Saturday, January 12, 2019

Funneling or Focusing: Using Questions to Support Thinking

Asking questions is the fulcrum of the GIR model, the coaching moves that gives the bulk of the decision-making to the teacher.  If you have been working with a teacher on something that was new for them, like differentiation or technology integration, you probably offered a lot of support initially, modeling and making recommendations. When teachers have more experience with the approach, you want them to take ownership for it. You do this by asking questions – but be careful what you ask.

Math teachers sometimes talk about two types of questions: funneling and focusing. Funneling questions start broad and get narrow, leading the learner to your answer – the idea or approach you had in your head.  Focusing questions support the learner’s responses and guide them based on their own problem-solving pattern. Although there are times when funneling is the right approach, when you are ready to tip the balance and shift responsibility to the teacher, focusing questions will be your friend.

A focusing pattern of questioning will center on the teacher’s contributions. You listen to the teacher and consider her responses, asking follow-up questions that center on these ideas.  The result is a conversation built on your expectation that the teacher now has the experience to think strategically about how to use the new approach.  Focusing questions demonstrate your respect for the teacher’s ideas.

Focusing questions are more open-ended and thought-provoking than funneling ones. Compare the two coaching conversations below:

Teacher: I’m planning the final project for the unit and wanted to think of some ways to differentiate.
Coach: We’ve talked about differentiating the process, product, and content. Do you want to try differentiating all three for this project?
Teacher: Sure.
Coach: Have you considered using the RAFT format?
Teacher: I don’t think I’ve heard of that.
Coach: RAFT is an acronym that stands for Role of the writer, audience, format, and topic. You make a chart to give students choices about each.

This is an extreme example, but you get the idea. It is the coach’s thinking that is at the center of this conversation.  Here’s another example:

Teacher: I’m planning the final project for the unit and wanted to think of some ways to differentiate.
Coach: What are some of the ideas you’ve been thinking about for the project?
Teacher: I really don’t have any solid ideas yet, but I want students to really be able to demonstrate that they understand different perspectives about immigration.
Coach:  You want each student’s project to represent multiple perspectives?
Teacher: Maybe. Or maybe they could choose which perspective they want to represent. And then when they present, everyone would experience those multiple perspectives.
Coach: Hmmmm.  Either way could be valuable. Do you think students could be successful with either type of project – taking multiple perspectives or choosing one to focus on?
Teacher: Some could handle a multiple perspectives project, but I’m feeling like we’d get to the same purpose, and maybe go deeper, if each student chose a perspective they wanted to represent.
Coach: So, what are those perspectives? Do you want to give students a list to choose from?

In this conversation, the coach guides the teacher to examine her own ideas. Although funneling might be a helpful form of questioning when there is one right answer or when a teacher gets stuck, a focusing conversation supports teacher exploration and problem-solving, giving the teacher ownership for solutions. Focusing tips the scale, giving the teacher the problem-solving power.

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

Advice for new coaches:

Ways students can use Pinterest in the classroom:

A well-balanced diet – choice and parameters in reading and writing:

As the new year gets underway, you might consider: Is balance the right goal for life?

If you still want to strive for more balance, consider the acronym SPREAD:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, January 4, 2019

Wait Time

There’s a wise Quaker saying that applies to coaching: “Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.”

You know about wait time – you’re a pro at it with kids. The next time you’re coaching, do a self-check on how you do with teachers.

After asking a question, give teachers the gift of time and receptivity. Sit down. Make eye contact.  Don’t appear rushed or make the teacher feel rushed. When they pause, don’t be quick to give a response.  Instead, ask them to, “Say more about that.” Or say, “Yes, go on.”  Or just pause and offer silence.

It sounds easy, but listening and waiting can be hard work!  As we give our attention to teachers’ thinking, we give them space to reflect. We give them space to wonder. We give them space to generate new ideas.

After the teacher has had a chance to think things through, enter in and reflect back what you heard.  Paraphrase those new ideas. Restate what they seem interested in or excited about.

It can be hard work to keep your mouth shut – but the coaching rewards are worth it!

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

A 10-minute podcast about creating meaningful learning experiences (for teachers and students):

Questions worth considering about coaching ethics:

When reading response becomes a task:

Giving students checklists to keep them focused:

Ways students can use Pinterest in the classroom:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, December 28, 2018

Asking Questions as a Support for Resolution-Setting

With 2019 just a few days away, thoughts turn to resolutions or goals for the new year. January is a good time to help teachers pause and ponder their professional goals.  Asking questions can support reflection and encourage next steps in pursuing improvement efforts.  The series of questions below supports teachers’ self-initiated resolutions.

“What changes have you made to your practices so far this year?”
This question asks the teacher to mine her memory for successes, recognizing improvements that have already been made.

“How might these changes have affected student learning?”
This question moves the focus from teacher to learners, appropriately calling for evidence.

“How have these changes affected you?”
Asking this question encourages the teacher to consider which practices are sustainable.

“Where do you want students to be by the end of the year?”
This forward-thinking question asks teachers to take past successes and project their outcomes into the future.

“What might you have to do to get your students there?”
Building on the previous question, teachers are asked to brainstorm additional approaches that may be needed.

Make opportunities to meet one-on-one with teachers in January.  When you ask questions that encourage teachers to take stock of where they are and think about their goals, you help them recognize and prepare for success as the new year gets underway.

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

Offers of wisdom from fictional characters that can inspire students’ New Year’s goal-setting:

Asking students to self-assess their engagement:

A podcast on mentoring new teachers to have effective guided-reading groups:

Using design thinking in coaching:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, December 14, 2018

Another Layer of Knowing

I know two amazing math brains. They can both do calculus, applied mathematics, and whatever else it is that amazing math brains do.  They know their stuff. One of them is an amazing teacher. The other is not.

When one sits down with a student to tutor him through a difficult math problem, he prompts and supports and explains and leads his student into understanding.

When the other sits down with a student to tutor him through a difficult math problem, he demonstrates how to solve the problem. He gets frustrated and can’t understand why the student can’t do it, too, after the clear procedure he has provided.

I know two amazing math brains.  One is a teacher. The other is not.  It is clear that teaching requires more than simply knowing the content. The skills necessary to support a learner along the path to discovery go beyond content knowledge. Pedagogical knowledge supports good teaching.

Similarly, there is more to good coaching than knowing the content. Even being a good teacher, having pedagogical knowledge, is not enough. Another layer of skills is required. These complex relational skills make the difference between successful and unsuccessful coaching. A conceptual simple view of these skills is portrayed in the GIR Coaching Model.

 Through modeling, recommending, questioning, affirming, and praising, a coach supports a teacher’s growth.  Although some contend that content knowledge isn’t a prerequisite to coaching, In the GIR model, knowledge of both content and pedagogy are required all along the way. You supply the content and pedagogical knowledge, and the GIR model supplies a process to guide you.  Stages of the GIR model depend on your expert knowledge. To model, you must know the what and the how of the lesson you’ll be teaching. To recommend, you call on your knowledge of the content and your repertoire of effective teaching strategies. Similarly, content and pedagogical knowledge guide coaches in knowing which questions will lead to effective inquiry or specific insights for the teacher.  Content and pedagogical knowledge are also prerequisite to affirming and praising – we need to know what works in order to notice, name, and encourage it.

When coaching, bring with you all of your expertise in academic content and pedagogy. Let the GIR model guide you in putting it to good use as you support teachers.  The soft skills of coaching are the additional layer of knowing you need as an instructional leader.

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

Tips on having influence that are just right for coaches:

Concept development using the four-fold strategy:

Try using it with primary source documents:

A guide to Pinterest for educators:

Free (recorded) webinar on coaching the coaches (no registration):

Using reading response letters in middle grades:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, December 7, 2018

Sustaining Change through Support Over Time

In recent weeks, I’ve posted about how to sustain changes that lead to improved student learning.  In order to stay the course in educational change, teachers need the opportunity to engage in ongoing, focused, challenging, professional learning.  Teachers’ professional learning can (and should) take many forms, however, sit-and-get is not one of them. Passive professional development experiences tend to result in more frustration than change.  Instead, teachers benefit from the opportunity to think and talk together, to try the new ideas they will be using, and to have time to plan for their revised instruction.

These opportunities can occur during released-time trainings and summer institutes. They can also be job-embedded, supported by instructional coaches and department heads.  Planning periods, PLC time, and faculty meetings can be oriented toward professional learning. 

During the first year after we created our shared vision for literacy instruction, our district kicked off the change process by bringing all administrators and literacy teachers together for a full day prior to the beginning of the school year.  Literacy coaches and other lead teachers met together frequently, and quarterly grade-level trainings focused on our implementation benchmarks. We charted our course together as we discussed what the new practices looked like in our classrooms. Trainings were also held at each building during faculty meetings, led by the coach or another instructional leader.  Collaboration time that focused on achieving our future vision was built into team meetings. In year two, similar experiences occurred, with three districtwide, grade-level, half-day trainings. The plan for year three focused on sustaining change and supporting flexibility.  Districtwide, this included a “Literacy Summit” in the fall, onsite support during calendared collaboration days, and optional lab visits to allow for observation and deep learning.

Active and purposeful professional learning for teachers supports educational change. When teachers work together toward clear goals, they “can find better ways to answer the learning needs of students.”* Effective professional development provides opportunities for collaboration, is focused on student learning, and is sustained over time.

Full Steam Ahead

During the literacy adoption in my district, there was a lot at stake, and I felt the burden of stewardship – for the funds we were spending, but, more importantly, for the students whose lives could be shaped by how these materials would be used.  It was a chance for change, and it seems that it worked.  Visiting classrooms, the difference was visible: powerful, engaging vocabulary instruction; common language so that kids were clear about learning targets, and a focus on meeting the needs of individual learners.  State test scores (all-important to district administrators) also showed significant increases – a needle that is hard to move in a large district.

In your school or district, communication, shared vision, and ongoing support can sustain change that makes a difference in students’ learning. As an instructional coach or team leader, your influence could make the difference. Set your sail on a steady course that is grounded in best practice and responsive to your local needs, and encourage those around you to do the same. Share the research about sustained change and the need to hold steady once a course is charted. You can assure that the latest innovation, if it’s a good one, is given a fair shake. Instead of focusing on the next new thing, teachers can be given the chance to do this thing right, whatever it is.  If we are stubbornly persistent, we will see the differences we are hoping for.

* Lieberman, A. & Wood, D. (2002). The National Writing Project. Educational Leadership, 59(6), 40-43.

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

What makes professional development effective:

Jim Knight tells principals how they can support coaching:

The role of identity in learning:

When conferring is an interruption:

And some beautiful images and music for inspiration:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, December 1, 2018

Buoys for Stability to Sustain Change

In order to sustain change, we have to decide what is worth being consistent about. Every classroom has a different combination of learners who have unique needs and experiences.  Every classroom also has its unique collective culture: webs of relationships, ways of doing and caring, and shared experiences. Because of this variation, there are many, many things that must be left to teachers’ judgement.  What, then, is the focus of our change efforts?  What are the things about which we stand firm?

In previous posts, I’ve described a process for creating and maintaining shared vision through ongoing communication.  The things that we stay firm on are rooted in best practice and determined by common consent.  They chart our route to the hoped-for future.  Having common language about that work can be a rudder that provides stability as we move forward.  This common language is important for both teachers and students.  When we call things by the same name, we can be more certain that we are all moving in the same direction.

During the literacy adoption that I’ve described previously, we established common language for the way we were naming comprehension strategies and skills. From grade to grade and classroom to classroom, students and teachers knew what was being talked about. We also committed to being relentlessly consistent about providing a balanced approach to literacy instruction, including small-group instruction, and using a research-based plan for vocabulary instruction.  Having common language about the things we are going to stay true to moves us more quickly to teaching them in more sophisticated ways. 

Teaching in more sophisticated ways means recognizing that effective teachers flexibly meet the needs of their students.  They know what they have committed to and why. They are responsive to what is going on in the classroom but all the while they are headed toward their goals, meandering as needed along the route.  

During our literacy adoption, we wanted to be sure the meandering didn’t take us off course, so we created benchmarks that acted as buoys to guide our journey.  These included “classroom environment benchmarks” that were easy to check off our to-do lists: things like posting strategy charts, having a room set-up that supported small-group instruction, and making sure everyone had created logins for online resources.  We also had instructional benchmarks like “Students actively reading and writing at least 50% of literacy instruction time,” “Majority of teacher questions are open-ended,” and “Opportunities for purposeful student-to-student talk.”  These instructional benchmarks were points of stability on our flexible path. They were checkpoints along our journey to the hoped-for future.

As you lead teachers through the process of change (which is an ongoing part of education), what will you be relentlessly consistent about? What will be the buoys that mark your journey?  Thinking together about these important questions will increase your collective capacity and increase the likelihood that you will sustain change long enough to see the results you are hoping for.

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

Ideas for what mentor texts do – and you might consider expanding these ideas to what mentors do:

Coaching heavy:

Writing and inquiry for cultural context in history:

Seeing the world through a child’s eyes. This website has videos, simulations, and information that help you get the picture of what it’s like for children who struggle (personalizable by age and area of need):

Grouping to increase eye contact increases learning:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, November 23, 2018

Creating Shared Vision: Back to the Future

In a recent post, I discussed the importance of sticking with an innovation for at least three years so that the benefits of the change would be noticeable and enduring.  An understanding of the current reality and ongoing communication are required to create this kind of persistence.  Creating change that lasts also requires shared purpose and vision. 

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” (, 2018).  We define what we will be busy about, not by being visionaries ourselves as leaders, but by walking with others, so that together we create a picture of what we hope will be.

Envisioning possibilities together energizes action and creates collective commitment for the long haul. We need to know our destination.  Choosing the future doesn’t mean selecting from the paths that are already before us – it means creating that path.

When my district started working on a literacy adoption, representatives from schools and stakeholder groups got together to define hopes and dreams about literacy learning.  We used a process that has become my favorite for visioning work, the Back to the Future protocol.  We started by dreaming big – what would literacy learning look like in our schools in five years? But here’s the trick: We spoke as if it already was. Using the present tense, we said things like, “Students are sitting around the room with books in their hands and they are so engaged that they don’t look up when someone walks into the room.”  On a chart labeled “Future,” we wrote: Students are engaged in independent reading.  We continued our visioning, filling in the Future chart with descriptions of things as they could be, describing them as if they already were.

Then we came back to the present.  On our “Present” chart, we described the existing state of literacy learning. We drew on the data about current proficiency levels and our own experiences in the classroom to describe our current reality.  It was not quite as rosy as the hoped-for future.  Putting a blank chart between our “Present” and our “Future,” we detailed our “Path,” what it would take to get from the realistic present we’d described to the future we pictured.  The details in our plan convinced us that our dreams could be realities.

To create a shared vision, we keep communicating with all the people who care about the change: teachers, administrators, parents, and students. We want everyone to be part of creating the picture of what the future will be like.  So, we talk about hopes and dreams.  We project ourselves into a hoped-for future.  When we imagine ourselves and our students living and acting in that potential future, we gain insights about what it will take to achieve that goal. When we are clear and spend real time in that future place (if only in our minds), we people the place with ideas that can become realities.

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

An administrator’s view on why coaches are important:

A great list of novels in verse:

The social brain is the gateway to learning (and social context vs. online learning):

Coaching about when to use open and closed questions:

Teaching tips for adding diverse texts for reading and writing:

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