Quality Instruction: The Most Important Classroom Variable

The instruction that you provide to your students is the most important variable regarding student achievement.  Good instruction can deliver up to two years growth for some students.  The opposite, Jennifer Allen writes, “focus on improving the quality of instruction that (you are) providing to all students…student achievement would improve if we focused more energy on supporting classroom instruction as opposed to putting all of our resources toward supporting individual students”

You are one of the most important variables in your classroom. So, what are some easy ways to improve the quality of your instruction?  One easy way to impact your instruction is to have a desire to want to get better.  Is there an area where you feel you could improve your instruction?  Set a realistic, professional goal for yourself, and write it down!  Take small steps.  For example, setting a yearly goal of implementing strategy groups for small group reading instruction is a lot more realistic than expecting yourself to implement strategy groups in one nine weeks.

If you have an instructional coach, use him or her.  I can’t think of one professional athlete, singer, or entertainer that does not have a coach.  They recognize the importance of having someone available to improve their craft.  Your coach is available to you to help you improve in any area that you wish to strengthen.  A coach’s primary goal is to bring best instructional practices to you.  I will note that they are there to push you, too. 🙂

Attending professional development is another action to improve instruction. Professional development can be provided through your school district (for free), or you can attend professional development on your own through different webinar series. Following blogs and educational leaders on social media are a quick and easy way to keep abreast on new educational topics.

Also, we can’t omit assessments from this discussion.  Your assessments drive your instruction.  Assessments are your foundation. Without them, your instruction will be fragile.  Your assessments will give you insight on where the learning process breaks down for your students.  

I have a few questions for you to consider when supporting students on the bubble.

  • Are you tracking student growth?  If you’re not tracking student growth, you don’t know if your students are moving or not moving.  
  • How many touches a week do your bubble students receive?  Remember, these students still need consistent teacher support.  So, checking in with them once a week is not enough support for these students.  Children need to practice a skill or strategy at least eight times before they begin to internalize it.
  • How often do you reflect on the effectiveness of the support provided for these students?  This is a good opportunity to ponder about what strategies are working and not working.  Be honest.  There is no need in wasting precious time on a strategy that doesn’t work.  It may be helpful to rely on a teammate or coach.  It’s always helpful to have someone to bounce ideas or get another opinion.

As teachers, we have the daunting task of finding the key that unlocks the door to reading.  This is a process.  It may take a year, or two, or three for a child to become successful in their reading.  Know that the strong foundation that you provided will lay a path for that child’s reading success

Coaching Work: Curriculum & Assessment by @danamurphy68 #litleaders

In Chapter Six of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen outlines the various ways she is able to support teachers with curriculum and assessment in her role as an instructional coach. As anyone in the field of education knows, curriculum and assessment are the backbone of the school system. Curriculum drives our teaching and assessment helps us fine-tune it. I’d go as far as to say supporting curriculum and assessment is one of my top three duties as an instructional coach.

Allen dedicates pages 114 – 116 to explaining how she helps prepare assessment materials during each assessment cycle. I nodded to myself as I read, remembering how I spent an entire morning last year in the windowless copy room making copies of our running record forms for the staff. It certainly wasn’t inspiring work, but I agree with Jennifer that preparing assessment materials is important work. When teachers are freed of the tedious jobs of copying or creating spreadsheets or organizing assessment materials, they are free to concentrate on the hard work of administering and analyzing assessments. If I can remove the ‘busywork’ part of assessment administration for them, I don’t mind spending a morning in a windowless copy room. In this way I can provide the time and space for teachers to think deeply about their assessments. If I can do the busywork, they can do the work that really matters.

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While reading Chapter Six, I thought about how I support curriculum and assessment in my school district. I do many of things Allen wrote about, but what seems most important to me is helping teachers look at student work as formative assessment. On page 110, Allen wrote:

Students should be at the heart of our conversations around curriculum and assessment, and it’s important that we don’t let them define who students are or might become. 

This quote summarizes my driving belief as an instructional coach. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing we (instructional coaches) exist to support the teachers, but the truth is we are ultimately there for the students. In order to keep students at the heart of my work as a coach, I work hard to have student work present during any coaching conversation. This holds true at the end of an assessment cycle as well. It benefits everyone to slow down and take the time to review the assessments (not the scores, the actual assessments). Teachers bring their completed writing prompts or math unit exams or running records, and we use a protocol to talk about the work. There are an abundant amount of protocols available at NSRF. I also highly recommend the Notice and Note protocol from The Practice of Authentic PLCs by Daniel R. Venables. This is my go-to protocol to look at student work with a group of teachers.

Teachers are in the classroom, doing the hard work of implementing curriculum and administering assessments. Our job as literacy leaders is to support them by giving them the time and space to reflect on their hard work.

Individualized Coaching

I am going into my third year as an instructional coach and  what a journey it has been!  I must confess that I was completely comfortable with being a classroom teacher.  I knew how to be an effective teacher; I knew and understood my district’s and state’s standards and expectations; I could teach the curriculum;  I could manage my students (and their parents);  and I worked with a great team.  I had this teaching thing figured out, life was good!

Soon, an instructional coaching position became available.  To make the situation more lucrative, the position was available at my current school.  So, I applied.  Then, after a few rounds of interviews, I was offered the position.

I soon found myself in the world of coaching, and it was a different world for me.  Here is why coaching was different for me..the teachers.  I was faced with motivating, encouraging, and helping/coaching teachers.  How in the world does an instructional coach do that???  See, I didn’t have any previous experience with working with adults.  Most of my teaching was to six or seven-year olds.  I was now faced with communicating with adults.

Out of all my fears and uncertainties, I was certain of one thing, I wanted teachers to grow.  From my perspective, the most important aspect of my job is to provide opportunities for teachers to grow.  

Well, there could be a wide range of teacher’s abilities within one school.  There can be novice teachers and there can be veteran teachers.  It is essential for each group of teachers to be equipped with skills and strategies that can be readily used within their classroom.

There are so many ways to coach teachers.  You can coach by grade level, by content, and through book studies.   The question then becomes,which method is the best method.  One practical way to coach teachers is with individualized coaching..  

Individualized Coaching is a great tool to use to offer differentiated support.  This will allow you to support your veteran teachers and your novice teachers.  Let’s take a look at how individualized coaching will look for novice teachers first.

Novice teachers need guidance.  They need to understand the state’s standards and the district’s expectations regarding their respective grade level.  They also need to understand what they are expected to teach children.  

Jennifer Allen explained one way her district helps their novice and new-to-the-district teachers.  She states that within her district teachers new to the district are apart of  a “monthly release day with other teachers who are new to the profession or new to our district…it is intended as a gift of time to support them and help keep their heads above water in the craziness of starting the school year and entering our fast-paced profession”.  Don’t you remember your very first year of teaching?? Did you feel like a fish out of water?  I know I did.  Giving new teachers an opportunity to collaborate together builds camaraderie, it also allows you, as an instructional coach, to give specific, directed direction towards their needs. If you are not able to support a monthly release day, it is still beneficial to meet with those new teachers.  I am sure any help with planning would be greatly appreciated.

Beginning of the year assessments is another area of need. Allen mentioned that she works with her teachers three times a week.  My heart smiled when reading this because I often worry about being in a teacher’s way if I am in their room too much.  Here she provides heavy support for teachers with assessments in the beginning of year.  

Here are a few other areas to think about when working with your new teachers:    Is there a school wide discipline program?  What are the instructional expectations for teachers?  How will they (the teachers) be evaluated?  These are all questions that will help your teachers become acclimated with your school’s culture.

Working with master teachers looks a bit different.  It is a collaborative effort.  For example, a master teacher may come to you and want help with using mentor sentences to help with teaching grammar.  Instead of you researching and reading and modeling, this step is done together.  You and the teacher work together towards the same goal.  

When modeling in the classroom, it may look more like co-teaching.  You may begin teaching the lesson to students and then the roles may switch.  This requires trust!  Teachers will need to view you as a partner in learning and understanding, a facilitator.

Both groups of teachers will need your support.  It will just look a little different.  

What is your ultimate goal in coaching teachers? My goal, as stated above, is growth.  It may be growth in the implementation of small groups, or assessments, or classroom management, or the workshop model.  I strive to help teachers grow….which means they need to be pushed out of their comfort zone.  

The greatest growth I have achieved as an educator has been working as an instructional coach.  It’s not because of the title, it’s because this position has pushed me outside my comfort zone…..way outside my comfort zone.  I wasn’t comfortable; I was uncomfortable, and this caused me to learn…to grow.

So, take a deep breath and use your coaching time as opportunities to push yourself to do something new…take a risk…do the same for your teachers and your students…and watch yourself, your teachers, and your students FLY!

The most important feature of an educator is to provide the conditions under which people’s learning curves go off the chart.  Sometimes it is the other people’s learning curves:  those of students, teachers, parents, administrators.  But at all times it is our learning curve.

– Roland Barth from Becoming A Literacy Leader

What has PD done for you lately?

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As I come to the end of my third year as an Instructional Coach, I realize each and every day that there is so much to learn not only about the content of professional development but how to “hook” teachers into attending professional development.

Face it, we have all been there when we have attended professional development that we feel like is being done TO us instead of FOR us. Time and resources are precious, so as literacy leaders in your building or district, you are charged with the task of creating and delivering relevant professional learning opportunities.

What I loved about Jennifer Allen’s chapter titled “Study Groups: Developing Voluntary Professional Development” is that she spoke candidly about how teachers often are “thirsty” for professional development, and what they receive isn’t quenching their thirst with the perfect drink. Providing professional development should be about meeting the needs of your audience – whether it is a school faculty, a grade level team, or an individual. Professional development should be about learning, which takes instruction to the next level and leads to gains in student achievement.

However, professional development has to be more than this. It is the literacy leader’s job to create an environment where support is given, communication is open and honest, and teachers feel safe to try new practices. Teachers have plenty to “do” already. Professional development shouldn’t be just one more item on the “To Do” list to be checked off and move on; it should spur us on to be better at what we do! I have loved this entire book and have written so many notes in the margins that I have an additional notebook titled “Ideas for 2017-18”.

This book has challenged me to become a better instructional coach and literacy leader for the teachers I serve. Chapter 4 hit a chord with me, especially when Jen said:

Our goal is not to ‘become’ the teachers who we are exploring but to gain insights from their best practices in literacy.

She hits the nail on the head. This is the drink to quench us all, and it’s the opportunity to individualize the learning for all involved. She outlines perfectly what our role as literacy leaders is in study groups, how to pinpoint a focus our resources, planning, and scheduling, and establish a predictable routine. Jen outlines a possible agenda for professional development offerings:

• Discussion/Sharing
• Video Clip
• Reading Excerpt
• Toolbox
• Putting Ideas into Practice
• Follow-Up Between Sessions

Perhaps my favorite portion of the chapter was the section titled “What’s Not On a Study-Group Agenda”. Jen addresses the essential but unwritten components of environment and appreciation. Carving out time to create both a personal and professional side to the study group will allow teachers to feel appreciated and valued. Most people would be willing to work much harder for a group, team, or organization if they know that they are cared for as a person and a professional.

We can never underestimate the importance of providing some great snacks too! “It is collegiality, collaboration, and safe learning environment that make study groups work as a viable form of in-house professional development”. This book has challenged me to take my coaching to the next level, to take what this book has taught me and lift my skills to become a more effective literacy leader and for that, I will forever be grateful of this study.

Summer Book Buzz

As an instructional coach, one of my responsibilities is to provide voluntary opportunities for teachers to study in groups during the school year and in the summer. This is one of my favorite coaching responsibilities. The studies take on a life of their own and usually go way beyond my expectations. Because the study is usually voluntary to some extent, teachers are more passionate learners and more confident as they become experts in a new content area or practice. Having a part in how they feel about themselves as confident teachers is pure joy!

In her book, Becoming A Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen is guided by two goals when planning study groups: purposeful alignment and peer interaction. She states that, “…resources that are selected as offerings within the school are aligned to our district goals and that our professional development has everyone focused, interacting, and making meaning together.”

I agree with her goals, and I have had the opportunity to plan book study groups based on these goals. This past summer I received a healthy budget to purchase professional books for summer book studies. I chose the books based on teacher surveys, asking what they would like to study together, as well as aligning the choices with my district’s goals and philosophy.

Once the books arrived, I created a ‘Summer Book Buzz’ for teachers to read through and make an informed decision about the study in which they would like to participate. At a staff meeting teachers signed up for their study of choice, chose a facilitator, selected dates to meet, and created norms for their time together. One of the requests I made of teachers that chose to participate was to present something  from their study during a staff meeting in the upcoming school year. The groups presented engaging strategies, activities, and student work. Because the study groups were voluntary the teachers took ownership over their time together as well as what and how they chose to present. This was evident as I listened to the presentations at staff meetings and the many conversations teachers had with me. I considered the book study groups a success.

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As I read chapter 4 of Allen’s book, she affirmed much of my work planning and preparing for the book study groups. I also realized there is much I could add to my planning for the next time. Although having teachers present their studies gave me a form of evaluation, I can see that implementing a study group evaluation would provide valuable information for me as a coach and facilitator.

Allen’s suggested evaluation includes…
1. What was the greatest benefit of participation in this type of professional development format?
2. What changes may you make in your instruction as a result of attending this focus group?
3. Please rate this form of professional development on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the highest).
4. Comments:

Jennifer Allen closes this chapter by calling study groups a worthy investment. She states, “Study groups are what I am most passionate about as a literacy specialist. I believe in teachers and their ability to direct, reflect, and facilitate their own learning.” From my reading and my own experiences I would agree, and I plan to continue using book study groups in my practice while applying the valuable suggestions Allen provides in her book. Let the new school year and the study groups begin!

Mistakes are Part of the Journey

I am excited and simply terrified at the same time.  After seventeen years as a K/1 teacher, I am making the leap to full-time Literacy Specialist at a new school in the fall.  It is everything I could dream of in a job. After a brief stint as a part-time reading and writing coach in my previous school, I know how important it is to say and do the right things when working with other adults.  One wrong move seems to embed itself in everything you do from that point forward.

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This is why I dove into Becoming a Literacy Leader as quickly as I could get my hands on it.  I am determined NOT to make the same mistakes.  I have a fresh start, with a dream job and only one chance to make a great first impression.

One of the things I remember feeling most successful in my previous stint was pouring over a professional text with colleagues.  The idea of a common topic, sharing ideas and struggles and the feeling that we were circling our wagons to help each other was a positive force in our teaching lives.  We came together.  That is why I was so excited to dive into Chapter Four where Jen Allen takes on study groups. I feel so lucky in this second edition to not only get her guidance but her MOST updated guidance after years of growing the idea – we ALL know the benefits of trial and error.

Jen shares how important study groups can be in bridging theory and practice and how important it is to give teachers the time to think through something deeply.  As one teacher in the book was quoted as saying, “It saves students from the ‘learn as we go’ approach” (60).

When I look at the points that she makes in this chapter, I can’t help but reflect on my past experience and ways in which I will avoid what I know now as predictable problems.  Once again, the benefits of trial and error.

Ask the teachers what topics THEY want to explore.  Old me would have jumped in and picked the newest and greatest professional text I was excited about and sent an email saying, “Who’s in?”  New me will build relationships with my teachers first by finding out who they are as people first, then as educators, finally finding out what topics most interest them.  Only then will I help them find a professional text that fits.

Study groups should lift the quality of existing instruction.  Old me would have just jumped in and offered up the book getting the most buzz at the time.  New me is going to make sure that I am not asking teachers to take on “one more thing” but find a text to circle around that will enhance the goals we already have in place.

Be the party planner, not the honored guest. When a party is planned, you think of the guests. Old me would have made sure there were fun snacks, the book provided and maybe even a fun take away (which was also my instinct without realizing how important it was for community) which I will still do, but old me would have also become very uncomfortable in silence or lulls in conversation and took over with my own thoughts and ideas.  New me will not make the study group all about me.  I will give teachers “think time” and provide enough to keep the conversation but not take over.  I will be okay with silence.

Create a predictable structure.  Old me would have jumped in with my own set of questions and hoped for the best.  New me is going to hold onto the great structure that Jen provided in her book like a life raft in class V river rapids for a bit until I can figure out my own community of learners and figure out what works best for us.  It is called survival!  P.S. I loved having the video clips to watch the structure in action.  I WILL be subscribing to Lead Literacy this year!

I am determined that I will not look back on past mistakes as failures but as part of the journey that has led me to this new job opportunity.  I am excited for the year to come and all of the ways I will learn and grow.  Bring on study groups, I am ready!

Hosting Study-Groups for Teachers

“Thank you, Dana,” the fifth grade teacher said to me on the last day of our lunchtime study-group. “This has been really, really helpful.”

9780325043579.jpgWe had just finished our six-week long study-group centered around Christopher Lehman’s book Energize Research Reading and Writing. We had read, learned, talked and laughed our way through the book. The teachers were eagerly using the things we had read about in their classrooms already. By all accounts, our study-group was a success.

In Chapter 4 of the new edition of Becoming a Literacy Leader, Jennifer Allen explains how she uses study-groups to meet the professional learning needs of the teachers in her school district. Leading study groups has become one of my favorite parts of my job as an instructional coach since I get to be “hostess and party planner” (page 65) and participant.

Find a Core Resource

Of course, you will need a core resource to study. I usually choose a professional book that aligns with our district vision and curriculum, but you could also use videos or a collection of blog posts on a given topic as your core resource. On page 67 of her book, Jennifer Allen provides a sample of the study-group options she offered one school year. I really like the idea of offering a menu of possibilities for teachers at the beginning of the year. This would provide a lot of choice in topics and timing, so hopefully there would be something for everyone.

Determine a Predictable Structure

To me, this is the golden nugget in all of Jennifer Allen’s wisdom about facilitating study-groups for teachers. Find a predictable structure and stick with it. Just like the structure of a reading or writing workshop helps students learn, a predictable structure for your study-groups will help teachers learn. A predictable structure provides teachers the comfort of knowing what to expect each week, and it eases the planning process for you as well! The structure we used for our study-groups was:

  1. Discuss the real-life application of the day’s topic.
  2. Discuss text.
  3. Try it out!

This format worked really well for Energize Research Reading and Writing. For example, the day we studied Chapter Three on note-taking, our agenda looked like this:

  1. Discuss real-life application. (5 minutes)
    Are you a note-taker when you read? Why do we take notes?
  2. Discuss text. (15 minutes)
    The author presents four possible lessons for teaching your students to take notes. What were your reactions to these lessons?
  3. Try it out! (20 minutes)
    Try lesson titled, “Even Kindergarteners Are Taught, ‘Find the Main Idea'”.

This format allowed us to both discuss the text and give it a go ourselves each week. This format also provided an easy planning template for me. I would formulate two questions or prompts to guide our discussions, and then prepare the materials for the “Try It Out!” portion. Planning for a fifty-minute study group usually took me about twenty minutes.

In Chapter 4 of her book, Jennifer Allen describes the predictable structure she uses:

  • Discussion/Sharing
  • Video Clip
  • Reading Excerpt
  • Toolbox
  • Putting Ideas into Practice
  • Follow-Up Between Sessions

I appreciate that she provides a bit of time for teachers to dig into the reading a bit during the study-group. We always did all of our reading outside of school, and I did my best to send reminders ahead of time. Decide on a structure that fits you and your teachers, and use it consistently.

Facilitating study-groups is one of my favorite parts of my job as an instructional coach. The feedback I receive each time is overwhelmingly positive, and there is never a shortage of teachers signed up to attend. I recommend finding time in your schedule for at least one each quarter/trimester. Like Jennifer Allen wrote, study-groups are a “worthy investment.”