Thursday, December 29, 2016

Gearing yourself up for a challenging semester of instructional coaching

Recently, someone told me, "You make your job look so easy." 
I blinked. 
"Really?" I asked. 
"Yeah! From what I see on Instagram, it looks like you know what you're doing and that you do everything!"
I cocked my head to one side and I blinked again. 
"Lies!" I shouted. "It's all lies!" And then I laughed like a maniac. 
Ok, maybe I didn't laugh like a maniac, but I did say that thing about lies. 
You see, it's not easy. And I don't do everything. And sometimes I feel pretty crummy. 

This is a tough job. After that conversation, I realized, maybe I'm not doing a good enough job of conveying that to my readers. I would hate for anyone to think that I have it all together and that they don't. The truth is: neither of us knows what we're doing. 

HAHA! Kidding. Sort of.

Let's step back a bit.

This last semester has been a challenge for me. We've been going through some personal challenges and we've been struggling in some professional contexts too. In my particular arena, these are questions that invade my thinking at all hours of the day:
  • Am I making a positive difference on my campus?
  • Am I providing the appropriate support for my teachers?
  • How do I differentiate teacher support based on need?
  • How should I change the type of support I'm providing to my teachers based on my campus' changing need?
  • Are teachers gaining the best practices they need in order to support student learning at higher levels?
The list goes on and on. I spend many hours wallowing in self-doubt and worry. I spend hours talking about this with my colleagues, trying to make adjustments in my approach to best suit teachers' needs and the needs of my school as a whole. I debate within myself and aloud to my husband about the pros and cons of different types of campus support.
And I still feel like I don't have all the answers.
You see, much like teaching, coaching is about doing the metal work. Read the books, scour the blogs, ask the questions, and try to arrive at some answers. Try something out, see how it goes, adjust, and try again. There isn't a "right" way. And that's what makes it so hard. 
So, back to the intent of this post: How do you take that uncertainty and use it to gear yourself up for the next semester? (In my opinion, the more challenging semester.)
Well, here are a few things I do that help me move forward, even when I'm swimming in a sea of doubt and dread.

1. Choose a passion project.

We know that passion projects matter. Great things come out of the work we love to do. So give yourself something to live for! What's your passion project? Make a little time for it every week. Last spring, my project was the Reading Lounge. This past fall, I spent all my choice time on Mentor Texts. The year before that was my Book Buddies program (big kids reading to little kids) and before that it was my book study on Whole Brain Teaching. 
In the spring, I find that I'm pulled in 8,000 different directions (testing, administrative support for state/federal mandates, supporting classrooms where teachers are out with babies or medical issues) and sometimes it's easy to get lost in all of that yucky work and forget that there are things to life that I actually enjoy. So these passion projects motivate me to find the joy in my work, even when I'm charting (disappointing) data or having challenging conversations with teachers or administration. Having something to look forward to is great for motivation!

2. Find a coaching community. 

This position can be very isolated. You may be the only coach on your campus, depending on your district. You may be the only one with your job description, in your spot between administration and teachers. In a recent conversation with a new coach, we talked about this challenge. "I feel like I don't really have anyone else on campus who understands my job." 

She's right. Administration, coaching, and teaching look very different from each other on a day-to-day basis. If you've struggled to interact with someone on your campus, it can be hard to figure out who to talk to about it. You don't want to vent to your administrator, because that can violate the trust a teacher has in you. And you can't talk to other teachers about an experience with one of their colleagues. 

So find somebody to talk to! This can be a coach at another school in your area, or find an online coaching community to discuss your experiences with. Or email me at! I love to hear from other coaches! I'd love to hear from you!

3. Remember you're a human being.

I know, I know. You're superhuman. You can pee in under 28 seconds, wash your hands, and make it back to your room before anyone knows you've left the meeting! You can heat up your lunch and eat it standing up at the same time. You can plan a family night event, email your administrator, and refer teachers to your favorite blog, all while make a new spreadsheet to analyze data.

But don't do that all the time, please. It will make you crazy - I promise. I've been to crazy and back (partway back, anyway) and it's not fun. 
This is what happens when you haven't had a hair cut in four months and you've lost your minds a little.
You have to give yourself time to do things like eat, go to the bathroom, and see sunshine. This can come in the form of leaving work thirty minutes earlier than normal and taking a walk. This is what I plan to do each year that I hardly ever do. But when I do, I am far happier. And a happy coach is far more effective than a coach who's forgotten what the sun looks like.

4. I have one more tip, but I don't think it's completely appropriate. So I'll just leave this right here...

How do you get through the tough months? Do you have any tips to share? Please leave them in the comments below!

 Looking for more? Check out my new ebook: The Start-Up Guide to Instructional Coaching on TPT!

And organize yourself with the Instructional Coaching MegaPack of Printable & Fillable Forms!

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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Engaging, interactive read alouds with purpose!

The other day I was planning with one of my grade levels and we were talking about making read aloud a little more interactive. Don't get me wrong: read aloud is inherently awesome. You're sitting on the carpet, reading awesome books, talking about your reading. What's not to love? 

But we have these kids....

The kids who have difficulty focusing and therefore might miss out on some of the best parts.
The kids who are so quiet that, unless you pull it out of them, they won't share their thinking.
The kids who raise their hands every forty-seven seconds to share about, "One time when that happened to me," and you're like, "Really? That happened to you? The time you were at your aunt's house for Thanksgiving and she got her head stuck in a turkey?" (True story, by the way. Or anyway, it's a true story that one time a kid told me that happened.)

So, to continue the conversation, I decided to write about my four tips for making read alouds engaging and interactive!

1. Start with a great text.

Consider your audience. Children easy to engage if you think about their interests! If you have to teach literary nonfiction, and you can choose between a book about Derek Jeter, Yankees star, or a book about PelĂ©, the King of Soccer, go with the book your kids will relate to more.  Look for books with...
  • Engaging topics
  • Interesting language 
  • A good flow - easy to follow
  • Some vivid illustrations (you don't have to show all of them, but you might want to choose some great ones)
  • Age-appropriate language

2. Set a purpose for reading.

Before you choose your book and plan your lesson, figure out why it is you're reading at all. Are you going to focus on story elements? character analysis? emotions? traits? changes? relationships? theme? The focus of your lesson will influence your book selection and the kinds of conversations you want kids to have. 

Set that purpose for reading with your kids. One great, interactive way to do this is with my brand-new Interactive Read Aloud Signs. Set a purpose for reading and provide kids with the signs. During the read aloud, students hold up their sign when they find evidence that matches their purpose!  

Another easy way to set a purpose is to ask a purpose question at the beginning of the lesson and give each student a sticky note. As you read, students will think about the question and write their thinking and evidence on the sticky note. They can Think-Pair-Share about their thinking, too!

This way serves as a great formative assessment! Read the kids' thoughts and see what they're thinking!


3. Plan some interesting, thoughtful questions and conversation starters.

Read the book first - reading that isn't fluent is BO-RING, and confusing as well! Figure out a few places you might like to pause and have students think about the text. Consider your purpose and find a few spots that kids can't help but react! Don't stop too frequently - it'll kill the story. 

4. Give them time to talk!

Once you know where you're going to stop,  make sure you have a cooperative discussion structure set up for them to talk to each other. Think-Pair-Share is the easiest one to plan, but you might experiment with others, too! Here are a few great ideas, if you're looking to jazz it up!

5. Use it as an opportunity for writing!

Kids get ideas by connecting to books you read aloud. After the read aloud, have students respond to the book! You can do this in two ways:
1. Have students write a reading response by providing sentence frames to respond to the purpose you set at the beginning of the lesson. If you're using my Interactive Read Aloud Signs, the sentence frames are already provided on the back!

2. Have students write a seed or an idea in their writer's notebooks. They can make a simple connection to write about later. The more ideas in their notebooks, the better! If you're looking for some fun, interactive tools to jazz up Read Aloud time, check out my Interactive Read Aloud Signs on TPT! I've got a brand-new set for fiction!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Build Fluency and Fun with Christmas Partner Plays!

The first day of December, my kids used to walk into class, excitedly exclaiming, "It's CHRISTMAS!"

This was hilarious. It was not Christmas. It wasn't even winter yet. We were still eating leftover turkey, and my kids couldn't stop talking about the next big thing: Christmas.

And I decided to capitalize on this. One of my ongoing goals as an upper elementary teacher was to grow students' fluency.

And then I realized: I needed to write my own. I began writing partner plays to address different seasons and holidays!

Some holidays were easier than others. Christmas, for example, is abounding with ideas! In my Christmas Partner Plays, you meet Santa, Rudolph, talking ornaments, some very excited elves, and a couple of bells hanging out downtown.

The best part? Teachers who've used the plays have told me that their kids can't get enough! They actually ask for more fluency reading! *sniff* I guess my budding career as a writer has begun!

Check out the video I made with my third grade buddy - I promise you, it's pretty cute.
And grab your set of Christmas Partner Plays on TPT! Great for grades 2 - 4! Monday & Tuesday, November 28 & 29, the plays are on sale for only $2.60! Fill up your cart today, and get them for a great low price tomorrow!

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Six tips for providing constructive feedback to teachers

If you're a new instructional coach, and you're reading this in real time, it's November. Even if you're not a new coach, but you're reading this in real time, it's still November.

It's been a couple months since school started, and there's still a very long way to go. This can be a good thing: you have time to make a difference in the teachers and students on your campus. This can be a scary thing: you have months and months of work left to do. 

Half glass full or half empty? You choose.

Now, I don't know about you, but when I have 900 million things on my to-do list, that's when I start to get a tiny bit crabby. Just a teeny weensy bit snotty. A teensy eensy bit (imagine me holding two fingers verrrrrrry close together) irritable. Sometimes the things that float around in my head when I'm extra crabby threaten to pop out of my mouth when I'm extra crabby and underwater with work to boot.

But we can't have that. 

Because if you say snotty, crabby, irritable things, you will not be able to make an impact on your campus. No one wants to listen to someone who makes them feel bad. That's pretty much human nature, and I think we can all agree that you can't blame people who just want to be treated decently.

Even if they don't treat you decently. Yes, even then. Especially then, maybe, it's important to ensure that you are in charge of the words that leave your mouth.

When it comes to working with teachers, you are building a bridge from you to them, and every act you do, gesture you make, and word you utter can either add a plank to that bridge, or it can rip pieces of your bridge right off and toss them down the river. 

Which is where you'll be if nobody wants to listen to the support you have to offer.

This isn't meant to be threatening! However, it is meant to be serious: you must speak carefully to teachers. Teachers, like kids, are people. And Relationships (with a capital R) come first.

However, part of your job as a coach is to provide feedback to teachers about their teaching and push the envelope a little. This might be in several different contexts, including when you facilitate planning sessions, RtI recommendations, as part of the coaching cycle, or little hallway conversations where teachers are either seeking help or avoiding it.

In our position, we must always consider the teacher's point of view. You are asking them to question, reflect, and adjust their teaching. You don't work with the teacher's group of kids day in and day out, and you're not facing the same obstacles that he or she is. So it's important to value the teacher's input and reasoning about why things are working a certain way in his or her classroom. And before you have any coaching conversation, ensure that it's a good time for the teacher. Don't just pop up in her doorway when she's on her way to run to the bathroom before wolfing down a frozen lasagne in thirteen minutes.

These are a few of the tips that have helped me provide feedback in a respectful, kind, yet firm way to help guide teachers into deeper reflection and response to situations in their classrooms. 

1. Be a good listener.
If you're not listening - and I mean really listening, you won't be very helpful. Good listeners pay attention not only to the words that are used but to the intent behind the words. So think about the words and the context of the words. Look at the teacher. Nod when appropriate. Control your facial expressions. If you think, "I'd never do that!" and it shows up on your face as incredulity, you are not being a good listener. Model respect before you expect to be treated with respect.

2. Try a noticing:
If I've seen something in action during a lesson that I think needs to be addressed in order to help the teacher, I'll say, "I'm noticing that..." For example, if kids continue talking while a teacher is trying to give directions or instruction, I'll say, "I'm noticing that some students listen to your instructions, but there are a few who keep talking during that time."

3. Ask a question.
Ask, "Have you noticed that before?" or "Does that often happen?" to see what the teacher can tell you about the situation.
Dig a little deeper into the problem by asking, "Why do you think that's happening?" "Have you noticed a pattern?" "Is this something you're currently working on with kids?"

4. Don't let the conversation be sidetracked.
If it's important enough to bring it up, it's important enough to ensure that it gets addressed. If the conversation is moving into, "The kids just don't want to," or, "Let me tell you about all the other stuff I've got to do," you'll have to steer it back to the important topic at hand. You might say, "Ok, I can see you've got a lot going on. So, about that question I asked you earlier..." and restate your question. 
Be confident and firm, while being reasonable and understanding. You're doing this to support teachers, and to support kids through their work in the classroom. 

5. Dig down to next steps.
If the whole conversation floats around the idea that the kids are the problem and that there's really nothing that can be done, then what have you accomplished? Absolutely nothing. One of the things I used to say to teachers (and remind myself of when I was a classroom teacher) is, "The only person I can control in this classroom is myself."

And guess what? It's still true! Teachers can't control kids. But they can adjust their methods to make sure they are doing whatever they can to reach kids. So the constructive feedback you're providing to teachers needs to end with a next step, or else nothing came out of a very uncomfortable conversation. I often say, to get to that point, "So what can we do in order to..." or "Do you have any ideas on what we can do to help kids..." or "What might you try to support students in..." These kinds of questions serve to help teachers stop and think about the actions they can take to meet students' needs. 

6. Provide suggestions when the teacher is stumped.
Sometimes the teacher is dealing with a situation that they've already tried to solve to no avail. I know that there were times when I went to my own coach to say, "I'm not sure what to do. Am I doing the right thing?"

If that's where the teacher is, don't be afraid to suggest something that could help him or her. Say, "One thing you might try is..." or "I recently read about..." to be non-threatening while pushing the envelope a little. You can refer back to a training that you've given by saying, "Remember when we learned about ... Do you think that might work in your class?"

You can also offer help. "What can I do to help you with this initiative?" or "Is there something I can do to help?"
Rehearsing your communication in the car on your way to work can help! Think about the sensitive messages you have to send and plan a supportive approach to share them with the teacher.
Being a coach isn't always the most comfortable place to be. Sometimes it requires us to say things we'd rather not say. By cultivating a supportive, kind, yet firm approach when communicating with teachers, especially about the sensitive issues they're dealing with on a daily basis, you can make a positive impact on your teachers, students, and your campus as a whole.

And it'll keep you from being just an eensy weensy bit snotty.
 Looking for more? Check out my new ebook: The Start-Up Guide to Instructional Coaching on TPT!

And organize yourself with the Instructional Coaching MegaPack of Printable & Fillable Forms!

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Sunday, October 9, 2016

A Special Place to Read: Our School Reading Lounge is Ready!

Prepare yourself:
As you read this post, you may find yourself wanting to make a cup of coffee, curl up in a cozy blanket, and read a delicious book.
That's because this post is all about a special spot in my school: our reading lounge.

Also prepare yourself because I am so very in love with this room that I took about 5,000 pictures. It was very hard to choose which 429 of them to include in this blog post. So be ready for photo overload. I can't help it. It's too beautiful!
A reading lounge, according to Stephen Layne in Igniting a Passion for Reading, is a dedicated place for students to read and learn to love reading. There's a link to this gem of a book on the bottom of this post!

A few years ago, my teachers and I did a book study on this book and fell in love with the idea. Three years later, we are the proud owners of this gorgeous space!

How do we use the reading lounge?

We have a sign-up binder with a calendar on the counter. There are 30-minute time slots that teachers can sign up for at their convenience.

Teachers bring their classes in to the lounge to read! Kids arrive with their books and choose a comfy spot to read. During this time, many teachers work with a small reading group or literature circle, or they have reading conferences to talk to kids about their reading!
The basic expectations are that kids will read the whole time, keep their feet on the floor (not on the furniture), leave the furniture where it is rather than moving it around, only read in the lounge when a teacher is present, and respect the other readers by remaining reasonably calm and quiet. 

 We've also talked about having the kids come share their own writing in the reading lounge.

How did we furnish the reading lounge?

When we first started, we asked teachers for donations. They brought in a couch, a loveseat, a couple lamps, and some little storage cubes. I also purchased camp chairs for five dollars each from a sports supply store and some beanbags from Target.

The school paid for our rugs from Lakeshore.

And then came the big boost! I wrote a grant sponsored by Price's Creameries and we received $3000.00 to create our dream reading lounge!

Apparently, Price's recorded a video of me on the day of this grant awards breakfast. So now I'm on a commercial on one of the Spanish TV channels! They keep looking at me funny when I walk into classrooms, and then they say, "I saw you on TV!"

We hired our incredible art teacher to paint the room in a garden theme, bought new couches and lamps, and of course, books! Those were for our Multiple Copies Lending Library (more on that later!).  One of our lovely teachers made the adorable rag curtains, too.

After we finished all of our work with the grant, we had a "Grand Opening!" Each teacher received a beautiful garden themed bookmark purchased by my assistant principal, and an ideas handout for using the lounge and the multiple copies lending library. 


 Want a guided tour? Check out the video!

Grab the book that inspired us:

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Monday, September 5, 2016

Mentor texts for each grade level* Freebie!

What's the most important teaching tool we have? Aside from your brains, it's books! We can do without handouts, copy machines, scented markers (although who would want to?) and even - gasp - post-its. But books are a necessity for authentic instruction. We learn from the greats. One of the first questions we ask when planning every reading & writing lesson should be "Which books show this in action? Which books can we use to engage students in observing this skill or strategy?"

One of the biggest undertakings my school has ventured into is aligning our use of mentor texts for reading and writing experiences. To support teachers and grade levels as a whole in doing this, and to help our collaborative planning, I decided to put together a collection of books for each grade level.

I was so excited to embark on this idea! I searched high and low for mentor text lists, lists of authors with titles under their belt, and recommendations from other teacher-authors, bloggers, and colleagues. I scoured the internet, high and low.

Why was this so difficult? Because my district, and therefore my school, is dual language. We believe in supporting the child's home language (in our area this is primarily Spanish) by following a specific model of language acquisition. This means the majority of literacy instruction in K-2 is in Spanish in our bilingual rooms, and then we increase English language arts in third, until in fourth and fifth we are teaching in English all day (except for Social Studies).
In order to make sure all of our kids had equal opportunity, and our teachers had equal support, I had to find authors and titles that were available in English and Spanish, or with equitable substitutes. This is tough. The trend is currently to move back into 100% English instruction, so Spanish titles are often off-the-market. We had to buy many of them from Amazon because Barnes & Noble (and other booksellers) no longer carries them.
But I finally figured out the authors and titles to use for each grade. The books were delivered a little at a time from different vendors over the summer. When I arrived, I had a pile of boxes in my room. I sorted them into grade levels and added a sticker on the front of each book noting the genre and grade level. Then I put a sticker on the inside cover of each book to give teachers a place to make notes about reading and writing lessons.

I set up the bins in the library and sorted all of the books - one set for each teacher and a master set to keep in my planning room so we'd have one to use during PLC.

During inservice, I provided a little training to teachers about using mentor texts and then I had my Oprah moment! Each teacher received his/her basket, labeled and tidy, to take back with them.
During PLC, we pull out the mentor text basket for their grade level as we plan for reading lessons and writing lessons! 

In case you're undertaking a similar initiative, I pulled together everything that I used for our mentor text project. The stickers, basket labels, and all the titles & authors that I used are there! Grab it from Google Drive!

Happy Teaching!