On Coaching and Choice

We’re reading Unmistakable Impact by Jim Knight together as a large team at work.  This is the third post in my series on that reading and reflection.

This month’s chapter is on coaching, both the role of the coach and the practices and habits an instructional coach can use to make a difference in his or her work.   As someone who’s often in a coaching role, I found the broad strokes of the chapter useful, both as reminder and as a bit of a challenge for thinking through.  

What are instructional coaches, according to Knight?  Well, they’re folks who “partner with teachers to help them incorporate research-based practices into their teaching.” Also, the “partner with teachers to help them incorporate instructional practices into their teaching.” (Kindle location 1837)

The thread of choice was woven through the chapter for me, too.  Here’re some choice1 quotes: 

If a coach and teacher come together as equal partners, the teacher must have choices.  Partners don’t do the choosing for each other.  In coaching, this means, most fundamentally, that teachers have a choice about whether or not they want to work with a coach. . . . choice does not mean that teachers can choose to not participate in professional meaning.  No professional can choose to be unprofessional. (1872)

When professionals are told what to do and when and how to do it, with no room for their individual thoughts, that is a spiritual death experience.(1900)

And this, though not directly about choice, seems particularly relevant to my thinking about coaching and the choices that coaches should make:

When coaches focus on capacity building, there are tasks they do not do.  Usually coaches do not sub when teachers are away, do administrivia, or work directly with students except in the service of the larger goal of promoting teacher growth.  Certainly, there are occasions when these general guidelines are ignored.  Just as a principal may be forced to sub if there in no other alternative, so might a coach.  However, this should occur very rarely. (1978)

A little later in the chapter, Knight points to some data that suggests that the coaches he has studied often report that they spend only between 10 and 25 percent of their time as “coaches” instead of the fill in tasks he describes above.  That’s troubling to me because either instructional coaches are making pretty terrible choices about how to spend their time, or (and I think this is much more likely) they are not in the place to choose how to spend that time to begin with.  While they should be advocates for choice for the teachers they work with, their own choices are quite limited.  

That leads me to my larger reflection on this chapter, which is that I find that the role of an instructional coach and the role of a classroom teacher are really quite similar, or should be.  The job of a teacher shouldn’t be to force change on a student, nor a coach to force change on a teacher.  It’s a partnership.  The whole endeavor of learning, as I see it, should be the development of agency in the individual.  And perhaps the problem of instructional leaders choosing to put their coaches in places of fill in is one of a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a teacher/coach.  And that fundamental misunderstanding isn’t simply a misunderstanding in the mind of the leader – it’s a deeply cultural mess that we’re in because what we think “teaching” looks like isn’t really what good teaching looks like.

When a teacher is “teaching,”2 what is happening?  Does “teaching” mean the teacher is speaking?  I bet for most of us, that’s the first thought that pops into our heads.  But it shouldn’t be.  What about when a teacher is “listening?” Or “pausing?”  Or waiting patiently while monitoring a classroom writing assignment3?  I think much of what we consider “best practice” in teaching and what we think of when we think of a teacher “teaching” just don’t line up in our heads and hearts as they should.  

And so sometimes we make serious errors in judgment about what a teacher is or isn’t doing.  

I think about all of my friends and colleagues who are wicked nervous about new evaluations in Colorado and other places, and I understand some of their dilemma.  Whenever a principal came into my room to observe, I wanted to be doing something awesome so that they “saw me teaching.”   The problem is, no one learns much in a room when I’m doing all the talking.  The real learning happens when I turn students loose on a concept or problem or task.  But me monitoring a roomful of excited and engaged students isn’t what I wanted my principal to see – because it wasn’t “awesome teaching.”  Except that it was. 

Other teachers I know reschedule their thoughtfully planned lessons and timelines around evaluations so that the principal sees them “in action.”  That’s a problem, because the thoughtful planning and scheduling was done intentionally, for good reason.  And the change is for a crummy, “observing a thing changes it” sort of reason.  

This is a ramble, and only a little bit about coaching now, but that said, let me return to my role as an instructional coach for a second.  Sometimes, the best way I can be helpful to a teacher is to say nothing.  To do nothing.  To sit very quietly and let the words that just were spoken roll back over the speaker. Choosing to respond is a choice.  It’s often what “good teaching” looks like.  But choosing not to respond is also a choice, and should be honored more often.  

Because that’s better teaching, and better coaching, too. 

 

 

  1. Ahem. []
  2. Or a coach “coaching.” I’ll be using these terms interchangeably for the rest of this post. []
  3. Better still would be writing alongside the writing students. []
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Ruminations on Implications: Notes from the Thesis

I’m taking a break from writing up the implications portion of my thesis by coming over here to write some more.  I’m beginning to get to the place in my research that I have some definite things to say about what I found out.  But I’m having some trouble saying them.  Not because I know what they are – but, I think, because of what I’m using to write.  Word is not where I go to think.  It’s where I go to comply.  When I need to think about something, I come here, to a WordPress window in my browser1.

So maybe I’ll just try to do a little bit of freewriting here and see how it goes.  Here’s what I think I know right now as it relates to my research.

To start with, here are my research questions:

  • What does reading and writing for school-related purposes look like in school-sponsored online writing spaces?
  • Who is doing the writing in these spaces? The reading?
  • Are the new tools and affordances of online digital writing, tools like hyperlinks, and affordances like immediate publication and world-wide audience, a factor in these spaces?  If so, how?

While it’s certainly not a definitive collection of all the writing that’s happening in my school district, I’m going to take a guess and say that the three weeks of blog posts from the beginning of this school year that I’ve looked at in the course of my study are a good-sized sample of the public writing happening in my school district.

And, to start with, there’s just not enough of it.  In three weeks, I can count on both hands the number of classrooms doing public writing in this space.  And that leaves me with three fingers left to count other things.

Are students and teachers blogging or writing online2 in other spaces?  Certainly.  One of the limitations of my study, one that I knew would be a problem for some of what I was wondering about, was that I am limited to public stuff.  If I wanted a fuller picture of what the writing that’s happening online in my school district looks like, I need to interrogate our district’s Moodle.  I need to peer into our district implementation of Google Docs.  On Thursday, a teacher in our district started sharing a Google Docs collection with me from one of his classes.  He was excited about the number of texts they were producing together.  I’ve not yet opened the folder – but I’ve watched a hundred or so documents enter into my document list.  Sometimes in real time, I’ve seen them drop into place.

Writing is happening. But why not here?3

Here’s what I know about the writiing that I am seeing:

  • Students and teachers aren’t talking to each other, for the most part, via the blog engine.  I suspect they are talking in class, but they’re not writing back and forth in these spaces.  Three quarters of the posts I saw during the period of the study contained no comments.  Of the ones that held comments, only another large handful could be considered any sort of conversation – back and forth between the author of the post and the commenter(s).  If these students are writing because they expect an audience, well, then they’re still waiting.
  • Because no one’s responding, there’s a sense that no one’s reading.  Multiple times, I saw little snippets of text, clearly put up as tests, or left behind as mistakes, that weren’t taken down or adjusted.  Why bother, if no one’s looking – or it doesn’t seem like anyone is?
  • The kind of writing that’s being asked of students in these spaces?  Well, it’s interesting – I can break it down into three types – daily summaries, written collectively by elementary school classes; reflective essays about various topics; and responses to teacher questions.  Lots of it is writing that doesn’t require a blog.  And it’s writing that involves very, very, very little source material.  Very few quotes.  Very few links.  And the links, when they’re present, are not  embedded in the text.  They lie naked and open in the text.  And that seems problematic to me4
  • The writing that staff are doing is a little bit better5 – like students, they’re writing reflective essays, and sharing lots of newslettery information.  But I can’t be sure, from this data set, if the folks they want to reach are being reached through this vehicle.
In short, the blog engine seems to me, in this data set, at least, an utter failure underutilized tool.
And perhaps that’s an okay place to stop for right this moment.
  1. And, yeah, I suppose that means that I’ve a significant bias about blogs and the power of blogging that, if I haven’t yet, I need to be sure to disclose somewhere in the thesis. []
  2. Oddly, in my world, and perhaps in yours, the word “blogging” has come to mean anything written in a Web browser that isn’t an email, no matter where it ends up.  Isn’t that interesting?  I might be a blog snob, but that bugs me.  And it probably shouldn’t.  It’s less of a problem for me than it used to be – I don’t correct people now when they say that.  I used to. []
  3. That’s not one of my research questions.  So what? []
  4. But, again, I may well be a blog snob.  But if the potential of the “writing of the 21st Century” is that it happens online and organically and is connected to other texts and blah blah blah – suppose it’s not.  Is that *bad* or *problematic* or just unfortunate?  Or is it just so?  As I’m in the middle of arguing that we need to make sure students have the tools to do this sort of work, a body of data that suggests, nah, it’s not so important,” is a little bit problematic. []
  5. Oops – judgement again.  Might need a better word than, ahem, “better.” []
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What Counts

On Thursday night, I was helping to introduce the concept of teacher research to a group of teachers in my school district.  And it happened.  The thing that often happens when you introduce qualitative methodology.

We read a sample teacher research study that Michelle and I are fond of.  I like the study, a short piece on a teacher wondering about the value of a pullout literacy program in her school, because it emphasizes three things I think are essential to consider, and often re-consider, when ot comes to teacher inquiry specifically and qualitative research generally:

  1. Teacher research is an opportunity to dig into the “I wonders” and the “what ifs” that come up from time to time in your classroom.  But it’s not the same as “what good teachers do every day.”  It’s more intentional and purposeful than that.  And that’s a good thing.
  2. Teacher research is contextual.  It comes from you, the researcher.  The classroom you teach in, the students you know, the wonderings you have.  That works two ways – both the questions and your answers to them are contextual.
  3. Teacher research involves “data” that doesn’t show up in a quantitive study.  Stuff that doesn’t count because it can’t be counted.  Or, at least, not as easily.  And what matters, or at least what should, when it comes to measurement and paying attention is not either/or but yes and.  Qualitative and quantitative measures are friends.  Honest1 .

And it’s the third point that usually involves controversy.  Things get heated.  And that troubles me.

Folks make statements, when we start to fiddle with traditional notions of “data,”2 about their stats professors, or n values, or other things that suggest that Math Is THE Way of Knowing The Universe.

While I find lots to like in science and math, it’s not the only way to go after what’s right and good and true in the world.

Teachers, of all people, should have a good and always developing sense of this: they should know and understand what it means to measure, and how measurement affects the thing you’re measuring, and how there are ways other than percentages and standard deviations to explore vital areas of life and living and learning.

If you think that’s wrong, and that cold, hard numbers are the only way to Know Something, well, consider this -

How do you know you love your spouse?  Your best friend?  Your children?  Your parents?

Prove it.

But you only get numbers.  I’ll wait here.  Take your time.

  1. As I write this, I’m in the middle of a mixed-methods study.  The two go nicely together. []
  2. And the air quotes make appearances usually at this point in the conversation. []
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The Podcast: Two Fall Projects

In today’s podcast, I talk about a couple of projects that are keeping me pretty busy this fall – finishing my thesis and building a course for P2PU’s new School of Ed with some friends from the NWP.  Oddly, they go together.  Which is a good thing.  Keep your fingers crossed.  And, as always, would love to hear your thoughts in response to mine.  This time, I could definitely use the help.

Direct Link to Audio

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On Being Afraid

On Friday, Converge did a quite nice write up of some of our district’s work with technology. I found it to be a splendid piece. Specifically, a large portion of the article featured some of the work we’ve been doing with the Digital Learning Collaborative. If you need a one sentence summary of that work, well, Paige does a fine job:

It was awesome and scary for some to be in charge of their learning.

I think that pretty much sums up what I’m seeing with regards to the way that we’re asking teachers in the DLC to take control of their own learning. It is scary for many of our teachers to take control. And it is awesome, delightful even, when it happens.

More often than I’d like in the DLC, the teachers that we’re working with, and we work with the leaders of the teams, folks identified as teacher leaders in their schools, so chew on that a bit, are afraid, or unwilling, or unable, to take control of their own learning. These teachers, quite fine and thoughtful people, are often waiting for Michelle or I to tell them what’s worth learning and/or doing. That’s troublesome1.

This is mostly a rhetorical question, but I’d encourage you to consider it anyway – what’s happened to teachers and teaching that it’s so difficult for teachers to feel they have agency enough to follow their own lines of inquiry and learning?

And why in the world is that okay?

  1. And the word “troublesome” is quite the understatement, I think. []
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In Good Hands

One of the honors and privileges of my current position is that I get to work with some really smart people.  I mean wise folks.  The folks I want my children to learn with and from.

And I get the opportunity, from time to time, to see these smart folks in action. This year, on the first day of school, MIchelle and Kyle and I took a lap around the district and happened to wander by Kevin’s classroom a few minutes into his year.

And, boy, was he in the zone.  Already.  Inside a few minutes.

He was  introducing reading notebooks to his students when we happened by.  We were approaching the classroom, no appointment, just saying hi, when we heard him say this:

We are going to have thoughts as we read, and it’ll be good for us to write those down so we don’t forget them.

And so we turned around and kept right on walking. Kevin’s students didn’t need us to interfere with some very serious exploration of what it means to be a reader, writer and thinker.  Nope.  Anything we might’ve done in that situation would’ve been an interruption. They were in quite capable hands.

Of course, the more I think about that one sentence, the more I think it sums up so much of what I think school should be – people exploring thoughtfulness. Thoughtfully.

And I am grateful for folks like Kevin, who works with 4th graders, because I know that they are well served because he is there exploring their thinking with them.

If your school year’s just getting going, I sure hope that you are reading something interesting, and asking your students to, and that you’re all pausing from time to time to write something that you’re thinking about down.

And if you’re not – why aren’t you?

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So I’m Going To Be Teaching This Class. And Could Use Your Help.

I like new frontiers.  That’s why I’m excited to be participating in Karen’s attempt to create a School of Ed at P2P University this fall.  It should be a neat opportunity to fiddle with what it means to do PD.

I couldn’t be more excited to be facilitating a course we’re calling “Common Core & Writing: Deeper Learning for All.”  I pitched the course as “a course on writing to learn for non-English teachers” and that’s almost exactly what I’ll be teaching1.  Better yet – some of my friends from the National Writing Project will be helping me to develop the course.

The six week course, which will begin mid-October, is going to begin with a deep look at the Common Core State Standards, and particularly the section of the standards that addresses the role of writing across the curriculum.2 Then,’ we’ll tackle writing in the classroom from two distinct lenses:

1.  Writing to Learn – the habits and bits of writing that you do to make sense of whatever it is that you’re learning and exploring.

2. Writing for the Disciplines – the writing that’s specific to content areas other than language arts.  How do historians write for each other?  Scientists?  Mathematicians?  And why does that matter? How can we help our students to write in these ways?

As a final project, participants in the course will use this protocol from the NWP to help them develop some writing assignments for their own classrooms that should result in some thoughtful writing for and with students.   We should all get some good ideas.

As I’m developing the collection of resources, I know that NWP’s Digital Is will be an important text for the group.  And I’m also reminded of Peter Elbow and Donald Murray and their essential contributions to writing as process and writing as something that teachers just, you know, do.

But I could use your help.

Here’s a Google Doc where I’m beginning to draft a collection of readings and resources for the folks3 who I hope will take this course.

I’d sure be grateful if you’d offer your favorites and help keep me honest by pointing participants to actual examples of the two areas I outlined above.

And of course, this entire experience is, for me, first draft thinking.  I’d be open to your ideas, suggestions, and feedback as I’m working to construct an experience that’s ultimately useful to teachers and results in increased use of writing in their practice.

Thanks in advance.  And perhaps I’ll see you in class?  Sign up opens soon.

  1. Er.  Facilitating.  Teaching.  Guiding.  Whatever.  The participants and I will experience it together.  And we’ll all take turns. []
  2. Yes, technically, this is a rather large section.  Pretty much the entire language arts section.  But we’ll hone in on the specifics of writing for the disciplines other than language arts. []
  3. Remember – a targeted audience of non-language arts teachers. []
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Thinking. Making. Learning.

This morning I had the opportunity to visit our school district’s Camp Innovation, a summer program for Kindergarten through second grade focused on engineering and exploration and inquiry.  In partnership with IBM, our district developed this two-week summer experience.  Here’s the formal description of the work:

Teams of students will work directly with IBM employees at the IBM facility, along with SVVSD educators and high school volunteers on important and relevant issues to building a Smarter Planet: transportation systems, water, cities/buildings, food, and energy. Each group will be facilitated by a SVVSD teacher, an IBM employee, and multiple SVVSD high school students who participate in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) or IB (International Baccalaureate Diploma) programs. At the end of the two week camp, project exhibitions will be shared with community audiences to culminate the experience.

My informal discription?  Students digging in, asking questions, and wondering about the world.  Then doing something about it.  It was fun to watch, even for a few minutes.  Students and facilitators and volunteers were moving around, making things, discussing options, and clearly engaged in very important work.

Below is a video describing the inquiry cycle that the Camp Innovation team, a group masterfully facilitated by Paige Gordon, worked to build into every aspect of the students’ experience.  As I was wandering and shooting pictures and exploring student creations and how they camp has transformed a wing of office space at IBM into a design and fab lab, I saw the cycle in action, on the walls, and in the work of the students.  I’m looking forward to seeing the students’ final projects, which will be shared in a community event at the end of the week.  Thankfully, the entire experience has been well-documented by our district communications team, specifically Matt Wiggins1, and you can get a feel for the camp and the events as those videos emerge ((You can catch them as they hit the Web if you’d like.)

One more thing – as I was exploring the students at work, other district administrators who were visiting were remarking that it was essential that we get ideas like “So what?” and “How are you going to personally get involved?” into our “regular, during the school year” classrooms.

And that’s a fine thing to remark on.  I look forward to their, and our, continued efforts to mix design and tinkering and inquiry into the daily culture of our classrooms.

Here are more of the photos I took during my short visit.  Take particular notice of the “Prototyping Lab,” a large space full of supplies.  I’ll have more to say on the lab in a future post.

  1. The original version of this post had Matt’s last name incorrect.  My apologies. []
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Fuzzy Thinking: Fragmenting Us in Pursuit of, Well, Us.

No fewer than three times today, my brain was tickled into considering the question that I’ve buried at the end of this hurried post. Let me recap:

1. In a few Google+ conversations about sharing1, I’ve seen folks state that the advantage of things like circles2, is that they can help you to narrowcast rather than broadcast noise.

2. During #edchat today, I caught a rather odd notion that we should be taking care to separate our professional conduct from our academic conduct. I still don’t know what that means. Strikes me as silly. More on that in a sec.

3. The prompt of this evening’s #edchat was this:

Tech won’t change a teacher’s basic pedagogical practices. How do we promote needed change in methodology?

I wondered aloud in response that perhaps it’d be more important3 if we instead asked what was worth doing, and what wasn’t – basically, what was the change that needed to happen?

And I didn’t see a good answer. But, I couldn’t stick around to see the chat, so perhaps it surfaced and I missed it.

In each of the above cases, the problem of lots of little purposes, rather than a few big ideas, arises. In the first example, an assumption that I’m interested in one piece of you, rather, than, perhaps, the person that you’re working to be, is present. In the second, the idea that our professional selves and our academic selves should be distinct and separate selves – that ourselves as teachers should so differ from ourselves as learners that we need to tell the difference – emerged. And in the third, we’re skipping the essential questions to focus on the sidelines. Let’s get to the changing before we know what’s worth fiddling with.4

Before I ramble too much on this, at a time when I can tell my brain’s only beginning to emerge from vacation, I’ll pause with a question, probably a poorly worded one, but perhaps you can help me fumble to better language -

Is it better to have lots of selves and goals for lots of situations, to fragment ourselves intentionally in the pursuit of the right self for the right situation, or is it better to have a few guiding principles that transcend our selves and help us to be better us-es in all of our spaces?

I say the latter’s the way to go. Be kind in all spaces.5 Always be curious. Share what you learn as you’re able. I’m sure there are more principles that I could tease out across the contexts and shards of my self.

Certainly, a first draft and fuzzy response to something I want to come back and play with later. And I see at least a couple of problems with my own leaning. Let’s tease them out in the comments.

  1. Actually, in most Google + conversations about sharing – it’s a new space, and folks are figuring it out by comparing it to what they’ve known before. I get that. []
  2. The organizing principle of Google + – one that one doesn’t have to use – but, because it’s there, people do. Tools and they way they’re structured affect our use of them. []
  3. And certainly more useful, although I don’t think I said so at the time. []
  4. Okay. That one might not fit – but it does in my head somewhere, so I’m leaving it in. For now. []
  5. Or at least, strive to be. I’m working on this one. []
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