Friday, December 17, 2010

Where is THAT on the Learning Schedule?

Holidays in an elementary school are a fun time of year. Today is Pajama Day and the whole school is decked out in warm winter sleepwear. No, this isn't on the Learning Schedule. It is part of our school community traditions. I have my black and white snowflake flannel pj's. Even the principal is sporting a one-piece pair of pink footie pj's with puppies on the toes. 

My last post was about teaching with laser-like focus. In these times of accountability teachers often feel like they have to focus on teaching and hide holiday fun. The two, however, are not in conflict. It's always a balancing act to meet the demands of the curriculum and still let kids have childhood memories of special activities.

This week I was in a kindergarten class that seems to have mastered this balance quite well. When I walked into Holly Goleski's class to watch reading she quickly explained they were doing math. "We did double centers yesterday so we could do double math today." They were also decorating gingerbread houses later. What followed was a focused lesson building on the patterns they had been exploring in math. Yes, this was on the learning schedule. 

The lesson was clear. The student explanation of their learning was on track and showed different ideas and strategies. Learning takes time. Projects take time. Memories last a life time. One memory the students will take away is the video they created last week Jaguar Days of Christmas. No, it is not on the learning schedule but this little video from a kindergarten class has created good feelings not only in the school but also within the city at large. It has been featured on the news and tweeted about by Jaguar players. At least one district administrator can repeat the lyrics word for word. 

Not all learning is on the Learning Schedule. I hope you will take a moment to enjoy some holiday fun with Ms Goleski's kindergarten students.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Does it Take to Teach with a Laser-Like Focus?

Feedback from the November 2010 Focus Walk in upper grades included the phrase "teach with a laser-like focus". On the surface this seems simple - precise, focused teaching. Everyone does that, right? Thinking deeper, there seems to be so much more. What does it take to achieve the "laser-like" focus?

Remove Distractions
Planning what will be taught will help establish a focus. While planning, look for ways to avoid tangents that will take the attention off the main idea of the lesson. Too often we try to include too many concepts in one lesson. Another scenario occurs when we try to extend lessons beyond the scope of the curriculum. Many tangential lessons start from a simple mention in a story and take on a life of their own!

Visual Reminders
Having visual reminders can help a lesson maintain focus. Simple strategies, such as recording the benchmark and essential question on a chart, can provide enough of a visual reminder to keep the lesson on track. Other tools, like a clock or timer, can keep help with time management. Differentiation does not occur during whole group instruction. Keeping lessons focused will increase the time spent in small groups or working with individual students.

The Important Thing
Margret Wise Brown's book The Important Book teaches us the main idea, or what is important, for many common objects.
"The important thing about rain is/ that it is wet./ It falls out of the sky,/ and it sounds like rain,/ and makes things shiny,/ and it does not taste like anything,/ and is the color of air./ But the important thing about rain is that it is wet."
Teaching with a laser-like focus requires the teacher to concentrate on the important message of the lesson. Sometimes this looks like explicit instruction, such as a skills lesson. Other times this involves a quick launch into an inquiry lesson in math. Whatever the type of lesson, teaching with laser-like focus is an achievable goal for every teacher. 

This is just the start of the conversation on focused teaching. Help take this conversation to the next level by adding your strategies.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My Life as a Writer

Today I wrote...
  • an email about an upcoming training
  • a coaching log entry
  • an activity to use with the December Book of the Month Bad Kitty (Bruel)
  • several calendar updates for school visits
  • a post it note to a teacher outlining a task for the Literacy Team
  • an outline and protocol for reading Chapter 4 in Mosaic of Thought (Keene, Zimmermann)
  • another email following up on a previous school visit
  • several Twitter posts (some related to work and one not so much)
  • a text message responding to a parent about the cost of the Thanksgiving Feast for visitors
  • directions on how to access the Math Navigator sites and information on screenings
  • a gift exchange form for next month's holiday lunch with the leadership team
  • an online form to renew my membership in the International Reading Association
  • another post it note to remind me of a classroom observation tomorrow
  • a phone number for the help desk
  • several terms for a Google search
  • and the first few letters of many websites for Firefox to auto complete before selecting one or another to visit
Some days I add charting to this list, or lesson plans, or directions, or descriptions. Blog posts, like today, can be part of my writing. I'm sure I do more writing now that I'm out of college than I ever did when I was in college.

What I don't do is write creatively. Now it's not to say I don't try to put a creative spin on my technical writing, but for the most part I have no desire to do much in other genres of writing. 

I think in images. Given a choice between describing a scene in writing, visually or orally I would chose the visual every time. Today, with my journal in my lap, watching a lesson, my fingers itched for my camera. Not a word was written down during the lesson. What I took away was the image in my mind of the shy smile one of the boys had when the teacher praised his reading. 

It took me a long time to wrap my mind around starting a blog. Truth be known, I was shooting for a podcast but decided to start small. My writing is for everyone else but me. That's my life as a writer.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Small Moments that Mean the Most

Sometimes you hope a moment never ends:
...the joy in watching a young child sleep
...the pleasure of getting unexpected recognition for a job well done
...the appreciation of standing in a forest as snow falls silently around you

Sometimes a moment seems to last forever:
...the awkwardness of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person
...the painfulness of hearing someone say the wrong thing to you at the wrong time
...the unnatural silence at a funeral

You never know which of these small moments will be the ones you carry with you. I suppose we carry them all and pull them out when the need arises. 

Today I am working on making a few more small moments:
...the smell of pumpkin bread baking in the oven
...the feel of cool air on a sunny day
...the way the ocean looked as the wind whipped up the surf

Hopefully you, too, had some nice moments in your day today. 

I know I did.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Books That Have Impacted my Life

I've been thinking about this blog post all week. There are so many books that I recall as important, it was hard to pick just one. Finally, I decided to pick two books - one from my childhood and one that currently impacts my work.

The first book that made an impact was The Golden Book of Fairy Tales. I got my copy on my 10th birthday from my aunt and uncle. I wasn't able to read all of the stories but I poured over the illustrations, drinking deeply into my imagination as I heard the stories read aloud. I remember counting the fingers in one of the illustrations, checking to see if this was before or after the sister cut off her finger to save her brothers. These were not the politically correct versions kids get now. They were scary and sad and universal in the richness of their stories. I just loved them!

Fast forward to recent times. My next selection is A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. I named this blog based on the Design chapter. But story, another chapter in the book, also speaks deeply to me. We connect to each other by story. It is telling that my favorite book from my childhood was a storybook. 

I hope the stories I tell in this blog connect with you, my gentle reader, and lead you back to read more!

Friday, October 22, 2010

My Life as a Math Non-Believer

 I have decent number sense. I can figure out tips at restaurants and how much something is on sale, even if it is 25% off the 40% sale price. Estimation is my best friend. My head hurts when I have to do traditional algorithms

Patterns in Knitting
I get algebra. A lot of it makes sense to me. I look for patterns in all sorts of things and try to balance equations in things like knitting. Can’t for the life of me remember what to do with the creature called a quadratic equation, can you?

I am good with spatial orientation. Friends like to go on trips with me because I can figure out where I am and how to get places with (and without) maps. I can’t remember theorems and made it through geometry in high school by doing extra credit projects (like making math posters for the classroom).

In college I was an art major. I avoided math. Took a class called “Math for Non-Believers”. We looked at math in a very non-traditional way. It challenged me. It appealed to me. I could visualize, and thus understand, three-dimensional objects and how they worked in space. Thanks to M.C. Escher I could make sense of one-dimensional objects, too.

Math had meaning when it had a practical application. Even the course in glazes I took with the ceramic engineering students was a fun challenge. Never knew the abstract concepts in math could have practical applications. I could use math and chemistry to create a glaze with depth and aesthetic beauty.

My problem is that I was taught math by memorizing rules and procedures - hateful stuff - to get the one right answer. To balance out the skills (and drills) and the “only way” to do math I embraced the conceptual understanding of how math works as my lifeline.

We accept the developmental growth a child makes in reading and spelling so why can’t we understand the same child needs to figure out how math works, too? It is my hope more students are given the opportunity that I never had in school to grow in their conceptual understanding of how math works. It’s nice to know we have so many doors in our school that we can walk through to see this in action daily!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Class Poll: How Do You Want To Learn Today?

My class consists of 70+ certificated staff members. Several of them opened the school almost 30 years ago. One was hired last week. In terms of experience they are a heterogeneous group. When asked, “What do you want to learn today?” their answers are as diverse as their experiences.

My job, as the instructional coach, is to research, design and facilitate professional learning at Neptune Beach Elementary. We are part of the Learning Forward Learning School Alliance (LSA). We believe collaborative professional learning, teamwork, and problem solving are keys to school improvement.
LSA members: 
  • Strengthen school and district culture to focus on educator and student learning;
  • Initiate, refine, or expand the use of collaborative professional learning within your school;
  • Explore ways to evaluate the effectiveness of collaboration within your school; and
  • Develop leaders within your schools to facilitate the transition to a learning school.
Teachers and principals will receive training, coaching, and facilitation to advance their skills in applying the Learning Forward Learning School principles and practices. LSA members will learn together in their own schools, with other schools through webinars and facilitated conversations, and at meetings held at Learning Forward conferences. They will openly share their goals, their progress, and -- over time -- their results.
When people use the term “professional learning” or “ professional development,” they can refer to traditional structures such as a workshop or a conference. It also includes collaborative learning cycles (CLC) among members of a grade level or content team in the school setting. Professional development, however, can also occur in informal constructs such as conversation among colleagues, independent reading and research, observation in another classroom, joining a personal learning network (PLN) on Twitter, or other learning from a peer.

Every year we assess our professional learning using the Standards for Staff Development Assessment Inventory (SAI). Historically we have scored the lowest on question 29: We observe each others classroom instruction as one way to improve our teaching. The poll tells us the teachers want to learn from each other in their own classrooms. This year we designed a number of professional learning activities that include at least one out of every five hours observing in a classroom.

Sometimes a poll tells you more about the conditions a learner desires, how they want to learn, instead of what they want to learn. What you do with the information makes all the difference!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Differentiation in 1st Grade Math

Differentiated Instruction is a way to insure all students has access to the curriculum. The content, process or product can be differentiated based on the student’s readiness, interests, or learner profile. Sounds simple, right? Talking about differentiation is one thing but acting on it is often a more difficult task. Differentiation is math is especially difficult for some teachers. We work hard making all sorts of “stuff”, different worksheets, tools, and other materials. Despite our best intentions, what typically happens is the standard (or benchmark) get watered down instead of differentiated. In a recent blog post Differentiated Instruction: What Difference Does it Make?   David Ginsburg makes the following point:
But does it really matter whether DI is a bad idea, as Mike Schmoker insists, or a badly implemented one? Either way, effective teaching includes assessing and addressing students' individual differences.
There are three key things every teacher needs to know to be successful at teaching. You need to know:
1.     Your students,
2.     Your curriculum (standards, resources, materials), and
3.     How to make it visible to others (including your students!).

The first two are familiar to all teachers but the last one is generally not given the importance it deserves. Visibility can take many forms. It can be the planning the teacher does before the lesson, recorded in a lesson plan. It can be charted, to keep a concrete record of previous learning. It can be the portfolio of individual student work, documenting growth and acquisition of a skill or strategy. It’s the formative assessment, the assessment FOR learning, that makes differentiation so powerful.

In this video Alane Wright, 1st grade teacher at Neptune Beach Elementary, talks about how she differentiated a math lesson for her students.

Charting in 1st Grade Math from Jill Kolb on Vimeo.

Key in this lesson was the simple changes Alane made to meet the readiness level of her students. By giving some students dice with dots, and some with numbers, and some with a combination of both dots and numbers, all students were able to meet the benchmark. Also key was the charting Alane did with her students. The students with the least efficient strategy – counting each dot on both dice – now have a visual reminder of other options for combining situations when they are developmentally ready for it!

So what is the next step? For me, I am only as good as the resources I have around me. Reading blogs and books are like learning to fish. If I want to keep eating, oops…teaching math to young students, I’ll need to fish for new ideas. One book I love is Math For All: Differentiating Instruction (K-2). There is also another version for Grades 3-5 and 6-8. While it is not the kind of book that you can open up and say, “Oh, I can do that tomorrow!” it is an outstanding resource that will show you how other classroom teachers have differentiated math lessons for their students.

Designing good differentiated lessons includes the important step of making visible all the learning going on in your classroom. Charting with your students is one key way of documenting their growth. I would love to hear about ways you differentiated math with your students or different charting ideas. Thanks in advance for sharing.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Designing a Math Closing: Charting Matters!

In Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) the math workshop model consists of three parts - Launch, Explore, and Summarize

Launch (Opening Meeting 15-20 Minutes)
Lessons may address:
  • Presentation of conceptual problem
  • Analysis of problem strategies
  • Comparison of related problems
Teacher Role:
  • Teaches mini-lesson that includes the presentation of a conceptual problem to be solved
  • States the focus of the work (concept and/ or skill) clearly connecting it with standards
  • Makes expectations explicit
  • Teachers should not present particular strategies that will lead students to solve problems in that way during Explore.
Student talk should be to clarify questions

Explore (Work Period 20-25 Minutes)
Student Role:
  • Independent work
  • Partner work
  • Small group work
  • Involved in working problems that engage them in different stages of the problem solving process
  • Knows exactly what is expected
  • Contributes to class activities
  • Works with manipulatives and other mathematics tools or resources as needed
  • Generates evidence of process used in problem solving
  • Uses accountable talk
Teacher Role:
  • Monitors student work
  • Engages individuals or groups in accountable talk
  • Observes students’ discussions and explorations of their strategies
  • Makes anecdotal notes on observations, such as misconceptions and strategy development
  • Examines student work as it evolves
  • Small group instruction
  • Conferencing
  • Teacher begins to develop the summarize session by noting different strategies that will be addressed during the closing and selecting students or groups to present during the closing.
Summarize (Closing 20 – 25 Minutes)
Student Role:
  • Shares strategies and approaches to given problems
  • Makes connections to the main concepts from the lesson
  • Justifies strategies and solutions
  • Compares and analyzes solution strategies presented
  • Uses accountable talk
Teacher Role:
  • Scaffolds problem solving strategies from least efficient to most efficient
  • Scaffolds students as they make connections to the main concepts from the lesson
  • Fosters a spirit of inquiry by asking higher order questions
  • Addresses misconceptions
  • Highlights and records student strategies and generalizations for future reference
Teachers often feel teaching only occurs when they are the one in front of the class. This workshop model turns things around, placing the student in the role of the expert with the teaching coming at the end, during the Summarize. The student is the one teaching how they solved the problem to the other students, demonstrating a strategy. The planning begins during the Explore where the “Teacher begins to develop the summarize session by noting different strategies that will be addressed during the closing and selecting students or groups to present during the closing.”

This careful planning for the Summarize section is done while the teacher circulates through the room, observing the student application of strategies. The scaffolding of the closing, from the least to the most efficient use of strategies, gives the class a view into the different ways students solved the same problem. Images shared in front of the room, or projected from a document camera, create a temporary view into the thinking. Charting, on the other hand, creates a permanent record of student strategies.

Learning to chart is not difficult. It just takes practice. It also helps to have models and a few guidelines. Amber McFatter, 2nd grade teacher at Neptune Beach Elementary, is one such model. In this video she explains about charting in her classroom.

Charting in 2nd Grade Math from Jill Kolb on Vimeo.

Sometimes teachers will tell me "I can't chart in front of the students. My charts look so messy!" It really is okay if the charts are messy because learning is messy. There are strategies for teachers to help with charting. 

First make sure your chart paper and at least two markers of different colors are available. Most teachers hang the chart, with magnets or tape, right next to the screen so they have a clear view of the student work being projected. It is nice if you have one color marker for each student. Please don't use yellow or pastel markers or any type of highlighter! They are difficult to read and fade very quickly. At Neptune Beach Elementary teachers are encouraged to not only include the benchmark and/or the essential question on the chart but also to include the date.

More Preparation
During the Explore you are planning your closing and selecting students to present their strategies, scaffolding the strategies. You will get an idea on how much room to allow by looking at the student work. Different strategies may not take the same amount of space. It is important, however, to represent their strategy in the same manner as the student. This includes drawing, labeling, and recording student thinking. After a while it gets easier to identify both the efficiency and maturity in the strategies.

Hopefully this will help you and, more importantly, your students create deeper learning with math closings!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

One Story, Two Tales

Every now and then a day just comes together. This is a tale of such a day. The stories within this tale run in parallel lines that end at the same spot. The first part, the one of learning and growing, includes a cast of teachers. One teaches kindergarten; three instruct first graders, two help students with special needs (ESE), and the last teacher facilitates the learning of English Language Learners (ELL). The group doesn’t end there, as it includes the guidance counselor, the lead special education teacher, the principal and myself, the instructional coach. We came together, from all our different points of view, to collaborate on how to help our struggling readers.

The days began early as we came into the room, carrying steaming mugs of coffee and claiming spaces at the table. Towering off to the side were the boxes containing the new kits: Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention kits from Heinemann. Brightly colored orange, green and blue boxes were piled high. Contained within them was hope and promise. Helping struggling readers is hard work. There are almost as many strategies to help them, as there are students. We know a few truths: (1) No publisher knows our kids as well as we do, and (2) One size does not fit all. Given that understanding we purchased these kits to provide one more tool to support our kids.

A new year, a new principal, and some of the quietest teachers in the school made for a gentle start. Ground rules were reviewed, revised and posted. Last year we started our book study of When Readers Struggle: Teaching That Works. Last year we had a glimmer of an idea what our Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions would look like in practice. Now we have a reality. It was time to put theory into application. Part of the morning was spent asking questions and determining personal and professional outcomes. Logging into laptops, we went on a tech field trip to find free resources to support our new materials. We started with the Fountas and Pinnell blog, discussed using Facebook to get updates, and following them on Twitter. Other than Facebook being blocked by the district, everyone was able to find one or more tools. Some loved the forum on the Heinemann website, noting other people had the same questions! Others enjoyed Twitter, especially the video post of Irene’s dog, Meli, learning to swim.

Finally it was time to break into the boxes. You would have thought it was Christmas morning. The voice level changed. The energy level elevated. Shrink-wrap disposed of, stickers applied to folders, books sorted and placed into correct sections. I sat back and watched the teachers work together with their new materials. I had all summer with the kits to read and watch and learn. This was their time to play. Far quicker than I could have done myself, everything was assembled and organized. The morning work was over. Time to refuel and bond over lunch. I am a firm believer that more relationships are built over a 45-minute lunch that sitting next to someone for 4 to 5 hours in training.

Everyone joined back together to go to the next step. It was time to watch the professional development videos that came with the kits. Segment after segment was sequentially watched. Some segments were repeated while others were paused so we could discuss key points. At some point one of the teachers went back to the boxes and started pulling out teachers guides. Quickly others went and pulled out more materials. The abstract concepts were becoming reality as they engaged with the materials.

Time slipped by quickly and soon we were down to the last 15 minutes. Time to pack up the videos, throw away the cold coffee left over from the morning, and reflect on our learning for the day. The agenda, with all those early morning questions, was revisited. Some questions were answered while others were still on the table for our future session next week. Some teachers asked to the manuals, eager to continue their individual learning. Post it notes were filled out, noting who was taking what, and then they all piled out of the room, in a flurry of notebooks, books, and fluttering papers. Quiet remained in the room. The boxes were back; stacked up in the shelf, waiting for the next time the teachers would arrive. It reminded me of pets in a store waiting to be adopted. Today the teachers got down and played with them but no one took them home. The story doesn’t end here but the day is finished and so is this part of the tale.

There is a second tale that has run behind the main story. It is the story of how an instructional coach plans and implements professional development. This is my tale.

It started with a dream, a goal, and a quickly tossed comment.

The dream was one I’ve had for a long time. What if we could help students before they failed? I dreamed of schools that worked with students, catching them before they failed. All teachers would be effective in working with a variety of learners, feeling confident in their ability to reach their students.

My goal was a personal one. In my position I have the opportunity to make my dream a reality. My goal then was to prepare the teachers to the best of my ability so they would be effective in teaching a variety of learners.

The comment? It was one of those parking lot conversations. I was leaving the Schultz Center while another coach was passing me on her way inside. “Hey Lisa!” I called out. “I need some help finding some good stuff for our interventions next year.” Lisa smiled and said “Get the Leveled Literacy Invention kits from Heinemann. You won’t be sorry. They are that good.” So the seed was planted and I went back to school and told my principal, “We need to buy this!” pointing to a flyer I printed from the Heinemann website. She smiled, offered to buy some of the professional books for a book study and the subject got dropped.

At the end of the school year my principal came to me with a request. She had to spend the remaining money in the budget by the end of the week or chance losing it to the district. I pulled out my tattered flyer and said, “We need to buy this!” The comment became our reality.

The first step is where planning comes in to the story. I had to figure out a way to give the teachers a sense of urgency, or desire, to take on this intervention kit. Just like a classroom teacher, I had to design an environment for learning. My tool was a simple K/W/L, though it was framed under the agenda. They had questions – basically translated into what they wanted to learn. At the end of the day we revisited the agenda, documenting what they had learned. They questions were the burning issues that could have become roadblocks if they hadn’t been addressed. So step one was done.

Step two was to give the teachers fish and a fishing pole. Not actual fish, but the proverbial fish. If I just told them everything, in a handout or PowerPoint, they would have the information for that day. But if I taught them to fish, find their own resources, then they could continue learning when I wasn’t around. I differentiate the technology options. Some were introduced because I knew they were active users of social media. The blog would appeal to another style of learners and give them links they could explore and go deeper. My intrapersonal learners would like the technology tools that came with the kits. They could explore the video and print resources at their own pace, time, and location. Fish and Fishing pole – done!

Step three focused on processing time. Learning is active and takes time. Giving the teachers time and space to touch and manipulate the materials was important. It couldn’t be rushed or even controlled on my part. This was a risk. I couldn’t make them interact with the kits but I trusted my knowledge of teachers in general and this group in particular. We just can’t resist getting our hands on new stuff! Giving them a significant amount of time to explore, without me directing, was critical. Processing time builds learning. Step three – done!

Step four was closing the deal. After looking at all the materials came the question – how to we use all this stuff? Seeing how to use the materials with students in the video answered a lot of the remaining question. The segments were short and focused on specific points. It was easy to replay segments or pause the videos to discuss points or ask clarifying questions. At the end of the day step four was still “in progress”. During reflection the teachers were much more comfortable in taking the next step to implementing the interventions, but there were still significant questions. No problem, I expected they would need more time. What was important was they asked for the additional time to learn rather then me telling them they had to come to training.

Like I said, the big story is still unfolding, but this portion of the tale is finished. It is satisfying when a day just seems to come together. It’s also satisfying when all the careful planning and preparation makes the training seem effortless and, dare I say, fun? If we were just going for compliance we could have made that happen faster. Our students, however, deserve better. They deserve teachers competently prepared so they would be effective in teaching a variety of learners. In the end, isn’t that what really matters?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Design Thoughts on Narrative Writing

We just finished the second week of school and administering the first District Writing Prompt to our 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students. It is baseline data and to be used to inform our writing instruction. We have to avoid the knee jerk reaction, when presented with low baseline data, to drop the workshop model and teach prompt writing. This can be hard for teachers when they know the state writing test is in the spring.

During the school year we focus on teaching five writing genres – narrative, functional, report of information, response to literature (literary analysis), and persuasive. In 4th grade, however, we add one more. The test genre, or the one they will use on the writing test, is a genre created to measure narrative or expository prompt writing in a 45-minute time frame. The state has a 6-point rubric used to score the product. Thought the rubric is broken into several categories it is to be used to holistically, rather than analytically, score the writing.

The problem arises when we focus too much on teaching the parts and miss the big picture in writing. Narrative, as a genre, has defining characteristics, key of which is time. Time has to pass in a narrative to make it a narrative. Transition words help the reader know time is passing but just including first, next, and finally do not make a narrative. A narrative has to have a plot, or simply a story. A whole story, not just a great beginning, a quick middle and none existent closing connected with transition words. Plot, coming from the concept of “plotting out a timeline”, is key to creating a whole story.

Other elements that support the narrative genre include using author’s craft to engage the reader throughout the entire piece. Carefully selected words and phrases can help bring the writing to life for the reader. Too much, or poorly selected word choice, can turn author’s craft into author’s crap in no time!

Writing is like a basic white t-shirt. The basic t-shirt can be found all over in many varieties and brands, from the big box store to the designer boutique. But what distinguishes one from another? A well-designed t-shirt depends on the cut (women sizes versus the one-size-fits-all or men sizes), the material (cotton, cotton/spandex, or something high tech), and tailoring. Some shirts are perfectly serviceable but will never rise above humble beginnings. No amount of added craft, bedazzling, puffy paint, or embroidery is going to make it better than it was to start with in the first place. In fact, too much makes it a cliché of bad taste. To have a good t-shirt first you have to start with a good design. To have good narrative writing first you have to start with a good story.

We need to avoid the temptation to teach writing as a formula or a recipe. It is not how many similes are in the writing, it’s how well they are used. It is not how many “sensory details”, “vivid verbs”, “snappy bright beginnings” or any other ingredient taught to kids to add craft to their writing. It is starting with a story, a good story. As adults we have a conceptual understanding of what a well-crafted sensory detail can add to writing. Our students need to build that level of understanding through immersion in reading and listening to stories, discussing and charting ideas about writing.

Designing good narrative writing instruction should always include lessons on story. What is a story? How does time pass in a story? What is rising action? How do we know when a story is over? How do our favorite authors start their stories? How good is good enough when it comes to writing a story? All of these lesson, and more, should be part of the initial teaching of the narrative genre.

Narrative writing does not naturally occur in 45-minute blocks of time in response to a prompt. It is important that we do not confuse the created test genre with the real world genre of narrative writing. When students are taught how to write stories in the workshop model it is easy to transfer that skill into the test genre later in the year. It is important that we remember what is essential in teaching writing.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Shift Happens

Team Design from RtI Training

Sometimes you don’t realize how true your words are until they are brought home to you. A few weeks before school started this year we had a leadership change, welcoming both a new principal and assistant principal. Both are experienced and talented leaders but unexpected surprises. Right now we are all learning our way. The shift happened.

The other big shift, not only at our school but also across the nation, is Response to Intervention (RtI). Last year felt a bit like a page from the story of Chicken Little. Instead of saying the sky is falling, we went around saying “RtI is coming! RtI is coming!” Classroom teachers, being focused on their current students, waited for this shift to happen.

Being a proactive sort of person, I felt we needed to design a system for RtI. If RtI was going to happen, we needed to be prepared for it. I started reading. RTI from All Sides (Howard, Heinemann) became my go-to text, followed closely by When Readers Struggle (Fountas and Pinnell, Heinemann). Websites, especially the, provided us with ideas and models to build our design. My iPhone became filled with podcasts on RtI. It was amazing what one could find in a short amount of time.

With just under 1,000 students, our school is not only large but also complex. We are a center of both English Language Learners (ELL)  as well as student with significant cognitive delays. Luckily we are staffed with quite a few teachers to work with our special needs and ELL students. In RtI  all students get the core curriculum in Tier 1. If they require additional support, such as Tier 2, then the label or lack of label is not a consideration of support. If they need help they will get help.

What has always hampered getting support to kids who need it has been finding the time. There is no additional time in the school day so we had to find a way to streamline and identify instructional times. The blog post on Scheduling Considerations for RTI at the Elementary Level ( was extremely helpful in designing the master schedule. We created a schedule that built in blocked times be used for RtI Tier 2 and 3 instruction. Fitting in the legal requirements and setting academic priorities were the first rocks we put in place. Reading, Math, Writing, Science/Arts, state mandated 30 minutes of daily physical education, a little lunch and – Bam – we were done. Working under the “decision of least loss” we started to identify students who were in need of interventions in reading and, using the blocks of intervention times, started filling in the schedule.

I’d like to say this has all been smooth but in reality it is very chaotic and still in progress. Tempers can flare, collaboration is strained but the vision is becoming reality. Materials are being shared. Space is being shared. Conversations about student academic needs are being addressed openly and professionally. What is the best part is the shift in thinking and perception. “Those kids” are becoming “our kids” not only in word but in action.

Shift Happens. Some times the shift feels like an earthquake. Other times its like loose sand underneath your feet. It may make you feel unstable for a while, slow you down or make you slide. After the initial shift you just dust off and keep going.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Design in Education

Design in education, like design in the arts, is both an act of creation as well as completion. A well designed lesson will engage and, at its completion, create new learning for the students.

It is my desire that this blog will use design to help teachers, administrators, and other members of our school community to create new learning. My position as Instructional Coach in an elementary school gives me a different perspective on how to design systems for learning. I am personally growing as I start this blog and would appreciate all feedback.