Preparing to Teach in the Middle

Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

When I was a 5th- and 6th-grade classroom teacher, my lesson plans primarily consisted of the following: the learning objective and how I would assess student learning. Little time was spent thinking about strategies and practices that would guide students to new understanding.

As a principal for the last twelve years, I can see now how limiting this approach to lesson preparation was. Teachers are wise to spend the majority of their time planning instruction in-between the two.

During a recent classroom visit, a teacher was focused on debate skills and how to make a persuasive argument both in writing and verbally. There was a learning target posted and an assessment planned at the end, yet the majority of the time was spent in the middle of the lesson.

  • They connected this work to how an attorney might have to take on a case in which they disagreed philosophically with the position.
  • Clear criteria for success were provided, including steps they should follow to develop their position for the upcoming debate.
  • The teacher shared the stage with another student to demonstrate how a debate might proceed. They discussed what the student did well and aligned their thinking with the goal of the lesson.
  • Students were placed in groups based on the issue they would debate, such as cell phone use in school, and partnered with someone who had their same position (for or against).
  • The majority of the lesson was spent with students working with peers to collect evidence, outline their argument, and share their ideas. The teacher walked around and conferred with groups when support was needed.
  • They finished this lesson, a part of a larger unit on persuasive writing, by practicing their debate skills in front of peers. The teacher video recorded them. She would later share the footage with each student so they could self-assess their skills and compare to the success criteria.

If I went back into the classroom, learning targets and summative assessments would not be a priority. The messier process of teaching and learning, with all of the interactions that occur in the middle, would be my focus. If we can get that part right, the results will take care of themselves.

Literacy Leaders: You can’t name it if you don’t know it

Without a synergy between literacy and leadership and a committed, joint effort by teachers and principals, fragile achievement gains do not hold.

– Regie Routman, Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success

In a primary classroom today, I was observing the teacher reading aloud a picture book about penguins. The students were active participants, answering questions about the main character and offering their theories about what might happen next in the story. “Could anyone else share their thinking?” invited the teacher, after affirming one student’s response with an objective “Mmm-hmm”.

After writing down my observational narrative (instructional walk) of the read-aloud experience, I gave the teacher my notes while commenting publicly about the lesson in front of the student. “Wow, I could tell you all understood the story well. You made predictions about what would happen next, using details from the book.” The class then shared that tomorrow they would be reading a nonfiction text about penguins online.

By sharing what I observed with the class, I did more than recognize the teacher for her efforts in being intentional with her read aloud. I also named the strategies – making a prediction, using details for support – as a reinforcement of their thinking. Students heard the point of the lesson from two different adults. My presence was value-added; I didn’t distract from the lesson but instead became a part of the learning experience.

My formal educational background is not literacy-rich. While I enjoyed reading as a student, my college studies were more focused on mathematics and middle-level philosophy. When I became an elementary principal, I had limited background knowledge about promising reading and writing practices. Thankfully, I had literacy leaders in my prior school who kindly yet firmly encouraged me to participate in our professional development focused on literacy. My first visits to classrooms were as a learner more than a partner, but eventually I felt competent to engage in the process.

Educators enter the world of leadership from many backgrounds. Some involve reading and writing instruction; some do not. Regardless of our backgrounds, we have an obligation to know literacy through formal and informal professional learning experiences. It’s a continuous commitment as new forms of literacy are growing in the information age. Lifelong learning gives me the language to engage in literacy conversations with faculty, an essential trait for sustainable student success.

Literacy Instruction: Experiences Instead of Stuff

Photo by Marius Ott on Unsplash

Our family tradition during Christmas, an idea we borrowed from somewhere else, is to have a “want”, “need”, “wear”, and “read” gift for each child. The idea is to limit the present buying and make sure we are focused on the reason for the season. However, in the past I found ways to sneak in a few extra gifts, thinking “What’s the harm?”.

This year we really stuck to it. What’s interesting is our kids shared that this was “the best Christmas ever”. That was a pleasant surprise. Maybe because we more thoughtful about what to give due to operating within our self-administered limits? Or, could the decrease in things have allowed for more time to experience the holiday break?

Research has come out that supports this idea. In an article for The Atlantic, James Hamblin shares the results of a study in which subjects reported much higher levels of happiness, excitement, pleasantness when purchasing an experience such as a vacation vs. something material.

Experiential purchases like trips, concerts, movies, et cetera, tend to trump material purchases because the utility of buying anything really starts accruing before you buy it.

It’s the anticipation of the experience as much as the experience itself that is beneficial.

A common thread throughout this topic seems to the social aspect of experience and the opportunity to connect with others before, during, and after that seems to make the event special. This gift of time is less concrete than an item, say a smartphone or a car, yet it remains on our mind in anticipation, in the present, and in our memories.

The point…when we prepare instruction for our students, are we planning for experiences? If not, what are our students doing? My regular walks in classrooms lead me to believe that we are frequently providing our students with memorable learning opportunities. Just this week, I walked into a primary classroom where students were reading aloud their own writing in which they described their favorite part of the holiday break. “They almost always describe experiences instead of presents,” the teacher noted. In a classroom on the upper level, students were learning how to write readers responses to a self-selected book. The experience was memorable for all as the teacher first modeled a response for a book she read. 

If you are still skeptical that we are at our best when we create learning experiences for students, think about a positive memory from your own school history and why you treasure it.

Teaching Literacy During the Holidays

It’s that time of year…the red and green butcher paper rolls are shrinking, the Grinch makes a school visit, and concerts have replaced athletics as the main evening events. The holidays offer opportunities for celebration as well as distractions. Kids get off of their routines or the classroom curriculum is not aligned with the seasonal activities and, as a result, our plans too often take a backseat to festivities or classroom challenges.

I won’t get into the religious aspect of celebrating the holidays, especially in public schools (check out Teaching Tolerance for more information on this topic). Instead, I thought I would share as well as request ideas for integrating promising literacy practices during the holiday season.

  • Service learning projects – This time of year can be stressful for some families living in poverty or just find this time of year hard. Teachers can develop extended lesson plans that involve students writing letters to individuals in assisted living centers and then hand delivering them, or creating original multimedia content to raise money for organizations in need.
  • Learning about our culture – Why do we celebrate some holidays and not others? How does where we live influence what holidays we choose to recognize as a community? These big questions can guide students to research their traditions in order to better understand their past. What they learn can be written as a report and then presented to peers and families using a digital tool of choice.
  • Exploring themes of the holidays – When we study a topic and look at multiple perspectives, trends and themes may present themselves. If holidays as a study are a staple in a school, it might be interesting to facilitate literary analysis and have students explore various texts to understand the larger ideas that are connected to the many known and unknown holidays. The idea of “text” can be expanded by incorporating podcasts, art, and other nonconventional mediums.

I realize this post comes at the tail end of the holiday season. Yet now might be a great time to reflect on our current practices and how they might better incorporate literacy for future instructional planning. How do you authentically integrate reading, writing, language, speaking, and listening with your teaching at this time of year? Please share in the comments.

Beliefs and Practices: Embracing Failure and Supporting Each Other

It’s one thing to have a belief in an approach for teaching or leading. It’s another thing to apply those beliefs to our practices. The distance between beliefs and practices is a group’s willingness to embrace failure as an opportunity for collective learning. 

Today, I facilitated a professional learning session with teachers about reading comprehension. We started by celebrating our growth as a faculty. Important to stress was how our positive school report card was a product of our shared beliefs about literacy. We are on the same page.

But being on the same page philosophically does not necessarily translate to practice. Teachers are at various stages of expertise, often varied in different areas with each teacher. To relate, I shared a story about how I was recently reading aloud to 1st graders, and it didn’t dawn on me to stop and take a moment to explain challenging vocabulary until one student asked, “How can you sow (sew) seeds?”

My personal example of failure led to a short exercise. Teachers were provided a matrix. On the left side were our literacy beliefs we currently shared as a faculty, translated into teaching practices they represented. At the top were four columns. Each heading described a level of progression along a learning continuum. I won’t spend time or words trying to describe it: you can click here to download it or view it below.

Teachers were provided time to reflect on where they were on the learning progression spectrum with regard to each literacy belief in action. (Our beliefs derive from Regie Routman in Residence.) Then they shared with a trusted colleague which practices they felt effective with and with practices they believe they needed more support.

“Do you want to collect these?” asked a teacher. “No, I want you to keep this reflection tool for future use. Maybe you might want to explore a practice more deeply through instructional coaching or peer observation.” Next, I asked if any teachers were willing to share their reflections with the whole group. No one spoke up. To follow, I asked those who rated themselves as unconsciously effective (become second nature) in every practice to raise their hands. No one did, although I noticed many smiles on teachers’ faces.

Later in the professional learning session, teachers were having conversations within self-directed study groups about their selected professional resources. I sat in on one group. As teachers went around discussing their work, one teacher announced, “I have a failure to share.” She pulled up her phone and displayed a picture of a student’s novel filled with sticky notes. “He has a Post-it note for every page!” shared the teacher, which led to laughter and more honest conversations about their own challenges, along with ideas for how this teacher could use the Post-it note information to guide future instruction. 

If schools are ever going to grow collectively, we have to start being honest with ourselves about our practices. Teaching and leading in schools is incredibly complex work. People outside education rarely understand this so we cannot expect them to adequately address the issue. By being open and vulnerable about where we struggle, it gives others permission to divulge their own failures and challenges. These confessions are the seeds for true growth as professionals. It starts with leaders – not just principals – speaking the truth about our challenging, rewarding work.

Lead Like a Coach: A Consistent Presence

When school leaders make instructional walks a daily habit, we start to discover patterns and trends. Some of them are particular to a teacher and some are schoolwide. Regardless, gaining a clearer understanding of the instructional pulse of the school or a classroom only happens when we are a consistent presence and enter each learning environment with an open mind. This consistency in nonevaluative classroom visits, noticing strengths and naming practices, often leads to more trust between administration and faculty members which is more conducive to professional growth.

Example: During a later visit with the same 4th graders reading Little House in the Big Woods, the students were ready to start practicing their book club roles with the text. “Today we are going to focus on the role of the discussion director. Look back on your sheet and review the questions you have prepared after reading the chapter.” Students pulled out their book club folders, the quiet chatter of excitement filling the room in anticipation of being able to talk with peers.

Having the context from the previous instructional walk, I felt in a better position to observe what was happening and document the learning. I sat with four students. Two of the four students started discussing a topic unrelated to their reading. They stopped when a peer reminded them of their task.

Next, one student posed their question. “If you lived back in the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder, would you have been happy or sad about not having the Internet?” The group responded with clear positions, either way, talking around their own lives. There was very little follow up on each other’s questions, such as “Why do you say that?” or “Tell me more”. Three of the students were more interested in getting their own ideas out there. One was quiet and, evident by their body language, disengaged in the conversation.

In a typical classroom visit or an announced observation that did not have the context or history of the literacy block, I might have developed and followed an inaccurate narrative that this teacher had not effectively taught students how to facilitate meaningful book discussions. Thankfully I was a consistent presence in the classroom, even for brief pop-ins during my daily visits. Subsequently, I knew the students were just trying out book clubs for size. My prediction for a future lesson would likely be a teacher-led reflective conversation around what went well and what needed work. Knowing the teacher’s thoughtful attention to planning, I could feel more confident in where instruction was heading.

Back in the book club…

The students continued to talk in the group but not with each other. One of the group members tried to insert his ideas whenever there was a rare moment of silence, and sometimes even when there was not. The quieter student continued to remain quietly frustrated, hands folded across their chest and seeming to ride out this experience.

The teacher in me couldn’t resist and I stopped the conversation. “I couldn’t help but notice that your statements are in your response to your questions. What you are saying is also not really about the book, or even related to what each of you is saying.” Heads turned with faces of mild confusion. “You know, the purpose of a book club is not just to learn more about the book.” The students now looked at me like I had a third eye. “Really. What you are trying to learn is not just how to talk to each other about books but how to talk to other people in general. The art of conversation can be really tough. Would you like to learn a strategy that might help improve your conversations and make it more fun?”

The uncertainty of their response was the permission I needed. I explained how great conversationalists are genuinely interested in what the other person has to say. “They state things like ‘That’s interesting’, ‘Tell me more’, or ‘Why do you say that?’. Great conversationalists also stick to the subject of the discussion, which in this case is the book and not necessarily our own personal experiences. Want to try this strategy out?” Similar uncertainty in response, but the students did reset their discussion by going to the next question. “What if….” Students took turns responding to this question with less interruption. Not yet a deep conversation, but a move in the right direction.

Once each of the three students responded, I asked the discussion director which response they thought was the most connected to the question she asked. When they selected one of their classmates, I asked why. “Because he shared parts from the book and how the story could change if what I had suggested might have actually happened.” I agreed and thanked this student.

At the end of my classroom visit, I handed my instructional walk notes to the teacher while stating, “You are having your students attempt to engage in complex conversations around a book. Not an easy task for any teacher.” She smiled and thanked me for visiting. Then I asked if I could address the class. She agreed without hesitation. “Students,” I announced, “do you know that your teacher has you learning many essential skills in your classroom?” I proceeded with an explanation similar to the one I just shared with my small group. “You are lucky to have this opportunity for building these life skills and strategies.” 

If this were a typical classroom visit, in which I popped in for an unannounced observation or an evaluative classroom walkthrough, it would have been from a supervisory perspective. Likely I would have some checklist or rubric to go off of as I watched for best practices in action. But I would be lacking so much, such as the context of the unit progression and the opportunity to partner with the teacher in the instruction.

In comparison, after this instructional walk, I had a desire to get back into this classroom soon, to see where this unit of study would go. Based on her openness to sharing her work with me and responding to the feedback, I believe the teacher was interested as well. I don’t believe most school leaders would have a similar feeling after a formal teacher evaluation. When our jobs are to judge and to score, there is little incentive to focus on what’s going well or to become part of a schoolwide professional learning process.

Embracing the Leader/Coach Paradox

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There are many contradictions in life that, for whatever reason, actually support one another.

For example, as a school leader, I am responsible for student learning outcomes and staff culture. Yet the reality is that we may not have a direct influence on student learning. Our teachers and staff can take credit along with the kids’parents. If success is attained schoolwide or it is fleeting, we look to leadership to determine why. So on the one hand, we have this responsibility while on the other hand, we lack a visible pathway for how we impact student learning.

This paradox creates a call to action for school leaders to rethink their roles in education. We should desire to clarify our roles in the school, maybe even find ways in which our work can more directly influence the teaching/learning experience. That is why I have taken more of a coaching stance in my work. I am attempting to “lead like a coach” in that I will shift to this approach when the timing and conditions are conducive for professional growth.

There are potentially multiple benefits in these dual identities. Professional growth is not just for the teacher. As a leader, I am finding that I can learn as much as anyone when acting as a coach. It’s impossible for me to know everything about the curriculum and instruction at each grade level and within each department. By being curious about the inner workings of our classrooms, I can become more knowledgeable about the practices we currently employ. This stance I take as a coach is the first step in understanding our school’s strengths and areas for growth. The information I gather can serve future professional learning experiences.

These dual roles of a leader/coach are not exclusive to the principalship. Teacher-leaders including instructional coaches have to adopt multiple identities while working with their clients. Lipton and Wellman describe three stances that an instructional specialist might take (Educational Leadership, 2007):

  • Coaching (teacher is the primary source of information and analysis)
  • Collaborating (specialist and teacher co-develop ideas and co-analyze situations, work products, and other data once they have clarified the problem)
  • Consulting (supplies information, identifies and analyzes gaps, suggests solutions, thinks aloud about cause-and-effect relationships, and makes connections to principles of practice)

Considering this shared idea of multiple roles as a teacher-leader or as a principal-coach, I believe that the biggest challenge in successfully fulfilling the needs of educators striving to grow is knowing when to make these shifts. For example, when do we don a coaching hat and when should we be serving as a collaborator? Related, how do we shift back to the role of supervisor while still guiding the teacher to be the true evaluator of their own work? These are some of the questions I continue to explore as I learn more deeply about the promise of leading like a coach.