Coaching and Not Having My Own Class as a Laboratory

“Today we are trying something new out, and I need you to let me know what you think when we are done.”

My students were entertained when I told them that because it meant we were doing something outside the ordinary. They also liked being my “expert opinion.” One thing about coaching – I miss that relationship with students where they would give me an honest answer. Sometimes this was a great trick to engage them when I knew it would be a tough lesson. But typically, they were my guinea pigs after receiving some new professional development.

So I was working with a 6th grade teacher recently, who is new to the grade level and fairly new to the classroom. How do I plan for everything? Can you boil this down for me? There’s just so much! These are hard questions for all teachers, so as a new teacher, they can be overwhelming. One teacher colleague had quite bluntly suggested that coaches and administrators don’t understand because they aren’t in the classroom. While my many feelings about that statement are best left for another post, I do agree that it is important to consider the point of view of those I support (teachers, administrators, paraeducators, among others). Since it was a 6th grade teacher, who is relatively new to our school, I thought about what my lesson plan would look like if I were her.

As a coach we receive lots of learning – typically from that 30,000 foot point of view where it sounds good in theory but putting it into practice is a different story. I informed my ELA planning from a recent Tim Shanahan post, Why Aren’t American Reading Scores Higher? In it, he suggests that there should be 120-180 minutes of reading and writing instruction per day. Shanahan writes:

This instructional time should be devoted to explicit teaching and guided practice aimed at developing knowledge of words (including phonemic awareness, phonics, letter names, spelling, morphology, vocabulary); oral reading fluency; reading comprehension; and writing. And, for English learners (and perhaps poverty kids too)—explicit oral language teaching.

I used this teacher’s basic schedule (I guessed at PE, library, and computer times to make it more complicated) to see if I could make it happen. Then I layered on current thinking in math. I wanted to make sure tasks happened, and I thought about the NCTM Thinking Through a Lesson protocol. And I know the value of Number Talks, so I considered what kinds of number talks might support the current math chapter (to be honest, I also guessed at that based on recent conversations – the teacher and I hadn’t talked specifically about math.)

Then I thought about the learning objective/intention/target. The words get used interchangeably in our district, and some schools in our district have studied these more extensively than others. Since the work we’ve done as coaches has highly valued these learning targets, I wanted to make sure I put those in where possible. I thought about putting success criteria in too, but time was getting away from me at this point. I realized that I’m still working on my own clarity with these ideas!

Our school has focused on the use of social emotional learning curriculums such as Second Step, Morning Meetings, Responsive Classroom, so I made sure I fit in some time for that. We also have required ELD (English Language Development) time for our EL students, during which time small group instruction would be happening for other students. I didn’t plan that out, because I’d be making up a lot of information for students. So I generalized it to ELD, intensive comprehension work, learning center pullout (for those on IEP’s), and enrichment.

Shanahan (and many others) also point to background knowledge as a critical piece to comprehension, so I wanted to make sure there was time for science and social studies. Our reading curriculum of course has science and social studies readings, but we need to dive deeper into the content. Since I don’t have online access to those curriculums, they are blank for now, but my thought was that this is a time to build content knowledge through key readings (especially primary sources), academic discussions, and hands on science.

So here was my stab at making sense of the current teacher’s dilemma. (Side note – as a coach I have no intention of just giving the work away and telling the teacher to do it my way. It wouldn’t build capacity and would likely have the opposite effect of creating dependency. Not to mention..this isn’t even done completely…)

This thought process for a week took me two hours. And I’m tired! Not to mention, I still have a whole slew of other things to do (as a teacher that might include grading papers and planning copies…as a coach that currently includes planning PD for our Monday staff meeting and prepping for two presentations this week). But, as I worked through this plan (which still needs work), I was able to metacognitively view the process. Some takeaways:

  • Redoing the ELA block into the key elements of reading and writing was really helpful. Our curriculum can be difficult to navigate, so as I viewed it through a lens of Word Study/Phonics, Vocabulary, Comprehension, Fluency, and Writing, I felt more confident in meeting the skills in all areas. Instead of tying it directly to standards, it was tied to the science of teaching students to read. I relied on the curriculum to be standards based.
  • Redoing the math block into Number Talk and Lesson forced me to consider what number talk I’d be doing each day. I also thought it might be helpful to call the block the Mathematical Goal, and then add another row to include Tasks.
  • There really isn’t enough time during the day. I was able to schedule it all in (note that Wednesday afternoon is actually gone because of the early out schedule that gives teachers PLC meeting time.) At some point 20 more minutes of PE is necessary due to the 200 minute PE biweekly requirement, and VAPA is basically a Friday afterthought. Things will have to overlap – an art lesson that is embedded in reading, or PE movement activities scheduled as brain breaks during the day.
  • This still assumes a near perfect classroom environment. Classroom management must be intact: tight transitions, clear expectations, a plan for student behavior (those that need to take a break, be offered choices, sent to a buddy room or calming room…). Lessons must be tight, focused, and engaging to keep students on task.
  • This also assumes zero interruptions. We know that isn’t always the case – the office calls, or another teacher calls, or a student is leaving early, or there is an assembly, or a field trip, or, or, or…… Need I say more?
  • Proper planning prevents poor performance. My master teacher 20 years ago taught me that, and yet proper planning takes time. My teachers have 45 minutes each day in their contract for planning, parent contact, grading, collaborating with peers, and any other paperwork as needed. As professionals, if we want to keep to that contract time, we have to protect that 45 minutes.
  • This schedule also assumes that you have plenty of tricks in your toolkit for lesson design. I based it all off of information found in the curriculum itself – but the curriculum doesn’t know you or your students. Continuing education in best practices is needed.
  • There is still a shorthand in lesson planning. Which parts must be written down, and which must you rely on the curriculum to have at your disposal? How many sticky notes died as I made notations in my manual of questions to ask or things to notice?

I remember in the classroom, feeling confident and relaxed that I could get all of these things done. Experience in many ways is the best teacher, so lesson planning became second nature as I knew the pitfalls to avoid and the long term outcomes I was working toward. Even now, out of the weekly practice, the rustiness slows me down. I wished our school day was longer, so we could really do some great things with art, music, and PE. I still do wish that were the case, but that isn’t in my realm of immediate control. So to inform my coaching, here are some possible questions I’d expect to ask a teacher who is struggling with planning.

  • How might you arrange your schedule to ensure the five elements of literacy (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension) are all given time?
  • In what ways does your curriculum address those five elements?
  • What professional learning do you need to feel confident with those elements?
  • How do you know your students proficiency levels with those five elements?
  • How does your classroom environment support or prevent instruction with those elements?
  • In what ways do your curriculums overlap? How might your writing time be linked to science or social studies?
  • What are your learning targets? Is the target achievable within the time frame you’ve allotted?
  • Are your students reading plenty of complex text each day, and increasing in stamina? How might you scaffold the reading for struggling readers? How might you increase their stamina for silent reading as the year progresses while holding them accountable for the reading (i.e. not just sit and stare)?
  • What problems are you encountering in your current lesson plan? What have you tried so far to address them? What strategies have worked?
  • How will you know the students have met the learning target(s)? How might you keep that checking for understanding to a minimum of time for maximum information?

Walking through planning a week again was a really grounding experience. I love applying theory to practice and feeling the stress, excitement, and frustration as the ideal world meets the real world. I appreciate the empathy it allows me to have as I help my teachers negotiate the challenge of planning.

How do you help teachers plan for the week? The day? The lesson?