Thursday, June 20, 2013

It's Time to Reflect (Part 2)

Last week I wrote about the importance of reflection, especially at the end of the school year. So, this week I’ll be practicing what I preach and using this blog post as an opportunity to reflect a bit myself.

This was my first year as an instructional coach. As the only instructional coach in my district (and as the first ever instructional coach in the district), I relied heavily on my own reflective practices to help me learn and set goals for myself. Every day, I wrote down my thoughts and my experiences. Some days I wrote very little, and some days I wrote volumes. I’ve just looked through the entire document, which has added up to about 80 typed pages. It was funny and interesting to see the range of my emotions displayed in these pages: excited, optimistic, nervous, self-doubting, curious, triumphant, confused, proud, bold, timid.

Here are some of my take-aways:

·      Working with teachers who want to improve their practice in some way is a lot like what I used to do in my “former life” as an ELA teacher – working with students who are striving to improve some aspect of their reading or writing. The key is: one step at a time. Sometimes it’s easy to get really into goal-setting – I’d work with a teacher this year and we’d build off of each other’s excitement, brainstorming all sorts of goals and new things to try. Eventually, I learned to step back from this sort of manic goal-setting, and require both myself and the teacher I was working with to zoom in on one particular goal, to narrow our focus so that we were being realistic and so that we could establish an action plan that would not overwhelm. We know as teachers that we’re not going to give our students 12 aspects of their writing to improve upon by their next paper; we’re going to give them 1 or 2 areas to focus on. We need to give ourselves the same permission, the same freedom to slowly focus on one area of our teaching, to delve in and really get into in-depth reflection and growth.

·      Thanks to all my reading up on instructional coaching last summer (especially all of Jim Knight’s work), I was fully anticipating my role as instructional coach to be a reciprocal one, where I learned from those I was coaching in addition to them learning from me. But even though I saw it coming, I didn’t realize the extent to which this would happen. I learned TONS from being in elementary classrooms, especially since this job has provided me with my first extended exposure to the world of K-5. I became fascinated with the workshop structure, reading all I could about it and becoming convinced that this structure doesn’t need to go away as students age – I can see it working for students of all ages, and for their teachers. I learned volumes from being in secondary classrooms, where I watched teachers struggling with some of the same instructional challenges I myself used to struggle with. I had so many “aha” moments while watching high school teachers teach, thinking, “Oh! I used to do that, too.” But this time, as a neutral, objective observer, I could begin to pinpoint specific instructional moves the teacher could make, tweaks here and there that would help him or her accomplish that day’s objective with students. (I often found myself wanting to go back in time after these “ahas” to correct some of my past lessons!)

·      I learned that kids can and will rise to the occasion when we present them with challenging, thought-provoking tasks that stretch them as learners. Kindergartners do, fifth graders do, eighth graders do, sophomores and seniors in high school do. 

·      I learned how to be a second set of eyes for a teacher in her classroom, and I learned how to later discuss what I had seen. I learned how to model for teachers with their own students, and I learned how to co-teach. 

·      I learned that almost none of this job called teaching comes easy, to any of us. No matter how long we’ve been in the classroom, or what grade we teach, or how many students we have, we are all still learning how best to teach. I don’t think there’s a magical year where it just all clicks and comes together, where it all just flows easily. I actually don’t think that’s really supposed to happen (as much as we dream of it during our first few years in the classroom). This is an important job for so many reasons, and it’s challenging and sometimes difficult because it’s so important. But I also learned that we are learners, that teachers want to learn, want to grow, want to stretch themselves.

·      I learned that I have quite a bunch of goals for myself for next year:

o   I’d like to continue to build trusting relationships with the five staffs in my district, and to find new ways to establish and reinforce this trust.

o   I’d like to delve deeply into differentiated instruction, and hope that some teachers will establish coaching relationships with me in order to do so.

o   I’d like to learn all I can about the new SMART goals educators in my state will be implementing as part of their own evaluation system next year so that I can work with teachers on developing these goals and reflecting on them throughout the year as they try new instructional strategies in their classrooms to achieve them.

o   I’d like to work with teachers on some of the “little” instructional strategies that we sometimes take for granted but that can be so important and effective, like: how we ask questions during our lessons; how we check for understanding during our lessons and formatively assess (both formally and informally); how we use pre-assessment data to guide our planning…

o   I’d like to continue to learn all I can about the art and science of teaching and learning, both through research and through my work with the teachers and students of my district.

Readers, it’s been a pleasure sharing my thoughts with you via this forum throughout the past school year. Summer vacation is now almost upon us, and I’ll most likely be suspending my blogging until the end of August or so. I hope you’ll pick back up with me then, and we’ll continue to explore and think about education together.

Have a lovely summer!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

It's Time to Reflect (Part 1)

     As we rapidly approach summer break, I find myself reflecting on the past school year more and more each day. This is definitely not a new practice for me; during my twelve years in the classroom I always found the end of the year a valuable time for "big picture" reflection. "Big picture" reflection is slightly different than the types of reflection we should be doing throughout the school year. Those daily reflections tend to zero in on what went right and what went wrong on that particular day, whereas an end-of-the-year reflection tends to focus on the goals we had set for ourselves at the start of the year -- did we meet them? Why or why not? Did these goals change as the year progressed? How come? Do we have new goals for next year? 

     I came across a blog this morning by Heather Skipworth Craven of "Inspiring Teachers" in which she articulates exactly how I feel about end-of-year reflecting, along with some guiding questions to help you get started. I encourage you to read her blog post here. 

     I especially like that Craven points out the value of reflecting with another teacher -- it can be so helpful to share our thoughts, questions, struggles, and triumphs with a trusted colleague (perhaps an instructional coach?). Craven also insists on the need for teachers to purposely set aside time specifically for reflection. I couldn't agree more! We all know how busy a teacher's day is, and how easy it is to get swept up in grading, lesson planning, meeting with a student for extra help (all very important tasks, to be sure!). That's why it's key to schedule in reflection time for ourselves. I like to type up my thoughts on a daily reflection log saved on my desktop. Some days I type for quite awhile, and I find it really helps me to put some things into perspective, to come up with action plans to solve problems, to vent, to breathe. Other days, I type my reflection into the log in a total of 5 minutes because that's all I have that day. Don't let reflection overwhelm you or stress you out, but don't sweep it under the carpet, either. Try to get into a daily or at least weekly habit of sitting with your thoughts, whether you put them on paper or discuss them with a colleague, or think through them during your afternoon jog.

     And, certainly, take advantage of this time of year to reflect on the big picture.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Summer Reading....For Teachers!

     It's about that time, teachers! Looking for some great reads this summer to help energize you and give you ideas for what will surely be a quickly-approaching September? Then look no further; I've got a teacher's summer reading list right here. (Sorry, these are probably not what you'd consider "beach reads," but they are educational books that I really enjoy. Just mix one or two of them in with your novels and magazines!)

     I'm thinking you can find most of these on Amazon, but if it gets tricky, just contact me and I'll give you more detailed information to help refine your search...

  • So What Do They Really Know? Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning -- Cris Tovani 
This is a great read for secondary teachers. Tovani is writing primarily about ELA classes, but I say anyone who is interested in how a workshop structure could work at the secondary level should read this book. (By the way, workshop structures effectively allow the teacher to differentiate, to conference, to assess students' individual strengths and weaknesses formatively...)
  • The Daily 5 -- Gail Boushey & Joan Moser (aka "The Sisters") 
Disclaimer: I got kind of sort of OBSESSED with The Sisters this year. Elementary teachers -- if you are looking for a system that will help you establish routines, build student stamina, and set expectations for ELA workshops, this is the book for you. (Also, as a former secondary person, I must say that if you are interested in the workshop structure at the secondary level, I'd still recommend this book. Just read it with your "secondary eyes" and "translate" the material up a few grades!)
  • The CAFE Book -- Gail Boushey & Joan Moser (aka "The Sisters")
See above. Same lovely ladies. I'd recommend reading The Daily 5 first, then delving into The Sisters' CAFE system. This book is FULL of so many great resources: specific and detailed ideas for setting up a conferencing notebook and record-keeping system, specific reading strategy lessons in the areas of comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and vocabulary....It is a great read!
  • Fair Isn't Always Equal: Assessing & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom -- Rick Wormeli
This book rocked my world! Rick Wormeli (who happens to be the silver fox of differentiation) is a straight shooter and really tells it like it is. While reading, I was forced to confront some of my own past assessment practices that I had to admit were not effective or purposeful. Wormeli truly changed my way of looking at assessment, for the better!
  • Checking for Understanding: Formative Assessment Techniques for Your Classroom -- Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey
Yes! This book was such a useful read. Lots of practical suggestions of ways to consistently, regularly, and effectively check your students' understanding. I think it applies to all grade levels.
  • Differentiation: From Planning to Practice, Grades 6-12 -- Rick Wormeli
Here he is again! This is definitely geared towards secondary teachers, mostly due to the content of the sample lessons and units Wormeli discusses (but I think elementary teachers could "translate" what it is he's doing to their own grade levels). Wormeli walks you through the stages of planning a differentiated lesson. Very useful information!
  • Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids -- Carol Ann Tomlinson & Jay McTighe
Disclaimer: This is only my second favorite text involving Carol Ann Tomlinson (for my first, see below...). The bridge between DI and UbD is specifically laid out in this text. I'd recommend it to anyone who has a strong understanding of one, but perhaps not of the other. 
  • Learning Targets: Helping Students Aim for Understanding in Today's Lesson -- Connie M. Moss & Susan M. Brookhart 
This book can honestly be a bit "dry," but the idea of learning targets is so important! Basically, Moss and Brookhart advocate for a more student-friendly lesson objective to share with students and recommend that this learning target be stated as what the student will be able to do by the end of the lesson, from the student's own perspective (i.e., "I will be able to identify three traits of the main character. I will use words from our character traits word wall to do so. I will be able to provide evidence from the text that supports each of these three traits."). Learning targets can help students self-assess and can give them a purpose for learning.
  • Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom -- Carol Ann Tomlinson & Marcia B. Imbeau
LOVE this one! If you are interested in the philosophy behind DI, then this book is for you. Even more so, if you are interested in helping your students understand and be a part of a differentiated classroom community, then this book is definitely for you. Tomlinson and Imbeau provide specific lesson ideas for teaching students how (and why) to be members of a differentiated learning environment.