration are the uniformed people on Japanese subways pushing “just one more” passenger in until the doors almost burst from overload. Many coaches around the country are doing tasks that stretch the definition of coach: substituting when subs cannot be found, helping at field day, providing interventions or enrichment activities for students, copying papers for teachers, or creating master schedules.

Somehow, we’ve got to figure out how to prioritize what’s most important for coaches to be doing. It reminds me of a metaphor I once saw for prioritizing the big, important things in life: if you consider your life to be a jar into which all the events in your life must fit, and the most important things are rocks, while the least important things are sand, it becomes obvious which you should fit into the jar of life first. If you allow the little things in life - the sand – to take priority, then there’s no room left over for the bigger important “rocks”. But if you make space for the rocks first, then all the sand will trickle through and find a way to fit. Only then will you have a balanced life with room for the things most important to you as well as those little things that just come up.

Coaches need to find a way to fit in the big rocks of coaching teachers and let the sand of “little things that come up” trickle through and find their own space. First we must decide: what are those big rocks of coaching? Is it modeling in classrooms? Extended time spent with a teacher gradually releasing instruction? Conversations with teachers exploring professional decision making? Once those big rocks are found, then they must be given priority, and that involves convincing your administration of the importance of the big rocks, and the inconsequence of the sand.

How have you been able to prioritize the important things in your life?

Monday, April 19, 2010


Welcome to the first posting on my blog! The title of my blog comes from the 3 things I find most important in life - coaching, teaching, and learning. My mom (a teacher) and my dad (not a teacher - a raft guide) were my first teachers, and taught me to love learning. In my opinion, if I'm not learning something new, then I'm not really living. Every day offers opportunities to learn something, but sometimes I've got to really search for that nugget of knowledge. It's often offered in the form of a small comment or action that's easily overlooked. I hope that I have a chance to share these small learnings with you through this blog. Enjoy!

Testing Mania

It’s testing season where I coach, as I’m sure it is in many places across the country right now, and as I’ve walked the halls during the past few weeks I’ve heard frazzled teachers engaging in what can only be described as last minute cramming sessions. As the date of the test neared, the stress level rose in direct proportion, so that today, the day before the actual test, teachers’ voices rose to a pitch only dogs could hear and kids sat frozen in their seats.

Teacher: “ OK, everybody – opposites what?”

Dead silence.

Teacher: “I know we’ve gone over this, boys and girls. Think – opposites do what?”

Students sit still, hoping one of their peers will sacrifice themselves. Finally, one brave soul volunteers, “They’re big?”

Teacher: “NO! No, no, no! We just did this last month! Opposites attract! North pole! South pole! I know we went over this!”

At this point the teacher’s voice has risen to fever pitch and the kids shift uncomfortably in their seats, wide-eyed, half hoping for the teacher to implode.

No matter how much we prepare for big events, whether it’s a test, a play in front of parents, or a class presentation before the school board, everyone gets a case of the stupids immediately before the big day. Students appear to have forgotten everything we taught them and even half of what they learned the grade before. We can bang our heads against this wall of lapsed memory, which I have done many a time, or we can anticipate its coming and prepare to employ other strategies with students in the days immediately before the test.

In the example above, everyone ends up unhappy – the teacher feels like a failure, sure that, with her job in the hands (or heads) of 25 clueless youngsters, she should go ahead and apply at Wal-Mart and sell her car. The children, who may have previously had some confidence that they could pass the upcoming test, just had their worst fears confirmed because now they know for sure they WON’T and will instead repeat their current grade, possibly with this same crazy teacher who had seemed so calm and reassuring up until a month ago. Just in time for the big moment, everyone falls apart emotionally, and all confidence is lost.

In reality, it may not be that bad, but we’ve all got to admit to occasional less-than-stellar performances right before high-stakes testing occurs. Our stress level transmits to the students, no matter how hard we might try to appear patient and understanding. And it’s a law of some sort that students’ knowledge level dips in the days before the big test.

I propose a different set of rituals in the run-up to the big day. Granted, there needs to be some preparation time for teaching test format and the genre of “test passages”, but that can happen during the month before the test. In the days right before, however, I suggest that we put away all test prep materials, all those test packets and commercially produced test practice booklets, and instead spend some time reminding kids of all they’ve learned over the past 160 days or so. How about we pass out their portfolios and have them look back at their writing from the beginning of the year, finding at least 2 things they know they can do better now than they did when they first arrived in our class? Or have them meet in small groups and pull out the books they first recorded on their book logs way back in August, and talk about how much they’ve learned about authors, different genres, inferring character motives, and how visualizing can help us remember what we read. Perhaps everyone could make a T-chart comparing the “old me” and the “new me”, recording the growth in list form and subject categories.

Most children have probably lost sight of the younger version of themselves that nervously showed up in your room so many days ago, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we probably have too. Everyone, adults and children, deserves to celebrate growth. And in the act of celebrating, if we end up forgetting about the test for just a moment or two, that’s okay too.