Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Reading 'Till My Eyes Cross

Twice a year, my school district administers a writing assessment for all students in grades 2-8.  The students have a piece of text to read and a writing prompt based on that text.  They then have approximately 45 minutes to write an essay.  In grades 5-8, the essay is expected to be argumentative in nature and to incorporate evidence from the text as support for the arguments.

It's not a perfect assessment.  Sometimes students do not have enough schema, even with the text provided, to really formulate arguments about the text.  Sometimes they don't care much about the topic and therefore do not write much.  But honestly, it's as close to the timed writing of other assessments as we can get.  I do know the writing on the assessment is much better since we started giving students a text to read.

In my building, all of the students' essays are turned in to one of our administrative assistants who pulls off the cover page with the identification information and sorts them into piles to be scored.  Then, on a half-day PD day, the entire staff gathers and scores.  Every unidentified essay is read and scored by two people using a rubric based on the old ISAT writing test.  In order to prepare for this scoring and to make sure we are on the same page, we have some inter-rater reliability training where the consultant who works with our district shares some trends and we score some papers together in our grade level teams.  This helps us to all be on the same page in terms of what kinds of papers get what kind of score.

And how does the consultant identify the trends?

She and I score close to 150 of the 600 papers.  Together.  And amazingly, we are very much in sync on the scores, even after several months of not scoring. Eventually we can score separately and cross-check on random papers or on those that are giving us fits.

So that's what I did yesterday and today.  I read and read and read and read and thought and thought and thought and thought.  Then we sorted and talked and sorted some more until we found the anchor papers for tomorrow's trainings.

This is part of my job as literacy coach that I don't really enjoy.  When I was in the classroom, I never read 150 papers over the course of about 9 hours.  I couldn't have maintained the pace.  The only reason I can do it now is that there is someone else there with me to double check the papers I'm unsure about and to keep referring me back to the rubric.  I also don't know who wrote the papers, so I don't have any baggage to attach to them.  I can be completely impartial.

What I do enjoy is seeing the trends that show instruction in writing is paying off.  I can see that the teachers in my building are working with students on incorporating text evidence into writing.  I can see that a great deal of time has been spent on writing effective introductions and conclusions that move beyond cookie cutter "snappy starts."  I can see we still have a way to go in weaving direct quotes into the body paragraphs and appropriately citing those quotes.  I can see we have to discuss the downfalls of the being hyperbolic and how that exaggeration weakens an argument.

Do I love this assessment?  Nope.  Does it measure all aspects of good writing?  Nope.  We're looking at a piece of rough draft writing produced under stressful conditions.  Should this be the only data point we use to evaluate our students' writing and determine who might need remediation or extension?  Absolutely not.  But it is a snapshot that gives us information we can use to plan instruction in our grade-level teams and to start conversations among the staff about how to help our students become stronger better writers.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Learning Together

I work for a small (three elementary buildings and one junior high) school district in the Chicago suburbs.  There are lots of things that make my district unique, but the one I've been thinking about quite a bit today is the district's commitment to job-embedded professional development.

Each building in my district has a literacy coach, and our primary job is coaching teachers and providing PD opportunities throughout the school year, after school and during the summer.  One of the ways we encourage teachers to learn together is through our Model Classroom Lab program.  Our model classroom teachers complete a rigorous application and interview process, and were chosen NOT because they are the very best teachers in the district (though I would argue they are among them), but because they consider themselves learners. Our model classroom teachers are constantly looking to improve their practice, and open their classrooms to their colleagues to learn alongside them.

Today I had the pleasure of facilitating our first lab session of the school year.  The group gathered to explore conferring across the content areas in the classrooms of two seventh grade teachers - one in language arts and one in science.  Our participants were varied as well:  a math teacher, a language arts teacher, a fourth grade teacher, and a second grade teacher.  Throughout the day, we spent time talking about where each of us is in our conferring practice and ways in which we want to grow.  We watching two very different conferring styles in two very different content areas, yet found similarities and common ground.  We'll repeat the process in February, and between now and then all of the participants as well as the teacher hosts will continue to experiment and refine their conferring practice.  I'll support the teachers in my building, and the two elementary teachers will receive support from their building coach.

I've been lucky enough to host labs, facilitate labs, and attend labs as a participant.  No matter what role I've played during these experiences, I leave the day feeling smarter about my practice than I did that morning.  Because the learning occurred in my building with my colleagues and was supported by my teammates or my coach, I was able to take the things I'd learned in the lab and put them into practice right away.  Sometimes those new ideas were great and worked right away, and sometimes they bombed.  But even the flop has something to teach.

Job-embedded PD, whether it's coaching, a lab experience, a study group, or an in-district workshop feels different than off-site workshops or conferences.  While I enjoy going out to learn from and with other people in my field, it's the immediate, in-my-face experiences that have made the biggest, longest lasting impact on my professional practice.  I've seen this mirrored in my colleagues as well.

So even though I felt like a needed my roller skates today to get to all of the places I needed to be, it was all worth it.  I know the kids we were watching and the teachers who participated and hosted all learned something today.  They were smarter at the end of the day than they were at the beginning.

And isn't that what it's all about?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Little Cognitive Dissonance Can Be a Good Thing

Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting Cris Tovani for a PD day at my school.  She spent the morning meeting with our seventh and eighth grade teams, discussing ways to engage and motivate students.  In the afternoon, she met with our building literacy coaches, and we talked about ways to engage and motivate the teachers we work with in the PD we offer, not just coaching cycles, but also book studies and workshops.

One of the things I do for myself as a professional, something I have always found to be an essential part of my professional life, is to participate in professional development opportunities with an attitude of "I will learn as much as I can."  This session with Cris was no different.

We talked about the PD opportunities we provide for teachers.  We talked about how many of the teachers in our buildings take advantage of those opportunities. We talked about the cultures of the buildings in terms of teachers being learners as well.  We talked about whether or not it is ok for teachers to "opt out" of professional learning.

In one of our buildings, every core academic teacher is expected to engage in coaching, either individually or with their grade level teams.  I knew this was the expectation in this particular building, as we've talked in our coaching team about the different ways this coach makes this happen. Thinking about implementing this in my building makes my head hurt.  I am one person.  I don't know how I would physically coach roughly 40 people every year.

Cognitive dissonance.

This doesn't mean I shouldn't think about possibilities.  This doesn't mean I shouldn't consider whether or not this approach is the right one for my building.  This doesn't mean I shouldn't engage in conversation around this topic with my principal.

Cris also suggested that the learning targets our teachers use to communicate goals and expectations to students would improve the effectiveness of our PD sessions and coaching cycles.  That engaging teachers in conversation around possible targets for their coaching might increase motivation and engagement in coaching.

Cognitive dissonance.

Why wouldn't I use a technique used across the building with students, one that I've seen to be highly effective in keeping teachers focused on keeping mini-lessons short and to the point, in my coaching?  It is just as important that I keep my observations and coaching conversations to the point.

Cognitive dissonance can be uncomfortable.  It makes my brain hurt.  It makes me wonder if I really know what I'm doing at ALL.  When I am feeling this, I KNOW this means my brain is working to take in new information and fit it in to what I already know.  I KNOW that when I give myself time to process (preferably verbally with others), I can make sense of the tough questions I've been asked, and I can incorporate new ideas into my work, which ultimately makes me a better teacher and coach.

Writing this makes me wonder if I am asking the teachers I coach the questions that will provoke cognitive dissonance.  I wonder if I am offering PD workshops and book studies that will push teachers to consider their practice in new and different ways.

Am I providing opportunities that will lead to real growth?  I think this will be the big question I pursue as I reflect on my work this year.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


I'm busy.

The good kind.

The kind where I'm thinking hard and listening and asking just the right question at just the right time.

This kind of busy did not come naturally for me my first year of coaching.  I didn't understand that the role of a coach is to primarily be a watcher and a listener and an asker of questions.  Over the past three years, I learned the hard way, and in fact asking those just right questions was my professional learning goal last year.

This kind of busy makes my brain tired.  When I'm in classrooms, I'm constantly watching.  I'm watching the kids and how they are interacting with each other and the teacher throughout the class period.  I'm watching for the specific "look fors" the teacher and I identified as the focus for our work for the week.  I'm watching the teacher, too, always on the look out for those magical moments that I can share in our debrief; those moments the teacher might otherwise miss because she's so focused on the lesson.

When I'm in meetings with teachers, I'm listening, which takes much more work than just hearing.  I'm focused on one teacher at a time, listening to their reflections on their work of the week - the successes and the flops (because we all have flops).  During that listening, I'm thinking about what the teacher is also NOT saying.  What is she holding back?  What is she hesitant to face?  What is she spending the most time talking about and why?  It's through that listening that I know what questions to ask.

And those questions are so important!  I've found that if I ask the right questions, teacher can often untangle for themselves the knots they have identified.  If I ask the right questions, those things that teachers left unsaid at first begin to come to light.  If I ask the right questions, the next steps in our work together become apparent.

So yeah, I'm busy.  A different kind of busy than I was two weeks ago when I was doing the clerical work of getting assessment folders put together for the sixth graders or doing initial assessments with our new students.  That work is important, but it's not the work that I love.

But this busy?  This is the kind of busy-ness I can live with.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Off to a Slow Start

School's been in session since August 25, but I've missed almost a week due to illness.  In the two weeks I was in my building, I did a lot of clerical tasks that tend to fill my days the first few weeks of the school year:

  • I compiled the literacy profile folders for our approximately 200 sixth graders;
  • I set up our assessment data files for the school year;
  • I pulled data for teachers to consider as we put together our first literacy intervention groups;
  • I (mostly) completed initial literacy assessments on the students who are new to our school district;
  • I wrote most of my September PD newsletter.

You'll notice what I wasn't doing.  I wasn't coaching, at least not much.  I was able to do a demonstration lesson for a new language arts teacher and two think alouds for our seventh grade algebra students.  I set up a coaching cycle with a science teacher.

But that's not enough.

I don't like office days, and usually by the third week of school, I've been in classrooms observing and seeing the great teachers in my district at work.  By the third week of school, I've started several coaching cycles and my brain is busy thinking alongside those teachers, working through problems of practice, learning together new ways of helping students succeed.

I've felt quite a bit of guilt over missing almost a week of school.  I keep thinking about those tasks I've left unfinished (like those assessments!) and the meetings and classroom visits I had to cancel.  This is not the way I usually operate, and it took everything I had in me not to push through being sick, though not contagious,  and in pain and just suck it up and go to school.

But would that really have been better?

Would I have really been an effective coach if I were distracted by being tired and sick?  Would I have been able to accurately do the assessments?  Would it have been better for my family if I had made myself sicker?

I'm still not 100%, but I've given myself the time I've needed to feel more myself.  I've given the antibiotics time to work.  I've given the inflammation and swelling in my foot time to calm down enough for my foot to actually fit in a show.  I've taken time to take care of myself.

This is a lesson that I need to remember going forward.  There will always be stuff to do at school.  There will always be commitments I've made and meetings I've scheduled.  But if I don't take the time to slow down and take care of myself, I won't be able to do any of those things well.

Someone remind me of this in December, ok?

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?