Literacy Coaches: Conferring with Teachers and Co-Teaching in Writing Workshop

Too often, coaches’ classroom visits are seen as stiff, formal affairs, that are planned and prepared for as special events. These are the kind of visits where one adult sits in the back of the room writing notes about the other, only to disappear at the end of the workshop. Yes, there may be debriefing, but it is long after the moment has passed.

Personally, I much prefer to visit on any given regular day to see what is really, truly, authentically happening, and to have genuine, in the moment conversations in the classroom. At the same time, it is helpful to have some structure around how a given classroom visit might go–so that people know what to expect. Conferring with teachers and co-teaching inside writing workshop makes this possible.

STEP 1: OBSERVING STUDENTS

Standing back and kid-watching is a tried and true tool as a literacy coach. This also helps me keep my coaching student-centered (see Diane Sweeney’s helpful body of work for more on that). I’m always observing with a lens, and often using more than one. For example, I might be looking at engagement (using an engagement inventory), or I may be observing kids’ partner talk, or the kids’ choice of materials and/or strategies. Usually this involves three steps: What do I notice? What do I wonder? What’s next?

First, I take an inquiry-stance. Iwatch and notice: Are kids engaged? Are they working with partners or alone? How much writing is being produced? What is getting in the way? Are they using the visual supports in the room? I make notes of what I see.

Next, I intentionally generate questions based on my observations. Why is this happening? How long has this been happening? What are the pros and cons? What if _____?

Third, I think about possible next steps (targets, goals) based on what I’ve observed. I might utilize any number of tools to help me do this: rubrics, mentor texts, checklists, professional books, work from other classrooms, you name it.

Lastly, I should mention, that often the classroom teacher joins me in doing this research.

STEP 2: WRITING TEACHER CONFERENCES

Once I’ve gathered this information, I often have a short conference with the classroom teacher, right away while the information is still relevant (things can change quickly in a classroom!). The conference is focused on the information about kids, instead of jumping straight to “You should try ____.” It’s a relief to make decisions together, based on student work instead of falling back on a district mandate or what “the book” says.

My conference with the teacher is a lot like a conference with a kid. A kid conference often goes:

  1. Research/study student work to understand the strategies the child has been applying, and what the child’s intentions are for her work
  2. Compliment/support a strategy that the child is on the cusp of mastering
  3. Decide one explicit teaching point to nudge the student toward new and more sophisticated work
  4. Teach: demonstrate, coach, or provide an example for the child to follow
  5. Link the new work to the ongoing unit of study, as well has highlight the many other choices of strategies the child might pull from

A writing teaching conference might follow a parallel format:

  1. Share my student-centered research
  2. Compliment/highlight student strengths
  3. Decide together on an instructional next step
  4. Teach/try it out right away if we can (teach a mini-lesson, make a chart, pull a small group, etc.)
  5. Link to ongoing work in the classroom, make it transferable to almost any day

STEP 3: CONFERRING SIDE-BY-SIDE WITH TEACHERS

More often than not, our short and sweet writing-teaching conference is followed immediately by co-teaching a conference or small group or two with students. We’ve already brainstormed instructional goals based on student work–now it’s time to try something out. I sit side-by-side with the teacher and we decide together exactly how they would like to be coached. A few of the more popular coaching moves include:

  • whispering in (just like it sounds–the teacher teaches the student and I whisper reminders to the teacher from time to time)
  • observe, then discuss afterward
  • occasionally, a hand gesture or signal for reminders
  • “jump in”– where I start the conference, then the teacher jumps in to teach the rest of the conference (or vice versa)
  • a written note or signal for reminders or questions

Sometimes we’ll write down the plan for coaching, like this:

coaching

When the conference or small group is over, we hold a quick mini-conference again to debrief. Last, just as I do when I work with students, I keep some notes of my work so that the next time I visit the classroom I can remember what we worked on together, and pick up the conversation where we left off. My note-taking sheet looks a lot like my conferring notes for a regular writing conference, just adapted slightly.

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In fact, as I head into my first coaching cycle of the school year, I’ve been looking back at my notes from last year to remember all the conversations and great work that was being done.