Instructional Coaching: Tools Every Teacher Needs

This is the third post in a series on Instructional Coaching. For this post, I’m falling back to my “Three Truths and a Leap” series structure because it fits perfectly with what I’ve learned about coaching and with what I want to share in this post. For those who aren’t yet familiar, I’ll share 3 problematic truths based on my teaching experiences and research, and then I’ll describe the leap I took in an attempt to fix the issues.

Truth: I have wicked bad anxiety about attending any formal classes. I’ve felt this way since some point in kindergarten.

Truth: I’ve never stopped learning. If Ph.D.’s were awarded for self-direction and growth, I’d have one.

Truth: I started peer coaching and cognitive coaching long before I knew they were a thing, and you should too.

The Leap: I’m giving you some materials to get you started, and I’m assuming you’ll want to!

When I think about my growth over the last 15 years, there are certain people who immediately come to mind- a teacher friend in New Hampshire who I immediately bonded with as we began our first years in the classroom. Teachers in my current school who I talk openly with, who are willing to be honest with me when I share areas I need to grow, and who help me by sharing strategies and letting me observe them as they teach. And even our instructional coach and administrators who are always willing to chat, reflect, and plan as if we have an ongoing professional learning community each time we encounter each other in the hallway! Considering Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory and the peer coaching format, it makes perfect sense that all of our open and honest encounters, all of the reflecting time in between, the learning from each other’s strengths, and pushing each other’s thinking have helped us grow.

When I said that started peer coaching and cognitive coaching before I knew they were a thing, I wasn’t kidding. But here’s the bit I didn’t reveal: I coached myself for a long time. I videotaped my lessons, I watched and tallied, and reflected, and set goals. And then I videotaped again. A few years into teaching in my current school, I’d had enough day to day interactions with team members to begin really peer coaching, but again, it wasn’t formal. No one asked us to take part or taught us how it worked. But we learned and we grew because we trusted each other enough to reveal problems we were having in the classroom and respected each other enough to accept the guidance and support needed to grow.

Since moving to the reading intervention position, I’m no longer part of a specific team, but I’m still part of peer coaching relationships, and I coach teachers on best practices in literacy instruction. In this role, I’m in the classroom often supporting students who read below grade level and teaching staff literacy instruction strategies. The tools I use are aligned with our school-wide goals and are designed help me do three specific things: (1) I use them to teach intervention students to connect what they’re learning in content classes with what we’re learning in reading intervention, (2) I use them to accurately share observations with teachers, and (3) I use them to plan next steps with the instructional coach as we work with teachers on increasing nonfiction reading instruction. If you are not in a coaching role and don’t yet have a peer coaching relationship, use these tools to reflect on your instruction. They’ll help you recognize areas of strength and also help you notice important pieces that are missing in your practice.

Observation Tools:

Literacy Instruction Observations

Nonfiction Reading Instruction Checklist

Nonfiction Reading Strategies Teacher Self-Assessment

Do you have any favorite observation or reflection tools? If yes, comment and tell us how you use them.

unsplash-logoClark Tibbs

Coaching Models: Choose Wisely to Meet Your Goals

Choosing a coaching model for staff is a lot like choosing instructional strategies for students. Like students, all faculties have different abilities, depth of knowledge, diverse needs and comfort levels. It can be overwhelming to choose between coaching models unless you’re systematic in figuring out the best fit for your staff. Use the following steps to focus on your current needs, determine goals, and to choose the most effective coaching model to help you accomplish them.

Step One: Determine Needs Analyze assessment data to determine the knowledge and skills students lack. When we analyzed state and district assessment data, one glaring need across all content areas was instruction in reading informational text.

Step Two: Develop Goals Consider school and district goals, as well as specific grade level and content area goals. Determine how you’ll measure progress toward each of these goals. Our school goal is that all students meet the median growth percentile of 50.0 or above on English Language Arts state and district assessments. Each content area (language arts, social studies, and science) developed specific goals within their disciplines with the same purpose of increasing nonfiction reading strategy instruction.

Step Three: Determine the Knowledge and Skills Staff Needs Choose the skills and knowledge that will help teachers meet the student goals in Step Two. Asking teachers to reflect on what they believe they need is an important part of developing a reflective environment. The needs of staff can be as diverse as the needs of students, so we developed a self-reflection tool for teachers to determine their current skill level and to guide the process of increasing nonfiction reading instruction. This form is also a useful observation tool as it lists best practices in reading instruction and can be used quickly during a walk-through observation.

Step four: Analyze Effective Coaching Models Discuss the similarities and differences between models, as well as the advantages and disadvantages for each in regards to your goals and the needs of teachers. Most of our teachers determined they needed help understanding the purpose for different instructional strategies like annotation and modeling and practice using nonfiction reading strategies themselves.

Step five: Choose a Model or Various Models Different goals and the varying needs of Coaching Modelsstaff will require flexibility, and it is likely that more than one model will be implemented. Another important consideration in choosing a coaching model is the current culture of your building. If your school has had a lot of recent hiring, it is likely that you’ll need time to build relationships before implementing peer coaching but mentoring new teachers might meet your needs. Yet, if your faculty is well-established with strong relationships and effective professional learning communities, a peer coaching model might be the most effective way to meet your goals. If your staff has had movement across grade levels or contents, then subject-specific coaching might be your go-to model at this time.

Our staff is a mixture of new and established teachers, we’ve been working in professional learning communities for several years, and we have diverse needs in terms of the skills and knowledge teachers identified as needs. We’ve implemented peer coaching and cognitive coaching depending on each staff member’s needs. Subject-specific coaching is not being utilized because the main need is an instructional need (teaching nonfiction reading strategies) versus lack of content knowledge.

Using these steps was productive for our staff. It was the first time all content areas had been part of determining goals for their department (Our administration had asked all staff to be involved in looking at the assessment data and determining needs based on it.) It was also the first time we’d asked teachers to reflect and self-evaluate their level of nonfiction reading strategy instruction. Determining coaching models was a longer process as we relationships developed throughout the semester and we learned more about what each teacher wanted and needed.

The outcome of all of this work? Our students showed a lot of growth in nonfiction reading on their mid-year district reading assessment. The average growth for reading intervention students was 31 points (expected growth to catch up over several years’ time is 13-15 points)! Our staff will analyze this recent assessment data and reflect on our current needs as we move into second semester. Coaching models will fluctuate as we learn more and as students grow, as they should. And we are on the right track with a staff who has common goals, trusting relationships, and a desire to grow!

 

Getting Smart with the Whole-Class Novel: 5 Do’s and 5 Don’ts

This post is part of the 3 Truths & a Leap series: I’ll share 3 problematic truths based on my teaching experiences and research, and then I’ll describe the leap I took in an attempt to fix the issues. If your students struggle with reading the whole-class novel, read on.

Truth: The whole-class novel means a whole-class level.

Truth: Students have different ability levels- from reading to thinking to writing to speaking to typing to social comfort to…

Truth: When we are given tasks that far exceed our abilities, we shut down.  Yet we thrive when we are given the chance to learn at levels just above our abilities.

The Leap: When we read one text with all students, we need to personalize learning (if we expect all of our students to learn).

5 Do’s for Whole-Class Novels

  1. Offer different ways students can read the novel: read aloud by the teacher, another adult, a recording, with a partner, a small group, or individually. Teach students to figure out and value the method that works best for them: listen as the teacher reads, share reading with another adult (a volunteer or parent), a recording, with a partner, a small group, or individually.
  2. Encourage students to read at a pace that is right for them– meaning they can understand it, discuss it, and practice thinking skills with it. Our goal is that students understand the author’s meaning and intent and internalize both to the extent that they draw on the experience of reading the novel later in their lives. Help students figure out how many pages per night is reasonable for them.
  3. Allow students to use the materials they find most accessible and effective for organizing their thinking. Students can record thinking in a variety of ways. In my classes, some kids use tiny notebooks that fit inside their novels, others use post-its, bookmarks, or handouts created by me, and others have made their own Google Docs to record their thinking.
  4. Group students based on fluctuating, current needs and teach mini-lessons based on each group’s need. One group might need to preview the text and activate or build background knowledge, another group might need additional practice annotating text, and another group might read and understand the text quickly and will need to extend their knowledge by finding additional information to synthesize with the assigned text.
  5. Offer open-ended, thinking-based questions. When our focus is student thinking, differentiation is natural, and we gather data for what students understand about content. Switch the focus to their thinking because then differentiation is natural, and we can gather data on what they can do with and glean from a text. Thinking-based questions sound like this: Our main character has changed a lot since the start of the novel. Explain at least two ways you have noticed that she’s different, and give evidence from the text to support your ideas. Students will notice different ways the character changed, and if they provide evidence from the text, they’re right. If students provide reasoning and evidence that don’t coincide, they’ve shown us what they need in their next mini-lessons.

5 Don’ts

  1. Don’t expect every student to read it the same way. When we ask all kids to follow along as we read aloud, listen to a recording of the text, or follow as classmates read, we stifle their ability, desire, or thinking. 
  2. Do not expect all students to read the same pages within the same time frame. When we require kids to stick to a certain number of pages per night, we need to accept that some students are not going to read and others will get bored with the book if they can’t read ahead. whole-class novels
  3. Do not ask students to show their understanding in the same exact way.  Teach students to figure out which methods they find most accessible and effective for organizing their thinking. If we assign one way for students to show their thinking, we can bet that we’re meeting the needs of about 1/3 of our students. The others will be bored because our method was either too difficult or too easy.
  4. Do not stick to the same standards for all students. If we assume all students need instruction at grade level standards (for plot, characterization, symbolism, or etc…) we’re going to meet the needs of the middle. Only the middle. Some students might need to analyze plot at the grade level you teach, but others will need to analyze at levels above or below that.
  5. Do not offer “end of chapter” or “did you really read this” type questions. Our students know this game, and they will beat us every time by finding the simple answers and “proving” they read the assigned pages.

Reading a shared text can and should be life-changing for all of us. It certainly has been for me, beginning in seventh grade when I read And Then There Were None alongside my English teacher and continuing to now as I read in book clubs in my neighborhood or with colleagues. But guess what? Even though we decide on the pages to read, not everyone reads them, not everyone attends each meeting, and not everyone reads with the same level of understanding. That’s life, and that’s okay. Yet during our meetings, not everyone is comfortable differentiating based on our needs.

If this crazy, forced mixture of readers makes adults feel uncomfortable to discuss ideas about a text, imagine how it makes kids feel. Let’s take a cue from our own reading habits, and design shared reading so that it meets everyone’s needs.

If you’re interested in reflecting on your own reading life in the effort to engage students in theirs, read This I Know: On Becoming a Reader.

 

 

 

 

 

A Passion for Thinking: 9 Ways to Keep Students Motivated and Thinking

If you are interested in having a thinking-centered classroom, get ready to step out of your comfort zone! First and foremost, know your students and state and national standards well, and track progress like a ninja. I say this because when student-thinking drives instruction, the big picture and students’ whole selves are on the table as we plan instruction, teach lessons, tweak our plans, confer with kiddos, and generally interact. It’s an on-going fluctuation of growth, goal, and whole child.

9 Ways to Keep Students Motivated and Thinking

  1. Make motivation and mindset a Monday morning ritual. This can happen in a number of ways and can easily incorporate curricular goals. View a motivational animated short, TedTalk, or other media and practice thinking skills to determine
    fullsizerender-6
    A student reflects on why she chose a particular quote to motivate her.

    the theme or main idea. Each week is a new focus. Some focuses have been on our impact on others, growth mindset, empathy, and providing support to others.

  2. Make Friday reflections a regular thing. Reflecting is an integral part of learning because it helps us recognize what works and what doesn’t. Friday reflections should relate to weekly motivation, but they also should include specific behaviors we’ve noticed kids need to reflect on and plan for in the week to come. You can see our reflections by clicking on the above links for motivational lessons.
  3. List a daily agenda and/or goals that is dependent on student need. This year, my kiddos want
    ind-anchor-charts
    Individual anchor charts remind students of the information from our lessons or conferences.

    the basics: what are we doing. Their learning goals are far more flexible than one standard or even one step of a standard. I’ve learned to keep our agenda to a minimum and to keep our big picture goals on our walls (as anchor charts), in mini-notebooks (literally rubber-banded into their novels), and their individual goals in mini-anchor charts written on post-its in their novels.

  4. Resist negativity from students, parents, and even beloved colleagues. It’s not easy. Everyone needs to vent. Yet, when students vent about teachers, I put the onus back on students, and we look into what they need to do to fix things. When I vent, my cohorts gently put the onus back on me, and we problem-solve to fix the situation!
  5. Be their person. We all need “our person.” Adults seek personal connection at work, and kids crave that connection even more. When kids call us mom or dad by mistake, it’s music to our ears because they’ve connected to us. And when we notice a child who is struggling, we need to pool resources and find their person. My most recent experience is with a kiddo who wouldn’t engage. My classes are very small, and it allows all students to find inspiration, respond to the close instruction, and bond. He hadn’t. His language arts teacher and I would talk about him often, and she focused on him, tried different strategies and ideas, and eventually made the difference. On Friday, he finished his first novel in her class and ran into my class to tell me the news! On Friday, he thoughtfully completed his first weekly reflection! His language arts teacher was his advocate. She’d figured out what he needed, helped him get it, and he responded!
  6. Make it a group effort. Our goals are hanging on our door, written in their journals,
    vision-board
    One student’s vision board. Each week, a new image, quote or idea is added.

    pictured on their vision boards, and discussed daily. These are our goals. Students know that I’m invested in them, and they know the steps I’ve taken to help them succeed. Together, we made vision boards at the start of this semester. We think about these daily. We add to our boards and reflect on our goals weekly.

  7. Be kind, always. How we respond to students impacts whether they’ll shut down or think and process. We are bound to feel frustrated at times, but we need to explain that frustration in healthy ways, so that even when we’re discussing misbehavior or something else a student needs to improve, we do it from a place of care and concern for the child. When two students earned detention this week, we discussed the misbehavior in a meaningful way and students filled in their detention forms having thought about the impact of what they’d done. In addition, our school detentions are opportunities for students to reflect once more on the reasons for the misbehavior, learn strategies for mindfulness, and a chance to bond with another great teacher in our school. The effects are incredible. We have students who choose to go to a mindfulness class once a week after school because they loved what they’d learned about mindfulness during detention!
  8. Teach, preach, and show the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. This is an ongoing conversation. The easy way? Extrinsic. The harder, farther-reaching and farther-satisfying way? Intrinsic. This can feel impossible when working with kids who’ve never experienced intrinsic motivation, but its not. Giving students ownership of learning, scaffolding and differentiating so students grow and can celebrate successes, and creating a sense of connectedness and community all help students be intrinsically motivated.
  9. Belly laugh with students. Laughter bonds. In fact, yesterday was one of the best laughs yet! It was Honor Role Assembly Day, and although my kiddos had worked hard to learn to read, we’d only recently begun to transfer reading skills to other classes. So, only one of the 13 in our group was being honored. We were writing Friday Reflections when a gifted-comedian and strong-willed student blurted, “I’m bringin’ hot Cheetos to the assembly today. I’m puttin’ them in my pocket and I’m eatin’ them while they all walk up there…” I cannot begin to tell you the laughter! She had perfect execution. We’d been through such incredible transformations: We’d grown grade levels and RITs and lexiles and emotions and outside-our-boxes and finding-our-persons. We’d faltered and reflected and tried and we’d even let other students see us try- and that’s not easy when you’re 13 and comfortable with not trying! Then we talked about their growth and how much growth matters. We talked about the fact that reading and thinking matter most, and that once they’d begun reading at higher levels (most of them at grade level now), they were finally ready to follow my lead on grades, homework, and studying. The belly laughs were therapeutic.

Real learning only happens when students are thinking. And thinking is messy! It changes, grows, learns to maneuver, and empathize. It’s exciting and passionate! Thinking isn’t linear, nor should our teaching of it be.

Design Matters: Creating a Place for Thinkers

Three Truths and a Leap of Faith

TRUTH:  I get a lot of flack from friends and colleagues about the time I spend designing, arranging, decorating, and rearranging my classroom.

TRUTH: The flack is well deserved. I should be more efficient; but efficiency is not one of my strengths, and I have far too many other inadequacies that I should improve first!

TRUTH: The time I spend figuring out what types of spaces will best promote reading, writing, and thinking for my students really pays off.

The Leap:  We need to give our kids a glimpse of these professional lives by letting them see, act, and feel these lives for part of their school days.

  • If we want kids to be writers, we must create authentic writing spaces.
  • If we want kids to be scientists, let’s create authentic science labs.
  • Mathematicians?  Let’s consider mathematical sciences careers, and redesign our classrooms.

After all, don’t our kids get that authenticity when visiting the art room, band room, gymnasium, and STEM room each day?

Planning Classroom Design

As I began planning my classroom design this school year, I thought about the types of places and spaces that contribute to my creativity:

Which places in my home foster deep discussion? I pictured growing up around our kitchen table, and then my mind flashed to my own family around our kitchen island, with my kiddos in their spots and my husband and I leaning in and chatting.

Where do I go to write? I’m usually at our kitchen island with my laptop- my feet elevated on another chair or sitting “crisscross-applesauce” in my chair.

Which place is my favorite reading spot? I get comfy in my reclining chair that sits next to my grandmother’s end table.  There is sure to be no overhead light; just the soft light from the table lamp.

I began to look at my classroom with the same lens.  I began to design spaces that authentically fostered thinking, creativity, reading, writing, and discussion.

And I did a lot of Googling.  I searched “alternative classroom seating” and found Setting Up for Second which reminded me of how we all love to gather around a good, old coffee table to chat, so I decided to lower two of the trapezoid tables I already had.  I also researched types of seating for students who need movement for focus and found Stabili-T-Stools.  I combined these ideas with my experiences about spaces that work for me as a thinker, and this is the plan I designed:

  • Students would work in groups of 3.  These would be learning groups that could potentially last for 8-9 weeks or longer (If the group and I felt that they worked well together, then they could last as long as the relationship was productive.  If it was not a good working relationship, we would try new strategies and readjust if needed.)  This would allow students to form working relationships with each other. Productive relationships (both personal and work-related) are founded on experience and time with each other, mutual dependence, and successes earned together.  I wanted to give students time to earn that, even if the relationships were rocky or uncomfortable in the beginning.
  • We would have a mix of seating options with the goal of students trying different options and reflecting on what might work best for their personal learning styles and the type of work being done (independent reading, group discussion, and etc).
  • We would group kids based on reading level with the intention of placing readers with others who can discuss the same book choices they make and various texts from class (Reading is the crux of the language arts curriculum in my classroom, and it is crucial for students to be able to have the time to think and to create understanding with peers at like reading levels.)

I scrounged for, gathered, begged for (Seriously, I posted on my neighborhood FB page, to which I had ZERO replies!) and bought the following items: traditional classroom desks and tables, short tables with beans bags, camp chairs with lap desks, cubes, Stabili-T-Stools, and mats.

Take a look:

 

Upon Reflection:  Three Truths and a Leap

Different, isn’t it?  A colleague who taught for me one day, when my own children were sick, teased, “She has NO desks!”

TRUTH: I’m not encouraging teachers to throw out the furniture and follow this lead.

TRUTH:  I do want us to think about our classroom designs.

TRUTH:  I asked myself what I  wanted my students to feel when they were in my classroom. I asked myself what settings promoted reading, writing, thinking, and discussion.  I wondered what students needed.  I examined my personal comfort levels.

THE LEAP:  About halfway through the school year, I asked students to complete a brief survey about the alternative seating in our room.  One-hundred percent of students liked having alternative seating options and believed that it helped them focus on reading and writing and contributed to discussions.  Ninety-five percent of students liked their current seats. Here are some student comments from the survey:

I like these types of seating because it kind of makes you feel a bit more independent. Sometimes the lack of space is too little if kids are at traditional student desks. I think kids should have a bit more space.

IMG Discussion 2
Memory foam mats are a quick and easy way to offer alternative seating.

I like this seating because there are various ways you can arrange. It helps me learn because when I can get comfortable in different positions, then I can focus better.

IMG_campchairs
Camp chairs are great in the classroom.  They’re comfortable, lightweight, and easy to move anywhere in the room.

This seating is very comfortable. I think the more comfortable I am, the better I can learn and pay attention because I will not be fidgeting and trying to get more comfortable

IMG_0149

This seating style has helped me learn because I like to move around more than just sitting, so the stability stools allow me to do that.

The comments and reflections from students on this survey, and from my observations and conferences in class, will keep me on this alternative seating path. Finally, another truth? At the end of the survey, I’d asked students if there was anything else they’d like to let me know about our classroom seating.  A few students suggested bicycle chairs, ball chairs, and bungee cord chairs (I’ll propose those ideas to my administrator.)  A couple of other students suggested we switch partners more often (I’ll figure out what’s not working on Monday.)  And one student suggested we add more windows to our classroom (I’ll let the student figure out the fundraising needed for that endeavor.)

What classroom designs work for you?  What spaces and places increase student thinking?  I’d love to get this conversation going.