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.