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?

Making Sense of Decimals in 5th Grade, Pt.2

So about that number line I mentioned in part 1. I love clothesline math! I loved it before I knew there was a blog about it. I loved it when a colleague said, “Hey, did you see this?” There are so many possibilities with putting numbers on a number line, and discussing things like:

  • Convince me 7/4 is in the correct spot.
  • Why did Johnny put 1.2 on top of 12/10?
  • Do you agree that 1.25 belongs between 1.3 and 1.4? Why or why not?

The discussion with the partners is so interesting. And then putting numbers on your own white board. And the formative assessment that comes with that! And then magically having numbers in the correct order without having to stack them on top of each other with place values lined up.

Quite honestly, I’m not sure how you teach math without a number line at this point. I’ve had so much fun with it that it makes me want to be back in the classroom exploring it. But, I’m enjoying exploring it with my teachers as well.

So, my 5th grade teacher who was looking for strategies probably felt my excitement about doing the number line, so she agreed to try it. After warming up with some choral counting, we jumped right in. I had consulted Kristin Gray’s blog, KG Math Minds, and got some great ideas there. Check the post out here to get far better description of how I planned using many of her ideas. A couple of the ideas she reflected on were where to place the 0 and how many cards to give partners. I decided I’d start the conversation by putting the 0 in the middle of the number line. I asked the students if that was OK, and why. They agreed that the left was negative and the right was positive. Since that seemed clear, I moved the 0 to the left and told them we’d only be focusing on positive numbers today. Then I held up 1/2. Where should this go, I asked. The students were hesitant. Rightfully so, as there was no benchmark for the whole. A brave soul came up and placed it. We had a brief conversation about the choice, and the realization dawned that it didn’t really matter till we placed the 1. So, I tested the theory. Instead of a 1, I held up a 2. A brave volunteer came to place it. She placed it so that it the 1/2 was equidistant from the 0 and the 2.

Aha! Misconception. Keeping my poker face (isn’t that hard when you want to raise an eyebrow and say nope, try again?), I applauded her bravery and asked the class, how do we feel about the placement? Talk to your partner about why you agree or disagree. The students worked to find the words to say that 1/2 should be closer to 0 than 2. They eventually got there.

Now the cards were spread out, and we added in the 1 to help settle some disagreements. So, I handed out the decimal cards to pairs of students. Here is the end result:

First, don’t make fun. I know the cards are too small. I was anticipating bringing them to the carpet for a closer experience, and I thought my number line would be much smaller. I hated the overlap when I used full sized index cards in the past and was trying to avoid that. Plus, proper planning prevents poor performance – I should have planned this part out with the teacher but the time crunch got to me. So, I overthought this a bit and ended up with a problem. But, the kids assured me they could see it, and that my phone did not take an accurate picture (side note…why do iPhone pics look so much further away than the reality?)

Second, I took the picture at the very end when I realized I had no visuals to share with others about the clothesline. It didn’t start as well spaced out. Plus, there were some answers that needed more immediate revision, and we had to discuss those. Coaching note…take more pictures during lessons. Visualization is important!

One of my favorite events of the lesson was the partnership that had 7/4. During the questioning in choral counting and the beginning of the number line, I had noticed a couple partnerships talking at a pretty high level. So as I passed out the decimal cards, I handed out a couple of fractions that I figured would be a little more challenging at this stage in their learning. This partnership put 7/4 to the right of 2…suggesting it was more than 2. I let that go for a bit, as we debated a few of the other decimals (mainly spacing them accurately between 1 and 2.) Suddenly one of the partner’s hand went up. When I called on him, he asked if he could move the fraction. I agreed and he moved it to the left of 2. Why did he move it? Ensuing partner talk.

During the partner talk I chatted for a bit with the teacher. She was surprised at some of the discussions her kids were having, but also at some of the misconceptions that surfaced in the placement of the numbers. She realized that they needed to do some more work with placing numbers accurately on the number line.

In the debrief later on, the teacher shared with me that she had continued the number line work, and was using it as they considered comparison of decimals. She was interested in using it as they moved into fractions. I’m excited for her as she journeys on with the number line, and I’m excited for her students who begged me to stay and keep working with the number line. I’m excited for the student who discovered his own error and was willing to revise his work in front of the group.

In my own reflection, my math goal was really to seek information about their understanding of numbers on a number line. The difficult part about demos is that even though a teacher shares knowledge and data on where the children are at, there is still the reality of being in the room with students day in and day out, and the deep understanding that comes with knowing what you’ve taught, where they’ve struggled, and where that zone of achievable challenge is. The teacher and I both saw that moving forward they needed to work on the distance between numbers, justifying that distance, and understanding the link between fractions and decimals. Too often we rely on kids “understanding” as demonstrated by a conversion worksheet, but we discover in the number line that their “understanding” is limited to a procedure. I do wonder how much of this affects 5th grade SBAC scores. I look forward to seeing what they do with the number line over the next few weeks!

Any best practice ideas for implementing the clothesline in the classroom? Comment below!

Making Sense of Decimals in 5th Grade, Pt. 1

A fifth grade teacher shared with me last month her concerns about her students that were struggling with decimals. They didn’t understand place value. They had trouble identifying greater than or less than. They confused the tenths with the hundredths.

One of the ideas she was interested in pursuing was Choral Counting. We had done work in the past on various talk routines, including Number Talks and Which One Doesn’t Belong. I consulted another coach (remember how I get by with a little help from my friends?) and made sure I was clear on the strategy.

So we started simple. A choral count by 0.25. I used this planning tool my coach colleague suggested to think ahead about what I would scribe on the board.

I planned to stop and look at patterns, but I realized that my structure didn’t lend itself as well for beginning choral counters. So, I changed the number of rows.

That made more sense. A pattern of increasing by one in each column was easily distinguishable with four rows. We could look at why that happens (0.25 is equivalent to 1/4, and our numbers are grouped in 4’s.) Hmm…

They picked up on this pretty quickly. All I had to do was ask:

  • What do you notice?
  • Do you notice any patterns?
  • Can you predict what would be ____? (I put that blank space in the 3rd row of the next column).
  • How could you prove it without counting?

The teacher liked this strategy, but still felt like her students were struggling with the idea of greater than, less than, and the concept of decimals as compared to whole numbers. She wanted to explore the clothesline number line.

It was a couple of weeks later, and I wanted to see if the students remembered the choral counting. I remembered that they thought it was pretty easy, and they were engaged with it, so I thought we’d warm up with a choral count. So, we counted by 0.03. This made for some fascinating conversations that went a little longer than I planned. I wrote 0.03, 0.06, 0.09, and then asked:

  • What number comes next? How do you know? – That elicited 1.2 and 0.12. So I wrote them both up there.
  • Convince me that one of these is correct. – They practiced with their partners first.

Once the group was convinced that it was 0.12 (one of the students had said, well, there are 12 hundredths and that is the same as one tenth and 2 hundredths), then we kept going on. Eventually the count looked like this (without the fourth column):

So I asked if there were any patterns. I waited (did I wait 10 seconds? I need to work on that), then gave them partner talk time so they could orally rehearse. Sometimes I pull sticks after this but this time I preselected a volunteer. He can be a reluctant student, but he noticed a pattern of 12’s with his partner, which he explained to the class that at the bottom he sees 12 x 1, 12 x 2, 12 x 3. So I wrote that on our count, purposefully leaving the misconception on the board. I asked, if that is true, what comes next? A student volunteered 48. So I wrote that on the board, then asked the students, what do we think? Does that make sense?

Discussion ensued, and I noticed it got more lively as they started to realize what happened. I listened in to conversations, and once I was comfortable that the partnerships were prepared, I pulled a stick. The student explained that it should be 0.48. I asked, “Why?” Another student explained the pattern was counting by 12 hundredths, not twelves. So, I changed 48 to 0.48. I again asked if it made sense. They looked around at each other. This time I remembered my wait time! Eventually the partner talk picked up, I called a volunteer, and the student explained that the 12 x 1 and so on should have been 0.12 and so on. Aha! We spoke for a minute about the importance of precision in math (SMP 6), and then moved on.

How long did this routine take? About 10 minutes. Lots of partner talk and making sense of math, with a very easy to implement routine. In part 2 I’ll talk about the number line.

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

I cringe just a bit when I hear coaching referred to as a lonely job. The job requires nearly constant collaboration, and so I’m talking with someone most of the day. Really, teaching can be a lonely job too. You spend the day with your students, none of whom can collaborate with you on the professional level, and at the end of the day, you’re faced with all kinds of things to do.

This is where I feel like the power of the coach comes in. No one wants to be wrong or treated as though they were being fixed. But many of us want someone to talk to who will be focused on our problems. A teacher colleague next door might be helpful, but s/he has their own problems that may take over the conversation. A coach comes in and is focused on you and your needs. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job, and has helped me overcome some guilt over leaving the classroom. I spent my first six months on the job haunted by this meme as I pondered my role as a coach:

Now I know better. I spent time yesterday talking with a teacher who is investigating guided reading. Now there is an overwhelming task to take on without formal training (yet…it is coming soon…). So, we worked on breaking it down. Why do guided reading? What are you hoping your students will get out of it? What information do you really need to make that happen? How do you get started? There are so many birdwalks to take in this area that talking it out with someone who can paraphrase your thinking, and help you sort through your thoughts, can be exactly what you need. Sure enough, the five minute planned conversation about a running record procedure turned into a 45 minute coaching conversation, and at the end the teacher said, “sometimes it helps just to talk it out.” Exactly!

So who coaches the coaches? It would be unfair to turn around on those teachers we coach and expect them to reciprocate – that’s not their job and they haven’t been trained to do that. They already have more than enough on their plates. Fellow coaches and I have organized a job alike afternoon once a month, where we join together and share out celebrations, ideas, new learning, and challenges. I’ve come across several articles on the power of these coaching get togethers. I was first inspired by the idea of the Mastermind group from the Cult of Pedagogy. But, when talking to other coaches, we thought we might keep it more loose at first – no specific agenda. No one in our group had done this before, and we didn’t want to formalize too much at first. I suppose this is the “forming” part of our group, but I’m not sure that it fully fits that framework, as we don’t have a “performing” goal at this point.

We looked at some coaching models in our first meeting. Although at this point our district has focused the coaching training on Cognitive Coaching, we talked a bit about other models that are out there. Student Centered Coaching is one that we started to investigate briefly, based on an article one member of our group shared.

But the best part was how the group organically shifted into sharing challenges while staying focused on solutions. Venting is a part of any job I suppose, but it doesn’t solve problems. TeachBoost says,

Coaches must keep in mind that they need to restore themselves first before their work of restoring others can happen.

In a job alike group, we can certainly do some venting, and empathize with the challenges each other faces, but we also know we can brainstorm solutions. We didn’t formally do a Problem of Practice protocol, but we did end up investigating one of the challenges in more depth. In the process, I came up with my own new ideas for our guided reading book room while taking into account the pitfalls described by my colleague.

It was exactly what I needed, when I needed it. A reminder that we are not alone in this work. That no one has a perfect gig, nor does anyone expect perfection. No one “fixed” a coach, nor did anyone need “fixing.” Sometimes we just need to talk it out. In the process, we are validated, we are understood, and we feel like problems are not insurmountable.

How do you stay connected with colleagues and avoid the feeling of isolation?

2019 Goals: Writing

In this last of my 2019 goals series, I’m focusing on writing. Hence the blog! I figure if I’m going to help teachers and students write, then I need to be in the process myself. There is actually a record of me saying I hate teaching writing on Facebook, back in 2009 when posting answers to 25 questions about yourself was trending. Shortly thereafter, I came to discover that I actually loved teaching writing. It was through a professional development series that was actually based in technology that I grew to love the writing process. It’s funny how things can work out that way. Take something I love (technology) and then embed something I’m not interested in (writing) and a spark ignites. I’d like to think that same thing happens for our students as well.

So how did I go from hating writing to loving writing? The process was based in helping my students navigate their brand new laptops (our grade level had been given a laptop cart to share). While they were writing letters to pen pals, I started to realize that I couldn’t try to correct everything possible in their writing. It would sound unnatural – not like a 4th grader. I also learned that there would be many, many questions in this process, and I couldn’t spend 10 minutes with each child. Writing conferences became more like writing drive through’s, where I would know of one or two items in the student’s writing that s/he was working on, and I would focus my brief attention there. I never focused on spelling during these writing stages – I’d file that information away for a lesson to be done shortly thereafter. Plus, I made sure they were aware of how to use spell check! The whole world of writing opened up to me – I realized the power of a mini lesson and the power of meeting students where they were at. Now, Google docs (through the use of Google Classroom) really makes the writing process a fun one for teachers and students. Click here for a short overview of what I love about Google Docs.

I’m super excited to take a group of teachers to see Carol Jago at the end of January, as she presents on opinion writing. I love that she is not only talking about the process, but also how to provide feedback and manage the paper load that teaching writing creates.

One of my biggest interests is in the area of mathematical writing, and will likely be the focus of many future blog posts. Currently, I’m working with many teachers on a set of lessons based out of Think It, Show It Mathematics.

This was suggested to me after attending a workshop from a professor at UC Davis, where she had shared lessons they had created from this book. So, we have worked with them and tweaked them for the needs of our teachers. At this point, we’ve had rave reviews on our PD. Teachers who have really focused on mathematical writing are finding that by having a rubric by which to evaluate the work, along with language for the writing itself, has helped their students’ explanations soar. Here are a couple of examples of fourth graders’ recent math writing. Note the use of transition words and a clear statement of the answer.

Clear statement of the answer. What might be your next steps with this student?
What understandings does this student have?

I just happened to grab a couple of snapshots as I was in the room for another purpose – to observe their collaboration as partners! But, I was so struck by the fact that after collaborating with partners, there weren’t any questions of “How do I explain this?” It was fascinating to not only observe their conversations, but then see them explain their thought process so clearly on paper.

I’m looking forward to doing even more investigation into mathematical writing with my teachers, through a few different lenses. First, there’s work from UConn including the original recommendations from the Elementary Mathematical Writing Task Force. Linked there, but I think also important to link here is the article, “Why Should Students Write in Math Class?” from Educational Leadership (2017). Last, is a piece that I found on Twitter a week ago called 17 Prompts For Writing in Mathematics. See a glimpse below:

So that’s it – my three big goals this year are to investigate Intervention, Listening & Speaking, and Writing. Keep in mind though – all of these investigations will also come through the lens of coaching and support, so I certainly intend to blog about coaching as well. What are your goals this year?