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.
Sociocultural learning theory is based on the work of Lev Vygotsky. The main premise is that our understanding stems from our social interactions. Sounds obvious, right? Especially for those who teach in middle or high school! Colleagues and I talk daily about how social our middle level kiddos are! Socialcultural theory gives us a structure to maximize on this trait if we are puposeful in our planning.
There are three areas of sociocultural learning theory, and if we plan for each of these in coaching situations and in the classroom, we will boost student and staff learning.
What is it, really?
Social Interaction: Knowledge and understanding stem from interaction with others. As we communicate with others, we develop and grow.
The More Knowledgeable Other: Someone who has a greater understanding and a higher level and ability than another in a relationship should model desired behaviors and actions, as well as give support.
Zone of Proximal Development: Language and learning occurs within this zone. These are the skills learners can do with guidance from others who can already do them independently.
What Does it Look Like?
When I think about my growth as a teacher, there are certain people who immediately come to mind- teachers 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. Considering Vygotsy’s Socioculteral Theory and the peer coaching format, it makes perfect sense that reflecting on our work, learning from each other’s strengths, and pushing each other’s thinking and practices has helped us grow.
Social Interaction: As we communicate with others, we develop and grow. Peer coaching is most rewarding when teachers form these relationships on their own versus being paired by administration. One of the goals of peer coaching is to reduce teacher isolation. In my own practice, I have two peer coaching relationships. Both were formed organically out of our own needs. Both relationships took time to develop as we learned to trust each other enough to share the issues and concerns we had about our practice. Our interactions are informal and cyclical- its a lot like having a really high-functioning, 24/7, professional learning community!
The More Knowledgeable Other: One person might be more knowledgeable in one area while the other has more experience in another area. Peer coaching focuses on individual growth with two important goals being to increase student learning and to promote collaboration among colleagues. In my peer coaching relationships, we each have different strengths, and the “more knowledgeable other” changes based on the current topic. One of my peer-coaching relationships is with our school’s instructional coach because is my role as a reading specialist I also coach teachers. Our instructional coach is the more knowledgeable other in terms of strategies for teaching adults while I am the more knowledgeable other in terms of literacy strategies. We learn from each other’s strengths daily!
Zone of Proximal Development: Learning occurs within our personal learning zone, which is a bit beyond what we can do independently. The wonderful thing about peer coaching is that it is specific to each person’s needs. Understanding our own needs requires reflection (another goal of peer coaching), and when we’re honest with ourselves about areas we need to grow, and we’ve formed a trusting relationship with a colleague (or two), we can work with them on the best approach to learning within our zone.
Next year, I’ll begin a new role in our school as a Literacy Specialist. Initially, this position entailed teaching one class of partially-proficient readers at each grade level (the readers we know as “bubble kids” because they are right at the edge of being proficient). When I use this term, I always picture being able to fill that sweet “bubble kid” up- with enough enthusiasm, skill, and inertia- to let them pop to the other side of the chasm which is cut between partially-proficient and proficient readers. My principal, assistant principal and I had planned on having the rest of my time spent in classrooms working with small groups and with teachers. Sounds perfect, right? It’s my dream job. It always has been.
But it didn’t feel right.
If the bubble kids float over the chasm with my help, what do the other kids do? Sit and watch. Stare. Ignore us? Cope? Yep. They do all of those things as they realize they’re being left behind. We hadn’t planned on leaving them behind. We have interventions in place and we have skilled teachers who individualize and differentiate as students need, but it still didn’t feel right. The need is too high.
Luckily, my assistant principal and I both felt this “not right” feeling at just about the exact right moment, so there was no time wasted trying to convince the other person of what we needed to do: We’d fill my time with our kiddos who are hanging out on the wrong side of the chasm.
That felt right. But then I panicked!
I do not just want to try to help these kids. I will not just help them. I will make them readers. Period. End of story, as my dad always said.
That’s really not that hard of a task with most of our non-readers, right? A good classroom library, book talks, targeted instruction, conferring, goals, progress monitoring, teacher enthusiasm… In 13 years, I can’t think of a kid who didn’t have that aha moment we all had when we realized that we love reading. I still remember my own aha when I was in seventh grade and read The Outsiders with my teacher’s guidance. Then I went on to read And Then There Were None and Lord of the Flies the same year. My reading enthusiasm fluctuated for years until I was in college, when reading became a staple. I know that all my non-readers leave me with a newly uncovered appreciation for books, and many realize they actually love books. I know that that love either dies or flies as their lives change. I’m good with that. But until next year, the majority of my kids have come to me reading at the 25th percentile and higher. Next year, the game is changing.
I’ll need to instill a love of reading with these kiddos who can’t even see the chasm from were they stand. If the chasm is halfway between here and there, these kids have only seen others attempt the crossing and assumed that they aren’t up to the challenge. These kiddos have spent all of elementary school not being able to read. Many of them have come to hate reading because they can’t read- it’s not fun, it’s too hard, it’s embarrassing. It breaks my heart, and I won’t have it. So, we’re going to try something different.
This is what I know about becoming a reader:
We learn to love reading on the laps of those we love. Picture yourself reading as a child. What is the lighting like? Where are you sitting? Who is with you, and how do you feel with them? Is there soft music in the background? Is someone cooking
dinner? Humans associate. We can’t help it. It is our nature. I know that I need to recreate this safe, comfortable, exploratory environment for my very lowest readers. What will I do? I’ll take my alternative seating further. My classroom will look like a family room. I talked with my principal today about ordering rocking chairs. You have to love this: His only question was, “We can do that. I mean, it’s not like you want thirty, right? Just a few?” I also talked with him about having a large, round table (much like the kitchen table we all grew up around) for our book groups to meet. I’ve never had a typical classroom setting, but next year, I’m giving it my all. I will do everything I can to help these kiddos correlate learning to read with comfort, kindness, safety, and companionship.
We learn to love reading because someone let us pick books ourselves. Picture yourself reading as a child. Where were books displayed? Who was in charge of
taking care of the books? Who was in charge of buying books? When I was growing up, we had books everywhere. There were books on shelves, in piles, under our beds, on my parents’ bedroom shelves. We got to choose what was read to us each night, and as we began reading ourselves, we got to choose which books we read. As a teacher, this has always been nonnegotiable for me. Kids will choose their own books. I read a ton of YA LIT so that, if needed, I can match books to readers in terms of interest, level, or etc. But they’ll choose their own books. Period. End of story.
We learn to love reading because someone showed us reading is loved. I vividly remember trips to our library with our dad: My dad is shuffling through each of our library cards, with the librarian grimacing, because we have too many books OUT and
LATE on this card or that card! My dad, my siblings and I parade out the sliding doors with armloads of books. I also remember my Grandma Phyllis reading to us the nights we spent at her house. Grandma Phyllis cherished books. Ah! The way she read, her interest in spending time on each page of a picture book, letting us each share one detail we noticed… Period. End of story.
These moments! Picking our own books, keeping books far past their due dates, books piling and spilling and left under our beds! These showed me that books are important. I really don’t remember my dad ever telling me books were important. I remember him reading. I remember my mom, my dad, and my grandma reading to us. I remember my older sister reading, reading, and then continuing to read more. I remember worrying that I was “not a reader” until seventh grade when I found chapter books I loved. I remember wondering “am I really a reader” until I went to college, when I had the ability to reflect, slow down, and remember all of my reading moments.
I’m not panicking anymore- at least not at the same level. Now, when I meet my kiddos who can’t see the edge of that chasm, I know what I need to do to help them build their bubble. And I know what I won’t do: I won’t start with formative assessments so that I can determine where they are and what they are lacking. I won’t show them all of our books and ask them to find one they like. I won’t put them through the awkward “get to know you” games. I won’t even tell them how incredible books really are. Nope.
I will welcome them to our space. I will ask them to come sit so I can read to them. And I’ll smile a lot. Read and smile. And when they come back the next day, I’ll read and smile. And read and smile and talk. And guess what? About three or four days in, someone will look over at our bookshelves. Someone will ask about our books. Someone will wonder if they can look at them. And then we’ll have our reader beginning. Just like I did. Just like you did. They’ll discover books.
P.S. Once they’ve done that, I’ll formative assess their little hearts out. I’ll show them books. I’ll ask them to find ones they like! I’ll tell them how incredible books are! But only after they’ve had a new reader beginning. Period. End of story.
Are you interested in reflecting on your own reading evolution in the effort to help students understand theirs? These reflection questions will help you begin:
What are your earliest memories of reading? Do you remember reading before you could read words? Who read with you? How often?
Did anyone in your family or close circle read often? What did they read? What did you learn from watching them?
Think back to when you began school. What was reading instruction like? How did you feel about it?
What reading experiences stand out as important to you? Positive or negative, these will give you insight into what students might need.
What did you need from a teacher when you were a K-12 reader? If you were ahead of the class, what did you wish your teacher would do for you? If you were behind, what did you need? If you right in the middle, what were you wanting?
I’d love to hear from you as your think through these questions. Let’s keep this conversation going.
Teachers and students never have enough time in a class period, school day or even a school year! We are always pressed for time, and taking a few minutes at the end of class for closure seems somewhat counterproductive to the idea of saving time. I promise that it is not.
The closing is a crucial part of each day because students label what they learn and this helps them commit it to memory. Closure also shows students how each lesson connects to yesterday’s and tomorrow’s. Eventually, this practice saves time because students begin to connect the dots between days and reflect on their learning without being prompted!
Learn from My Mistakes
MISTAKE #1: Giving all of the closings to students at once, without modeling.
At first, it’s best to choose one closing at a time for the entire class. Model it, and then have kids try it. Once they’ve practiced using all of them, they can begin choosing which one they want to use at the end of each class.
MISTAKE #2: Not being specific about how specific students need to be.
Make them be specific. If students learned the scientific method, they need to list the parts of the scientific method, and not just say, “We learned about the scientific method.”
MISTAKE #3: Thinking students must always write their closings.
I do want students to write these closings several times a week, but students can also turn and talk to share ideas or discuss them as a whole class when we are really crunched for time. If we skip the closing when we are pressed for time, we show students that it really isn’t a crucial piece of learning.
John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” People need this opportunity to reflect in order to process what they’ve experienced… whether it was confusion in math class, or a current event in humanities, or a character’s decision in language arts… I think of all of the reflecting adults do daily when we’re talking with friends, exercising, or posting on Twitter and Facebook. It’s our responsibility to show kids how to do this with matters of substance so they can choose their paths, make their plans, and be the people they’re most capable of being.
Try the prompts here, and let me know what you think. I’d love to help in any way and to learn from you too.
Cognitive Closing Prompts
List one thing you learned today, and explain how it connects to other parts of your life- other classes, family, friends, hobbies, or sports…
Share one opinion you have about what we read, saw, or heard. Explain why you feel that way.
Connect today’s learning to something we learned before or to another class. Explain how the two connect.
List questions that linger from today’s lesson. Where can you find answers to those questions?
Describe or draw images which illustrate today’s thinking and learning. Add a short caption.
Explain how your thinking about our current topic has grown or changed since we began it. What/who changed your thinking?
Explain why what we learned today matters to you, your family, people your age, our community, our country, or humankind.
My most recent experience doing my own assignment is recording Notice and Note Signposts from the book Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading while reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King. I bought 11/22/63 soon after it was released, in November of 2011, with the failed intention of having a 2-person book club with my husband. My husband read the book, but I ditched it. I tried reading it a couple more times over the next few years, but I always abandoned the book in the first 50 pages.
The Miniseries Made Me Do It
Tacky truth: A few weeks ago, when my hubby told me that the miniseries was soon to start on Hulu, I got the urge to read 11/22/63 again! It was like the stars had aligned: My students had learned the definitions of each signpost. I’d already modeled my thinking, we’d found signposts together, and I’d supported groups as they worked together to find them. Just after I gave students the task of using signposts on their own, I attempted 11/22/63 again.
My Very Own Aha! Moment
The signposts made it possible for me to stick with 11/22/63! The signposts and guiding questions slowed me down, of course, but in slowing me down, they engaged me.
3 things I learned by doing this assignment:
I learned the signposts inside and out. (This didn’t really surprise me; we learn by doing.)
I learned that signposts can be difficult to notice sometimes because readers just want to keep reading! (This didn’t really surprise me; I’m naturally intense. Pausing to be mindful is something I had to learn to do.)
Looking for several signposts at once helped me understand and “get deeply into” the book quickly. (This surprised me; I read a lot. I love to read. I hadn’t even noticed that I’dbeen missing something which would help me be a better, more interested reader until I practiced these signposts with my own novel.)
I learned a ton by completing this assignment: I had to think critically about the characters and plot just as students had to, and that made it possible for me to teach them the thinking moves I’d made as I identified the signposts and asked myself the guiding questions. I’d practiced signposts with picture books and videos, but using them in a novel helped me understand them on a deeper level. There were times I found myself having to stop every page or two to read the signpost definitions and think about whether I’d missed one. Initially, this felt counterproductive, but once I began valuing the guiding questions, it felt natural.
The Big Debate: Teach Signposts Individually or at Once?
I also realized that teaching all of the signposts at once is the way to go because different readers will connect to different signposts, initially. This connection is key to the “buy-in” struggling readers need. If readers have taken a week or two to learn each signpost, but after several weeks, haven’t connected with one that reveals big value, then every subsequent signpost has already lost its meaning.
Teaching all of the signposts within seven school days allows readers to build a signpost stockpile with which to attempt reading. Signpost stock is invaluable in tackling a book. (For me, it was a book I really wanted to read, but couldn’t seem to finish. For many of our readers, this is anybook because they haven’t learned the thinking skills to engage them for an entire novel.)
I worried that teaching the signposts all at once would be a double-edged sword for my struggling readers. Typically, they are the readers in grave need of learning how to stick with a book, and they are the readers who cannot manage learning a lot at once. I found that learning signposts all at once was best, and then offering differentiated assignments so students could choose ways to use signposts was the natural next step. Once students were comfortable using signposts at their own pace, they were really excited to attempt finding all of them each week.
We can’t complete every assignment we give kids; but it should happen when we think they need it (or as in my case, when the stars align). It should be visible to students. It should be reflected upon. We need students to see the mistakes we make and the smart moves we learn.
I’d love to hear which of your assignments you’ve completed and what you learned from doing them. Why do you find this practice valuable? How often do you manage it?