Friday, July 6, 2018

Choice Words: Notice & Name

Have you read Choice Words by Peter Johnston?  Peter is one of my idols, and I got to meet him and hear him speak at a conference recently.  When I first read his book, Choice Words, more than a decade ago, it raised my awareness of the power of the words I was using with children.  Now, as I reflect on Peter’s wisdom, I apply it to the work I am doing with teachers.  The same principles apply.

One of my lasting take-aways from Choice Words is the practice of noticing and naming.  Noticing and naming raises awareness; it involves an explicitness, an intentionality, and an opportunity to articulate developing understandings.  Noticing draws to consciousness something that otherwise would have slipped away.

Pausing to Notice

When we notice, we recognize when something is present so we can decide what to do with it.  Initially, the coach may be the noticer and namer.  We sense there is something going on that we need to pay attention to. We detect it and put it into specific words.  As we raise awareness about these certain things, we open the space for conversations.

“You know what I heard you doing when you conferred with Liza? You asked open-ended questions to deeper her understanding.

“I see you know about rhetorical reading.  When you asked the class to look for the patterns Cisneros used in her description, you helped them to read like writers.”

When we notice and name, we make explicit both the practice and the purpose behind the practice.  In the examples above, the practice is coupled with its outcome, what happened because you did this.

When we call out things that are going well, our noticings should not be the obvious.  They should be the leading edge of what is going well – something that is only occasionally or partially present.  Think of the concept of ZPD.  It is those developing practices that need noticing.  Drawing attention to these incremental successes by naming and noticing them increases their incidence. 

Depending on our relationship with the teacher, we might also notice and name practices we want to dissuade.  Having insufficient wait time and naming who will answer before asking the question (“Johnny, could you tell us….”), for example, are practices that limit participation.

Helping Teachers Notice

Our noticings help teachers notice what they are doing well.  When we notice and name, awareness increases, and teachers will be more likely to notice the  next time.  We can ask questions to nudge this process along.

“What were you noticing?" or “What were you noticing....” (during a specific part of the lesson.)

“What are you noticing about this work?” (when reviewing formative assessments)

“Anything else?”

“Anything else?”  (yes, I repeated that on purpose!)

“Any surprises?”

Questions like these invite teachers to make sense of what happened by looking for patterns.  They keep figuring out what is working and what isn’t.  Naming what isn’t working for themselves takes away the power of the negative practice.  They are no longer unconsciously responding. They are calling it out—so there!  By naming, teachers are more likely to recognize when a practice is present so they can decide what to do with it. 

Teachers can’t afford to be dependent on the seldom-present coach to do the noticing.  The practice of noticing invests teachers in their own learning, so it’s a practice we want to cultivate.  We want teachers to see themselves a noticing kinds of people, which Johnston says is a complementary trait that may become part of their identity.

Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children's learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

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

Noticing and naming with primary students during a read aloud:

Open-ended conversations that promote reflective learning during coaching:

Sentence combining as a tool for grammar instruction:

Can I quote you on that? Snippets to inspire coaching conversations:

Why we should cultivate curiosity:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Feedback: Avoiding the Whine

Feedback is a gift. Ideas are the currency of our next success. 

Jim Trinka and Les Wallace

When we give feedback, we are hoping to provide “information about an action, event, or process to the original or controlling source” (  But I wonder how often feedback feels like another definition of this word: “a rumbling, whining, or whistling sound,” an annoying signal that has been returned and retransmitted.  Hopefully the suggestions below will ensure that coaching feedback is of the helpful, not the whiny, kind.  

The closer to the observed event, the better.  Teachers are prepared for and expecting feedback soon after sharing a lesson plan or being observed.  They’re more likely to be primed for and open to ideas. It takes no more time to respond sooner rather than later.  Remind yourself of that as you prioritize your busy schedule.

Be Prepared
Although you don’t want the conversation to be scripted, it’s best to think through, in advance, the feedback you’ll provide.  Preparation helps you be clear and focused about what you are going to say.  Finding the time to prepare for a feedback conversation can be tricky.  Preparing sooner, right after an observation, for example, ends up taking less time because memories are fresh. With this in mind, make a habit of scheduling time for your reflection right after an observation.  If you are responding to lesson plans, use the “touch it once” rule to save time.  Unless it’s a tough situation that you need to ponder, jotting down notes as you initially review the plan is more efficient than a quick review when you download and then returning later.  Even with a busy schedule, we can be prepared for effective feedback.

Be Discrete
If your intended feedback might be perceived as criticism, find an opportunity to speak with the teacher individually. Praising publicly and recommending privately builds trust.

Ask permission
Before offering feedback, ask, “Do mind if I share some feedback with you?” Even though offering feedback is an expectation of your coaching role, asking for the teacher’s approval before launching in increases the likelihood of uptake.

Be Specific
When your feedback is specific, there is less room for confusion and more likelihood of acceptance. Be clear and accurate.  Don’t exaggerate to make a point.  Avoid superlatives like “never,” “all,” and “always.” Overgeneralizations make people defensive, and rightfully so.  Avoid evaluative words like “good” and “bad” and harsh modal verbs like “should” and “must.”  “Might” and “may,” their softer cousins, are better received, and show that our views are tentative and awaiting consideration.  Don’t be vague, however.  Use specific examples and connect actions to the impact they have.

It’s also helpful to limit your focus.  One or two take-aways are plenty.  Any more and the feedback may feel overwhelming. 

Feedback Frames
If we want feedback to be effective, we need to choose our words with care. Others will be influenced by the words we use even more than the ideas we share. Here are two feedback sentence starters that open the way for listening.

I noticed….
Stating an objective noticing (something you saw, heard, or read) can encourage the teacher to self-evaluate.  “I noticed several students asked ‘What am I supposed to do?’ at the beginning of their independent work time.”  “I noticed students laughed and smiled during the video; they made an emotional connection.”

What if….
Beginning a recommendation with the words, “What if….” demonstrates curiosity on your part and hopefully elicits openness in the receiver.  “What if students generated their own questions before reading?”  “What if Marisol was in a group with other ELs?”

Allow Response
After you’ve provided an observation or suggestion, ask the teacher to give her perspective.  Ask, “Is that what you noticed?” or “What do you think?” Be sure there’s plenty of time for the reply.  What the teacher says is ultimately more important than what you say, so be prepared to prompt, encourage, and listen.

Offering feedback is a way to show that I care about teaching and learning and about the teacher.  I want to help those I am working with to grow and develop, make better decisions, solve problems, and learn new skills.   

Interestingly, the feedback I give is as much about me as about the person I’m coaching.  My feedback is a reflection of what I value, my beliefs and experience, and what I consider to be best practice.  It is also a reflection of my people skills: how sensitive I am to the responses of others, how aware and thoughtful I am of their state of mind.  The feedback I give reveals my skill as a coach.  That is something I could seek feedback on!

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

Ideas by Grant Wiggins (of UbD fame) for more about effective feedback:

Making writing feedback manageable:

Great Ed Leadership issue on fighting educator burnout:

Previewing as a strategy to support retelling:

What to do when you don’t feel like coaching (especially look at #3, Take steps to shift mood and approach):

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, June 23, 2018

You Are Not a 2

The teacher evaluation system used in my state scores teachers on a scale of 1 – 4;  1 = Unsatisfactory, 2 = Basic, 3 = Proficient, and 4 = Distinguished.  Although we try to separate coaching from evaluation, inevitably principals or teachers themselves want to work on areas with the lowest scores.  In these cases, we need to be clear that the number is not a description of them as a teacher, but it can be a helpful part of the conversation. 

If you feel confident that the evaluation system you are using describes good teaching, then conversations that are anchored in the system’s descriptors can be helpful.  We can talk about what a 3 is on a particular attribute, giving examples and asking questions to help teachers recall lessons when those qualities were present.  If the teacher is stretching for a 4 on an attribute, we can support planning with the specific element in mind.  Lessons that successfully incorporate features of high-level teaching and learning lead to replication of these features.

That’s what happened when Angie and I planned a lesson on fractions together.  Angie had identified the instructional attribute of student-to-student discussion as something she wanted to work on, since it had  been a low element on a recent evaluation.  She’d seen that, frequently, when an explanation was provided by a peer, students seemed to get it, even when she had already tried to clarify a concept herself.  So I suggested that students lay a piece of chart paper that had been split into four quadrants across a group of desks.  The class was given a fractions problem and students worked independently to solve the problem on their quadrant of the paper.  Then they explained to their table group the strategy they had used for solving the problem.  Next, the group decided which strategy they liked best from their group, and Angie chose a couple of starred examples to be shared with the class.  This approach was so effective that Angie later applied the quadrant collaboration strategy to lessons in other content areas, enriching her use of student-to-student discussion across the curriculum.  Student discussion using this approach matched the number 4 (distinguised) level in our evaluation rubric. 

Making the number something that is in the teacher’s control is energizing and empowering.  Although at times a lesson may exhibit attributes of a low evaluation score, no teacher is a 2.  There is a big difference.

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

Learning walks in blended classrooms:

Mentor texts for “versus” tales:

Using wordless picture books in middle school:

4 Ways to Build Safety in Coaching:

Flipping the “I Do, We Do, You Do”:

That’s it for this week – Happy Coaching!

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Friday, June 15, 2018

“All in” for Coaching

Expert or novice, beginning or experienced, every teacher benefits from a mentor, coach, and collaborator.  Teachers, who are usually the only adult in their immediate workspace all day long, need someone to laugh with and problem-solve with.  They may need a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on.  As we work with a teacher, it might help to think about which quadrant he or she fits best within in the figure below. 


 Although labels like these are just generalizations, it can be helpful to think about past successes with teachers with similar experience and expertise. 

Struggling, Inexperienced teachers are often open to coaching and benefit from modeling and recommendations.  Frequent, informal conversations about teaching are helpful, too.  These teachers also need to hear that they are not the only ones struggling; share your own embarrassing defeats so that she’ll feel comfortable reciprocating.  Struggling, inexperienced teachers also need someone who celebrates their incremental successes. 

Expert, novice teachers may have too many good ideas!  They have a large repertoire of current best-practices and may jump into everything with both feet.  Expert novices may need support in prioritizing their many ideas so that no one (teacher or students) becomes overwhelmed, and so that they don’t burn out and leave the profession. 

Struggling, experienced teachers come in two main varieties:  those who know they are struggling and those who, perhaps, do not.  The stuck-in-a-rut experienced teacher often benefits from seeing a coach model new practices with her students.  Seeing how her own students respond differently to new practices can increase the appeal of trying new things.

Expert, experienced teachers may just need a sounding board for their own ideas as they talk through a situation.  But they often love an exchange of ideas with a collaborative peer who helps them see a different perspective.  These teachers may even enjoy a little push-back or disagreement that helps them clarify their own thinking.

Having a coach helps teachers embrace reflection and take risks at every career stage and every level of proficiency.  Considering where a teacher is on the expertise and experience spectrums helps us successfully challenge, advise, and celebrate the teachers we support.

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

Handling negative coaching responses:

Picture books add another layer of meaning for experienced readers:

Moves for struggling writers:

Student-Centered Coaching and PLCs:

Kindergarten social and emotional skills that predict college success:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, June 9, 2018


“Applause is a celebration not only of the actors but also of the audience.  It constitutes a shared moment of delight.”
John Charles Polanyi

While driving in an unfamiliar city this week, I spotted a building with the word, “Bravo!” lit in bright blue to advertise the name of the acting academy housed there.  I was struck by the joyous and celebratory feel of the word. “Bravo!” is a shout of approval that acknowledges a job well done.

At the close of a school year, we often take time to express our delight about positive outcomes.  We cheer the growth of students, applaud the hard work of teachers, and rejoice together over our shared successes. I’ve been thinking about how to carry this celebratory stance with us throughout the year. 

Verbal praise is an easy way to celebrate success.  Acknowledging the goal and the actions that contributed to success encourages ongoing use of effective practices.

Writing a note leaves lasting evidence that a teacher’s effort is recognized. We can capture a “shared moment of delight,” giving specifics about what we noticed and appreciated.  A personal note warms the heart!

Public acknowledgement of a job well done boosts teachers’ confidence.  When talk in the teachers’ lounge includes recognition of teaching strengths or outcomes, it lifts the spirit and boosts energy for the work.

Social Sharing is another way to acknowledge success.  Post videos to celebrate a job well done.  Teachers glow when their students’ work is highlighted.  This could be a magical whole group discussion or student presentations of their unit projects. Tweet out the good things that are happening.  Digital sharing publicly recognizes amazing accomplishments.

Celebration goals support teamwork and collaboration.  What is a schoolwide outcome that everyone can contribute to?  This might be based off of school improvement plans or new initiatives.  Set realistic goals and monitor incremental improvement.  The same marble-in-the-jar or paper chain processes that motivate students can be fun ways to track growth. Then celebrate BIG when goals are achieved. 

Celebration spaces create a buzz about good things that are happening  Design a bulletin board where successes are celebrated. Change the display frequently to capture good things that are happening.

Celebrating the triumphs, both large and small, leads to even more success.  To rephrase the words of Rita Pierson, “Every teacher needs a champion.”  As we dream about next school year, let’s plan opportunities for applause.  When we consistently celebrate the good things that are happening, we are shouting a metaphorical “Bravo” for their successes.  

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

3 Ways to More “Aha” Moments in Coaching: 

A podcast on mentoring beginning teachers:

Using transition time to teach number (or letter) recognition in the early grades:

Building a community through reading a common text:

What to get rid of in your classroom library:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, June 1, 2018

Badge of Busy-ness

Last fall, one of the teachers I was working with got my attention when she said, “I know you’re really busy, but….” and then continued with a request for support.  This teacher may have simply been softening her own appeal, but it really gave me pause.  Was I sending the vibe that I was so busy that I couldn’t help others?  Since that was actually the most important thing in my job description, I wanted to make sure teachers felt I was available and accessible.

Since then, I have examined what I unknowingly do to send the signal I’m too busy.  I know I walk really fast through the building, getting to the next stop on my agenda.  My muscles feel tight, and I am thinking about how to make the most efficient use of my time. I know I get intently focused when I’m at my computer working on a project.  I’ve even caught myself scowling at the screen because I am so absorbed in my work.  I occasionally complain about how much there is to do or comment about how many projects I have going on.  These are the things I’ve caught myself doing that may unintentionally send the signal, “I’ve got more important things to do than talk to you.”  I realized I was wearing my busy-ness like a badge.  I think subconsciously we sometimes imply that we must be important because we have so much on our to-do list.

I have a friend who is one of the busiest people I know.  She homeschools her three kids, bought a small farm so the kids (and she) would have animals to care for and other responsibilities.  She has a job that, although flexible, takes a lot of time.  Yet, she never gives the impression that she’s busy.  She makes time for a conversation. She sits back in her chair when she talks. She stops to chat when I pass her.  She is the first to assist when there’s someone in need.  People confide in her and often ask her for help.  And she gives it.

I’ve thought a lot about this friend and the ambiance she exudes.  If I want to be perceived as available for coaching work, I need to be more like my friend.  I need to be ready for an informal chat.  I need to stop hurrying and start listening.  I need to look and feel more relaxed so that others will find me open.

Since my teacher friend got my attention last fall with her tempered request for help, I have intentionally worked on having a more approachable stance.   Instead of a badge of busy-ness, I want to exude an aura of availability.  With a little more yoga and a little less on my to-do list, I might just pull it off next year!

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

As a coach, it helps to be likeable.  J  Here are 13 habits of likeable people:

Teaching and measuring social-emotional learning:

Are graphic novels real reading?

Regie Routman describes how to build the trust students need to learn:

A 10-minute podcast on engaging teenage learners:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, May 19, 2018


We’re getting close to that time of year when we reflect back and look forward, and this can be a good time for helping teachers prioritize their activities and routines.  Here’s an exercise suggested by Shawna Coppola* that works well when coaching individual teachers or teams.

First, ask teachers to choose which part of the day or content area they want to reconsider (if their secondary teachers, you can skip this step!).  Next, make a list of everything that could potentially happen (or that the teacher(s) did this year), during that part of the day.  Don’t get too specific; the idea is to list generalizable, repeated activities.  For example, don’t list “Read aloud of James and the Giant Peach,” list “Teacher read aloud,” or maybe “Teacher read aloud while students draw the scene.” Keep going until you run out of steam (or chart paper, whichever comes first!).  Hint: If you’re working with just one teacher, the list can be made on a piece of paper.  Or, go tech for this activity and create the list digitally, projecting if you’re working with a group.

Next, add another column to your list.  Across from each activity listed, put the purpose of the activity.  There may be several.  For example, with a teacher read aloud, some purposes might include: modeling fluency, building vocabulary, practice visualizing. 

Now it’s time to look for overlaps in this second column.  Do students have  lots of opportunities for building vocabulary but not much time spent practicing skills independently? Based on prevalence of skills, teachers can prioritize their learning activities, potentially eliminating some and making their pedagogical plate leaner and cleaner.   

As an end-of-year reflection, this activity gives teachers a time to focus their thinking over the summer on the activities at the top of their priorities list.  If used as a back-to-school activity, it might help teachers feel less overwhelmed and more purposeful if they lighten their load.

p.s.  You might try this activity yourself with your myriad coaching duties!

*Find Shawna at:

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

Pop songs for end-of-the-year reflection (I plan to use some for teacher reflection as well):

Encouraging an appreciative attitude in the classroom:

Ask, “What makes you angry?” to involve students in civic engagement:

How should we assess things that matter?

Big ideas for increasing engagement:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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