Monday, April 6, 2015

Trying This Again, But Different

This blog has been largely dormant since I left the classroom and moved into the literacy coaching position in my building.  I've struggled with how I can write about the work I do, thinking alongside teachers to solve problems of practice or working with them to grow as professionals.  A large part of my job is the trust I need to build with the teachers who let down their guard and invite me into their classrooms and their professional lives.

I was afraid that if I wrote about this work, it would violate this confidentiality and trust.

But as I learn more and more about being a coach and being reflective about my own practice, I realize there are things I can write about in relation to coaching as well as good instructional practice. To some degree, I can write in generalities about my work with teachers, but be specific about my own reflection on the work.

It will be a fine line to walk, but I'm sure I can do it.  As time goes on, I feel a greater need to write about the work I do and reflect upon it in order to grow as a coach.  While I could do this privately, in a notebook no one else will see, I also crave feedback from others whose jobs are similar to mine.  I am the only middle school coach in my district, and while I have a learning team composed of the coaches in the three K-5 buildings, there are many situations that are unique to the middle school.  I'd love to grow a professional network as a support system.

It may take me a while to find my writing groove again, but I am determined to do it.

And I'd be grateful if you'd join me in my search to find my voice.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Jumping on the "Nerdlution" Bandwagon

Nerdlution Image by Kristine Mraz and posted on Twitter (@mrazkristine). I love it!
Over the past several days, many of my Twitter friends and colleagues have been talking about setting "Nerdlutions."  These are specific commitments they are making for the fifty days between December 2, 2013 and January 20.  For example, Katherine over at Read, Write, Reflect is committed to writing 30 minutes each day and walking 30 minutes each day to get back into her exercise habit.  Franki Sibberson at A Year of Reading is also making that same Nerdlution.

I'm jumping in.

I keep saying I want to write a book.  I've been saying it for years.  I've even done some preliminary research on a topic I'm interested in exploring further.  However, with my crazy school schedule this year, I don't know if I have it in me to write a whole book.  Instead, I'm going to commit to writing for 30 minutes each day either on one of my blogs (this one, Mindi's Musings, or NextBestBook) or working on articles to submit to professional journals or online publishers such as Choice Literacy for possible publications.  I need to live a writerly life to see if I really have this in me.

I, too, like many of my friends have gotten out of the exercise habit.  My nerdlution in this area is to exercise daily, either at the Y or in my basement.  I have the equipment.  I have the means.  Now I need to MAKE myself do this.  I've not felt good in several months, and I know it has to do with the fact that I have not been active enough.  It's amazing how those endorphins released during exercise really do affect my outlook on the rest of my life.

SO there they are.... two promises I'm making for myself.

Will you join us?  What is your Nerdlution?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Put On Your Listening Ears

Image used via Creative Commons License from
Today was one of those days when I truly enjoy my role as a coach.

I got to spend an 80 minute block observing in a social studies class, listening in on conversations students were having around an article they were reading.

I spent 40 minutes listening to a science teacher talk through his thinking about a lesson in which he will think aloud how to summarize a newspaper article on a science topic and how he is connecting his language and the expectations for student summaries to the work they do in their language arts classes.

I spent another 40 minutes listening to a language arts teacher describe pre-assessment results and thinking through how she will adjust instruction based on the data she collected.  I also listened as she described the format of her small-group lessons.

Today I listened.

The teachers I met with today didn't necessarily need help with they work they were doing.  They needed to talk through their thinking with someone.  They needed a listener who would ask questions that would help them to think more deeply about their practice.  They needed time to process.

When I was still in the classroom, I would often have conversations such as these with my teaching partner.  We would plan our lessons together and ask each other questions, often playing devil's advocate, imagining the questions students might have or predicting student roadblocks.  These conversations were great practice for much of the work I do as a coach.

Tomorrow I will be in that science class and in that language arts class listening as those teachers put into practice the lessons we discussed today.  Both teachers have asked me to listen for specific student language and to look for specific student behaviors.

I'm learning that listening is perhaps the most important thing I do as a literacy coach.  It can be hard not to jump in with suggestions for how I would do the lesson or the language I would use in a demonstration or think aloud.  I have to think carefully to determine what each teacher needs at a particular time during our coaching conversations.  I have to remember that providing an opportunity for a teacher to reflect on his or her practice in order to refine a lesson or rubric or activity is just as important and impactful as demonstrating in a classroom or co-teaching a lesson.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Organizationally Challenged

Organization has never been my strong suit.  In the classroom, I would start the year off strong...everything had a place, and most of the time, I made sure things got back in those places.  I usually managed to keep things going until the end of the first grading period, and then things slowly fell apart.

As a coach, I have a smaller space but many more materials (my office/instructional space doubles as our book room) to keep organized.  If something is out of place in my office, the whole thing looks messy, so I have to make sure to put things away as soon as I'm finished with them.

I also have many different kinds of files to keep organized, and different people need access to different materials.  Last year my big accomplishment was taking our assessment wall digital, figuring out how to take the kinesthetic experience of moving cards on the wall and replicating it somehow.  I put our literacy data into a Google doc and put conditional formatting on certain data points, so that as teachers entered scores, the cell changed colors to indicate whether or not the student had met benchmarks.  I figured out how to organize my coaching notes and plans as well, going with the old school binder and dividers, a system I've decided to continue this year since I prefer to write my notes when I meet with teachers.  I find that when I'm typing my notes I tend not to look at the teacher as much.

My biggest challenge, though, is making sure I have everything I need when I'm out and about in classrooms.  Last year I would often find myself without an essential item... my calendar (I need a paper one for my professional life), pens, pencils, power cord, snack, laptop, etc.  I hated having to rush back to my office during the 3 minute passing period to get whatever it was I had forgotten.

In an effort to find out what other coaches do, I spent some time reading too many blogs.  Kind of like when I cruise Pinterest, reading some of these made me feel like a serious slacker.  So much chevron!  Personalized fonts!  Bright colors!  There's no way my blog would place in a beauty contest.  I did find some great ideas, though. One site, Ms. Houser:  Inspiring & Encouraging, gave me the idea of an "office in a bag."  I realized THAT'S what I needed.  A bag of some sort that I could keep packed with essentials.  I could simply grab it, slip my iPad or laptop in and head off to wherever it was in my building I needed to be.

So here it is:  MY "office in a bag"
Here's what's in it:

  • power cord
  • calendar
  • a folder with blank coaching conversation notetaking forms
  • a "to do" folder for when I have time to get some tasks finished
  • an "in box" for papers or materials I'm given at meetings that need to be filed
  • a pencil case with pens, pencils, and my stylus
  • a lip balm
  • a book
  • personalized Post-It notes for leaving quick notes for teachers
Of course, I had to buy myself a new Vera messenger bag to put it all in.  I tried using a tote I already had, but there weren't enough pockets, and it was deeper than it was wide, so I couldn't find things quickly.  I am happy to report that I bought a retired pattern, so I DID get a deal on it.  I love my messenger bag because it's the perfect size.  I can't stuff TOO much stuff in it, so it can't get as heavy as some of my other bags.

SO.... we'll see if my organizational changes will help me stay on top of things this year.

How do you keep yourself organized?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The More You Know

This year is my second year as the literacy coach in my 6-8 building.  Last year I survived.  This year, my goal is to do more than survive; it's to thrive.  I'm being strategic in my schedule.  I've come up with an organization system for my coaching plans and notes.  I am reaching out to teachers in many different content areas.  I'm reading.  I'm watching.  I'm listening.

Today, Ellin Oliver Keene, author of many books including Talk About Understanding and co-author of Mosaic of Thought came to work with a group of teachers in the building.  A colleague and I realized we had been working with Ellin since our daughters, now in 7th and 8th grades were in K and 1st.  We relish the opportunity to learn alongside Ellin and to have her push us in our thinking.  Mrs. M., the teacher who hosted our observation agreed to have Ellin coach her in the moment while she taught.  Mrs. M. is also a coach (of the sports variety), and she understands that sometimes coaches have to give instruction to players during the game or even in the middle of a play.  The other teachers who were part of our group would have the opportunity to experience this type of intense coaching vicariously and the students in the class would get to view their teacher as a learner.

While I love watching Mrs. M. teach, I was in that room with a different purpose.  I wanted to watch a master coach coach.  I wanted to learn from Ellin how to be a better coach than I was last year.

Now, tonight, after having some time to process, I feel like I have so much more to learn.  There were things that Ellin saw that I missed, words she used that I wouldn't have thought of.  During the reflection time following the observation, I realized I still observed with a teacher's eyes, thinking about how I could take various strategies and language and adapt them to my own classroom.  Well... now I'm a coach.  My eyes and thinking should be tuned to the teacher, her needs, and the needs of her students... not necessarily my own.

This type of reflection and learning is important.  Thinking about my practice helps me to understand what I need to do to improve in my now not-so-new role.  I have some ideas about reading, talking, and thinking I want to do with MY coaches, and luckily I know where to seek those resources out.

The more you know, the more you realize how much more there is to learn.  Isn't that great?

This post was written as part of the Tuesday Slice of Life series sponsored by Two Writing Teachers.  Want to read what others are writing?  Go check it out!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Talking It Out

One of my favorite quotes is by James Britton:

"Reading and writing float on a sea of talk."

One could go so far as to say "Learning floats on a sea of talk."  'Cause it does.

This is one of those things I wish I had realized early in my career.  I would have been a much better teacher way-back-when if I would have remembered how much better I understood the content teachers were trying to teach when I was able to talk about it with others.

Case in point:  My senior year of high school I decided to join the debate team.  Many of my friends were debaters, and I knew they got to travel to tournaments on weekends, and it seemed like they were having a good time.  I already had enough credits to graduate, so I thought why not?  What I thought would be a fun class turned out to be one of the hardest classes I had in my entire four years of high school.  The work load was tremendous.  Not only did I have to do research with my partner to build our own affirmative case, we had to research rebuttal arguments to OTHER affirmative cases.  The topic that year was American farm policy.  I learned more about grain elevator accidents, factory farming, and other agricultural topics than I ever thought was possible.  The thing that made me TRULY understand all of these topics, though, was TALKING about them in the course of the debates.

So why, then, as a young teacher, did I replicate most of my English classes, where students sat in rows, read the books that I told them to read, and answered questions that I already knew the answers to and expected them to read my mind?

Simple... I didn't know there was another way.

Fast forward about ten years and a whole lot of learning and reading.  I began to realize that I wasn't filling my students with a love of reading and writing.  If anything, I was teaching them that reading a novel was the equivalent of an eight-week-long worksheet.

I realized that I needed to capitalize on the adolescent need to SOCIALIZE to really engage students in my classes and cement their learning.  More and more, we know that students need time to talk with each other to process their thoughts and work through new ideas.  Talking with others provides the time and opportunity to hear other people's ideas, to ask questions, to reconsider and reformulate.  When we give kids time to talk after they read a text and before they write, the writing they produce is more coherent, better developed, and goes to greater depth.

As a literacy coach, I am constantly talking about talk, working with teachers to show them the power of conversation, to help them notice the ratio of teacher talk to student talk in their classrooms.  

Amazing things happen when classrooms are full of the buzz of purposeful talk.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Close Reading: Please don't let it be a return to "Read to answer the three questions at the end of the chapter."

This week marks the first of seven weeks of a Blog-a-thon from Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts as they celebrate the coming publication of their new book from Heinemann, Falling In Love With Close Reading.  You can read their posts on Mondays here and on Thursdays here.  Chris and Kate invite readers to share their own thinking about close reading along the way.

That is what has inspired me to reboot my professional blog and share some of the things I've been concerned about for a while now as it relates to "close reading."  I'm hoping to return to regular posting here as a way to work through my thinking about literacy in general and coaching specifically.  I know that when I sit down and write my way through a topic, I come away with a greater understanding of whatever it was I was wrestling with.

Today it's close reading.

Chris really got my attention when he wrote this today:

"The term “close reading” seems to be experiencing a similar misapplied overuse:
Last spring, I attended a session on close reading at my state's reading association conference.  I was appalled by what I heard.  The presenters were basically saying that the purpose of close reading was to answer "text-dependent questions" and gave many examples of such questions.  Almost all of them were of the type that you would find at the ends of chapter sections in social studies or science books. 

If the whole point of the Common Core State Standards is to make sure students are college- and career- reading, then how does having students answer only these types of questions make them ready?  I can't remember a college professor in either my undergraduate or graduate work telling me to read a chapter and then answer the questions at the end.  Instead, I was asked to tease out what the author was trying to say or to trace a line of thinking across several texts or some such task that required me to think critically and read carefully in order to find the evidence to support my thinking or assertions.  This is the type of close reading I ask my students to do.

Another red-flag for me was the almost complete absence of student-generated questions. In the model described, there seemed to be no room for students to generate and find the answers to their own questions, generated by and answered within the text.  As an adult reader, I am asking and answering my own questions all of the time, and not at the direction of a teacher.  I ask myself questions like "WHAT?!" and "Where did that come from?" when an author surprises me. I ask, "Where can I find out more about XXX?" when an author hooks me on a topic.  I reread passages that make me stop in my tracks and notice the quality of the writing so that I can figure out how to do the same in my own writing.

In my coaching work with teachers, I will be thinking through many issues surrounding close reading as we move closer and closer to the PARCC assessments here in Illinois.  I'll be "close reading" just about every book and article on the topic that I can get my hands on. It will be through that careful reading and consideration that I will be able to refine my own thinking about this topic.  I'm looking forward to the journey.