Friday, April 20, 2018

Missed Opportunity

Today I worked with a team of excellent third-grade teachers, planning a lesson on equivalent fractions.  I enjoyed collaborating with them and felt that putting our heads together allowed us to come up with a stronger lesson that any of us could have written on our own. 

Creating Joint Ownership for a Recommendation

For example, one teacher, Megan, explained that she was concerned about her students’ lack of background knowledge (BK) about this topic.  Although the other teacher, Natalie, said her students’ had some BK about equivalent fractions, she wanted to make sure they really understood the concept of equivalence before jumping into the lesson.

“I think it might be helpful to show them a balance scale,” she said.  “That has worked well in the past.”

“I wonder if you used modeling clay and put equal blobs on each side and showed students that they balanced, and then divided the blob into different parts, like halves and quarters,” I suggested.  “That would be really concrete.”

Both teachers were excited about this recommendation, but the idea wasn’t mine alone: Megan expressed a concern, Natalie described previous successful experience, and I added specificity to the idea.  Everyone had ownership in the solution.  Successful recommendation.  Yay!

Failed attempt at Joint Ownership

The conversation continued as we thought about the word problem that would be central to the lesson. “It has worked really well for me in the past to model solving a similar problem before sending them off to work independently,” Natalie said.  I felt concerned.  One of our goals was for students’ to demonstrate multiple strategies for problem-solving.  “I’m worried that if they see you do the problem first, it might limit the strategies they use,” I said.  Because I wanted to build ownership, I stopped there and deferred to Megan.  “What do you think, Megan?” I asked.  “What has your experience been?”  Megan was diplomatic, as always.  “I can see how in some situations modeling might be helpful,” she said. “But I do think we would see more strategies if we don’t model first.”  Natalie conceded without comment, and we went on planning the lesson.  It will be a good lesson, a strong lesson, an effective lesson, but I really hadn’t respected or challenged Natalie’s belief about the role of modelling in this cognitive approach to math instruction.

What Went Wrong

What I didn’t do was explore Natalie’s thinking.  Why did she feel modelling worked? Were there times when it worked well and times when it worked less well?  Did she see evidence of diverse problem-solving approaches after she modelled?  Did she feel that modelling was more supportive of students’ procedural knowledge or their conceptual knowledge?  How do we balance the need for conceptual understanding with the need for efficiency in mathematical problem-solving? How might the role of modeling change based on lesson objectives?  If I had asked even some of these questions, I would have given Natalie the opportunity to explore her own experience and ponder her objectives.  I would have supported her learning.  We ended up with a good lesson, but I’ll have to wait for another golden opportunity to help her reflect critically on when modeling is helpful (don’t get me wrong, there are many times when it is!).

Balancing Recommending and Questioning

If I had included thoughtful questioning along the way to a recommendation about not modelling, I might have supported Natalie’s thinking about how students discover and construct concepts.  I might have given her food for thought about how this idea transfers to pedagogy across academic areas.  I might have helped make a better teacher rather than a better lesson.  But I didn’t.

So, I sent a follow-up email, authentically thanking Natalie and Megan for the opportunity to collaborate with them and letting them know I was looking forward to observing the lesson.  Since we hadn’t decided on the actual word problem students would work during the lesson, I encouraged them to “think about choosing a word problem that helps students discover and construct the concept of equivalent fractions,” and to review our lesson objectives as they determine the task.

These recommendations were my attempt to fix the situation.  Although I think Natalie and Megan felt good about our collaboration today, I was left with the nagging feeling that I could have done better.  And hopefully, having reflected on this process for you, my readers, I’ll be more prepared next time to seize opportunities for supporting sustained change by more effectively balancing questions and recommendations.

This week, you might want to take a look at:

A podcast on balancing test prep and authentic learning:

Top 10 non-fiction poetry picks (it’s still National Poetry Month!):

Pros and cons of homework:

Alternatives to daily editing practice:

How non-cognitive factors affect learning (and what to do about it):

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, April 13, 2018

Tell Me More Questioning

If you’re of my era, you probably remember the song from the movie Grease by Olivia Newton John and John Travolta, “Summer Lovin’.”  In that song, friends frequently repeat the refrain, “Tell me more, tell me more,” wanting juicier details about the budding romance.  (Have you got the song running through your head now?”)

That song comes to my mind when I use “Tell me more,” in a coaching conversation.  “Could you say more about that?” is a question that allows coaches to collect information so that we understand the situation, and the teacher, better.

When a teacher expresses frustration about test scores, I ask, “Tell me more,” and she provides an oral analysis that helps both of us understand the data better.

When a teacher reflects on a lesson that went well, saying, “They really got it!” I can help her recognize and then repeat effective aspects of the lesson by asking, “Tell me more.”

When a teacher says, “This intervention isn’t working for Sonja,” my request for more information may lead us to an instructional variation we haven’t thought of yet.

After we have a little more information about what the teacher knows, believes, and understands, we are ready to enter the conversation more productively. Depending on the teacher’s response, we can follow up with , a recommendation, a more specific question, or affirmation of an idea that has been expressed.  Our communication, and thus our coaching, improves when we ask the teacher to “Tell me more.”  If you think your conversations would benefit from more input, jot the phrase, “Tell me more,” on a sticky note and give it a try!

This week, you might want to take a look at:

Powerful ideas for poetry in Middle and High School:

Using podcasts and “kidcasts” to support learning:

Tech support for coaches (and other great ideas!):

Teaching revision through talk, routines, and drawing:

6 Flaws of PD (and how to fix them):

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, April 7, 2018

Adjusting the Coaching Equation

When you’ve been asked to work with a teacher who is struggling, coaching is about ensuring excellent instruction for students.  If instruction is currently not meeting students’ needs, you can work toward change and support student learning in the moment.  Even though my work is with teachers, my goals are focused on students and their learning.  I have to find balance in every conversation so that I am empowering the teacher and ensuring sound instruction.  I have to balance the equation so that it adds up to a solid learning experience for kids.  Putting it in a math sentence, what the teacher can do + what I contribute should add up to a positive learning experience for students.  Teacher + Coach = Learning.  The equation shifts as I work my way through the GIR Model. 


For purposes of illustration, let’s think of an excellent learning experience being a 10 (I realize no lesson will ever be a perfect 10, but go along with me on this one).  If I think of it in terms of a simple equation, T + C = L, modeling is a lot of C.  So maybe 2 + 8 to get to a 10 in student learning.  The teacher provides background about her students and their needs and may work with me to plan a lesson.  The T goes up or down a bit depending on the teacher’s knowledge about the content and pedagogy I am modeling.  But when it comes right down to it, the onus is upon me to provide a 10 for students. 


The terms in the equation shift a bit with recommending, but there’s still a preponderance of C; maybe 4 + 6 = 10.  As the teacher plans for instruction, I consider the lesson, the students, and my knowledge of effective teaching strategies.  I can adjust the C up or down based on how specific my recommendations are and how many options I offer.  Even with this high level of coaching support, I want to empower the teacher.  Agency empowers teachers; they need to have control and authority in their own classroom.  If a teacher needs a lot of support, I offer a couple of very specific recommendations, both of which I am confident will support a 10 for students.  As I continue working with the teacher, I will offer more options and they will be more general.  The T number gets bigger.

Asking Questions

The time in the recommending phase may be short or long for a teacher who is struggling, but many teachers never need that much support from me.  We start with more balance in our contributions, or even more influence from the teacher:  6 + 4 or 7 + 3.  Probing questions offer more support; inquiring questions offer less.  The onus for providing solid instruction is on the teacher, but I play a supporting role by uncovering ideas she may not have thought of, pushing her thinking, and helping her consider student responses.  In this equation, the teacher’s agency is active as she uses her professional knowledge and experience.


Almost all teachers will benefit from a coach’s questions, but these slip away as I work my way out of a coaching cycle.  Now the teacher is asking her own questions about instruction.  Often these questions are internalized and part of a teachers’ ongoing reflection.  Sometimes they are directed toward me, getting my input about whether a plan is solid or instruction has made its mark.  When the teacher looks to me for this affirmation, the equation is something like 8 + 2 = 10.  I’m not doing much, just offering assurance.


I work with a lot of teachers who really don’t need me at all, but they still like me.  J  Maybe one reason for that is, even though they don’t need it, I offer praise.  10 + 0 = 10.  I look for specific things that are going well.  When I pop into a classroom and hear an amazing student discussion, I send an email applauding what I witnessed.  I drop a note in a teacher’s box or find a way to say something good about her teaching in front of her peers.  Honest, appropriate praise strengthens my relationship with teachers and keeps doors open for a time when I might be of service.


In every phase of a coaching cycle, I want to ensure that the end result is student learning.  And I want to do that by making the T in the equation as big as it can be and still get to a 10.  My goal is to never leave a coaching cycle until the equation has shifted and the teacher has the majority of the responsibility for ensuring solid instruction.  When the support matches the need, the outcome is teacher growth and student learning. 

This week, you might want to take a look at:

My guest blog on TeachBoost, about coaching reluctant teachers:

How creating “peak moments” in the classroom translates into student engagement and deeper learning:

Helps for unpacking poetry during National Poetry Month:

Mixing poetry and non-fiction in writer’s notebooks:

5 Ways to support ELLs’ Emotional Safety in the Classroom:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, March 30, 2018

The Power of “We” and Other Words of Coaching Wisdom

As coaches, we build partnerships with our words, so we have to attend to the bricks and mortar of our conversations.  The words we choose have power, one by one. 

We Could

One of the most powerful, partnership-creating words is “we.”  As someone who used to value independence, I had to be coached into loving this word.  My husband and a former teaching partner convinced me that the language of “we” sends an important message about the collaborative nature of our work.  Instead of saying, “You should….,” say, “We could….”  You can feel the different dynamic created by those two very similar phrases.  If our focus has been on classroom discussion, for example, instead of saying, “You should have students seated in a circle,” try, “We could think about how the way students are seated affects the conversation.”  You’ll likely get to the same end point, but with more collaborative thinking and buy-in. 

In addition to the joint pronoun, we, the example above demonstrates the power of verb choice.  Could” is full of possibilities.  “Should” restricts choice.  To build partnerships, we’ll want to use the more open verb, could, as we make recommendations.  Even without its partner word, we, it feels more inviting.  “You could see what happens if students aren’t required to raise their hands during circle time,” honors the teachers’ professionalism more than saying, “You should let students talk without raising hands during circle time.”  Switching the modal verb “should” for “could” is a small but important brick for building coaching partnerships.

Avoid Superlatives

Another part of coaching grammar that we should attend to is our use of superlatives….or rather, our disuse of them.  When we use extreme words like “always,” “everyone,” “no one” and “never,” we discount the times or people, be they few or many, when things are going well or when other approaches might be effective.  We also close down creative problem-solving and lose credibility (there will inevitably be exceptions).  Although we often talk of “best practices” in teaching, the reality is that what is “best” varies by context.  We can say, “There’s research suggesting that sentence combining activities are a good way to improve sentence fluency,” without mandating a specific lesson procedure.  The conversation that follows may lead to ongoing improvements that transcend a single lesson.  Avoiding extreme labels in our coaching conversations is an invitation for partnership.

Focus on Students

Another way to shift the power dynamic is to direct attention toward students instead of the teacher.  If you are choosing a focus for a coaching cycle, asking, “What are students struggling with,” will be received differently than, “What are you struggling with?”  This shift puts you on the offensive with the teacher as teammate, rather than putting the teacher in a defensive position. “What are YOU struggling with?” implies that the teacher is at fault.  Asking about students’ struggles puts the emphasis where it should be, on student learning, and can result in a more open and productive conversation.

Words are a tool for instructional growth.  Although the coaching moves described above are subtle, they build trust and encourage teachers to take risks because they know they have the backing of a supportive colleague.  The words we choose impact the strength of the coaching partnerships we are building, conversation by conversation.

This week, you might want to take a look at:

Get ready for National Poetry Month!  Here are helps for unpacking poetry:

A coaching conversation about emphasizing the good in classroom management:

Using student writing as mentor texts:

Performance as summative assessment:

Coaching special educators?  Here’s a report about why they leave (and what we can do about it):

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, March 23, 2018

Coaching Frustrated Teachers

For more than a month, our team had been working on student discussion, and Bethani was frustrated.  Despite her carefully-planned questions, discussion had fallen flat during the lesson on character traits in her third-grade classroom.  As I settled in for our coaching conversation, I reminded myself of past experiences working with frustrated teachers.  I knew we’d be more successful if I listened to and affirmed Bethani’s frustrations, focus on one aspect of instruction, brainstorm causes and solutions, and choose a next step.

Step One: Listen

As Bethani reflected on the lesson, she described how the partner talk she had used as a lesson opener had fallen flat.  Bethani had felt sure her students would be interested in talking about themselves, but she ruminated about how, when she asked them to turn to a partner and share two “inside traits” about themselves, there was a lot of silence followed by a little bit of talk about what was for lunch.  Later in the lesson, Bethani had given each student a card with a trait and asked them to move to separate sides of the room depending on whether their card listed an “inside trait” or “not an inside trait.”  She was discouraged that, when it came time to defend their choices, they hadn’t made the distinction between traits and emotions, and they had little to say.  She had been expecting a healthy debate!  As Bethani described her frustrations with the lesson, I mentally catalogued them but didn’t say much.

Step Two: Affirm the Frustration

Once the tide of Bethani’s frustration seemed spent, I affirmed her frustration. “It can definitely be frustrating when a carefully-planned lesson doesn’t turn out the way we expect,” I said.  My affirmation acknowledged Bethani’s careful planning, and my use of the pronoun “we” demonstrated that other teachers (including me) shared similar frustrations. Although validating Bethani’s frustration was an important step, it simply cleared the field for the real work ahead.

Step Three: Narrow the Focus

Although Bethani felt frustrated about several aspects of the lesson, I knew we couldn’t tackle everything at once.  Asking Bethani to narrow the focus was our next step.  “If you could change one part of the lesson, which part would it be?” I asked.  Bethani sat up straight and there was a long, thoughtful pause before she responded.  “The card sort,” she said. “I knew it would be difficult, but I thought it would lead to great discussion and help them see the difference between emotions and personality traits.  But it just didn’t work.” My request for the one thing she would change helped Bethani move away from the feeling that everything had gone wrong to focus on priorities.  

Step Four:  Consider Causes

Now that we had prioritized the portion of the lesson that seemed most significant, it was time to brainstorm.  Why hadn’t things gone the way she’d planned? “I guess the concept was too hard,” Bethani replied when I asked her about possible causes.  “That’s one possibility,” I said.  “What else might have gotten in the way?”  “I’m not sure,” she said.  “Describe the situation to me,” I asked.  “Let’s visualize what happened.”  Bethani talked about how students’ divided up after they received their trait cards, and she described how some students seemed confused, especially those who had a card that described an emotion.  “But I was expecting that,” she said.  “In fact, I intended it to be hard.  That’s why I thought they’d get into discussing it.” “Tell me more about what happened,” I prompted.  “I chose a few students to read their cards after they had separated,” Bethani explained.  “Then I asked everyone to show whether they agreed or disagreed.  If they disagreed, I asked them to tell me why.  But I had to repeat a lot because they couldn’t hear each other.”  Bethani had identified several possible causes for the flopped discussion.  And they all may have played a part. But to move forward, it would be helpful to isolate a solution.

Step Five: Resolution and Next Steps

As I visualized the scenario Bethani had described, the thing that jumped out at me was the space between would-be discussants.  “How far apart were the two groups of students?” I asked.  “I had them go to the walls, so there was a lot of space between the two rows.”  I didn’t respond, wondering if a pause for thinking might allow Bethani to come to her own solution. “I wonder…..” she said.  “I found myself repeating comments.  I bet if the two lines had been closer together, things would have worked out differently.”  “Use of space can make a surprisingly big difference when we are hoping for student-to-student discussions,” I responded.  “Students could see each other, so that was a plus,” I said, “but proximity is important, too.” “So,” said Bethani, “next time I’m hoping for rich discussion, I’m going to think about how students are facing and how far apart they are.”  Bethani had identified her own next steps.

When I listen and affirm the concerns of a frustrated teacher, I know I’m taking important first steps in our coaching conversation.  The way I angle my questions and responses as we move forward can help teachers to narrow to a manageable focus, consider causes, and define next steps.  Together, we are able to discover tentative solutions. 

Checking back with a frustrated teacher is vital.  The solution we designed may work, but there’s also the possibility that it might not be working.  If frustration has increased, a more supportive coaching move, like modeling or making specific recommendations, may be needed.  Or perhaps other issues have cropped up and we can begin this process again.  When we check back with teachers, we demonstrate that we care about their frustrations and their successes.  Together, we walk the path toward ongoing instructional improvement.

This week, you might want to take a look at:

My guest post about resilience on CCIRABlog:

A video about building coaching relationships:

Podcasts about social justice and education:

Best books on the craft of writing:

An interesting picture-book read aloud that looks at changes in technology and gender roles across 400 years through one delicious dessert:

(and here’s a video of the book if you’re curious:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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