Literacy Coaches: The Art of Voicing-Over

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Are you an instructional coach? As part of your work, do you demonstrate minilessons, conferring, or small group work in classrooms? If yes, then this post is for YOU!

When I was a new teacher, I was always amazed when I observed my colleagues and mentors. I would marvel at their abilities to keep kids engaged, and the way they always seemed to know what to do next, even the language they used. I would wonder: How did they do that? Why did they do it that way? Is there another way to do that?

In my previous job, as a staff developer at the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project, I was fortunate enough to be mentored by some of (I think) the most talented teachers and coaches out there. In my decade of work at TCRWP, I learned to coach with intensive mentoring from Kathleen Tolan, Amanda Hartman, Kathy Collins, Laurie Pessah, Joe Yukish, and Lucy Calkins herself (name drop alert!). I would shadow them, and they would observe me. I was in study groups with them to better my coaching. My other staff developer friends and I would get together on weekends to plan, call each other at night with questions, and we’d visit each other at schools when we could.

One of the valuable things my mentors and fellow staff developers taught me, as a coach, was to “voice-over” my lessons. In other words, pause in the midst of my teaching to explain, invite participation, and offer tips and pointers.

When I learned to do this, I realized what a gift it would have been if, as a teacher, I had been able to observe lessons being voiced-over. As a coach, it takes some practice to become accustomed to teaching both the kids and adults in the room, but it is worth it. Of all the strategies I use as a coach, voicing-over is the one most valuable skills.

However, there is an art to it. Done well, I’m providing helpful explanations and insight into my thinking. Done not-so-well, it distracts from my lesson, could be confusing for kids, and teachers walk away feeling like, “Well, that was interesting.”

Here are some tips:

Be transparent. Let the kids and grown-ups know that you’re going to voice-over.

I often begin by saying to the kid(s): “Today is a special writing workshop. I brought lots of teacher friends with me so that they could get ideas from all the great work you’re doing. Sometimes I’ll be talking to you, the writers. Sometimes I’ll be talking to the grown-ups. To help you keep track of who I’m speaking to, I’ll say ‘Writers’ when I’m talking to the kids, and I’ll say ‘Teachers’ when I’m talking to the grown-ups.”

As you teach, pause to offer explanations, invite participation, or give pointers.

Those are basically the three main types of voicing over that I find myself engaging in.

  1. Voice-over to explain: I’ll often explain a bit of my thinking to the adults before I dive into a minilesson, conference, or small group. I also explain some of my decision-making as I go, or immediately following the lesson. Often I’m explaining why I chose the lesson, how I’m managing tricky transitions, or why I’m using the particular demonstration text over another. If I make an in-the-moment decision in response to the kids, I’ll explain that. My thought process usually goes: “Is this something that might be helpful in all minilessons?” “Is this something that I am thinking about, but not saying?” Then I might explain it.
  2. Voice-over to invite participation: When I demonstrate minilessons, conferences, or small groups, I am always thinking about the role that the teachers/observers could play. I’m aiming to involve the other adults as much as possible, given the size of the group and the context. I might simply say, “Turn to page such-and-such in your packet. There’s a guide there to help you follow along.” Or I might say, “Before I continue, jot down three different ways this could go from this point on.”  Or I might say, “In this next part, watch for these three things.”  The possibilities are endless–the main thing being that I invite people to think along with me, and get involved in the work.
  3. Voice-over to offer tips: Giving tips is a bit different than explaining. Giving tips extends the lesson that I am teaching by offering up additional possibilities – things that I am not going to do right now, but could do in the future. For example, I might pause in the midst of teaching to say, “I’m not going to do this today, but another way to go about this might be ____.”  Or I might say, “For the future, we could use ____ in this situation.” Sometimes tips are what-not-to-do’s, such as, “I’m being careful about  ____ right now,” or “I used to do this one way___ but now I do it this way because ___.”

Be sensitive to the kids.

This may seem obvious, but you’ll need to work hard to voice-over in a way that keeps the kids in mind. In the midst of juggling your work with kids as well as teachers, it can be surprisingly easy to get this confused.

Here’s an example: I’m conferring with a student. In the midst of my conference I pause to say to teachers, “When I get to the compliment, take a look at your guide on page 3 of your handout packet. Check off each part of the compliment as I go.” I turn my attention back to the kid, and he says, “Um, do I need a handout too?” I should have said to the kid, “Let’s pause our conference for a sec. I’m just going to give the teachers a tip.”

I often say to the kids, “I’m going to talk to the teachers for a sec, but you can definitely listen in, if you’d like,” just giving them a head’s up before I switch my audience.  I never say anything to the teachers that we wouldn’t want kids to hear. Often kids are interested in what we’re saying, and other times they simply continue on with their writing.

Model being a reflective practitioner.

Even if my lesson was terrific, I think aloud during and after my lesson about what I could have done differently. What could have been improved? Are there mistakes I might have avoided? What questions do I still have? I often use phrases like, “There are always a million things I want to do differently.” Or, “Next time, I’ll try___.” or “The thing I’m curious about now is ____.”

Last but not least. Prepare.

When I’m planning a labsite or demonstration lesson, I use a template that looks like this:

sample-labsite-template

Planning ahead what I’ll be saying to the kids as well as what I’ll say to teachers helps me rehearse how it will go beforehand. While I don’t usually read directly from my plans, the process of planning helps things go smoothly.


Do you have additional tips to share? Questions about demonstration lessons? Future coaching topics you’d like to see on Two Writing Teachers? Let’s continue the conversation in the comments below.