My professional goal this year, my second year as a literacy coach, was to give better feedback…or just feedback in general. Last year, my first year in a new school, was all about relationships. Just get the teachers to trust me and see me as someone that had something to offer them-someone they could learn alongside. Last year, I think I said it pretty often, “I’m not really coaching anyone yet…” I’ve never pretended to have all the answers. My favorite line is, “let’s study that together!” I think I’ve learned more, at a faster pace, in the last two years than the last twelve years combined.
Recently, something a staff developer working with our district mentioned casually, really stuck with me and got me thinking. It was while we were planning for an upcoming unit of study in writing, research writing in third grade. The lesson was about drafting possible table of contents to help plan for information writing. When she said, “That work should take about 10 minutes. So what else will the kids do?” I had an aha moment. Sometimes we get so lost in the mini lesson plan or the small group plans, that maybe I hadn’t thought about being so explicit about the independent work time. Sometimes I’m in a writing workshop and wonder where is the urgency? The volume? Could it be that we are just not clear enough about what is possible during the writing time?
I’ve kept this wonder in my mind as I have been working with our third and fourth grade teams on a coaching cycle focused on writing. In fourth grade, the teams are in a unit on historical fiction. In one particular class, I watched as the teacher did a lesson on creating story arcs to help plan out the scenes of a story. I then watched as the kids moseyed back to their seats, chatting with their friends, taking their time getting their notebooks out, and eventually settled into planning-a secondary task to the conversations happening with their table mates.
This had me thinking back to the conversation with the staff developer. How long should this planning take? What else will the kids do? I knew I had to say something to the teacher. My favorite coaching line I picked up from someone has been, “I wonder…” It takes the pressure off and helps me feel like the feedback I am about to give is more of an inquiry, something to study. So I jumped right in before I could talk myself out of it. “I’m wondering how we could get them to write more. To take this work more seriously.”
This “wonder” led to some great conversation across the grade level. Turns out this wasn’t the only class taking the leisurely route to writing their stories. We talked about strategies for increasing volume and raising the bar, setting goals and expectations for writing time.
Less than a week later, I was back in the same classroom. Things had changed, I could tell before the mini lesson even ended. The lesson started with the kids thinking about their goals for writing time that day. Will I finish a scene? Will I try to focus harder to get more writing done? Everyone had a different plan and strategies in mind to execute them.
After a focused lesson on showing feelings versus just stating them, I listened as the teacher reminded the students of their goals as she called students table by table to get their writing and get right to work. Students, quickly got their work and set up. They jumped right into writing.
As the kids settled into their writing, I walked over to the teacher and said, “This is like night and day! It’s like a whole different class! This would be a great opportunity to reinforce the work. Look at them! They got settled quickly. Some kids chose privacy boards to help them focus. They’re all writing!” The teacher blushed.
“You tell them,” she said.
After I interrupted the students, briefly, to let them know I had noticed the change and their efforts, I turned back to the classroom teacher. “You did this,” I whispered, careful not to disrupt the students. “You took this on and they have responded.” She blushed some more, clearly proud of their accomplishments.
This experience reinforced the importance of raising the bar for students. When we provide them with purposeful work and clear expectations and goals, they will rise to the occasion…and hopefully find joy in the feeling of challenge and learning.