Observing Through a Coaching Lens: 8 Ideas to Lift the Level of Conversation and Transform Practice

Reflecting on Observations

This is my 16th year in education and it is safe to say that my growth and development as a human being and educator rests on the shoulders of those who generously took the time to ask me about what worked well and what didn’t. They gave me the time and space to freely collaborate, think, reflect, and embrace my successes and failures (and there were many). When considering all of the productive conversations I have had about teaching and learning, I have discovered that there were a handful of observations that lifted the level of my instruction and landed at the forefront of my mind. I have been formally observed approximately 35 times over the course of my career. The conversations that moved me forward weren’t necessarily the ones that involved a formal write-up or rubric. It was the in-the-moment dialogue, the reciprocal nature of those meaningful exchanges, and the authenticity of the process that led me to taking new paths to a destination.

Shifting the Observation Narrative

I’ll admit, the trajectory of my career has been beautiful. Having served many communities in different roles, I quickly recognized that each building had a wide range of strengths and opportunities for growth. Having been a teaching assistant, classroom teacher, elementary and middle school literacy specialist, instructional coach, and mentor coordinator K-12, these experiences have collectively afforded me opportunities to speak with a plethora of administrators, teachers, mentors, students, and families who have impacted the way I approach teaching and learning. Throughout this time, I have considered many different perspectives, sifted through various curricula, collaborated on the writing of curricula, have attended and presented many professional learning experiences, and have coached and taught many teachers and students. I have also recognized that every educator adds value to a conversation, and those who serve on the frontlines have tremendous insight into where they need to grow. As I stepped into the role of assistant principal this year, my journey has led me to think about how I can shift the narrative of observations and ask myself, How can I be the administrator I always needed during the observation process? AND How can I capitalize on my teaching and coaching experiences to elevate and support the educators I serve?

I have always appreciated the role of a coach, a thinking partner, a knowledgeable colleague who can help me see things differently than I may have seen them before. Before I proceed, allow me to share Jim Knight’s definition of a coach from his website:

Grounding the Work

An instructional coach is a dedicated partner for teachers, providing evidence-based practices that improve teaching and learning so students everywhere can be more successful.

Before I share some ideas, let me be clear that I am not embarking on this work alone. My principal and I are approaching observations through a coaching lens together. This is a shared experience that will ultimately support and cultivate a culture of collaboration that will directly impact student achievement. As we move this important work forward together, we recognize that this is a journey and we have only planted the seeds for experiences we will continue to develop and grow.

Observing Through a Coaching Lens: 8 Ideas to Lift the Level of Conversation & Transform Practice

CLICK HERE to print out the card for discussion

  1. Less Evaluative and More Collaborative: Approach conversations as a thinking partner. There are no titles in teaching and learning discussions. Keep the conversations focused on the learner and the learning. In the book Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Dr. Katie Novak, George identifies 3 critical areas for learning by educators and why they are crucial. 1. Learn about our students 2. Learn for our students 3. Learn from our students. The same applies during a collaborative conversation between an administrator and teacher: 1. Learn about our teachers 2. Learn for our teachers 3. Learn from our teachers. There is no one who knows themselves and their learners better than the teacher themselves.
  2. Root in the Mission and Vision: When I was onboarded to the assistant principal role, one of the 1st documents my principal shared with me was the District’s mission and vision. I am still in awe of the time, thought, and collaborative effort that had gone into creating this document. This isn’t a document that is simply just posted on the District website. This is a document that lives and breathes in every conversation we embark on. The language and meaning are easily embedded into observations, informal conversations, professional learning experiences, and presentations. In discussing teaching and learning with teachers and planning instruction, we look back at the mission and vision together and intentionally reflect on student outcomes. Is the planning, process, and evidence a reflection of what we believe in as a school District?
  3. Bridge Building Level Goals: When discussing the mission and vision, it is vital to communicate and bridge the building level goals with the discussion. As teachers are planning, executing, and responding in real time during lessons, having a building level focus such as “student-generated questioning” or “enhancing evidence-informed practices” or “delivering intentional small group instruction” (to name a few) can keep the goals of the conversation grounded and the planning and preparation more focused.
  4. Target Priority Standards: It is recognized that there are a significant number of standards that learners are expected to be exposed to, explore, and in many cases master by the end of a school year. Zoom in on the priority standards and keep the conversation rooted in what standards are critical in helping learners access more complex skills. Consider creating a digital folder of standards that teachers can have access to while planning lessons in one space. Having the standards available will also help guide the conversation to the assessment component of the lesson. It may lead to the question, How will you know if students are accessing the standard during and after the lesson?
  5. Value Teachers as Guides: Allow the teachers to guide the observation conversations. Let them talk about the teaching and learning that transpires in their rooms. Let them share what they are most proud of and what they feel are areas of growth based on student evidence. These authentic discussions show teachers that you value their expertise that could lead to a more organic experience.
  6. Consider Multiple Pathways to Feedback: After an observation, I will never leave a classroom without naming the goodness I saw. I never make the teacher wait to get an observation write up to know what their impact was during that lesson. I talk directly to the teacher and students. I name the work I saw through the experience. “It was amazing to see you using accountable talk stems to lift the level of each other’s thinking together. I can see you and your teacher have been working hard at actively listening to one another so you can add on to the discussion in meaningful ways.” I am also a fan of leaving a digital note, handwritten note, or Voxer message (walkie talkie app) and sending it right to the teacher’s email directly after the lesson. This lets the teacher know that you appreciated being in the room and shows you are a true learning partner in the process.
  7. Growth Through Coaching Conversations: Ask good questions that will spark learner-driven conversations. They will lead you to identifying and focusing on a problem of practice. Questions such as: What worked well for you during our collaboration and coaching cycle? How has your teaching been positively impacted? How do you feel our collaboration has positively impacted the students? What were any challenges or missed opportunities during our work together? What are some next steps in your teaching?
  8. Recommend Relevant Resources: Like a teacher, every instructional leader should have a bag of tricks available and ready to support and grow an educator during any given conversation. Keeping yourself well-versed on up-to-date articles, books, and practical resources teachers can use to apply in their classroom TOMORROW is a great investment in the teaching and learning deposit box. Recently I recommended Evolving Education by Dr. Katie Martin to a teacher. After watching a lesson that was learner-driven, personalized, and innovative, I wanted to be able to get a seasoned teacher to productively seek out new ways to take incredible existing practices and make small shifts that will have big impact. As this particular teacher is reading the book, she is sharing what parts resonated and how she is implementing some of the ideas. For example, she took the School Learner Profile exemplar on page 16 of the book AND our District mission and vision, and created a learner profile that was in line with her classroom community values.

Moving Forward

So I ask school leaders, will you consider working to shift the narrative of observations by observing through a coaching lens? Every interaction you have as a coach and thinking partner is an opportunity to build community, lift the level of conversations, and transform practices in the most meaningful, productive ways. As my principal shared with our staff, “Michael Phelps’ coach is not better than him at swimming, he is there to support his growth and provide feedback so he can be better.” He is there to help him see things he can’t see himself.

3 Ideas to Level Up Learning

Embrace the Opportunity

Educators have been afforded a magical opportunity to impact and influence the lives of every learner they encounter throughout their careers. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a tremendous responsibility that rests on the shoulders of every interaction and experience we shape on the journey. You see, education is not just a career, it’s a calling; it’s a chance to create memorable moments that touch hearts, inspire learners to dream, and provide them with purposeful supports as they manifest their hopes for the future. Educators have the power to create spaces of psychological safety and tap into the emotional drive that will propel learners towards success. They have the ability to leverage intentional dialogue in their environments, provide learners with equitable access to their education in meaningful ways, and establish a sincere set of values and beliefs they can continuously put into action. This is a belief system that will model high levels of integrity and commitment to those they serve. In the book Unlocking Unlimited Potential by Dr. Brandon Beck, he beautifully states, “It’s the ultimate goal of all educators to unlock the unlimited potential in all whom you serve… your purpose as an educator has to involve your belief that you can guide all students to understand their potential is unlimited” (pp. 6-7).

Moving Beyond Our Locus of Control

Amidst a global pandemic, educators have been faced with challenges that are beyond their locus of control. According to the article, Locus of Control and Your Life by Kendra Cherry, “Locus of control refers to the extent to which people feel that they have control over the events that influence their lives.” People who have an external locus of control don’t believe they can change despite their efforts. This has placed unsurmountable pressure on educators who prefer to be in control of all of their professional outcomes and may believe that they must cover all of the standards and content in order for learners to be successful. However, the article continues to say that people who have a strong internal locus of control have more confidence when they are faced with challenges and have a strong sense of self-efficacy to be flexible and embrace change while reimagining learning in the new educational landscape we are living in. This has made educators question how they are going to unleash the talents in every learner that enters their learning spaces. If we are asking learners to engage in various learning activities in physical and virtual spaces, take risks, and put forth effort while embracing the infinite mindset, shouldn’t educators be modeling the same actions?

Where Do We Invest Our Time?

That being said, there have been various barriers including a lack of continuity of instruction that have gotten in the way of the engagement and empowerment learners need to thrive. In the book Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, and Unleash Genius by Katie Martin, she asks the following questions: “Why do some students willingly engage in academic tasks? What makes learners persist in challenging tasks? What compels learners to want to learn more and improve?” (p. 76). Martin goes on to talk about Camille Fallington’s deep research about creating cultures that develop mindsets for deeper learning to occur. “The following mindsets have been identified as critical to student motivation and willingness to persist in academically challenging work.

I belong in this community

I can succeed at this

My ability and competence grow with effort

My work has value to me

…As learners, teachers, and leaders, we must cultivate and model these mindsets too” (pp. 76-77). Throughout my teaching experiences, I have come to realize that before learners are able to feel empowered to engage in deep learning, educators must make an investment in the emotional deposit box by developing strong connections. In Unlocking Unlimited Potential, Dr. Beck brilliantly states, “It starts with educating students from the inside out in order to find the Sweet Spot” (p.48). So I ask, how can educators level up learning to create relevant, meaningful learning experiences that will leave an everlasting impact on the hearts and minds of the students they serve?

Here are 3 Ideas to Level Up Learning:

TELL STORIES

Stories are windows into our experiences. They are small moments etched into our memories. They are the ammunition that pushes us down the path of discovery. In an #InnovatorsMindset podcast, George Couros says “Stories are the fuel for innovation, they inspire us, they give us pertinent ideas, they get the work we are doing out to people in a really compelling way that goes beyond what a score could tell people about our students.” Beneath the façade of every human being lies personal, unique collections of stories that reveal reflections of who they are and who they want to be. How can we intentionally create spaces for learners to share how they view the world through stories?

REVEAL:

WHO YOU ARE: Tell YOUR story and share the reason your journey led you to where you are in right now! We all come from various experiences that shape who we are. By sharing those experiences, you are showing learners that they have the power to write their own narratives and change their course as they evolve as human beings!

YOUR WHY/PURPOSE: There is nothing more powerful than telling your learners why you were placed in a position to teach them how to maximize their social, emotional and academic potential. Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it…there are leaders and those that lead. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves. Those who start with their ‘Why’ have the ability to inspire those around them.” What we value and how we share “why” we value those things, changes the culture of the classroom/building. 

PERSONAL AND STUDENT STORIES THAT CONNECT LEARNING: In Richard Gerver’s book Change, he notes that people can, “Use stories as tools to build momentum in others.” Sharing educator and student stories will inspire the learning community to have empathy and understanding for one another. Stories are real world examples that can breath meaning and life into learning. That authentic connection can give the content more meaning and motivate learners to see it’s value and build deeper understanding of the classroom community and curriculum.

BUILD BRIDGES

According to the Miriam Webster Dictionary, one of the definitions of a bridge is, “a time, place, or means of connection or transition.” One of our critical roles as educators is to help learners build bridges that connect the heart to the mind. Throughout this journey, we are learning and thinking partners who provide the right scaffolds that help learners walk across the bridge with intention and purpose and grasp the new learning that exists on the other side. However, it’s the actual process of walking on the bridge, the productive struggle; those moments where as educators, we get to say, “I’m here for you, I care about you, and let’s have fun while doing it!” that will nurture the heart and make it easier for learners to open their minds.

BEGIN WITH:

ASKING QUESTIONS: When beginning a class in virtual and/or physical spaces, I have found that asking questions to launch a lesson and/or embedding them over the course of the day will set a positive tone for learning. I have asked questions as simple as “If you can eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why? Who is someone that has been an inspiration to you and why? What are the 3 most important things in your life, why?” I also love “Would You Rather” questions such as “Would you rather be invisible or fly, why? Would you rather be Batman or Spider-Man, why? Would you rather fly around the world for free for the rest of your life or eat at any restaurant you want for free?” Learners can respond orally, in the live chat, or in a digital tool such as Google Jamboard or Mentimeter. These questions are fun way to connect and the classroom community gets to learn more about one another.

SHARING FEELINGS: A critcal part of being an educator is checking in on your learners emotional state. It is an opportunity to “read the room” and see where learners hearts and minds are during their time with you. In Unlocking Unlimited Potential, Dr. Beck states, “,,,it should be the unspoken truth in all schools that understanding your students’ emotions first and foremost is at the forefront of everything you do” (p. 49). He goes on to say, “Students are not robots programmed with all of the same software, they have many different dimensions and unique identities. Not providing SEL opportunities consistently is equivalent to trying to fly a plane without an engine. You aren’t going anywhere fast” (p. 51). It is a good idea to provide learners with emotional language to support them in expressing their feelings.

MUSIC/DANCING: One of the best parts of the day is when I incorporate music and dancing into learning. Sometimes it is music that I choose and other times I let my learners be the DJ. Moving and listening to music creates a fun, light-hearted space. This opens learners up to tackling the skills and strategies that will be taught that day. In a CNN article by Kelly Wallace, titled Move over, ‘sit still’! Why kids need to move in school, Dr. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says “When you move, you stimulate all the nerve cells that we use to think with, and when you stimulate those nerve cells, it gets them ready to do stuff.” 

CULTIVATE CONNECTIONS: The heart of teaching and learning is rooted in the connections and relationships we develop with the learners we are lucky enough to serve. Cultivating strong relationships, understanding the learners’ strengths and areas for growth, tapping into their passions and interests, and providing equitable access to the curriculum for ALL learners are cornerstones to any worthwhile educational journey. In a recent Equity in Education Panel at #NCTIES2021, Sean Gaillard shared his working definition of equity, “Limitless opportunities for all-ALL the time…it’s relentless, it’s sustainable.” Without truly caring about the social-emotional well-being of every student, learning will not be as productive or meaningful. If we want to see the positive, lasting impact we are hoping for, we have to make it our obligation to get to know all learners as human beings first and give them what they need to thrive. 

CHECK-IN

LEARNING SURVEYS: I created a Google Form Learning Survey for both learners and their families inspired by Catlin Tucker. I used similar questions for both because it was important for me to get to know the learners in my classes from both perspectives. This was also a way for me to introduce Google Forms as I have used this digital tool in a multitude of ways. I embedded a welcome video for the families right into the form so they can learn why filling out this form was important to me. This was also a way for me to connect with them, show who I am and what I value as an educator. My learners complete this survey 3x a year so that I can see how their thinking has evolved.

CLICK HERE for Family Learning Survey

CLICK HERE for Student Learning Survey

5-MINUTE MEETINGS: I schedule five-minute meetings with all of my learners. This idea was inspired by Dr. Mary Hemphill’s book The One Minute Meeting: Creating Student Stakeholders in Schools. The idea of these meetings is to check-in with my students, learn more about them as human beings, and then utilize the information to elevate their emotional literacy. There are three simple questions to ask: How are you today? What is your greatest celebration? What challenges have you had recently? After asking those simple, open-ended questions and having those personal conversations with each learner, I feel even more connected to each one of them. I now have a deeper understanding of what is happening in their world. Some had really cheerful, positive stories to share, while others were expressing that they are going through challenging times. The responses were collected in Google Forms. This qualitative data is used to drive planning and instruction.

1:1 CONFERENCES: 1:1 conferencing is a key ingredient to having learners practice, improve, and elevate learning. This sacred time spent with students can be messy as the learner guides the direction the conference will take. In turn, the teacher should be able to notice and name a learner’s strengths and areas for growth and adjust the direction and goals of the conference accordingly. In a conference, the teacher and student are both learners, except, the student is doing most of the work while the teacher coaches in and offers thinking prompts to lift the level of the work. In virtual spaces, these vital interactions take place in Zoom or Meet breakout rooms. This is a more personalized space to connect, interact, and personalize learning. Katie Martin confirms this in her blog titled, To Engage Students, Focus on Connection Over Content, “Scheduling time with each student to connect, learn more about their circumstances, their goals, and ideas, created a different dynamic that built empathy and allowed for more personalization and meaningful connection.

Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 3: Non-Negotiables in Physical and Virtual Spaces

Special Note:  This is blog post entry 3 of a blog series titled: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model. Blog post 1 in the series can be found here: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 1: Inviting Change.  Blog post 2 can be found here: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 2: Rallying Learners and Building Community. This blog post series is written from my perspective, as I teach face-to-face and virtual cohorts of middle school learners simultaneously.

Like the Speed of Light

Recently, the educational landscape we have always known has been challenged and has shifted faster than we could have ever comprehended…way beyond our imaginations. It’s as if we have instantaneously soared into a virtual learning universe that seems faster than the speed of light. Did you know that the speed of light in a vacuum is 186,282 miles per second, and in theory, nothing travels faster than light? So, if we were actually able to travel at the speed of light, you could go around the Earth 7.5 times in one second. This seems incomprehensible, doesn’t it? Well, wasn’t there once a time where many of the practices we employed in education seemed light-years away? The fact of the matter is that education has always evolved and changed, yet, those deviations seemed much easier to consume and digest because they happened more gradually. On the other hand, in the spring of 2020, educators were urgently launched into another dimension of teaching and learning. We were left questioning whether or not the instructional practices we have always held close to our hearts would still be significant in virtual and physical spaces. We were left questioning whether we could connect with learners and develop meaningful relationships. We were left questioning whether or not we could honor the teaching frameworks that have historically impacted learners in positive ways. We were left questioning if the resources we have worked so hard to curate throughout our years of teaching would still be compatible virtually. We were left wondering how we could monitor and track learning through meaningful formative and summative assessments. 

What I Know Now

For me, the first question that stirred within was whether or not educators would be able to keep the magic of the workshop model alive in our new physical and virtual atmospheres. As I continue to question, reflect, revise, and shift how I approach cultivating relationships, analyze curriculum, deliver instruction, and administer assessments, I know now more than ever that no matter where our learning spaces exist, it is up to us, the educators to embrace it. I know now, it is up to us to own it. I know now, it is up to us to navigate this new territory with open hearts, flexible minds, and positive spirits. I know now that it is up to us to take the instructional practices we know have always worked, and fine-tune our techniques to meet the needs of ALL learners throughout the process.  And since I am knee-deep into the experience of  Hyflex teaching, the philosophy and implementation of the Workshop Model can be achieved by keeping these 6 non-negotiables at the core of the work.

6 Non-Negotiables in Physical and Virtual Spaces

(Click on the link above for access to the infographic)

Connection Before Content– When you place cultivating relationships and building community front and center, it is likely that you will leave a lasting impact on the learners you encounter throughout your educational career. I am pretty sure that the legacy we choose to leave is not in the time we took to plan and execute a lesson; it is not in the homework or assessments we assigned or graded; I am positive that it is in the time we took to get to know our students as human beings first. If you commit to leading with passion and empathy. If you take the time to find common ground. If you create inviting, safe, nurturing learning spaces for ALL learners, you will see a big return on your investment. In a recent Future Ready podcast titled Universally Designed Connection and Reflection with Brianna Hodges and Dr. Katie Novak, Dr. Novak brilliantly and simply states,  “If you can connect with students, then that’s a good enough tool right now.” Learners have an emotional compass and will use social referencing to take cues from adults they admire. With that being said, by connecting and sharing your authenticity and passion, students will believe in and be an integral part of the magic in the important work that lies ahead.

Honor the Architecture– When planning and executing a minilesson, keep in mind that the content, focus, and/or space may change, but the architecture of the minilesson and it’s components don’t! In the book Leading Well: Building Schoolwide Excellence in Reading and Writing by Lucy Calkins, (written before the COVID-19 global pandemic, but still remains true) she says, “When teachers lead effective minilessons, these short bursts of instruction will mobilize the whole community to be on fire as readers and writers and will immerse the kids in an understanding of the work they are doing” (p. 69). However, keep in mind that since there are new and different learning spaces to consider (physical and virtual) when delivering a minilesson, educators must be flexible with each component, the pacing, and the way learners are engaged throughout the process. According to the Heinemann article, How the Essentials of Reading and Writing Workshop Do-and Don’t Change with Virtual Teaching, “Traditionally, the architecture of minilessons remains largely the same from day to day—and contains a connection, teach, active engagement, and link. For virtual minilessons we keep the “connection” and “teach,” but often combine the “active engagement” and the “link” as a way to set kids up to practice the strategy demonstrated. So instead of kids trying the work during the minilesson—hard to do virtually, especially with recorded instruction—after the teacher demonstrates, we set the kids up to go off to work.” Honoring the gradual release of responsibility, the effective transfer of skills and strategies, and leading learners towards independence will always remain a constant in any learning environment.

Architecture of a minilesson anchor chart.

Conferring is a Cornerstone- 1:1 and small group conferencing is a key ingredient to having learners practice, improve, and elevate their literacy skills. This sacred time spent with students can be messy as the learner guides the direction the conference will take. In turn, the teacher should be able to notice and name a learner’s strengths and areas for growth and adjust the direction and goals of the conference accordingly. According to Jennifer Serravallo, in her book A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences K-8, she beautifully conveys, “Conferring is where the magic happens. It’s the heartbeat of the literacy block…. Conferring blurs the lines between teacher and student” (p. 1). In a conference, the teacher and student are both learners, except, the student is doing most of the work while the teacher coaches in and offers thinking prompts to lift the level of the work. Students need to understand the goal(s) of the conference in order to make the necessary progress in their learning and during independent reading. In virtual spaces, these vital interactions take place in Zoom or Meet breakout rooms. This is a more personalized space to connect, interact, and personalize learning. Katie Martin confirms this in her blog titled, To Engage Students, Focus on Connection Over Content, “Scheduling time with each student to connect, learn more about their circumstances, their goals, and ideas, created a different dynamic that built empathy and allowed for more personalization and meaningful connection.” In her blog Using Feedback to Build a Sense of Connection, Purpose, and Ownership Dr. Martin states, “5-minute conferences can be a really powerful way to check in with students and provide timely meaningful feedback based on their needs.  Teachers who are remote might use breakout rooms to meet with a few different students or small groups each day to check-in. If you are in person you can call students up while others are working or giving each other feedback.”

Curate Relevant Resources

-Print and Digital Texts

In a workshop classroom, readers should have access to a tremendous volume of books in a mutlitude of genres and topics that spark their interest. As a matter of fact, Richard Allington suggests that schools have a minimum of 1,000 books per classroom! Over the last few years, learners have also been introduced to digital readers. Since we are attending to the needs of learners in both physical and virtual spaces, it is important to provide students with access to rich classroom libraries as well as websites and apps that house a plethora of digital texts. I am fortunate that my school district has provided our students with digital texts on Raz-Kids, Epic, Bookflix, and Sora (just to name a few). In the physical classroom, books are checked out when readers go book shopping, and then they are quarantined for 4 days until they can be checked out again! We must continue to keep in mind that maintaining a classroom library is an ongoing process to ensure that there are high-interest, high quality texts that represent various genres, topics, and series that students will embrace.

-Purposeful Anchor Charts 

Purposeful anchor charts that are created with students is an essential part of the workshop experience! If you walk into my classroom, you will see that the walls are adorned with meaningful charts that help learners access skills/strategies that are needed to navigate various texts they encounter. These tools are meant to maximize students’ independence, encourage choice and risk-taking, and celebrate the productive struggle along the way. In the book Smarter Charts by Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz, they explicitly state, “Charts help to make our teaching explicit and clear by providing step-by-step directions and key tips and strategies for how to do something” (p. 86). For students in the virtual space, I recreate mini versions of these charts and intentionally attach them to a digital notebook of strategies for learners to access when they need the support.

Physical Space Anchort Chart (left) and Virtual Space Anchor Chart (right)

Preserving Independent Reading-Independent reading is the heart of the workshop model. Within the gradual release of responsibility, it is critical to be able to guide learners towards independence in physical and virtual spaces. This is where they will be able to apply the skills and strategies that are taught during the demonstration portion of the minilesson. Independent reading is a routine and protected practice that transpires across grade levels. According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Position Statement on Independent Reading, “Effective independent reading practices include time for students to read, access to books that represent a wide range of characters and experiences, and support within a reading community that includes teachers and students. Student choice in text is essential because it motivates, engages, and reaches a wide variety of readers. The goal of independent reading as an instructional practice is to build habitual readers with conscious reading identities.” If you are an educator who embraces the workshop model philosophy, it is a professional obligation to model your own reading life and create the time and space for learners to independently read.

Ongoing Assessment & Feedback– Meaningful assessment can propel the teaching and learning process. It is a way to collect information about the learners’ strengths and areas of need.  In a workshop model framework, it is important to embed thoughtful assessments that drive daily instruction. Assessments help teachers provide thoughtful feedback, create small groups, create personalized goals for all learners, and structure minilessons accordingly. This includes, but is not limited to formal and informal running records, spelling inventories, checklists, rubrics, and anecdotal notes. When adminstering assessments in physical and virtual spaces, it is vital to plan accordingly. It is beneficial to be transparent with learners and families about the “why” behind each assessment. Learning shouldn’t be a secret! Personally, I always spend time discussing the expectations in rubrics and checklists with learners. We analyze the nuances in language and develop a shared understanding of the goals. In Katie Martin’s blog titled, Using Feedback to Build a Sense of Connection, Purpose, and Ownership, she expresses, “When students are clear about the learning goals and criteria for success, they can self assess their work and take ownership of the process. Checklists and rubrics can be really helpful, especially if they are co created and the students have a clear grasp of what is expected of them. Creating time and building the routine for this practice is critical to understand where they are and determine next steps.” Furthermore, it is valuable to provide learners with ongoing, cyclical feedback that clearly paints a picture of where they are in relation to the learning targets, what the next steps are, and what it will take to get there. Katie Martin goes on to say, “Meaningful feedback is not the same as a grade or an evaluation. Feedback is information for the learner about where they are in relationship to the goal or target to help them get there. If we can prioritize the learning goals and only assign meaningful work, we can make the time for students to go deep, get feedback, revise and do something meaningful.”

Learners highlighted the shifts in language on a 1-4 scale Reading Workshop Rubric for physical and virtual spaces.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 4: Honoring the Workshop Model Framework 

Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 1: Inviting Change

A Special Note: Many months ago, I was encouraged by George Couros to create a digital portfolio in order to highlight and archive my learning. These conversations started before the COVID-19 global pandemic emerged as one of the most challenging and life-changing events in history. During the quarantine, I connected with Kristen Nan and Jacie Maslyk, co-authors of All In: Taking a Gamble on Education in a book study Voxer group. This is when Kristen invited me to co-blog on her website. This was a great opportunity to test drive blogging. The experience was incredible and gave me the confidence to take George’s advice and create my own platform. One of the first blogs I wrote during this time was Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model. The purpose of this blog was to keep the workshop model alive during emergency remote learning. I wanted to share my experiences with other educators and show them that what may seem impossible is in fact, possible.

With that being said, as I learn more about implementing the workshop model in physical and virtual learning spaces simultaneously, I want to share my process with other educators. So, I welcome you to the beginning of a series of blogs titled: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model. I will break up my learning process and the workshop model framework into various components so that they are easier to digest. Please understand that my learning is constantly evolving and all of these ideas may be revised over the course of time!

This blog series is dedicated to George Couros, Jacie Maslyk, Thomas C. MurrayKristen Nan, my PLN: #Read2Lead, #EdCampLI, #LBLeads, and my Long Beach colleagues who have inspired, motivated, supported, and encouraged me to write and share my learning and voice with the rest of the world. I am forever grateful.

What Happened to the Magic?

There is a certain kind of magic that lives within an educational universe. If you orbit around an organization and open the doors, you will find sparks of light. These sparks of light shine brightly because they are ignited by communities of educators who pour their souls into maximizing and elevating learning experiences for kids. It’s that spark that ignites into flames when curiosity and wonder spread like wildfire. It’s that spark that rallies a community of learners together to support one another through the learning process. It’s that spark that embraces the idea of agency, voice, choice, and productive struggle. It’s that spark that empowers and guides learners towards independence. And just as the flames happily dance and spread around our magical learning hubs, the intensity of the flames can just as easily be disrupted, startled, dimmed, faded. What happened to the magic? I’ll tell you in one word: CHANGE. When change invites itself through our doors, it can be paralyzing. It can be suffocating. It can be stressful. It can be shocking. It can also be eye-opening.

Change is the Epicenter of the Journey

I have been in education for 15 years and I can assure you that change has been the epicenter of my journey. Most of the time, change has been a gradual occurrence that happens over a steady course of time. It’s so slow, that at times, it cannot be recognized until it’s looking you straight in the eyes. However, recently change has looked quite different in the world of education. Across the globe, educators have been pushed to rethink education. Educators have been challenged to question their core values. Educators have been pushed to revisit their philosophical beliefs. Educators have been remixing existing teaching and learning practices that have lived in the nucleus of their daily lives and in the book Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros brilliantly states, “I’ve long believed that change isn’t to be feared; it is an opportunity to do something amazing…Change will come our way. We can “go” through it or “grow” through it. We grow when we seek out solutions rather than letting those obstacles hinder us.” This quote resonates even more deeply since the Covid-19 global pandemic has jolted the more traditional educational landscape we have always lived and known. I’ll admit when shifting to emergency remote learning and now teaching in physical and virtual spaces simultaneously, I have paused multiple times and questioned the what and the how. I have questioned whether or not the philosophy of the workshop model can live on in virtual environments. I have questioned if I can make the workshop model come alive for learners the same way I did in physical learning environments. Katie Martin, author of Learner-Centered Innovation confirms how vital developing solutions are to the barriers of change with this astute notion, “If the world is changing, the evidence and research become irrelevant if you don’t consider a new context.” And if we want to reach learners effectively, we MUST consider the new educational contexts that have been thrust upon us. We cannot look back, we must keep moving forward! And then, I came across a tweet from Thomas C. Murray, author of Personal & Authentic that spoke to my core, solidified these ideas, and reminded me of my why. And when I revisited my WHY, I knew it is to continuously cultivate lifelong learners who feel empowered to reach their social, emotional, and academic potential. And then, I realized that through the workshop model, I can continue to rally together a community of learners and build community by prioritizing the social-emotional needs of students and keeping “who” we teach at the heart of the learning journey.

Choosing What is Right

I have encountered many people who have embraced different educational philosophies. I have listened to theories and have read multiple books and articles by countless leaders and experts in the field of education. I have indulged in and have digested several perspectives about various topics with the intention of catapulting learners to academic success through multiple kinds of curricula and teaching and learning practices. And every time I have read an article, a book, or listened to a podcast, I used to think, wow, this must be the magic prescription for success. In my earlier years of teaching, when I was handed a curriculum, I followed it to a T. I thought that the curriculum itself was the key driver of developing a learner’s social, emotional, and academic potential. I thought that the people who were responsible for making decisions about the curriculum knew best and I looked to them as the experts. Now I know better. Now I know that the learners are the curriculum. They tell you what they need. I learned that there is not one single curriculum that works best for all learners. I know that every curriculum must be viewed as flexible and should be modified to meet learners’ needs. Knowing this made me realize that I can adapt the Workshop Model in both physical and virtual spaces. Knowing this helped me understand that I can revise the implementation and the process at any time. Knowing this made me feel more comfortable with taking risks, sometimes meet those risks with failure, share and reflect on those experiences with colleagues, and recognize that it’s an opportunity for growth.

Thomas C. Murray invites Kristen Nan to share how important it is to take risks and step out of your comfort zone in this #LeadershipMinute!

The Workshop Model Will Live On

Suddenly, a spark was ignited within me…I knew that by inviting this change, I was still going to continue to honor my belief system and keep the magic of the workshop model alive. I felt committed to implementing what I have known to be best practices in the new context we are living in. It is because I believe that this is the framework that empowers learners to become confident readers and writers. This is the framework that guides them towards independence. On October 17, 2020, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project held their first virtual Saturday Reunion. When I logged in to watch and listen from the comfort of my own home, Lucy Calkins was delivering her opening remarks. She said “We need to be as connected as we can be…Teaching is about holding onto the faith that the work we do matters. This is hard to hold onto right now. Even if it feels that nothing is going well, we need to show up.” These are powerful words that made me ask myself again…How can I rally learners together and build community when we are teaching in both physical and virtual learning spaces simultaneously? What can I do to cultivate meaningful connections and develop relationships with face-to-face and virtual learners? What new and existing tools can I utilize to support the execution of the gradual release of responsibility? I know that while navigating this learning journey, I must continue to be patient, I must continue to give myself grace, I must continue to be open to feedback from my colleagues, my PLN, and my students who are living this with me, and I must show up. And as Calkins suggests, I will show up for my students, their families, my community, and my country. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. The fact of the matter is that change has already invited itself through our doors. As George Couros says, “You can fight change, adapt to change, embrace change, create change, or lead change. No matter your choice, change is not going away.” And do you know what else I will not let go away? The Magic of the Workshop Model.

Lucy Calkins passionately delivered her introduction at the October 17, 2020 TCRWP
Saturday Virtual Reunion.

Stay tuned for the next blog in this series: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 2: Rallying Learners and Building Community

Moving with Time

My Perpetual Internal Clock

5:30 am… this is the time my morning routine begins. This is the time, my mind begins to race as I instantly start to think about all of the things I want to accomplish in my day. This is the time my internal clock is set to, even when I don’t have anywhere specific to be. This is a time when no one else in my house is awake yet. It’s my time. A time to ponder, to think, to analyze, to reflect, and to set new goals. I’ll admit, it’s REALLY hard for me to turn off the thoughts and ideas that speed like wildfire through my head. It kind of feels like a dream, the ones with different scenes that overlap with one another. The kind of dreams where there are problems that present themselves as barriers and you have that urgent feeling to search for the right solutions. The kind of dream where you encounter various people you have met in your life and you are happy they are there to be the thinking partner who will help you overcome the challenges. Do you ever think about how you can navigate your days with intention and purpose and who you may invite to come along for the journey? 

Choosing Time

Time… time is something that we all have and choose to use in different ways. One way isn’t better than the other, that’s what makes us who we are. For me, when I am in professional thinking mode, I tend to perseverate over how I will use my time so that I can make a difference for learners and the educational community. I ask myself, “What could I do differently today and make it better than yesterday? I believe that this type of thinking actually works well in our current climate. The way we are learning and the types of resources we have access to are constantly changing within spaces of time. It’s happening really fast. Day by day… hour by hour… minute by minute. Sometimes, it’s difficult to keep up with it all. It’s like running a race. You take off with plenty of open space in front of you and then suddenly there are hurdles that get in your way. It’s a barrier that doesn’t appear to be moving, and you must figure out a way to successfully move beyond it. Do you stop and run backward or do you keep moving forward? More than ever, we are living in times where we must roll up our sleeves and embrace the change. Actually, to me, there is no other choice. It is dangerous to say “This is the way we have always done it”. Our world and the learners that exist within it are constantly evolving and educators have an obligation to stay ahead of the curve. It is also important to understand that we do not have to do it alone. After all, aren’t we in a field of sharing and collaboration? We must constantly rally together to analyze, reflect, assess, and work deliberately towards improving instruction, the practices we employ, and solutions to instructional issues that get in the way. It is crucial to invite others to share their expertise and guide us towards providing optimal learning experiences for students. Katie Martin recently shared the image below on Instagram that expresses just what I am saying. We can choose to use our time to actively seek out opportunities that will help us thrive in the unpredictable times we are living in.

Katie Martin

We Can Dance in the Puddles

Time…it is time to think differently about the things we are used to seeing daily and create systems that support the process for creating and refining ideas. In a recent Future Ready podcast, Thomas Murray interviewed Superintendent, Dr. Tiffany Anderson. I was captivated by her ideas, convictions, and courageous leadership qualities. She expressed how her school district recognized that they must be versatile and adaptable as they shifted to remote learning. She mentioned that if you leverage technology well, you can continue learning in all different ways. She went on to say that since we have not been confined to our classroom walls, there are no borders that will get in the way of our growth…the possibilities are limitless. The challenging times we have been faced with have led us to take a deeper look into how students and educators learn. These times have allowed us to be more innovative than ever before and have prompted us to take more risks.  I have always believed in the power of being a connected and networked educator, and this notion only amplified the value of it. Dr. Anderson also indicated that students and educators are truly resilient to the new structures that have been put in place. This idea really resonated with me because we can now think intentionally about using our time differently than we have before. And, because there are so many unknowns, that there is no “right” way to approach this work. The idea of starting with what you know, learning the facts, and then moving forward, makes it all more manageable. Of course, the preparation for this type of learning certainly has to have a great deal of flexibility. My favorite part of this podcast is when Dr. Anderson says that when it rains, and right now it’s a thunderstorm, “You have two options. You can complain about the rain or you can dance in the puddles.”  I have certainly seen educators in my own school district and in districts across the country dancing in the puddles. This work is admirable. It can be hard. It can be emotional. It can be draining. But, it sure is rewarding! These virtual spaces have really opened up times to collaborate and connect with colleagues in new and exciting ways! I highly recommend viewing this incredible podcast as there are so many MORE gems of information and words of wisdom shared.

Time Moves Forward

Time…time is moving and the world continues to evolve in ways we could have never imagined. When my 5:30 a.m. internal clock wakes up, I will continue to think about how learning is messy. I will continue to perseverate on how I can make teaching and learning better. I will continue to think about the challenges that are getting in the way. I will continue to think about how learning is not a step by step, linear process. I will continue to think that it’s complex and often requires multiple solutions that have several correct answers. One thing I can say with certainty is that my mind will never stop moving with time. I am committed to rolling up my sleeves, embracing the change, navigating the days with intention and purpose, and inviting others to join me!

time