Coaches Make a Huge Difference

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For the past two years, my family and I have returned to Canada to spend our Christmas holidays with our extended family.  What surprised me about returning home during the winter was not adjusting to the cold, but instead it was my learning curve.  Since being away from winter, a lot has changed. The internet exploded, fax machines disappeared, and cars now have anti-lock brakes.  This certainly made driving much easier.  Technology also made skiing easier.  When I left Canada to work in Mexico, snowboards were still not allowed on most hills.  No one wore a helmet and the skis themselves were very different. Even though I grew up skiing all of my life, I booked some time with a ski instructor for some lessons. I needed to relearn how to ski using the new fancy parabolic skis. Thanks to a great ski coach and some new technologies, I was back skiing … possibly even better skier than before. What enabled me to experience immediate success?  It was the coaching provided by my ski instructor — specific, timely feedback that provided very clear goals.

On the ski hill and in sports, coaching works.  More and more teachers are adopting a workshop model for literacy instruction that enable them to coach readers and writers.  Schools around the world are recruiting for a variety of instructional coaching positions — learning, literacy, math, science, cognitive, instructional, technology, etc.   There has certainly been a great interest in the professional learning model that might be described as coaching; and for good reason.  The coaching model is an incredibly powerful form of professional development.  Jim Knight, from the University of Kansas Coaching Institute, shared the following on the chances of teachers implementing new instructional practices.

  • Workshop on the new skill – 10%
  • Workshop with modeling – 12-13%
  • Workshop, modeling, and practice – 14-16%
  • Workshop, modeling, practice, and feedback – 16-19%
  • Workshop, modeling, practice, feedback, and coaching – 95%

It’s a no brainer.  Coaching and coaches have the potential to make a HUGE impact on learning, both for students and teachers.  So I find myself wondering, how can schools and educators take advantage of this great opportunity?  What role do coaches and coaching play in your learning and your school?

The Failure Conundrum

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Last week, the school year in Saudi Arabia ended.  It is certainly a busy time of the year.  In class, we wrapped up the work that needed to be completed, prepared an awesome presentation for the end of year assembly, took time to reflect and celebrate our accomplishments, and said good-bye to each other before embarking on a summer break.  I had a few end of year meetings with families of kids who required a little more support and attention than their peers throughout the year.  In closing one of these meetings, a father shared his concern that his child would “fail” and need to repeat grade three.

At that moment, I could not help but empathize with this father, sharing his greatest fear for his child.  A fear that his child would not succeed, that they would fail.  I think it is a universal fear shared by all parents.  So, I quickly tried to put him at ease, reassuring him that his child would be moving on to fourth grade.  I also took the opportunity to reinforce the great accomplishments of his child.  Yes there were some challenges, but the year was a success because of the growth and learning that transpired.

Since ending the meeting, I have found myself thinking about failure.  In schools, it is a bit of a four letter word.  Great schools, like great educators, believe in their students and know that for their kids, failure is not an option! In the same way that actors do not mention the play MacBeth on stage for fear of cursing a performance, failure seems to be an abhorrent word in schools.    Kids openly share work that they see as successful.  They also hide their failures.  So do teachers.  When collaborating with colleagues, teachers are more likely to bring to the table what works rather than discuss what didn’t.  It is called being human.  No one likes to hear about or experience failure.

But here is the failure conundrum.  Learning isn’t easy.  School should not be easy. It should be a struggle that requires effort.  Failure, like success, plays an important role in a classroom.  It is only a bad thing if it leads to a dead end and stops the journey.  I believe that to fail is to learn.  Failure simply provides another opportunity to revise, reconsider, deepen understanding, and grow.  It is failure that makes us stronger. It is failure that ultimately leads to success.  Think about it.  How many toddlers learn to walk without falling?  There is a reason people train for a marathon. Two weeks ago I deleted my last blog post while learning to use the WordPress app on my iPad.  I wish I could get it back, but I can’t. I have learned something that will help me in the future.  As a teacher, I’ve had my fair share of lessons that were a failure.  Lessons that despite my best planning and effort, did not produce the desired outcomes.  Subsequent lessons were inevitably better because failure provided me with the opportunity to change and grow.

My parents worked hard to instill the belief that there is no use crying over spilled milk.  Instead, clean it up.  Understand why it happened and turn a potentially negative situation into a positive one.  In that sense, failure is a learning opportunity.  I recognize the importance of supporting students in their learning, but I also don’t ever want to prevent failure either. Ultimately I would be hindering exactly what I am trying to accomplish.

Looking For Learning

Getting back into some sort of blogging routine feels a lot like getting back to the gym.  I have great aspirations, but do not seem to always find time to fit everything in.  It’s hard.  So last week, I set a small personal goal for myself … try and build a blogging routine by posting something this week.

Following up on my previous post, I continue to find myself thinking about learning — its big idea, what it means to me, and my colleagues? What does it look like in our community?  I am a firm proponent that schools should always be learning focused collaborative endeavors.  As an educator, my professional practice continues to be a work in progress, constantly changing, adapting, and evolving. Now I am much more of a “coach” or “critical friend” to the kids I work with than ever before.  Quick, timely, formative feedback is incredibly powerful either on the ice at a hockey practice or in a reading workshop.  I would not want it any other way.

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As an educator, I am looking for a similar critical friend or learning coach to help improve my professional practice.  It is something I look for in my colleagues and formal administrators.  Fieldwork Education’s   Looking for Learning protocol is the closest experience I’ve had to receiving consistent, timely formative feedback.

Looking for Learning, is an effective process for working collaboratively with colleagues (teachers, instructional coaches, parents, principals, etc.) to see what learning is happening in classrooms.  The focus is on student learning.  So talking to kids about their learning is at the center of each visit.  Should a teacher be in the midst of a mini-lesson, classroom visitors can simply move on to another room, and drop by later when whole group instruction is no longer in progress.

Ten to 20 minutes is the typical length of a teacher or administrator’s classroom visit.  In the busy day to day routines, finding ten or 20 minutes here and there to visit a colleagues classroom is easily manageable.   However, it is absolutely fabulous when I manage to set aside an hour to visit and talk with students about their learning in a wide range of classrooms, grade levels, and content areas.

When visiting a classroom and talking to kids, four essential understandings helped shape conversations:

Is this a learning classroom? This simple line of questioning is incredibly powerful.  It is non-threatening and one that every educator, parent, and student would expect to hear a resounding, YES!  When a learning community has an established, shared common definition of learning, the power if this question is amplified.

Is the learning appropriate and sufficient?   As an elementary literacy teacher, this idea always makes me think of students’ “Just Right Books”.  Ideally, learning for the kids should not be too difficult, nor too easy.  It should be just enough of a stretch that they can independently achieve a level of success.  When speaking to kids, I tried to speak with them in order to find out if they were learning something new, consolidating their learning, simply treading water, or drowning.

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What is helping or hindering the learning? This is perhaps my favorite line of questioning.  I always found it to be amazing to hear students reflect on who they are as a learner, identify what they see as a need to further support their learning, and articulate exactly what is helping them on their journey.

Here’s a list of possible questions to help guide your conversations with kids.

The final piece of the puzzle is getting together with a colleague to share and discuss your visit.  This always created the biggest challenge for me, but I soon found that a short conversation over coffee at recess worked best.  It is easy to participate in a reflective conversation with your colleagues because Looking for Learning is not evaluative.  As the visitor, your role is to simply share out the evidence you collected during your visit, not your impression, your opinion, or suggestions for next steps.  When visiting classrooms, I tried to take detailed notes because I always found receiving specific quotes from the kids seemed to encourage reflection because they helped me recognize if my perception matched those of my students.

I am a BIG fan of Looking for Learning. Not only do I see its great potential to support student learning, but what I like most is that after speaking with students and my colleagues, I find myself energized and enriched by the experience. Thank you Pam Harper and Fieldwork Education.

LEARNING … It’s What We Do

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For the past few months, work has been a little busier than usual.  We have been busy wrapping things up at the end of one accreditation cycle and launching into a new accreditation process — Excellence by Design.  Although things have been busy, I find the accreditation work very engaging and worthwhile.  I think it is because I always enjoy the collaboration and thinking about the potential that our learning community holds.  I believe it is important to recognize where we are, celebrate our wonderful accomplishments, and start to envision where we want to be.  The accreditation process has certainly provided me with a tremendous amount of food for thought.

Recently, friends who work in other professions were sharing what was happening in their work and personal lives. Both also happened to be in the midst of some sort of accreditation / self-evaluation process similar to ISO 20000 certification.  I was struck by the similarities of purpose, process, and importance of  accreditation in their work.  I was also surprised by the ease and simplicity with which they could clearly communicate the work that they do, be it producing a good or providing a service.  Both shared the great lengths that are taken in their professions to establish a simple, common understanding of what they do. It was central to their growth, development, and how they monitored the quality of their work.

So, I found myself wondering, what is it that we do in schools?  Do we have a common understanding of what we offer our children, their families, and the greater community?  My guess is that if I asked this question to my colleagues, LEARNING would likely be a top response.  But do we have a common understanding of what it means to learn? Could every member of my school community share the simple, common understanding with a parent or colleague?  Would we be able to consistently identify learning throughout the grade levels and across the curriculum? I must admit I am not so sure.

I believe that International School Bangkok offers some great ideas for helping develop a simple, common understanding of what they offer the members of their community.  A simple, clear and concise Mission and Vision Statement is a great place to start.

To be a model of excellence for educating students for success in the world community.
Through outstanding teaching in a nurturing environment,  ISB inspires students to:
  • achieve their academic and personal potential
  • be passionate, reflective learners,
  • becoming caring, global citizens

There is tremendous power in being able to simplify a complex idea and I believe that International School Bangkok does a particularly good job at it.  However, what I find most impressive is that as a community, they have established a common understanding of “learning” and what it looks like.

Learning is the primary focus of our school and we recognize learning as a life-long adventure.  We value meaningful learning where students construct enduring understanding by developing and applying knowledge, skills, and attitudes.  Increased understanding is evidenced by students who:
  • Explain its relevance
  • Describe how it connects to or conflicts with prior learning
  • Communicate it effectively to others
  • Generalize and apply it effectively to new situations
  • Reflect critically on their own and other’s learning
  • Ask questions to extend learning
  • Create meaningful solutions

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If learning is an essential component of any school, why do more schools not have a definition of learning at the heart of their Mission and Vision statements?  It is  these documents that help shape and provide direction for a school and its improvement plan.  In the world of education, just like the world of business, having a shared, common understanding is essential for establishing a cycle of continuous growth.  ISB’s definition of learning provides an essential framework for collaboration, a tool for monitoring the quality of student learning, and a means of adjusting professional practice because stakeholders are looking at things through a shared, critical lens.

List Building

Originally Posted October 2011

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Since I last wrote, and now that school is back into full swing, I have continued to think about how checklists can help improve student learning and my professional practice.  I have started to realize how many checklists I already use on a regular basis in support of learning.

As a literacy teacher who follows a workshop model based on Lucy Caulkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, a form of checklist guides the multiple conferences that I have daily with my students.  They follow a common format, a type of checklist, to an effective conference.

  • Research : Spend a few minutes with each student to determine individual needs.
  • Complement : Begin by identifying a particular strength or improvement in the learner.
  • Teach : A quick little targeted mini-lesson to help individual growth.
  • Link : Link the mini-lesson to past and future ideas.

For years, I have used a hodgepodge amalgamation of binders, notebooks, clipboards, papers, and sticky notes to help track learning, performance, anecdotal notes, and learning targets.  Some of my colleagues are experimenting with the Confer App for iPad and iPhone.  It is formatted to follow the conferences structure and serves as checklist to remind teachers of the key components of a reading / writing conference.  I’ve chosen to experiment with Evernote, creating a similar conference checklist that I can use with multiple devices and keep everything stored in the cloud.  So far I’m quite pleased.  I especially like how I can embedded recorded conversations and digital exemplars of student work in my notes for each learner.  With conferences next week, I expect my notes to be more insightful and useful than ever.

In thinking about a back to school checklist, I’ve started to revise and add to my tried and true checklist.   I have started breaking  it into manageable pieces following the guidelines on making an effective checklist.  I have started to break things into the common components of Communication /  Collaboration / Organization / Resources / Culture.  I’ve made it available at SCRIBD.  Give it a go.  Let me know what you think.  I’d love to continue to revise and improve the checklist and hope that you find it helpful.

Hey, Coach!


Originally Posted October 2010

Last night was a great night.  I spent a wonderful two hours under the lights, on a lush green pitch, in a very arid Saudi Arabia, starting to learn how to be a little league soccer coach.  For the past two years, I have “supposedly” been coaching my son’s soccer teams.  In reality, the actual coaching was left to those who ran practice, introduced specific skills, and gave timely feedback.  My turn as coach, came in on game days and I’d have to characterize my role as more of a cheerleader, moderator, medic, and “cat herder” than coach.

Throughout my training session, I couldn’t help but see strong parallels between my role as a soccer coach and my daily life as an elementary teacher.  The soccer skills program has a clearly defined set of skills that are outlined over time, and build upon skills that already exist.  The program was designed with the end in mind, has success criteria that are specific, easy to understand, and of a high standard.  A scope and sequence is in place, and timely feedback is expected.  There is even a common lesson structure :

  • explain what to do
  • model what to do
  • have the kids do it
  • provide precise, immediate corrective feedback
  • allow opportunities for repeated practice
  • when they can do it, move on

Is this the type of learning environment you’d expect for yourself or your family?  Is this a type of learning environment that you’d be interested in joining?  Does this remind you of any school that you know?

As a literacy teacher, like many of my colleagues, I’ve adopted a workshop model for instruction, and my reading and writing lessons have a similar lesson structure to those my son’s soccer practices.  As hard as it is, I strive to keep my mini lessons, “mini” — allowing myself 10 -12 minutes to explain and model the lesson’s focus.  I know that any longer, and  “ … teacher talk results in cognitive overload, student anxiety, and valuable information going in one ear and out the other.” (Jones)  Most of my class time is spent with kids having the opportunity to independently practice and grow particular concepts or skills.  To become a better readers, students need to read.  To become better writers, students need to write.  Like an effective soccer coach, my role is to closely watch my students and provide timely complimentary and corrective individual feedback.  Conferences and guided flexible groupings allow me do to this.  The power of conferencing with students and talking to them about their learning is clearly effective.

I find myself reflecting on my professional practice, wondering how lessons from youth soccer transfer from the pitch into the classroom or school, and thinking about how schools compare to youth soccer.  I wonder how many schools have a clearly articulated, guaranteed, and viable curriculum like the soccer program?  How can I do a better job of providing timely, individualized, corrective feedback to my students like I do at soccer?   Feedback at soccer certainly drives instruction.  As a teacher, are my assessments primarily OF learning or FOR learning?  During a curriculum course at the PTC in Miami this summer, we discussed agreed upon instructional strategies and the power of common lesson structures.  They are in place at the soccer academy.  Could I say the same about the different teams, divisions, and schools where I’ve worked?  What about other international schools?

Taking the time to coach little league soccer is great.  Not only am I learning a lot about coaching and soccer, but it is helping me reflect on my professional life, grow as an educator, and most importantly, I get to spend time with my son doing something that he loves.

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I Love My ELMO


Many kids, like my 6 year old son, have a favourite stuffed animal that they bring to bed with them every night.  His favourite is a cuddly little fellow from Seasame Street, named Elmo.  He doesn’t laugh when tickled and is beginning to look worn around the edges, but Elmo does bring a lot of comfort and happiness to my eldest son.  Quite simply, he loves Elmo.

Apparently, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree because I too am in love with ELMO.  However, mine isn’t red, fuzzy, or cuddly.  I don’t take it to bed with, nor would I want to.  My ELMO is white, shinny, and new.  It sits on my desk in my classroom, next to my computer.  In simple terms, my ELMO is a document camera.  In reality, it is much more than that.  It is a transformative piece of technology that shifted my professional practice and dramatically improved student learning.

For much of the past decade I have worked at the International School Bangkok (ISB) in an environment that continually sought out and supported innovative educational practices.  ISB is a rich learning environment in many ways.  SMARTBoards, scanners, FLIP cameras, digital microscopes, laptop carts, VoiceThreads, wikis, and blogs are integral parts of the learning environment.  However, it’s the people who are truly the source of its wealth.  I consider myself to have been extremely fortunate to have worked along side wonderful colleagues like Dennis Harter, Tara Ethridge, Kim Cofino, and Jeff Utecht, and many others.  Each exemplified ISB’s ideal of 21st Century Learning — creative, collaborative, flexible, tenacious, etc.  Although they were each extremely helpful when technology needed an introduction, explanation, or went awry, the technology was not the focus.  Connectedness and collective knowledge was.  By making their thinking visible, each contributed in their own way to my professional and personal transformation.

This is why I love ELMO.  More than interactive whiteboards, laptops, wikis, blogs or any other piece of technology, my ELMO helps foster 21st Century Learning.  Throughout the day, regardless of subject area or interest, it helps make the group’s thinking visible.  In Math, a variety of possible solutions are shared and discussed.  In writing, author’s can quickly share the process they used to develop an idea.  The mystery of your peers’ thinking disappears and understanding improves.  We learn together, from each other.  In doing so, ELMO has helped improve the levels of collaboration.  It is an invaluable tool for collecting real time feedback, for providing exemplars, and modeling thinking and tenacity.  Accountable talk is an important part of inquiry based learning and ELMO is a piece of technology that does a wonderful job of facilitating our collaborative inquiry.  As a teacher, document cameras, like my current ELMO, have helped me focus on student learning rather than my teaching.  When combined with interactive whiteboards, the impact of a document camera is multiplied ten fold.   More than any other piece of technology, document cameras have truly transformed my daily professional practice and helping develop 21st century learners.