Saturday, November 17, 2018

Making Tracks for Change

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 will be noticeable and ongoing.  Continuous communication is required to create this kind of persistence.  It’s also important to recognize that change that lasts is built on a deep understanding of our current reality.

Too often, schools completely alter their course rather than making minor corrections that can result in major improvement. Imagine a train leaving town and taking a branch off of the original track. Initially, there are only a few feet between the old track and the new – but the further and further the train is from the branch in the tracks, the more those tracks diverge. This image demonstrates how even small pedagogical changes, if they are maintained, can result in significant improvement.

Rather than making drastic course corrections, appropriate adjustments are suggested through careful data analysis.  We can look at standardized test scores from a variety of perspectives.  What does it tell us about advanced students? About those who are below proficient? What can we learn about traditionally underserved populations?  To get a more complete picture, we should take a look at all kinds of data, not just standardized test scores. Samples of student work provide insight. Observations verify, clarify, or refute data from other sources and give us new questions to ask.  Surveying people who care can give us data about specific practices. Deep data dives help schools understand and develop their own capacity.

When my district was preparing to upgrade our literacy curriculum, we noted the progress students were making in schools that had guided reading groups. Knowing that some schools didn’t have access to books appropriate for guided reading, we put this on our wish list for things to change. Knowing what was working at some schools helped to guide our vision for change.

In education, we are always looking to improve.  We want to do better for all our students. Finding a balance between new ideas that may be successful in the future and expansion of practices that have been successful in the past supports improvement and creates sustainability. When decisions about change are guided by many kinds of data, we are able to identify both areas where change is needed and things that are working that should have ongoing support. Small course changes based on our understanding of our current reality can lead us to the future we’ve envisioned.

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

Classroom arrangements and the social brain:

Thought-provoking ideas about what reading is and how we can help students grasp that idea:

Ways to support the development of executive functions:

ABC’s of Effective Coaching:

Protocols for student-led discussions:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, November 10, 2018

Sustaining Change: Just Keep Talking (and Listening)

In a recent post, I talked about the pendulum swing of education and the ongoing search for the holy grail that will solve education’s ills. I cited research that it takes three years for new initiatives to be implemented sufficiently to produce significant, measurable improvement. How can coaches and other instructional leaders encourage the necessary stick-to-it-iveness? When I faced this problem leading a million-dollar literacy adoption, I dug into the research about change – personal, business, and educational, and I mined a few gems that I could apply.  Perhaps the most important tool for creating persistence is communication.

Throughout a change process, communication within and to stakeholder groups is key. “Stakeholder groups” is a clinical term for “everyone who cares.”  This means teachers, parents, administration, and even students.  This means bringing groups of people together to talk, collecting what they talk about, and doing something with it.  Don’t ask for input unless that input will make a difference. Asking and not acting is disingenuous and destroys trust. Be transparent about how the information gathered is being used. Communication doesn’t just mean telling. It means building community – listening, understanding, dialoging.  It is ongoing – important when we begin to consider a change and continuing thereafter.  The bottom line is, you can’t go in with your own agenda, no matter who you are.  A superintendent is doomed to failure if the initiative she proposes isn’t grounded in what the stakeholders say. The same is true for a principal, literacy coach, or department head.  Start with what the people say.

With the literacy initiative I lead, the hardest thing, initially, was convincing people that there wasn’t a pre-set agenda, that decisions really hadn’t already been made.  I said this, and they didn’t believe me. At first, even my actions (survey groups, hold public forums) were seen as hollow. But eventually, my actions showed that the opinions of the collective were important to decisions. The late nights I spent tallying survey results, creating summaries of focal group conversations, and showing how these led to next steps eventually convinced people that what they said mattered. When people know that what they say matters, they buy in for the long haul.

Can you think of a change that would improve instruction in your school or district? Start talking with people about it in systematic ways. Decisions will be stronger because of what is said, and as the process unfolds, folks will be more likely to stay the course.

(More gems for change that sticks will be featured in upcoming posts.)

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

Ways to make teaching personal (I especially love the idea of handing a parent a photo to start parent-teacher conferences!):

Do you ever feel lonely as a coach?  Here are some ideas for combatting that loneliness:

How to’s for a group essay writing assignment that improves students’ writing:

This review of reading research comes from a psychological, not an instructional, perspective, but offers helpful insights for teaching nonetheless:

Science and poetry that celebrates skin tone:

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Saturday, November 3, 2018

Turn Up the Learning

A teacher’s day is full of hundreds of decisions: instructional decisions, like, “How should I phrase the next question?” Logistical questions like, “Do we have time to finish this activity before lunch?” Psychological questions like, “What does this child need to feel safe in my room?”  Questions like these have become so routine that they are subconscious, asked and answered almost without our awareness.  Raising these questions to the level of awareness helps us define and refine our teaching philosophy, our values and purpose, and our teaching craft.  As instructional coaches, helping others define and refine their own responses to such questions is a way to support their ongoing improvement.

One way to bring instructional decisions to the fore is through a pre-modelling conference.  You know that modelling provides a vision for what an observing teacher’s future instruction might look and sound like.  To turn up the learning that modelling provides, elevate the questions that you will be considering as instruction unfolds, and highlight them in the pre-observation conversation.

This week, a 4th grade teacher, Alice, modelled a lesson on using text evidence to support inferences about characters. In the pre-observation conference, she described how she would begin with a quick thumbs-up self-assessment of students’ confidence with this practice.  She suggested that her observing colleague, Crystal, note not only how many thumbs were down, but also how she adjusted the lesson based on that information.  Alice said she would be asking herself, “Do they need me to go back and review our anchor chart, or are they ready to move forward?”

The next part of the lesson was a read-aloud of a Time for Kids article about a child inventor.  Alice said she would be paying attention to whether students seemed engaged.  If not, she might encourage them to follow along on their copy of the text or on the projected copy on the screen. The setting for the article was a remote village in Africa, very different from her own students’ experiences. Alice knew she would be looking for signs of understanding or confusion as she read. She would be asking herself, “Are they getting this?”

Later in the lesson, students would be working with partners to match character trait cards with evidence from the text. Alice would be listening in on conversations, asking herself if students were able to justify their responses. She realized the cards could possibly be matched in more than one way, and the rationale provided was her window into students’ understanding. She suggested Crystal listen in on the probing questions she asked to assess and support students’ thinking.

Students’ independent practice during this lesson would be to lift their own evidence from the text to justify a list of character traits. Again, Alice cared about the rationale; again, Alice encouraged Crystal to listen in on the questions she was asking.

Wrapping up the lesson, Alice explained that she would ask the self-assessment question about students’ confidence with citing text evidence, just as she had at the beginning of the lesson.  As she monitored students’ responses, Alice would be asking herself whether there had been enough change in students’ responses to justify moving on, or was more practice warranted? Crystal would be noticing this, too, as she watched how the lesson concluded.

When it came time to go to Alice’s room for the observation, Crystal’s observation was supported by the chart she had completed during their pre-observation meeting that looked something like this:

Student Learning Activities
Points to Notice
Thumbs-up self-assessment re: confidence with citing text evidence

Real aloud about child inventor

Matching traits & evidence with partner

Independent practice finding text evidence to support character traits

Thumbs-up self-assessment re: confidence with citing text evidence

How many thumbs up?  Move forward or review anchor chart?

How does T keep Ss engaged? Are Ss confused? What ?s does T ask?

Are Ss talking about their reasoning? What ?s does T ask?

Can Ss justify their responses? What ?s does T ask?

Do Ss feel more confident?

Crystal was prepared with her own questions to guide the observation as Alice modelled this lesson on citing text evidence.  Her awareness was raised about the questions Alice would be asking herself while teaching.  As the lesson unfolded, both teachers were more aware of their own instructional thought processes.  The pre-modelling conference prepared them for a thought-filled observation and debrief conversation.  It turned up the learning for both of these teachers.

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

Ways administrators can support coaches:

Using technology to meet existing learning goals:

Using drama and role playing for English Learners:

Great non-fiction reads and how to incorporate them throughout the day:

An inquiry into inquiry:

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Saturday, October 27, 2018

Sustaining Change: Stay the Course

For decades, educational reformers have called for improved student achievement. No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds, the nation’s education laws, have established superlative performance as the only acceptable goal.  Burdened by pressures for improbable outcomes, school and district leaders search for the golden fleece, the silver bullet, the guaranteed fix.  Innovations become ends unto themselves and often create diversions from the fundamental purpose of improvement (Fullan, 1989). As you can see from the date on that reference, this problem has been going on for a long, long time.  You have seen it, and so have I – the pendulum swing of education that hopes for ultimate victory.

But there are no quick fixes, just hard work. Whether it is losing weight, learning to surf, or improving student learning, the key, once a practical route has been charted, is to stay the course.  Staying the course is a nautical metaphor well-suited as a prescription for dealing with the winds of educational change. If we change course mid-stream, our progress is undone.  Research suggests that it takes three years for educational changes to take root, to be firmly established and begin to bear fruit.*  Substantive change is not sudden. 

Last year, I worked with a district on a professional development model focused on improved instruction.  Every school in the district used the model all year long, and the district curriculum leader wrote me a letter glowing with praise for all that had been accomplished, describing teachers’ positive perceptions and citing the improvements they’d seen in teaching and learning.  I was surprised and dismayed, then, to find out that this year they had dropped the model to try something new.  Can we please just stick with something long enough to show that it works?

As an instructional coach or 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 below about sustained change. You could be the anchor who makes sure 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.

*Brown, R. & Coy-Ogan, L. (1993). The Evolution of Transactional Strategies Instruction in
             one teacher's classroom.   Elementary School Journal, 94 (2), 221-233.
*Comer, J.P. & Haynes, N.M. (1999).  The dynamics of school change: Response to the
article, “Comer’s School Development Program in Prince George County, Maryland: A Theory-Based Evaluation,” by Thomas D. Cook et al. American Educational Research Journal, 36 (3), 599-607.
*Fullan, M. Bennett, B. & Rolheister-Bennett, C. (1989 April). Linking classroom and school
improvement. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, San Francisco, CA. 
*Minnesota Center for Reading Research(2011).  Consortium for Responsible School
Change in Literacy.  Downloaded December 5, 2011 from
*Pressley, M., El-Dinary, P. B., Gaskins, I., Schuder, T., Bergman, J. L., Almasi, J., & Brown, R.
(1992). Beyond direct explanation: Transactional instruction of reading comprehension strategies. Elementary School Journal, 92, 513-556.

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

A coaching Success Story:

Info. on un-standardized assessments:

Beyond explicit instruction, what else struggling readers need:

Redos and retakes:

A podcast on creating a creative and spirited math class:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, October 20, 2018

Recommending By…

A young teacher-friend I know is stressed and puzzled.  It is Jake’s second year teaching, and, because he was the low man on the totem pole, he got moved to a new grade level this year.  So, for the second year in a row, he is creating everything from scratch while still trying to figure out the bigger picture of classroom management and learning.  At his “Turnaround” school, there is increased pressure for improved test scores.  As an early-career teacher, Jake knows it would be easy for the principal not to renew his contract at the end of the year. All of these issues create a heavy burden for him that zaps energy and enthusiasm he could otherwise bring to the classroom.

What should be good news is, Jake has an instructional coach working with him.  So far, her main recommendation is that Jake should make his lessons more interactive.  That seems like a wise recommendation!  We know that children learn best when they are active participants in the process rather than passive listeners or worksheet-completers.  However, when Jake asked his coach for suggestions about how to make his lessons more interactive, he was told to go online and search. “Look at Teachers Pay Teachers,” she said.  While I’m sure there are some wonderful interactive lessons to be found on that platform, there are also activities that don’t fit that criteria.  Without guidance, Jake could end up with more of the same rather than improved instruction.

For Jake, and for most teachers seeking to improve their instruction, a general recommendation, such as “Make your lessons interactive,” is not very helpful.  More helpful is, “Make your lessons more interactive by…….”  And when coaches follow up with resources as examples, or take the time to talk through and model how to select effective resources, chances for real change increase. This is especially true for young teachers like Jake, who may have limited resources to turn to and may be unsure of criteria for selecting materials.  Just like with younger learners, novice teachers benefit from modeling and explicit descriptions.

Fortunately, Jake has a back-up plan: a mom who is an experienced teacher and is willing to help. Not all notice teachers are as fortunate.  If you are a coach with novice teachers in your building, be on the look-out for the October slump. Start-of-the-year energy begins to wane and young teachers may begin feeling overwhelmed by all they are being asked to do. Being sure to couple recommendations with specific examples is a way to offer assistance that doesn’t feel like one more thing to carry.

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

Daily routines that matter:

Keys to coaching conversations:

Using objects to engage writers:

We need teachers, not materials:

3 articles about how making reading levels public affects readers:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Saturday, October 13, 2018

Coach as Confidence-Booster

As instructional coaches, one of our most important roles is to bring out the best in the teachers we work with.  This includes empowering them and helping teachers see the impact of their contributions. When teachers feel confident, they are willing to take risks and make changes. A teacher who is unconfident may retreat to carefully-controlled, worksheet-driven lessons that are easy to teach but not in the best interest of students. Expressing confidence helps a teacher move from what she is to what she can become. Here are a few confidence-boosting ideas to consider:

Encourage During Struggles
If a teacher lacks confidence, mistakes can confirm feelings of inadequacy.  Instead, let teachers know it’s okay to make mistakes, that missteps are part of the path to success. Fear of failure can be immobilizing, but knowing perfection isn’t expected makes it safe to try and then try again. Teaching requires experimenting – using an approach and examining the results.  When a lesson doesn’t go as planned, we can treat it as a puzzle to be solved, a mystery to be unraveled.  Viewing struggles as opportunities takes away worry and negative energy.

Scaffold Increasing Success
As we plan forward with teachers, we can offer enough support to increase instructional success.  That scaffolding might look like specific recommendations or just asking the right questions to help a teacher think through specifics of a lesson. Anticipating together how students might react helps a teacher prepare to be flexible and responsive to students’ needs as the lesson unfolds.

Express Praise
Providing positive feedback about things that are goes well increases confidence. Never suppress a compliment! Give specific examples of what is working, and celebrate incremental improvements.  Recognize the microbursts of excellence in both the teacher and her students.

Let Teachers Teach Teachers
As you recognize strengths in the teachers you work with, give them the opportunity to share those strengths with others. Five minutes at a faculty meeting to describe something that worked solidifies that practice in the teacher you are highlighting and helps it spread. Avoid favoritism – look for opportunities to help everyone be seen as an expert.

Raising sights and expressing confidence gives teachers a path toward improvement.  When we have positive assumptions and treat teachers as if they already are what they have the potential to become, they grow into those aspirations.  When coaches express confidence, they are supporting the can-do attitude so important to improvement.  Lyrics from the song, “I Have Confidence in Me,” from The Sound of Music, apply:

So, let them bring on all their problems.
I'll do better than my best.
I have confidence they'll put me to the test;
But I'll make them see I have confidence in me!

Teachers with confidence in themselves are ready to tackle the tough challenges inherent in instruction.  And then when students struggle, teachers can pass their confidence along!

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

The planning process for PBL:

Using drama and role playing for English Learners:

Every teacher needs a mentor:

Teaching about reading confusion:

Twitter hashtags for coaches:

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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Friday, October 5, 2018

Modeling on the Classroom Canvas

Teaching and learning are social activities, supported through interaction with others. In earlier times, most of the world’s work was learned through apprenticeship. The wheelwright, the farrier, the carpenter, all learned the art and science of their professions by watching and listening to skillful practitioners.  A decade ago, Marzana published the book The Art and Science of Teaching, stating that although instructional strategies should clearly be based on sound science and research, knowing when to use them and with whom is more of an art. The chemistry of a successful classroom can’t be reduced to a formula, and instructional decisions must be based on continuous feedback loops that demonstrate our students’ strengths and needs.

I was chatting with a coach this week who is also an art enthusiast; she particularly loves Van Gough, and learned that Van Gough’s study of color theory inspired his adventurous use of color.  Understanding the laws of color allowed for their unique application. This is true of teaching, too. 

When coaches model, they convey this blend of science and art. They use best practices flexibly and uniquely with real students in the complex chemistry of a classroom.  Teachers participate in an apprenticeship as they see this blend in action and as we dissect it together through conversations before and after.

The educational theorist Albert Bandura described four principles of social learning that apply to modeling: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.  Learning from a model requires focused attention; it’s helpful to determine a focus with the teacher before modeling a lesson. Retention is demonstrated through the ability to recall the modeling later, when a similar situation arises. Rather than using Bandura’s term “reproduction,” which implies imitation, I prefer “adaptation,” or “appropriation.”  Teachers make it their own, recognizing that no two learning situations are exactly alike. This is where the art comes in.  The final aspect, motivation, is spontaneous when teachers see the effectiveness of the practices modelled.

The brush strokes of an effective lesson blend the know-how of the profession with the originality of the teacher.  Modeling on the “canvas” of the teachers’ classroom is apprenticeship that demonstrates the instructional blend of science and art.

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

This podcast about project-based learning:

How coaches can support a “future ready” school environment:

Nourishing self and others:

Tips for including instructional assistants in PLC’s:

Helpful phrases for redirecting students (meant for parents, but they work for teachers, too!):

That’s it for this week.  Happy Coaching!

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