Sunday, December 11, 2011

Coaching Labs

Oftentimes in education, we treat teacher professional development as if it in no way mirrors best practices for students, when in reality what’s good for kids is good for those who teach them. This has become much more obvious to me as our county has begun implementing coaching labs based on the approach used by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at Columbia University.

The model is built on a gradual release framework with the idea that teachers should have the chance to learn about a new approach to teaching, see it modeled with live students, co-plan and co-teach students with a colleague using the new approach, and then receive support as they implement it in their classrooms.

I’ve been piloting this approach over the past year and while some labs have gone very well, others have flopped. I’m beginning to find some guidelines that may help ensure labs are successful:

• Make sure teachers know the structure of the lab from the beginning. The time commitment is a big one – usually 90 minutes once a week for a series of weeks. Almost every time teachers begin the lab feeling resentful of the time commitment and not at all convinced it will be useful. Explain the focus of the labs and quickly give them valuable experiences to create buy-in.

• Be sure the lab has a specific focus and revisit that focus at each and every meeting. Too often we address topics that are too large – narrow the focus down. Instead of “guided reading”, make it more about the quality of the prompts during guided reading. Instead of “conferences”, make it about how to find the teaching point for average and above average readers. If something else comes up during the labs, don’t go chasing rabbits. Make a note for a future lab, but keep the focus on your intended teaching point. Otherwise you dilute the potential power of the labs and teachers will ask afterwards, “What was the purpose of what we did?”

• Allow teachers to have a say in the focus of the lab. Have a pre-lab meeting to ask teachers about their instructional needs. Dig deeply in the discussion to find that specific focus you’ll use in the labs.

• Be intentional about the structure of each lab. It should mirror the workshop approach of mini-lesson, work session, and sharing. Begin with information for the teachers specific to their work with children that day (the mini-lesson), have teachers work with or see you work with actual students (work session), and then debrief afterwards (sharing). Don’t allow the debrief session to be left off – this is where some of the most powerful thinking occurs.

• Broaden the debrief session. Too many times, the tendency will be to discuss the particular students the teachers just observed. A part of the debrief should concern these kids, but then the discussion should pretty quickly transfer the key understandings of this lab to the teaching happening in the teachers’ classrooms. Ask open-ended, divergent questions to get people thinking about their own practice.

• Don’t allow too much time between lab sessions. Each lab should build on the previous one, and if too much time elapses before teachers meet again the learning that occurred can be lost. At most, allow 2 weeks between sessions.

• Monitor the transfer to classroom instruction. As the lab sessions progress, teachers should begin to apply more of what they learn to their classroom practice. Coaches need to be there every step of the way, offering to model in teachers’ classrooms or co-teach lessons for added support. Teachers might also benefit from observing each other in their classrooms. Informal walk-throughs can let you know how comfortable teachers are with transferring learning from the lab to their classrooms.

This is at least a starting point towards conducting a successful coaching lab and avoiding some of the pitfalls I’ve fallen into with less productive labs. Much of the feedback I’ve gotten regarding the labs has been very positive – teachers have enjoyed the hands-on approach and the sense that it met their needs and allowed them to be reflective about their practice.

As one participant said,
“Small group learning with practice on real students (because adult learning is really not that different than what works well with children!) is so much more meaningful than sitting in a big room watching someone click through a PowerPoint.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Coaching Openings

I remember the first time I worked my way into co-teaching in a classroom with a teacher because it happened completely unintentionally. When I began coaching I was naïve enough to believe that if people wanted help, they’d come right out and ask. It only took the first few months of aimlessly waiting to realize that I could gather cobwebs and dust before someone might trust me enough to outright ask for help.

Instead, that first opening came as so many since have – in the form of griping. A third grade teacher came to our coach’s office to complain about all the demands being asked of her and the stress of trying to make writing workshop work with “these kids”. I nodded sympathetically, but my colleague – the experienced literacy coach – recognized it for what it was: an opening to coach. “Heather just came out of teaching 3rd grade,” she commented, “she’d be glad to help out during your writing workshop and lend a hand”.

Sure enough, once I was in her room I found I could offer solutions and help her problem-solve the issues her kids were running into. But if my colleague hadn’t helped me see her griping as an invitation, we both still be in our individual rooms, each frustrated with our particular situations.

Most of the time, coaching openings are just as subtle as this one was. I learned my lesson that time, and became much more adept at hearing pleas for help stated in different languages – sometimes it came in the form of tears of frustration, or bursts of anger, or confusion about testing results. Sometimes teachers came at me sideways, asking for one thing when they really wanted help with another. And after quite a while, a few people began to trust me and started asking outright if I’d come assist with particular kids or instructional situations.

No matter how long I’ve been coaching, I’ve always got to be ready to respond to openings. Sometimes the best openings are camouflaged in subtle ways.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Elevator speech

Business people say that everyone should have an elevator speech ready to explain what you do at your job. By elevator speech, they meant a short synopsis of your career that could be explained to a stranger in the time it takes to rise a few floors on an elevator.

I’ve tried for a few years to come up with my elevator speech and when people ask what I do I’ve said such things as, “Well, I’m a coach, but not an athletic coach. I sort of cheer teachers on.” But that’s not right. Or, “I’m a teacher of teachers – I help them find the best instructional strategies for the classroom.” But that implies that I’m the one with all the knowledge, when in fact I’ve learned as much from other teachers as I’ve taught them. It’s certainly not, “I walk the halls and make sure teachers have what they need and do what they should” or “I basically wait around in my office until someone comes to ask me a question or cry on my shoulder.” Describing coaching can be hard.

But then the other day we had a business associate of my husband’s over for dinner and rather than ask, “What grade do you teach?” when he found out I was in education, he asked, “What do you do?” I surprised myself by saying, “My job is about change. I offer teachers support as they change their practice.”

That’s about as succinct as it gets. Coaching is about change. It’s about nudging change to happen, supporting it as it does, questioning when it doesn’t, and celebrating when it succeeds.

What’s your elevator speech?

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Possibility of Being Wrong

A while back I read an email from a teacher about an issue that I thought had been taken care of by a third person months ago, only to find out that appeared it hadn’t. Student well-being was at stake, and as I read and reread the email I found myself getting more and more upset. I vented to my office-mates and talked myself into a frenzy before vowing to “go take care of it right now!”

However, upon talking to the third party in question I quickly realized that I’d misunderstood the entire task, it HAD been taken care of months ago, and I’d just made and a** of myself in front of her, and possibly burnt some bridges I’d need later on.

This doesn’t happen to me too often, but when it does it causes me to sit back and re-evaluate my impulses. I should have counted to 10 (or 200) and waited to calm down before addressing the situation. And I should have entertained the possibility that maybe I was wrong in this case. There have been so many times that I have been wrong, you think I’d be used to it by now.

Too many times as coaches, we feel like we know the right way of doing things, the right instructional technique, the right materials to use, the right person for the job, the right solution to a problem. But the best coaches, in my experience, are the ones who approach a situation with an open mind, a questioning stance, and a willingness to entertain others’ ideas. Yes, you may feel that there is one “right” way to do guided reading, but what if this teacher’s adaptation is what works for her students? Or what at first appears to be a hallway display of very convergent, narrow thinking may, upon deeper inspection, be a truly creative way to teach inferential thinking.

From now on, before I make judgments, I vow to take stock of the situation and ask myself, “but what if I’m wrong?” If I ask questions and stay open-minded, perhaps I can build more bridges than I burn.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11

Ten years ago on this date I was recovering from a head injury and teaching struggling readers when I got news of the terrorist attacks. I’ve written before of the head injury I’d received only 3 months earlier, and while I’d improved a great deal from the initial trauma, I was still nowhere near my former self.

During the past months I’d relearned to read and comprehend again, though my stamina was weak and I’d easily get headaches. I’d studied the school yearbook before returning for preplanning in an attempt to relearn the other teachers’ names, and by now I could remember almost everyone. I still had difficulty finding the words I needed to express myself, but I’d found words came more easily if I relaxed and tried not to become self-conscious about my awkward pauses. I was able to multi-task and hold internal dialogue with myself, two actions that served to make me feel more normal. Overall, I had hope that I was on the mend, and that I might heal completely and return to my former self, although with no prior memory I didn’t know if I’d recognize myself when I got there.

And then 9-11 happened. The television was filled with images of the towers falling, dust-covered people running, family members holding photos, and hospital workers waiting at the loading docks with sheet-draped rolling chairs for the victims who never came. I donated blood when we still thought people would be pulled from the wreckage. I sat crying in front of the TV, broken hearted but unable to change the channel. In those first days it wouldn’t have mattered – there was nothing else on. TV pundits declared the end of humor and irony. Flags appeared on every car, and people I didn’t know talked about the tragedy in the grocery store and restaurants. It felt like the nation’s heart was breaking, and we all drifted through the hours heavy hearted and dazed.

For me, however, the tragedy had an unexpected result as I found myself drifting backwards, the cognitive progress I’d made virtually disappearing. Suddenly I found myself forgetting everyone’s names, unable to express how I felt, and uselessly searching for words I’d learned months before. My head hurt more often, and I spent time staring off into space with no internal thoughts, something I’d not done since weeks after my accident. It felt like I’d taken several steps forward only to have the immense sadness and stress of 9-11 take me backwards.

Now that I’ve fully recovered I realize what an important lesson I learned during that time. When truly learning something as if for the first time, the importance of one’s environment can’t be overstated. Fortunately for me, everyone understood how the sadness affected us all. But our students, whom we expect to comprehend textgs or utilize new vocabulary, might be under very similar stress to what I was feeling; although it might be from a source no one else knows – an impending divorce, the death of a beloved pet, or a parent hauled off to jail. How many of our students do we feel may have learning problems when in reality they are experiencing the same cognitive stress I was? How many of our students experience this stress at home on a daily or weekly basis?

It comes down to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs . In stressful situations the body prioritizes, and survival wins every time. Learning something new takes a back seat. Stress, whether from anxiety, depression, or extreme sadness, affects our ability to learn. This applies to classroom-induced stress as well – teachers who create stressful environments for their students, either intentionally or unintentionally, change their students’ abilities to learn.

After 9-11 the country gradually began to heal, and I did too. We all were left with lessons learned from the experience. As for me, I learned of the delicate balance that exists between our heads and our hearts.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

New Beginnings

The power of teaching is no more evident than at the start of the school year, when our classrooms fill with scrubbed faces full of fear and hope about what the upcoming year will bring. As the leader of the class, we have the power to make it a year the child will remember until adulthood or, conversely, the ability to define the child as a troublemaker or “slow learner” and begin a hatred of school that could last a lifetime.

It’s an awesome amount of power.

But it’s also one reason I love those first weeks of school, as exhausting as they are. As a classroom teacher I saw it as the opportunity to help kids define school as an engaging, safe place where I expected them to treat each other well and think outside the box. For many kids, this was a different way to look at school from their experience thus far. It took a few weeks for them to understand they couldn’t just sit back and play it safe or mistreat their classmates like they always had. The constant vigilance I held, to establish routines, watch for and praise new behaviors, prompt deeper thinking, and redirect negative behaviors, was exhausting. But it paid off in the connections we built as a community as the year progressed.

When I taught first graders, I learned a technique from another teacher for helping them become more independent and to feel ownership of their learning. I spent some time telling them the parable of the fisherman who, rather than give the poor man a fish, taught him to fish so he might eat for a lifetime. I really fleshed out the story, described the characters, and built up to the climactic ending. And then I made the connection to our own classroom. I explained that my job was like that fisherman – I wasn’t going to give them fish, but I was going to teach them to fish so they’d be self-sufficient for a lifetime. From that day on they learned not to “give each other the fish” when helping a classmate, but instead to teach them to fish by giving clues or hints that helped their teammate learn. When they struggled with reading a word at home, parents told me they’d hold up a hand and say, “Don’t give me the fish!” and they’d work to figure it out themselves.

Common experiences and “inside jokes” like these serve to bind a group of students together into a community of learners. One 5th grade teacher I work with, Debbie Bagwell, showed the video below to her students and has made “the power of words” the theme of her first few weeks of school as she establishes community with her all-boy classroom.

The power of words is reflected in the power we hold as teachers. We create the nature of the community that makes up our classroom. How do you establish your community in your classroom?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

5 Goals for this Year

I recently read Justin Tarte’s blog entitled “My 10 Goals as a First Year Administrator” and it inspired me to think about my goals for the coming year. I’m not in my first year and I'm not an administrator, but it’s never too late to have goals. As a matter of fact, summer is the perfect time to sit back and rethink my views on coaching.

1. I will – work more on my “teddy bear” aspects since I’m so clearly a “magnifying glass” (see here)
2. I will – ask more questions and do less telling.
3. I will – make my coaching student-centered rather than teacher-centered.
4. I will – take deep breaths during stressful situations. Under stress I tend to become shorter in speech and faster in action, neither of which is conducive to building relationships with others.
5. I will – be compassionate. “Always be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” ~ Plato

Education is one of the few professions that allows us to start anew every 12 months. Wherever you are in your journey as an educator, if you took the time to think of changes for the upcoming year, what would they be?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Book Review: Daniel Pink's "Drive"

How many of us need rules and policies to make us honest and how many of us would work hard and act honorably even without rules? Daniel Pink says 85% of us are in the latter of these groups, and yet most of us work in environments built to regulate the other 15%. What if we ditched our current system of rewards and punishments and instead provided the conditions that intrinsically motivated people need:

1. Autonomy: the desire to direct our own lives
2. Mastery: the urge to make progress and get better at something that matters; and
3. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves (p. 219)

That’s essentially Pink’s argument in his book “Drive” (and in this TED talk as well). The 21st century requires creative, empowered, self-motivated thinkers, and the old way of using punishments and rewards can actually do damage when used in creative endeavors. He describes several experiments that demonstrate when participants were paid to solve a puzzle requiring outside-the-box thinking, their ability to solve it and their speed in doing so decreased dramatically. When they’d done it for intrinsic reasons, just for the joy of finding the solution, they’d performed much better. Extrinsic rewards end up turning an act of play into work.

Although he wrote this book with the business world in mind, a majority of what he has to say easily applies to education. In particular, I thought a great deal about the merit pay question, clearly a huge carrot (since the stick of closing down schools under NCLB didn’t appear to work). But according to Pink’s argument, merit pay could result in exactly the opposite of its professed goal because teaching is a creative endeavor.

Many of us, the ones who are smiling as August nears at least, enjoy teaching for the intangible rewards it brings – the joy of seeing the spark of understanding in a child, the satisfaction from hearing confidence grow, the energy from an engaging discussion with kids. This is why we teach.

Will being paid to make kids pass tests kill this joy? For many people, hasn’t it already?

How do we give teachers autonomy while allowing them to gain mastery towards the higher purpose of educating kids to be future leaders? I think it starts by taking much of the emphasis off test results. Pink says the more diverse the evaluation tools, the harder they are to subvert, so perhaps this means introducing other methods of evaluation – peer observations, student surveys, participation in leadership activities, etc.

The majority of teachers – around 85% I’d suspect – don’t need these rules and regulations. We need to spend most of our time building supportive structures to encourage these intrinsically motivated teachers to continue in the profession and not let the other 15% create the rules.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Always Learning

A few days ago I returned home after leading a summer teaching workshop to find one of my windows shattered, my jewelry scattered, and our TV missing. We’d been robbed.

After hours of police reports and vacuuming up thousands of shards of glass, it was hard not to feel angry, violated, and worried about repeat burglaries. But then I was reminded of a story told about Ronald Reagan, right after he’d been shot. He was on a hospital gurney being rushed into surgery when the lead doctor bent over him and asked, “Are you allergic to anything?”

Reagan took a deep breath, looked him in the eye, and said, “Bullets”.

It takes a strong person to retain a sense of humor in a situation like that. But it also reminds me that we all have the power to choose how we react to the events that befall us. Reagan chose not to succumb to fear, but instead took charge of the situation and put those around him at ease.

I choose to learn a lesson from that. I choose not to allow these burglars, whoever they are, to make me fearful or to think differently about our little house in the woods. I choose to retain my assumption of goodwill rather than fearing the worst of strangers. Instead, I choose to retain my peace of mind. To do otherwise would be to let them win.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What makes a great teacher? And how do we measure this?

Pay for performance has been all over the news in the past couple of years as politicians struggle to quantify what effective teachers do. While many people, teachers included, agree that workers who are more effective should be paid more, the sticking point in education has been in how we measure that effectiveness. Can we trust the “value added” measures currently proposed by many states and districts?

An article in the December issue of Educational Leadership entitled “Good Teachers May Not Fit the Mold” breaks down the research comparing “good” teachers with those who don’t quite measure up. To briefly summarize, the research indicates that good teachers possess:

verbal and cognitive ability – “teachers’ ACT scores exerted a larger influence on student achievement than did student poverty level, class size, and teaching experience combined.”
adequate knowledge of their content areas
knowledge of how to teach their subject areas (pedagogical knowledge) – “students…whose teachers had strong pedagogical content knowledge…were likely to gain a full year more learning than students whose teachers had weak pedagogical content knowledge.”

Just as interestingly, the author outlined what has NOT been found to be tied to student success:

traditional licensure or credentials – the only exception was National Board Certified Teachers, whose students showed higher achievement levels than non-NBCT.
advanced degrees – simply having a master’s degree or higher had no positive correlational effect on student achievement and in some cases even had a negative effect.
extensive classroom experience – after their first 5 years of teaching, there was little difference in teacher effectiveness based on experience.

All of the above are measureable characteristics that can or have attempted to be correlated to the effectiveness of teachers. Research has shown several other characteristics that are NOT measureable, however, and yet are linked with “good” teaching:

belief that all students can learn – the so-called “self-fulfilling prophesy”
belief in their own abilities – teachers who believe in their own ability to help a student tend to have students who succeed
ability to connect with students – “teachers’ warmth, empathy, and ‘non-directivity’ strongly correlated to higher levels of student participation, motivation, and achievement.”

How do we measure these last three qualities of teachers? Will they translate to higher scores? Can they reliably be measured through observations? I don’t know the answer. But it’s pretty obvious that times, they are a-changin’ – and the old method of paying teachers more because they’ve simply been teaching longer or have sat through more classes will no longer cut it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Head Injuries and Epiphanies

This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the bike accident that temporarily took away my ability to read, and permanently taught me a lesson. I wrote about it here on Reading Rockets the summer it happened. Grateful to have recovered and mindful of the lessons learned.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Monday, May 30, 2011

Coaching/Real Estate

I learned a lesson about coaching from my real estate agent. It wasn't a lesson about coaching as much as it was about relationships, which of course is at the heart of coaching.

Our real estate agent, Shannon, helped us buy what we consider to be the perfect house and piece of property several years ago. While I'd like to think we weren't as demanding or self-absorbed as some couples she might work with, we still wanted to see a range of houses and get a feel for the market, and so she patiently drove us from house to house for weeks. When we found a place we thought we loved, she toured it with us for hours contemplating the pros and cons, and suggesting options without ever pushing her opinion. She was an exceptional listener, really looking at each of us as we spoke, weighing our comments before responding, and never interrupting.

But the biggest thing she did was making us feel like we were her only clients. I know for a fact that, in a market that was very depressed, she was closing on more houses than most other agents in the area - that's why we'd chosen her. So she obviously had quite a lot of other deals going on simultaneously. And yet she never mentioned them. She didn't leave us with, "I'm off to attend a closing" or say, "I've got to take this call from other clients." We felt like the center of her world.

As a coach juggling many teachers, it's tempting sometimes to join in the general complaints with others about how busy we all are. I've caught myself rushing a conversation by explaining where I needed to be next, or apologizing for not getting to an email because I was working with someone else.

Teachers don't want to know that. They want to feel like they're the center of our world. And they deserve to be, just as kids deserve to feel like they're the center of their teacher's world.

It's a basic human need, to be listened to and truly heard. We all value it when someone is looking us full in the face, considering everything we're saying, and not simply juggling multiple ongoing thoughts in their head as we talk. Someone said, and I'm paraphrasing here, "In America, we've lost the ability to have a true conversation. People no longer listen to each other. Instead, they reload."

Shannon taught me the value of setting everything aside and truly being wherever you are. For coaches, the teachers we work with deserve to feel like our number one priority

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Guilt of Teaching

Lately I’ve been conferring with lots of teachers about their literacy practices and their instructional goals for next year, and I’m being reminded just how much guilt factors into teaching. It seems like everyone begins with apologetic statements about how badly they feel about their _____ (trouble fitting in conferences, long mini-lessons, lack of closing/sharing on workshop, need to differentiate literacy centers, etc.). No one has come to me and said, “I feel great about all I’m doing! I think I’ve got teaching down pat and I’m really beginning to think it’s getting a little too easy.”

It’s natural to want to do the best you can at any job, but in education the responsibility of knowing a child’s self-concept and future is on the line causes us to be more critical than perhaps some other professions. As teachers, we’re expected to do it all and there’s simply no way we can. So we feel guilty.

Show me a teacher who doesn’t feel guilty about at least some part of her teaching and I’ll show you a teacher who’s not being reflective. But as I said – my guess is you can’t show me that teacher because she doesn’t exist…

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The future of reading?

I keep seeing online references to a book entitled “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr and so today I checked it out via the “look inside” feature on Amazon. The author argues that the internet is changing not only what we read but how we read and also how we think. We know this about children because of the Digital Immigrant/Native article.

Mr. Carr, however, notices a change in his own reading processes, and he’s definitely a digital immigrant, having been born in 1959. He found, after a decade or so of spending the majority of his reading time online, that he is no longer able to concentrate on longer spans of text, such as books. He gets distractible and impatient after 2 or so pages of text, and feels much more comfortable scanning and skimming for important information instead. He cites other bloggers and digerati who have noticed and commented on the same phenomenon.

This inability to read books, or longer more meaningful texts, also came up in a futuristic book I read recently: “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart. Set in the not-so-distant future, it’s a funny-yet-sad commentary on the direction our culture is heading. One scene in particular made me cringe – the protagonist reads aloud to his girlfriend from one of his collection of books (she initially, like everyone else, doesn’t recognize it as being a book and thinks its pages smell bad), but she is unable to follow the narrative because her only exposure to text has been web pages and texting friends. “I never really learned to read,” she says, “in school, they only taught us to skim and scan for important information.”

I wonder – is that really where we’re headed? I thought it was just the exaggeration of a novelist until I read Nicholas Carr’s book, but now I wonder whether people of the future will actually read long sections of connected text? Even a full webpage seems like too much text to a populace used to short blog entries, quick status updates, and even shorter Tweets. Our communication is getting shorter and quicker, not longer and more thoughtful. The irony is that with all the information available to us, you think we’d have more intelligent, thoughtful things to say about all that we’re learning. Instead, we barely pause between scanning websites or posting our locations on our smart phones to digest the information swirling around us.

There is a definite skill in reading connected, more difficult text. I find myself stopping to think, stare at the ceiling, filter the information as I receive it and decide how it fits with what I already know. My digestive pauses while reading are integral to my final comprehension of the text, and the longer and more difficult the text, the slower I read. That, unfortunately, doesn’t fit with the speed of today’s world. Will today’s budding readers learn how to read longer texts and digest them fully? Or will they end up like the girlfriend in “Love Story”, back to texting on her smart phone while her boyfriend finishes the book alone? Will those of us who enjoy books be freaks? If you’ve stuck with me this far, perhaps there’s hope for you.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Second Language Learning

Recently I spent about three hours visiting our Kindergarten Spanish immersion classes, listening in with what little Spanish I have, but mostly observing the teaching moves of the teachers and the engagement of the students. It was similar to watching a movie with the sound off - I noticed different things than if I'd completely understood what was going on.

Three things really stood out to me:

1) When I didn't understand the language, the importance of gestures took on a whole new meaning. If the teacher asked a question, she pointed at the chart to help the children see the source for the answer. When counting tens strips on the calendar, she exaggerated the counting motions. When reading aloud a book, she pointed at the part of the picture she was discussing and made "guitar-playing" motions when an unfamiliar instrument was mentioned. As a second language learner, I relied heavily on these clues to understand what was going on.

2) Repetition of concepts and terms took on a whole new level of importance. At one point the kids sang a song and I had no idea what the song was about. I did notice that at one verse the kids shouted, but otherwise it was a wall of sound to me. As a student I might have mimicked some of the words, but had very little understanding. However, after the song the teacher pulled up a small student and repeated words from the song while pointing between her short companion and her taller self, helping me to understand that the song was about opposites. She did this multiple times, asking the students to repeat after her. The same with the calendar pattern of small, medium, and large balls. The kids made small, medium and large circles with their fingers over and over, all while repeating the words after her. I began to understand the concept, and was even able to say the words, though I need more repetition because I can't recall them now.

3) Finally, being surrounded by an unfamiliar language was exhausting! I found I spent the first 10-15 minutes concentrating well, but after that I began tuning out, looking around the room for something I could more easily understand. As I spoke to the other observing teacher in English about what I was seeing, I realized I was doing exactly what we get frustrated with our ELL students for doing - mentally drifting, talking off-topic (or even on-topic, but just not listening to the lesson), and missing the intent of the lesson. No wonder students with very little English appear to have attention deficit problems - simply attending to what sounds like Charlie Brown's mom ("Whaa whaaaa whaaa whaa") is very tiring!

Not many of us get the chance to experience life as an ELL learner, and yet MANY of us have ELL students in our classrooms. If you have the chance, I'd urge you to put yourself in this position and then stand back and watch your own reactions. It's enlightening, and could have an immense impact on how we work with the second-language learners in our schools.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Creating Grade Level Inquiries

As teachers, we're constantly running into problems in the classroom. Problems that, unfortunately, can't always be solved in the same ways from year to year. Teaching is a constantly evolving art form requiring us to be flexible and creative as we figure out why Jose isn't learning letter sounds or why Suzanne always ends up with a stomach-ache at math time or why Itzel's handwriting is illegible despite weeks of interventions. It's what makes coming to work interesting and, by this time of year, intensely frustrating.

While in New York not long ago for the Teacher's College Coaching Institute, I attended a break-out session with Shanna Schwartz about creating grade level inquiries to help us solve these types of problems. She walked us through a 5-step inquiry that a grade level team at a NY elementary school had undertaken after they'd noticed the volume of writing in January was lower than it had been in December. Shanna's steps, and the NY teachers’ example, follow:

1) We observe - The second grade teachers looked at student work and put numbers to what they saw. Rather than just say, "They're not writing as much", they noticed that students were writing on average 3-4 sentences in January when in December they'd been writing 8-9 per day.

2) We raise questions - They asked, "Why did they write more last month than this month?

3) We come up with hypotheses - The teachers realized that they'd changed genres, from fiction to persuasive, and so hypothesized the students needed more knowledge of the genre. They also hypothesized that students needed higher level models of good persuasive writing to raise the quality of their writing.

4) We try something - To help with creating higher level persuasive writing models, the teachers found mentor texts in the real world, such as book reviews on Amazon and restaurant and movie reviews in the paper. They created exemplars (great examples of persuasive writing) for students to study, and kept them in front of students for the duration of the study. Finally, they intentionally demonstrated their own persuasive writing in front of students during mini-lessons. In addition to this creation of higher level models, they also had the students formulate volume goals by drawing a smiley face on the line of their paper where they planned to write to each day.

5) We reflect and adapt - After a period of "trying something", the teachers re-evaluated where their students were, again putting numbers to the results. They found a marked difference in the amount the students were writing. After discussion, they decided the results had more to do with creating better models of persuasive writing and less to do with the daily writing goals. Their conclusion: They needed to use better models with all future writing genres. The learning from this inquiry study needed to expand beyond just this writing unit.

In the future, with the rise of teacher accountability and Race To The Top, we'll be asked to reflect on potential solutions to issues as part of our yearly evaluations. This version of the scientific method is a simple yet effective way to solve the problems we so often experience as teachers.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lucy Calkins and the Power of Feedback

These are hard times for education, there can be no doubt about that. It seems like everyone is under fire and nothing is sacred, even the legendary Lucy Calkins and her almost-as-legendary colleagues at Teacher's College.

At the recent New York Coaching Institute, Lucy Calkins talked with the group about how Teacher's College has stayed alive in these hard times. She had several suggestions, but the one that stuck out the most to me was her first one because of what they discovered as a result.

Lucy suggested that in order to deal with the current negative culture, we need to cultivate friends who aren't literacy geeks. Talk with them, use them as informants, and ask them, "What should I be reading?" Broadening our friendships helps expose us to the types of thinking we might not otherwise encounter.

That's exactly what she did, and in talking to some friends outside her department, she was told about the work of Geoff Petty. He has been examining the effects of feedback and found that specific feedback has the largest effect size of anything teachers do. Good feedback can add the equivalent of TWO years of growth if done well.

The website above has specific findings (in a very readable format) about how to make feedback specific by including medals (positive statements), and missions (ideas for improvement) based on clear goals. Lucy's commented that the difference between an excellent workshop and one not-so-good is the amount and quality of the feedback.

This makes perfect sense. I think about some classrooms I visit, in various schools, where the teacher may be teaching in a workshop format, but it's fairly obvious she's just going through the motions. The teaching is still very teacher-centered or standards-centered rather than student-centered. The teacher tends to view the class as a group rather than as a collection of individuals.

Lucy asked us to examine our workshops and ask ourselves, "Does it appear that the students know that their writing should be getting better each day? Do they understand that they're supposed to be a better reader in October than they were in September? Do they know that their partner conversations should be improving, and their reading logs and revision techniques should be building upon each other?"

Too many times we aren't explicit enough about how we expect students to learn in our classrooms. We hide the running record from the child and use it merely as an assessment rather than also as a teaching tool. Or we teach a concept without explaining how this will help them as a reader or a writer.

Students deserve for us to help them set honest, specific goals and to help them towards those goals by continually offering feedback on their progress. Wouldn't we all appreciate this honesty regarding our own work?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Leaders of the Free World

When my niece was 5 years old and beginning Kindergarten, her first day of school was the main focus of the extended family. We all had high hopes for her, knowing as we did that she was gifted and precocious, it was just a matter of time before the rest of the world discovered what we already knew - that she was the next leader of the free world.

She did impress her teacher and the other teachers in the school fell in love with her just as we had. But that didn't mean everything was peaches and cream. She'd ruled the roost for so long that following other's rules were a little hard for her to understand. After getting in trouble one too many times for not following directions, my brother sat her down and asked her why the teacher was having to redirect her so much.

"I like school and all," she said, "but really I just want to do what I want to do!" That comment stuck with us and has become an inside joke anytime one of us wants to be headstrong. Isn't that what we all want? Just to do what we want to do?

That comment came back to my thoughts again today when I worked with a second-language first grader during writing workshop. His teacher was concerned that he might be dyslexic because when rereading his writing his words were all over the place. It was almost as if he tossed them up and they stuck where they landed.

So, when Bryan said, "Miss, I've finished my book!" I went over to see, surprised and excited that he'd spent the time and energy to complete an entire story. Sure enough, he had written a story about playing soccer, and the words were scattered about. The cover said I play with friends my but when he read it to me, he read it correctly. He pointed to each word and simply pointed to my and then went back to friends. The same with the next page, which said: game the Me and Ernesto started which he read as Me and Ernesto started the game .

When I talked to him about it, and pointed out how it looked to me, he corrected me: "No, this is how you read it."

"I can see that, Bryan," I said, "but someone else reading it will get confused. You need to write it from top to bottom, just like other books in the library are written. Let's fix it and then see if Ernesto can read the page about him." Bryan erased and rewrote the words correctly, and when Ernesto successfully read his page back to him, his face lit up with a huge smile. Ernesto had read his book!

I think until that particular moment, Bryan had his own personal system of writing. He knew what he wanted to say and how he would write it. He just wanted to do what he wanted to do, by gosh! The thought had never crossed his mind that someone else might want to read what he wrote.

However, when they did, suddenly he was an author. An author with words that others would be interested in. And what we'd thought might be dyslexia simply became what it was - a misunderstanding about the purpose and intent of writing.

I wonder how many kids in our schools misbehave or have misconceptions about school simply because they want to do what they want to do. Kids like this need a certain element of choice in their day. They need to feel empowered. They just need help directing that empowerment in the right direction. Who knows...they might be the next leaders of the free world.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March Wildfires

For teachers, March is the longest month. There are no holidays and no workdays, our energy is drained, and spring break is beckoning, pulling our attention from where we currently are to where we want to be - on a beach, somewhere, with an ice cold adult beverage and not a single test prep passage in sight. March is the month of doldrums, the month of strained nerves, the parched month of having given every last bit of thought to struggling students who no longer seem to respond and instead seem to taunt us with their ability to remain exactly where they were back in January. March is the month we question our effectiveness as teachers, and dream about retirement.

In this parched landscape, it's easy for a small spark of a careless comment to end up as a conflagration. We're all on edge, our patience has worn thin, and we're all out of ideas. One moment of frustration can mean words are spoken that cannot be undone. In these circumstances, it's really best to withold all judgment until after the spring break rains. What's getting on your nerves right now may look a lot less significant once you're tanned and slathered in oil on the beach.

Remember - only you can prevent wildfires.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Self-fulfilling Prophesies

Years ago I worked with struggling students as a reading specialist in a neighboring school district, and while my main job was to recover them as readers, as spring approached I'd also end up preparing them for the yearly high-stakes exam. One fourth grader (let's call him Mitchell) taught me a lesson about text anxiety that I've never forgotten.

The exam was still weeks away, and while I knew much of what we'd learned about reading strategies would transfer to the test, I felt the need to do some specific test-taking strategy work as well. To begin the process, I asked the kids in the small group I worked with what their thoughts were regarding the test. Were they worried or nervous about how they'd do?

Mitchell, who frankly had struggled much of the year with impulsivity when it came to decoding words and comprehending text, surprised me by telling me he wasn't worried at all. This was the first time I'd ever heard a student say he WASN'T nervous, so I asked him to explain.

"My teacher says she's been teaching us all the stuff we need to know for the test all year long," Mitchell stated. "She said she's not worried about the test and that we shouldn't be either. I know I'm going to do a good job, because she's... what's the word? Confident! She's confident in me."

Sure enough, Mitchell exuded peace about the upcoming test. Not over-confidence -- he was still willing to listen to my pointers about test-strategies -- but there was no fear evident in his demeanor over the next few weeks.

It's possible that on the day of the actual test Mitchell did end up experiencing some butterflies and self-doubt. But what's interesting is that the text anxiety that typically can be debilitating to struggling readers did not affect his ability to learn in the weeks preceding the test. All because of the confidence his teacher inspired in his own abilities. She gave him power over his fears by attributing his likelihood of success to his previous hard work. This self-efficacy made him work even harder instead of giving up, like so many struggling students do.

It's an interesting lesson in how powerful our role as teachers can be, and I've never forgotten it. To paraphrase Henry Ford: "Whether your teacher believes you can do a thing, or not, she's right."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Noticing Walks

While at the Coaching Institute in New York recently, our cohort leader, Shanna, led us through classroom walk-throughs after hours. The kids had left and so had most of the teachers, and so we walked the halls like little ducklings behind our mother duck, mainly looking at what we saw on the walls.

Shanna modeled thinking through a two-column note headed “I notice” and “I wonder”. Out loud she’d think, “I notice that…bulletin boards are set up so that each student in the class has their own area. I wonder…why some boards don’t display any work at the moment? I notice…these two bulletin boards have a poster describing the process the students went through to create the work. I wonder… is that something they’re working on as a school?”

She encouraged us to be as specific as possible in our noticings – use numbers instead of generalities (no “some” or “lots of” allowed) and to remove all value statements from what we noticed.

For instance, I noticed that on one 1st grade bulletin board most of the student writing was written in pen and kids had scratched out their revisions and written over them. But when I phrased it that way she had me re-word it to, “I notice…all but one student wrote their letters in pen instead of pencil. I wonder… did the teacher ask the kids to write in pen in order to see evidence of their revisions?” Another coach said, “I notice… all the students’ letters are three pages long. I wonder… were children given choice about the length of their writing and was variance allowed?”

By the time we’d finished, the tone of our noticings created a very data-oriented feel to our observations. By withholding all value judgments and instead framing what we saw as specific observations with related wonderings, the result was very professional and impartial. We didn’t discuss answers to any of the questions we raised, but the questions remained nonetheless, floating in the air awaiting another day to find answers.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Reading Behaviors

So much of reading goes beyond simply teaching skills, sounds, and words. Teaching reading is really about teaching a child to think. And since the results of thoughts are behaviors, we’re really teaching kids how to behave towards text.

The past few weeks I’ve been perusing the latest results of our school’s reading assessment, the DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment). I’ve been looking at each child’s assessment and, particularly for those who’ve fallen behind, tried to get inside their heads to see what’s holding them back. If I think I have a suggestion that might work with a child I leave a sticky note on the folder with ideas the teacher might try in guided reading groups.

With students who are having trouble decoding the words I’ve noticed a few trends. For the most part, the kids who have not made progress are the ones who are not self-correcting their errors. They’re not monitoring their own reading, and the result is either kids who read words that make no sense and yet they keep reading (reading trellis for turtle) or they read words that do make sense but that don’t match the text (reading chick for hen). The former kids aren’t asking themselves, “Does that make sense?” and the latter kids need to ask themselves, “Does that look right?”

Of course, if they’re not asking those questions, then we need to be the one to do the asking. We should be like a broken record, constantly reminding them that reading has to make sense AND it has to match the text. The hope is that with enough reminding, they may begin to hear our voice inside their head as they read and begin asking themselves the questions.

It reminds me of the behavior modifications I used to use with one of my impulsive second graders years ago. His name was Cody (a pseudonym) and he was as distractible, hyper and impulsive as they come. But he had a heart of gold and whenever he got in trouble he was crushed. I could tell that he’d begin the day with the best of intentions, and then suddenly it was as if he just found himself playing with soap in the bathroom or having a pencil “fight” with his best friend. When I scolded him he’d hang his head and apologize profusely, hoping I wouldn’t call his parents.

My plan for him was to interrupt his shenanigans as early as possible and ask, “Cody, is this a good decision?” and help him decide on his own to change his behavior. I said it often enough that by mid-year he began stopping himself, sometimes after the bad behavior had started, with “the question” ringing in his head. He’d cut is eyes over at me, grin, and go back to what he was supposed to be doing. It didn’t happen every time, maybe even most times, but once he started self-regulating his own behavior, I knew he was on the right track.

We want the same thing for our readers as well. We want to prompt them with self-monitoring cues so often that they begin internalizing our voice and hearing it even when we’re not there. Does that look right? Does that make sense? These questions should constantly repeat themselves inside our students’ heads as they read.

These stuck kids aren’t always kids who need more phonics, or more sight words. Many times, they simply need to be taught how to think about text.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The future of professional learning?

Learning, as we know it, is about to change. I’ve written before about the advances that are coming to education through blended learning, and as I learn more about how this might look in the classroom, I’m also finding it has the potential to change professional learning as well.

Currently, what teachers learn on the job is determined almost completely by the administration at their school. Some schools offer a full slate of opportunities to learn about new instructional practices, technological offerings, or assessment choices. But other schools may get by without offering anything. Current policies dictate that teachers will no longer be paid for new degree levels, and so the burden of continuing education for teachers falls much more heavily on the district, and therefore with the instructional coaches, in which they reside. For some teachers, however, schools offer very few opportunities to improve.

Blended learning has the potential to change that. In a recent discussion with representatives from Dell’s educational division, I was given an overview of how professional learning might look in a blended situation that includes some face-to-face meetings and some self-paced, individual learning.

After an initial face-to-face meeting to establish protocols and to ensure that everyone understands the expectations and can link up to the host site, a class might be broken up like this:

Session 1: Teachers work individually and on their own time (asynchronously) to learn about the topic at hand. The website contains links to text, videos, podcasts or other media that provide background on the topic. There might be an element of choice here, with the teachers choosing to go more deeply in some areas than into others. There’s an agreed-upon time frame to complete this session, with some sort of “deliverable” due at the end, such as a quiz or open-ended response.

Session 2: The teachers meet with a partner to analyze and discuss the content from session 1. This might involve more online activities, such as viewing videos or podcasts and responding to discussion boards, and is completed on their own time.

Session 3: The teachers meet in small groups to work on applying the concept in the classroom. At the end of sessions 2 and 3 facilitators create another “deliverable” for participants to demonstrate their understanding.

Session 4: The only other face-to-face meeting besides the initial meeting, this is the participants’ chance to “go public” with their learning and how they’ve applied it in their classrooms. The focus is on giving and receiving feedback, and discussing future applications of the topic.

Blended learning as described in this simple outline has the potential to level the playing field of professional learning between schools. No longer will it matter where you work or what your particular school offers. Instead, courses will be offered online during the year with very few face-to-face meetings required yet with expectations of application in the classroom.

This approach in no way eliminates the necessity of coaches to work side-by-side with teachers. There will always be a need for individual coaching of new assessments, interesting instructional strategies, and help with struggling students. Research shows that the most effective professional learning occurs on the job with a knowledgeable “other” as support.

But for those times when teachers want to learn new information, blended learning offers a flexible, individualized alternative to what we’ve done in the past.

What are your thoughts? Is blended professional learning a positive or negative move?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Naming What We Do

I have just returned from the weeklong Coaching Institute at New York’s Columbia University and I am energized, seeing the teaching world through clearer coaching eyes. We spent the week in a combination of breakout sessions and intensive work with students in public schools practicing both our reading instruction and our coaching strategies.

There’s so much that I learned that week, much of which I’ll attempt to share here in the coming weeks, but if there’s one big “aha” I brought back from this institute, it’s the need to name what we do. So many times, as coaches, we think what we’re doing is obvious. We assume that observers will understand why we do what we do, when in reality much of that can be missed as observers get distracted by the well-made wall charts or the classroom’s organizational structures.

Shanna, our cohort leader, told a story about her husband taking her out for Valentine’s dinner. They went to a delicious Turkish restaurant, and she came away from it thinking how delicious everything was. But she also realized that she couldn’t describe exactly what it tasted like, or why everything was delicious. She didn’t have the words for it. Her brother, however, is a famous chef in the city, and he would have been able to name what she tasted. He could have told her, for instance, that the butter and brown sugar sauté caused the chicken and onions to caramelize slightly, or that the combination of sea salt and lemon reduction is what made the vegetables pop.

The difference between her and her brother is that her brother, if he’d gone to that restaurant, would have been able to remember what he experienced. She, on the other hand, with no better words than “delicious”, will forget the details as the experience fades. Weeks from now she’ll just remember it was a fantastic Turkish restaurant and nothing else.

Think how this applies to a modeled lesson. If we don’t give teachers words for what they’re seeing, if we don’t voice over and explain exactly what they’re seeing and how we “cooked up” this precise experience, they will leave with a general impression: “It was a good lesson” but few specifics on how to replicate it. Words are what allow us to remember events. Well-chosen words name the teaching moves, the subtle adjustments that happen in response to the unpredictable in the classroom. And it’s these words that are remembered weeks, months, or even years later when a similar situation is encountered.

Words are powerful. And I learned from Shanna to be more conscious and intentional about using words to capture what happens in the classroom so it can be replicated.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Book review: "Disrupting Class"

One of the best books I’ve read about initiating large-scale change in education is “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns”. The authors summarize where the education field has been regarding its attempts to change, and then clearly lay out their proposal for the future.

Their argument is basically this: if we agree that students learn differently, then the monolithic, factory-based model of pushing kids through curriculum in batches we call grades is no longer acceptable. Teaching everyone the same things on the same day in the same way will not work in today’s world. Using this model, students have lost motivation and feel disconnected from school and its purpose.

Instead, education needs to become modular. Students should be allowed to assemble a learning plan that allows them to learn in a manner that fits best. The authors argue that this will increasingly involve technology that allows individualized, asynchronous learning and a teacher who no longer “stands and delivers” but instead serves as a facilitator of knowledge.

In the past, however, attempts at large-scales changes in education have always resulted in small-scale shifts because we’ve absorbed the ideas into our existing structure. NCLB, merit pay, classroom-based computers – all of these were attempted in the context of a traditional classroom setting with students expected to learn in the manner the teacher required. The authors of this book argue that in order for change to be disruptive, it must not confront the current situation head-on, but instead should begin in a separate dimension where there is little or no alternative.

For instance, if individualized, computer-based instruction were introduced in schools today the idea would most likely be seen as far-fetched, too time intensive, and threatening to teachers with little technological experience. But if the idea were introduced for alternative and home-schooled students, who currently have few options, it is much more likely to take off. Over time the program will experience success, the technology will become more sophisticated, and more traditional students, parents and even teachers will begin clamoring for it.

We’re already headed in this direction. Online classes and blended learning – a combination of face-to-face and online learning – are increasingly becoming the norm. I think we can all agree that different students learn differently. This is one way we can teach differently to reach them.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Teachers Grading Parents?

Should teachers grade parents on how well they contribute to their child’s learning? One lawmaker in Florida thinks so. Teachers in grades pre-K through third grade would assign parents S, N or U on their child’s report card based on their attendance at parent-teacher meetings, the child’s preparedness for school, and completion of homework.

Would this work? Will it change the behaviors of parents who currently are not exemplary in these areas? Would it send the message that student education is a team effort between parents, teachers, and students? Or would it alienate parents and cause resentment?


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Stages of Competence

This past week our coaches had a good discussion concerning the 4 stages of developing competence. In developing a skill, a person is:

unconsciously incompetent – completely unaware of their lack of skill. Of course, many children are at this stage in many areas, but I also think of some adults I know and their joyous, uncoordinated flailings on the dance floor. At some point the person then becomes:
consciously incompetent – all that’s changed is that the person now realizes they could be better at this thing they’re flailing at. Their skill hasn’t improved, simply their awareness of their lack of ability has. With focused effort, the person then becomes:
consciously competent – much has to happen between stage 2 and stage 3. Really, it’s the crux of everything – how do we get people from stage 2 to 3? Brenda Powers, of Choice Literacy, argues that it’s often “third things” such as books, videos, demonstration lessons, etc. that provide the person with what they need to improve their skill. With time, the person then becomes:
unconsciously competent – the skill has become natural enough that little thought is given to decisions that are made. In the case of the dancer, after someone has pointed out their lack of coordination , and a great deal of dance lessons have been undertaken, the person can become a graceful, fluid dancer who need not concentrate to the degree they must have when learning their new steps.

For those of us attempting to teach people acquiring new skills, the mistake we too often make is assuming the person is already at stage 2. We take for granted that they’re aware of their need to improve and are willing participants. If, however, they are still at stage 1 no amount of advice or instruction will get through to them until they realize they’re not as good as they think they are. This requires us to “create the need”. Until they know they need help, they won’t hear a bit of the advice that’s given them. No need to buy something they already think they have.

And so, the parallels to coaching should be fairly obvious at this point. As coaches we must:
1. Find out which stage our learners are at
2. If they’re at stage 1, we have to create the need for change to take place
3. If they’re at stage 2, we have to provide those things the learners need to improve their skills. This is the very heart of coaching, and many books have been written about what coaches do at this stage.
4. For teachers at stage 4, we can help them develop what David Baume has termed “reflective competence”.

His thoughts, and I agree completely, are that we can’t stop at simply being unconsciously competent, otherwise how will you teach someone else the skill? If you don’t know how you do it, you can’t pass it on. So in order to become a teacher of that skill yourself, you must become reflective about the theories, skills, and knowledge required in the process.

Regarding teaching, this is where future coaches are made. Those reflective teachers who know why they do what they do and are aware of the literature and research behind it are the perfect people to help those further down the stages of competence.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Different Paths

I’ve been reading Georgia Heard’s “A Place for Wonder” about reading and writing nonfiction in the primary grades, and in the latest section she’s had the 1st graders brainstorm things they wonder about and then sort them according to whether they’re “research wonders” or “heart wonders” (meaning it’s more opinion-based, such as “What makes a best friend?”). She recounts her conferences with various children and the few questions they’re not sure how to categorize, or which they categorize differently than an adult might. For instance, one little girl puts the card for “How do oceans get made?” into the heart pile, and when Georgia asks why, it’s because to this little girl the ocean is an enormous place of mystery and she has no concept of the scientific aspects of it. Different than many teachers would, however, Georgia and her co-teacher Jen don’t correct her, realizing there’s time later on for this child to discover the potential of research to re-categorize it on her own.

It didn’t matter whether the distinctions were exact but rather that the children understood that there are various ways to go about exploring questions.

(p. 69) That’s a very “free-ing” statement, one that I remember feeling quite often as I read books from the various New York teachers connected to Teacher’s College or Denver’s PEBC – things like, you don’t have to complete a picture book all in one sitting, or it’s ok not to have literacy centers, or think of your day as a menu of options rather than a to-do list. Too often, nowadays, it seems teachers don’t hear enough free-ing statements, and instead feel more tied down by regulations and expectations.

Heard’s quote above caused me to think about my work as a coach as well. In the same way that she and Jen didn’t worry about the correctness of their students’ responses right away and instead gave them room to find them on their own, as a coach my concern should not be that teachers correctly implement a teaching strategy right away as much as it should be about giving them room to think about and explore it on their own. Coaching is more about the conversations we have about our teaching, not a search for one correct way of doing it. If these first graders had the freedom to grow their own confidence in their abilities as researchers, then shouldn’t teachers feel that same freedom to explore what works with kids? I did that for years as a teacher in a school without a coach, and the role I’d have liked the coach to serve would not have been as “fount of knowledge” but rather sounding board for successes and failures; a conversation partner about teaching.

There’s never only one way to do something. As coaches we should be able to encourage teachers to take different paths to common outcomes.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review: "A Place for Wonder"

If you’re interested in learning more about inquiry learning – currently a hot topic in the field – and if in particular you work with the primary grades, check out Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough’s book “A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades”.

Georgia ‘s other books are always easy to read, user friendly, and chock-full of ideas, and this book is no different. Georgia follows Jennifer as she teaches first Kindergarteners and then first graders about nonfiction text by first tapping into their natural tendency to wonder about the world at large.

The book is organized into three long chapters: the first chapter explores centers, projects and clubs set up entice kids to wonder about the world around them. Chapter two describes the kids at they tap into their “heart” wonders – questions they have which may not be research-able, such as “Where does magic come from?” and “Why do I love my dog?” Georgia and Jennifer model for the kids how to write from the heart to address these important questions for kids. Finally, chapter three outlines 18 mini-lessons that lead kids through traditional nonfiction writing that explores “research wonders”, including lessons on leads, text features, inferring, formatting options, and elaboration.

The authors include many photos, resource lists, and vignettes of classroom life that make this book an enjoyable, quick read. They make teaching nonfiction writing to primary kids easy and fun!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Purposeful Teaching

Everything we do in a classroom must have purpose. If there’s anything I’ve learned from years of teaching, it’s that we can’t afford to waste a single minute of learning, and that it’s fairly easy to fill every one of those classroom minutes with something meaningful.

Sharon Taberski, author of “On Solid Ground”, says that the day should make sense to kids. For instance, rather than chopping up “reading” into a whole group time, small group time, independent reading times, grammar time, etc., we should subscribe to the workshop approach which involves teaching kids a little something and then sending them off to try it. Within that time we get most of those other goals accomplished. It makes sense to kids and makes sense to us because it resembles what reading looks like outside of school, in the real world.

After hearing Sharon mention that at a workshop years ago, I worked to make my classroom time make sense. I examined everything I did and asked, “What does this look like in the real world? Why am I teaching this and what will kids eventually do with this knowledge?” From those questions evolved a version of math workshop, so that my kids were working first on problem solving and second on algorithms and content knowledge. In Social Studies, it caused me examine our government standards from the point of view of a third grader and realize that to make this meaningful we’d have to act it out in our classroom over several weeks. For writing workshop, I realized that publication, in its various forms, is the ultimate purpose of working long and hard on individual drafts, and so I tried creating more authentic publication options and asked kids to choose writing partners with whom to discuss their progress.

The one area I had some difficulty connecting to the outside world was grammar. Who do I know who discusses past tense verbs over dinner or argues over sentence fragments with friends? After careful consideration, it seems the only good that comes from knowing grammatical terms is the ability to quickly identify the problem within a grammatically incorrect sentence. Whereas my grammar-phile friends quickly realize the two verbs in the compound sentence don’t match tenses, someone without that knowledge mostly just senses that it’s wrong. By knowing how it’s wrong, we can more quickly fix it.

However, doesn’t it seem that the ability to label the parts of written language should come after you’re fluent with the act of reading and writing? We wouldn’t teach a kid all the intricate parts of a bicycle and train them on maintenance and upkeep before ever letting them get on and ride. No, instead we let them enjoy the act of riding, get comfortable riding in circles in the cul-de-sac, brave the world without training wheels, and maybe even take off through the bushes on an off-road excursion before pulling them aside for a basic maintenance session. Actually, that session usually occurs out of necessity after the first mechanical problem renders the bike unusable.

It seems the same process should happen with grammar. Let kids enjoy writing, become fluent with it, and even begin to experiment with writing off the beaten path. They’ll gain real-world knowledge about what writing is for; experience the joy of communicating emotions with peers until WHAM! – They experience a mechanical problem and suddenly the need for grammar is obvious, even to them. They’ll be ready to try out more specific nouns, interesting verbs, and purposeful sentence fragment because the ultimate goal of writing – to communicate with others - will make sense.

And shouldn’t everything we do in the classroom make sense?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Pay for Performance

The big item on my mind today has been PFP, based on an article in the AJC. They reported that Georgia teachers will begin participating in PFP this coming fall – at least the 26 districts that opted in to RTTT here .

I’m conflicted about it. On the one hand, this morning I read this interview of Bill Gates and the head of the American Federation of Teachers in which he said that 25% of teachers are very good. Many teachers are not, granted. I’ve worked in two very good school systems which have probably given me a skewed view of education – I think education is much better off than it probably is because of the high quality of teachers I’ve had the privilege to work with.

That being said, if only 25% of teachers are top notch, how does that compare to other professions? What percentage of doctors or lawyers or computer techs would be considered to be “very good”? For that matter, how do we decide what “very good” looks like? If we continually make more teachers “very good”, wouldn’t the bar continue to rise, so that we’ll never have, say, 80% of teachers reach that mark? It’s a moving target, right?

The same goes for student achievement, I’d think. As more knowledge enters the world and as our expectations for what students should be able to do increases, the bar for what we consider an “average” student to be will rise. Fareed Zakaria says that the past few years hasn’t been a case of America falling behind in the world (he was talking economically, but I think it applies to education too). Instead, he says it’s the phenomenon of “the rise of the rest”. We’re not necessarily falling further behind, it’s just that the others are beginning to catch up.

Now, that doesn’t mean I think there’s not progress to be made. Ironically, the very system that was created to help us increase our standing in the world has done the most damage – Bush’s NCLB legislation relied so heavily on standardized test scores that the last 10 years has seen an over-emphasis on linear, narrow-minded thinking, both in children and in the educators who teach them. We’ve come to worship correct answers instead of embracing the idea of failure. We need to be open to failure in order for growth to occur (this makes more sense after seeing the previous clip). And that’s not happening in our current school culture.

My question is: Will teachers be open to failure with pay for performance? In other words, will they be willing to try a new instructional strategy if their pay is riding on the progress their students make? Or will they stay inside their instructional box because it’s worked so well in the past?

I understand that education needs to be improved. I even agree that good teaching should be rewarded and also emulated. Perhaps education needs to become a capitalist endeavor, where success is met with monetary reward and comparison of scores from this year and last creates a competitive edge. For me, the jury’s still out. But like it or not, a verdict is coming soon.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Underlying Messages

Last month, at our monthly instructional coach meeting, we had a fascinating discussion revolving around Peter Johnston’s book “Choice Words” and the implications not only for our interactions with students, but also with other teachers.

Johnston argues that how we speak has as much impact as what we say. For instance, saying to a student, “How did you go about solving that?” implies an underlying assumption that, “You’re the kind of person who solves things, and I’m interested in hearing how you did it. I value your ideas.” Or simply using wait time sends the message that we believe that the child is capable of coming up with the answer, and we won’t give up.

On the other hand, when we jump in too quickly to prompt a student when they make an error, the underlying message is that we believe they need support and are incapable of solving the problem on their own. Over time, this creates the kind of passive child who puts for little effort because she knows the teacher will do most of the work for her.

As coaches, we discussed this language, and the underlying messages in what we say, as it regarded students. But then we took it a step further and looked back at what we’d read as it relates to our work with teachers. What do our underlying messages say to teachers, and do they match our actual words? Do our words imply a partnership approach with teachers, or do we send the message that we are the experts, the ones who know best? For instance, saying, “I’m so proud of you!” instantly puts the two people talking on unequal footing. Or by saying, “We have to do running records every two weeks” places this assessment in a negative, mandated context. How often do we use wait time with teachers instead of jumping in quickly to provide support? What messages might that send about our confidence in their opinions?

My favorite quote of Johnston’s comes near the end of this fascinating book:

The way we interact with children [and adults!] and arrange for them to interact shows them what kinds of people we think they are and gives them opportunities to practice being those kinds of people.”