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.

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