Teaching writers' workshop is the best thing I do all day. It is powerful to help young children to become writers. Great books, intentional instruction, high expectations, and wide open spaces. Think Katie Wood Ray. Think Ralph Fletcher. It all comes together here.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Why Attend Professional Conferences?

By Amy Ellerman and Mary Jo Ziegman

How do we become the educators we are? As teachers, we take pride in our individual identities, that unique mix of art and science that characterizes our professional style. We develop deeply held values and beliefs that guide our decision making. We walk the talk with buzzwords like “growth mindset,” seeking out experiences that will continue to feed our learning forward. We read, we take classes, we collaborate with other professionals in our buildings. Many of us also build virtual PLNs (personal learning networks) on social networking platforms to widen our circles of collaboration. These partnerships lead to shared missions and visions for the work we do in our schools and districts.


Over time, our professional (and collective) personas grow and evolve; there are many influences competing to be the philosophical wind and water shaping the geography on which our practice is built. How do we ensure that we position ourselves to engage in the ongoing professional dialogue? How do we make sure that we have access to the voices in education that will challenge us to keep growing?


One way to keep ourselves in the most current learning loop is to attend a professional conference.


A conference is an opportunity for new and different ideas to stand together in the same space with the practitioners who will determine which methods rise and fall. It is the classroom teacher who translates new strategies into daily practice. It is the classroom teacher who makes decisions about which new strategies and ideas get test driven with students and which live forever frozen on the pages of books and journals. Proximity to those new ideas matters. It’s the difference between reading a primary source and a textbook; as an educator, do you want to be in the room, asking questions, privy to the professional dialogue, or do you want to learn new practices through someone else’s filter? Ken Lindblom, Editor of English Journal puts it this way: “We have a decision to make: Are teachers decision makers who use their professional judgment to affect student learning? Or are teachers implementers of the professional judgment of others, who follow the directions that others have determined will lead to student success?” (2013).


As we teach our students, we must be active consumers of content, able to critically analyze the quality of theories and practices flooding the marketplace so that we can make the best possible instructional decisions. Our content knowledge must be deep, and we must continuously work to deepen it. The current climate demands that we be informed advocates for our students and for the future direction of our profession. “Lifelong learner” is not just a phrase we throw around on the resume. To thrive as an educator it is imperative that we continue to refine our practice through interaction with other professionals with the same drive to learn.


At a conference, we can connect with those like-minded professionals, the educators who share our passion for teaching and learning. It is affirming and inspiring to gather with others who seek to understand the intricacies of instruction. The energy is palpable—it’s a learning vacation (not a vacation from learning, but the luxury of a vacation dedicated to learning).


A conference is designed around the understanding that participants want to be able to choose what they learn. Unlike a class or a workshop, if a session is not meeting your needs, you can walk next door or down the hall to find a better fit. Daniel Pink has written extensively on the connection between autonomy and motivation (2009). In a professional learning environment that tends to include few(er) choices at the building level, it is empowering to “choose your own adventure” at a conference, selecting the sessions most applicable to the needs of your own classroom, role, or building. Like our students, we are most engaged when we have a voice in selecting the content most relevant to our own needs and professional learning goals. Pink’s big three—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—the factors that contribute most to intrinsic motivation and long-term satisfaction with work and the pursuit of goals, germinate and are nurtured in the kind of learning environment that a conference creates.


Attending a series of sessions from a variety of speakers often reveals a common theme bubbling up in the field. We can see the big ideas that unite us as educators, rather than the specificities of our classrooms and buildings that tend to separate us. For example, a thread that ran through sessions at the 2015 CCIRA Conference was inquiry. Whether it was Jeff Wilhelm making Shakespeare relevant to high school students or Nell Duke sharing her research on Project Based Learning in the primary grades, speaker after speaker advocated for shifting more ownership to students through an inquiry stance. A professional at that conference could not help but reflect on the level of student engagement across content and grade level in his or her own classroom or building. In this way, a conference is an opportunity to step back and see the big picture, to notice the important trends connecting the more specialized teaching lives we pursue.


Because educators don’t all need the same learning, and because we don’t always agree, a conference is guaranteed to surface differences as well as similarities. This is both important and necessary to the health of our profession. When in our daily lives do we create opportunities to engage with the ideas of others—in particular, others who may hold beliefs that are different from our own? A conference is an opportunity to push on our thinking. Just as a little cognitive dissonance is good for our students, it is equally valuable to attend a session at a conference that blows your hair back a bit. Disequilibrium leads to deep reflection, asking questions, and an authentic need to process with others. At a conference, we are surrounded by educators from a wide variety of experiences who may be having a similar experience. It is a safe place to be intellectually uncomfortable.


The most significant measure of the value of a conference is what happens after the conference. It’s not about putting everything into practice—that’s not possible—but about choosing the next steps that will feed your own learning forward. What has inspired you to continue learning? For example, are you leaving with a professional book from a favorite speaker, so that you can go deeper into what he or she presented? Did you connect with another educator with similar interests, so that you have a compatriot with whom you can reflect as you try out a new idea? Or perhaps you met someone who challenged you to think more deeply about a current practice.


Bigger picture, what is the impact on the culture of a school if it is regularly infused with the new thinking of teachers attending conferences? There is a collective sense of ownership for building capacity in schools where teachers are expected to pursue new learning and bring it back to share with teams. It becomes “something we do,” the norm, growth mindset in action. Challenging the status quo with learning that provokes discussion and a need for action research, the itch to try it out, to see if it really does improve student achievement. This builds leadership in schools, a sense of responsibility among teachers that the best way to improve teaching and learning is to be a critical consumer of what makes best practice. According to Carol Dweck, whose research has brought the concept of growth mindset to the forefront of education, “Effort is one of the things that gives meaning to life. Effort means you care about something, that something is important to you and you are willing to work for it. It would be an impoverished existence if you were not willing to value things and commit yourself to working toward them” (cited by Pink, 2009, p. 123). School cultures that invest energy and effort into professional learning, who expect such effort from each other, flourish from the energy generated by motivated professionals.


How do we become the educators we are? We build that identity. The question is, are we willing to build-by-number, Ikea style, or do we value the process enough to craft our own identities? It does take more effort to research which materials are the best quality and which tools offer the most precision, but the craftsmanship speaks for itself when there is pride and joy in the process. The professional conference challenges us as practitioners to engage in the collaborative thinking work that sharpens our chisel and calibrates our lathe. The fellowship we gain as leaders of our own learning—a community of learners seeking out ideas that push our thinking—this is what makes education such a dynamic and inspiring profession.


Conferences open doors. Doors to new ways of thinking. Doors to books to be read. Doors to professional networks. Attending a conference is an investment in your craft. It’s a way to feed the passion that motivated you to pursue teaching in the first place. A conference is a place to physically rub shoulders and connect with other professionals who want to be engaged and inspired. Let’s invest in the crafting of our teacher-selves by being active participants in this year’s CCIRA Conference on Literacy: A World of Wonder.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Rethinking Collaboration



Measured by minutes on a clock, an instructional coach has opportunities to collaborate much more frequently than anyone else in the building. In the past week, for example, I have been part of:
  • Four grade level PLCs
  • RtI Planning with three grade levels (including horizontal teammates, paraprofessionals, and special education teachers)
  • Planning for a PBL unit with one grade level
  • Half day release time for unit planning with a small group that included a classroom teacher, digital teacher librarian, and tech integration specialist
  • Instructional planning with my principal
  • Big picture data analysis and UIP planning with our Instructional Leadership Team (including three classroom teachers, a special education teacher, teacher librarian, and principal)
  • Planning and debrief/reflecting conversations related to coaching cycles and/or modeled lessons with three teachers
  • A half day class learning/planning side-by-side with a grade level team plus special education teacher
  • More planning conversations than I can count supporting teachers in crafting their Individual Educator Goals that are due in the next few days (classroom teachers, specialists. . . everyone)
  • Follow up learning around the PLC process with coaches, principals, and district leaders
Almost all of the work I do is side-by-side with someone. And yet. . . how often is that someone another coach? In the past week, only one example included an opportunity to be in a role-alike situation. 

Ironic? Definitely.

I would argue that if research shows collaboration is key for teachers, that teachers are more effective when they deprivatize practice and leverage their collective expertise to engage in collaborative, results-oriented work, then the same should be true for coaches. 

Within buildings, we have redesigned schedules to reflect this shared value of collaboration for teachers. We are creative with resources to build extended planning blocks, to offer release time, and to make sure all stakeholders are at the table when we analyze data and plan for instruction. We have invested time in learning how to work together at higher levels. We have celebrated the impact this commitment has had on student learning and school culture. 

So. . . do we need to re-think our structures around how instructional coaches collaborate? 

When I look at my calendar, how often does it say, Planning for Formative Assessment PD w/ Coach X, or Observe and Reflect w/ Coach Y? Is there a regular time allotted for Coach PLC? Is it even okay to advocate with our principals for this kind of time out of our buildings, intentionally carving out space to collaborate with our fellow coaches? 

This is not to say that my district doesn't have processes in place to build community among coaches. We meet once or twice a month formally, in large groups and in smaller groups. We share via Schoology, and we build networks of go-to coaches for support and mentoring. We occasionally visit and observe each other in action. There is regular sharing going on, resources and ideas passing from coach to coach. We have structures for shared leadership. We have a strong coaching program, no question. 

But I do wonder what might be possible if the how we work together evolved to better align with what we know about the power of Professional Learning Communities.

Consider the 4 Questions of a PLC Through a Coaching Lens:

  • Q1: How are we prioritizing the essentials of the adult learning in our building (and its intended effects on student learning)? 
  • Q2: How do we know when teachers have it (and it's impacting student learning)? 
  • Q3: What do we do when teachers don't yet have it (and students aren't learning)? 
  • Q4: What do we do when teachers/students already have it? 

Wouldn't involvement in a coach PLC with other coaches focusing on the same goal be an ideal place to share this worthy thinking work?

What type of work (that we often do in isolation) would be more powerful if done with another coach (or coaches)? 
  • Planning for Professional Development: This includes both the long-view work involved in thinking through a year of connected learning as well as the weekly/monthly planning for each learning experience building up to the expected outcomes. Designing PD together and then reflecting on results and next steps. . . that would have a significant impact on adult and student learning. 
  • Structures and Sense-Making: The how is just as important (if not more so) than the what. So much time and thought goes into the systems and the framing for what happens in schools. And while it is critical for this work to include a wide variety of stakeholders from inside the building, the perspective of how things are organized in other buildings is just as critical. It's too easy to get mired down in, "This is how we do it." Outside perspective prompts us to inquire, "Why are we doing it this way?"
  • Development of Cognitive Coaching Skills: How do I get better at my coaching conversations, my group facilitation, my coaching cycles? What data points help me to reflect on my effectiveness as a coach? Do I have opportunities to give and receive growth producing feedback to and from other coaches? If I could do more regular work alongside other coaches, I would grow faster--guaranteed. 
  • Straight up Time-Savers (which gives us more time for higher leverage work): For example, coaches attend a training, with the understanding that we will "bring it back to our building." The process of translating a three hour training with 150 slides into an hour long learning experience with 15 slides takes several hours. It is incredibly inefficient for each of the 100+ coaches in my district to do this independently. And yet, all our buildings have different needs, so it's not about creating something one-size-fits-all. But if small groups of us with common needs or styles created this type of presentation together, it would save time--and would be higher quality. We would also have a common reference point to reflect on as the learning in the presentation played out in buildings. 
A system with dedicated structures in place to support the PLC process is a gift to educators. It's sacred time to do the most important work with the stakeholders closest to (and most invested in) that work. As I reflect on the impact on student learning arising from the shift towards the PLC process in our building, I feel the need to advocate for myself and for the other coaches in my community. What might the impact be on our work if regular engagement in the PLC process became part of our routine--as expected on the weekly calendar as the staff meeting or grade level PLCs?

I want to find out! 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Feeling Thankful


It's not quite November, but I'm already feeling thankful. 

I had an opportunity to attend an all day learning experience on Friday that got me thinking about the kind of teachers I am fortunate to learn beside. We had the best day digging into the PLC process with Thomas Many, author of Learning by Doing and Leverage. As I reflect on what made the day so powerful, it all comes back to what these three teachers bring to the table every time we collaborate. 

Growth Mindset


These teachers are learners. The PLC process is new for us this year, and they are comfortable jumping in to figure it out, and then jumping out to reflect on how it's going. They seek out thought partners in this work. They don't get overwhelmed, because they don't expect to be perfect at it yet. They expect learning to be messy (but totally worth it). 

Vulnerability


These teachers aren't afraid to share what isn't working. As we contrasted Thomas Many's version of intervention with our own RtI process, to say we experienced some cognitive dissonance would be putting it mildly. Teachers asked some hard questions and shared some honest reflections on where we are in this process. Instead of taking us someplace negative, making the vulnerabilities visible led to deeper questions and collaboration from the group. It felt safe to explore what was difficult, instead of feeling pressured to prove we could solve it. In fact, I might argue that being openly vulnerable enabled us to see (and be ready for) next steps that we might not have seen (or been ready for) without the reflective conversation. 

Connected Work


The high level of collaboration on Friday was also a direct result of how connected our work is on a regular basis in the building. Because the special education teacher and I are part of their respective PLCs and/or RtI Planning time (plus coaching cycles and in-classroom time), we could connect our learning to specific examples from our recent work. Being able to say, "So last week when we. . ." or "Do you remember in that RtI meeting when. . ." was so affirming. We have begun to deprivatize practice in a way that facilitates deeper dialogue around our instruction. So when we engage in learning together, we can make sure it gets specific enough to lead to real growth. 

Openness to Shift


My brain hurt by the end of the session--in the best possible way. And judging by the BMIRS flashing around the table all day, I was not the only one who experienced cognitive shift. Getting energized when you figure out something new--even if that something new rocks the foundation of what you thought you knew--that is an exceptional quality that all three of these teachers share. 

This is the part of education that I love. The moments when you look around and appreciate what a gift it is to be a part of a learning community--whether we're talking about kids or adults. If we want to build learning communities with students, we must spend equal time and care building them with adults. Friday was my most recent "data point" that we're on the right track. 

As a teacher or coach, what are the signs that your professional community is continuing to grow? 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Transformational Professional Reading

What are those professional books that have rocked your pedagogical world? The ones that made you stop, think, and shift in some significant way? Here are my top three:

3. Awakening the Heart, by Georgia Heard


This is the book that changed me from a teacher who feared poetry to a teacher who cannot imagine a teaching (or a reading or a writing) life without poetry. Georgia Heard makes poetry so accessible, so connected to who we are as human beings. Her strategies support the most reluctant writer (and teacher) in taking creative risks and in beginning to "resee" the world through a poet's eyes.

I have relied on this book as a classroom teacher, and I have used it as a tool as an instructional coach. Years later, it is my go-to resource for supporting teachers (and students) who may be hesitant about their own efficacy around poetry. Georgia Heard makes poetry safe, and she connects it to the writing work we do throughout the year (not just in April).

2. The Comprehension Toolkits, by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis


You may be familiar with Stephanie and Anne's book, Strategies that Work, a comprehensive work on the how-tos of teaching reading comprehension. The Comprehension Toolkits (K-2 and 3-6), take the same content and break it apart into practical units, including non-fiction texts for instruction. Each lesson contains examples of teacher talk, student talk, and student work. I think of the toolkits as teaching resources; they are practical, yes, but through their use, the teacher learns so much. They are not intended to be "scripts," but examples of the level of thinking and talk that supports deep comprehension.

Stephanie Harvey is just so clear when she writes about comprehension. Her strategies make the thinking we do as readers visible--to kids and to us as we assess where kids are with their comprehension. The how and the why are completely transparent and transferable. She teaches us how to teach reading comprehension (not just practice doing it).

1. About the Authors, by Katie Wood Ray


It's hard to pick just one Katie Wood Ray book (I've read them ALL). . . but this is the one that changed everything for me as a writing teacher (long, long, ago). This is the book that gave me a vision for the writing our youngest writers can do if we get out of their way and build a writing community that mirrors what writers do in the real world. Katie Wood Ray proves in this book the high level of thinking writers are capable of when they are taught to "read like writers" and have vision for the possibilities of their own work.

Katie Wood Ray taught me to adjust my stance--from teacher/student to writer/writer. As we began to notice and inquire together, my students developed their own writer identities. They became empowered, engaged, and motivated. They had purpose and audience for their writing. They could talk about their intentions as writers and refer to the mentor texts that inspired their thinking. Their growth mindset around writing inspired my own.

I have been an unapologetic groupie every since.

What does this say about me? 


I could go on and on with professional books that have helped to shape the teacher I am today. But my purpose today was to reflect, and perhaps to challenge you to reflect as well.

As I look over my list, I see a trend. All three of my transformational books share the idea that in order to teach, we must model--with our own writing lives, with the way we make our own thinking as a reader or writer visible. A walking the walk situation. All of these authors project that same authenticity that I aspire to live with my students and with the teachers I work beside. It's not about having all the answers. It's about having genuine curiosity for figuring it out together. It's about trusting that everyone (everyone) you learn beside has the capacity for greatness. As teachers, we must be vulnerable (and patient) enough to reflect on the process of figuring it out.

What are your transformational professional books? What do they say about your beliefs as an educator? 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What are you Reading?

I recently heard Leslie Blauman speak, and she made an observation about the reading habits of teachers that I cannot stop thinking about. She claims that teachers aren't reading professional books anymore.

In fact, she says, educational publishers are struggling in the current market, because teachers aren't buying professional books the way they used to. And the books educators are buying are smaller, more bite-sized and practical than the professional books of yore.

My first reaction was denial. I feel like my professional book budget gets bigger every year, not smaller. With all there is to learn (and the pressure to learn it), the book business should be booming!

On the one hand, I can see how resources like Twitter, blogs, and digital versions of journals like Educational Leadership are appealing to educators. Ideas flow fast, and there's no commitment if it's not what you need. I love having access to such great thinking on my phone or iPad at any time. It's essential to be a connected educator, and I would argue that I have learned just as much online from my PLN as I have from books.

But I don't think the educational publishing slump can be blamed entirely on social media and digital resources. . . And something tells me that the educators exploring new ways to access and share the latest thinking in education online are the ones who ARE still buying professional books (based on how many new books I hear about from Twitter).

The real question--and the one that scares me to answer--is: Are there teachers who have stopped reading, period?

I know the workload on teachers is crazy-unreasonable, but what happens to a profession if the professionals don't make time to learn? There is no way to master the craft and content we are expected to demonstrate if our only learning happens during the weekly staff meeting. It is just not possible (or appropriate) to expect that to be enough. If we are going to inspire a growth mindset in our students, then we need to model that growth mindset. We must read.

Additionally, I believe it's important to support the professional book industry so that we continue to have choices in the kinds of books being created. Print media is not the only way to have a voice in education, but it would certainly change the landscape of our profession if only the largest companies survive, homogenizing the professional literature.

What can we Do?


As an Instructional Coach, I would rather focus on the solution than bemoan the problem. If it is our reality that teachers are not finding (or making) the time to read--whether that is books or whether that is articles, blogs, or Twitter chats--then I wonder what my role might be in supporting a professional reading culture in my building.

Over the next month, I'm going to look for ways to feed the work I'm already doing with teachers with the "just right" resources to support that embedded learning. This might be one-on-one in a coaching cycle, in a team PLC, or as optional supports after some small or whole group learning.

If the right book in the right hand is too much, then I can target the right chapter of the right book instead. Maybe if that chapter is just what someone needs, it will build trust in future recommendations. If the thought of diving into Twitter is too overwhelming, perhaps a link to a blog from another reflective teacher might be just enough to open a door for collaboration.

My goal is to look for opportunities to be both invitational and intentional in supporting the professional reading community in my school. I don't want to overwhelm, but we need fuel on the fire if we're going to spark conversation about professional reading.

There are plenty of teachers in my building who are already voracious professional readers. But just like in our classrooms, if we aren't talking about what we're reading, it doesn't build a reading community. Without a reading community, there is no welcoming arm around the shoulder of the reluctant reader to pull him or her into the fold.

I'm thinking about ways to open the doors to our professional reading lives the way we strive to open the doors to our professional practice. . .

Sunday, September 13, 2015

#Educoach Blogging Challenge!

I have been desperately in need of a kick in the pants to get re-blogging, and this is it. Kathy Perret and the #educoach community are encouraging instructional coaches to post one blog a week during the month of October to build community and to facilitate sharing. I follow the #educoach hashtag, but I don't often contribute, so this is the perfect opportunity to get more involved.

To learn more or to sign up, visit Kathy's website.

Until October. . .

Monday, July 15, 2013

Teaching as Gentling a Wild Horse



My brother’s new hobby is gentling wild mustangs. (Yes, my entire family that grew up in the suburbs has turned into cowboys without me.) Twice now, he has acquired a mustang from the Bureau of Land Management and then spent months training it until it was ready to be adopted.

It’s a magical process, watching horse and rider learn to trust each other. It requires great skill, patience, and love of horses.

So the other night at dinner my brother was complaining about how much more work it is on days when his 19 year old client comes by to “help” with the training.

“It takes forever when I know he's coming. First, there’s all the thinking ahead of time about what we need to do. How to break it down for him.”

“Then as we’re working, I have to constantly explain everything--the reasons behind every decision.”

“We try it together, and I have to show him over and over again until he can do it himself. It takes so much longer than when I can just go out there and get it done.”

(Pause for reaction.)

Me: “Yeah, it’s called teaching.”

Half the look he gave me was a thank-you-very-much for the smart ass remark. The other half said, “So THAT’s what you do all day every day?”

Yes. Yes it is. (Except I love it.)

Here’s what’s awesome--he completely nailed the essentials of good lesson design: intentional planning, the I-do we-do you-do of gradual release (including think-aloud), the formative assessment involved in deciding when reteaching is necessary, making the learning hands-on and authentic.

I have no doubt that this kid loves working with my brother--he is so obviously a natural teacher. All grumbling aside, he knows what it means to help someone really understand and apply something new. It is work. But without all those troublesome steps, there is a risk of teaching without learning.

And the, “Well, I taught it!” rationale isn’t comforting while being thrown from a horse!