Building Each Other Up, Cheering Each Other On

As an instructional coach, I know it’s not ever about me. It’s about kids (first, always), and it’s about teachers (in service of kids). That said, I love the complex work I typically get to do alongside kids and teachers. As I write this, my school district is midway through week three of emergency remote learning. Over the past several days, teachers seem to have found their footing (or at least one foot), and while they are still (rightfully) overwhelmed, there is space for something closer to coaching than there was in that initial week.

I was definitely floundering a bit in the beginning, unsure of my role and where I might contribute in this new teaching and learning environment. At first, it was all about support with the nuts and bolts, putting out fires, and trying to streamline the flood of resources to a manageable amount. I did not want to add anything to anyone’s overflowing plate.

I was on heightened alert, watching for potential entry points to collaboration that might support a shift in mindset—anything to lighten the load for teachers. We needed to move from being reactive to being proactive; we needed to feel more intentional and in control. Everyone was working so hard and still feeling defeated and/or frustrated to some extent. 

Then, the breakthrough happened. Clouds lifted, seas parted, birds burst into song. 

A colleague, Dari Robinson, fourth grade teacher extraordinaire, asked me to join her and 50+ kids for her first live writing lesson. (Ambitious, I know, but that’s Dari.) She wanted support with the tech side of Google Meet (if needed) and she was also looking for feedback on the lesson. This action on Dari’s part—her instinct to reach out in a moment of extreme anxiety and vulnerability—this is the bravest and the smartest thing we can all do right now. 

Here is the email I sent to Dari after her lesson. (She gave me permission to share it in this post, and I am so appreciative.) Based on her reaction to the email, I’m realizing that THIS is what teachers need right now. This is my work as a coach, and this is what we can all do for each other in this challenging time. 

Hi Dari,

I hope you are feeling awesome about today’s writing lesson with kids—there is so much to celebrate! I’m going to make a giant list of all the things you rocked in this lesson, and I hope you will print it out and display it prominently in your home workspace—so that you can see it any time you have a shadow of a doubt about the impact you are having with kids in this weird and unpredictable online learning space. 

  • Your genuine warmth with kids translates to a digital platform. As a member of the Meet, I felt like you were talking to me. I found myself leaning in to listen and engage. 
  • You were super transparent about what you were trying that was new. This models a growth mindset for kids, and as a listener, it also generates empathy for you from the group. The natural reaction to this kind of admission is we cheer you on and want you to be successful. 
  • You were clear in establishing norms (e.g. the chat box is just for questions, explaining how teachers were divvy-ing up lessons but planning together so kids could go to homeroom teachers for help). It’s expected that it will take practice for kids to consistently follow the norms; clarifying them is the first step, and you’re saving yourself time in the long run by anticipating these potential issues from the get-go. 
  • It is obvious that the lesson was thoughtfully planned. You began by establishing a clear context and purpose—concisely reviewing where they have been as readers and how today’s lesson would fit into that larger context. 
  • You asked questions that kept the learning elevated around big thinking work that readers do, like this one: “What kind of thinking does a reader have to do to read historical fiction?” The student responses are a data point that shows they are used to talking and thinking at high levels about their reading. The first student said that he would need to understand what historical event is happening, and the second talked about needing to pay attention to what characters are feeling and how events are affecting them. (Holy moly!)
  • Multiple times you grounded kids in what they already know how to do, how that would support them in this next work. (“We know how to read fiction really well,” and “We’re good at writing essays.”) Again, this establishes how today’s work is connected to previous work. Kids in your class expect learning to feel connected, to understand how it builds. 
  • You were very quickly able to establish a purpose for the kind of writing kids would be doing (reading responses building up to literary essay). It made so much sense the way you laid everything out. It took organization on your end to be able to so clearly articulate this for kids. 
  • You gave strong examples of the thinking and writing work you are expecting. You shared the example from “Slower than the Rest.” You also used [student] as an example (“Raise the roof for [student]!”)
  • Your language was specific and consistent. Phrases like “reading wide awake,” “notice everything,” and “every detail counts.” 
  • You were transparent again when you said, “So now I’m going to take a risk and share my screen. . .” This was a powerful instructional move. You had your “anchor chart” ready to go and show. You had your model responses ready in Google Classroom as well. This not only clarified expectations for kids and offered support (e.g. sentence frames, a model) in the moment, but it is also something they can reference from home as they try it themselves. 
  • “I want to show you. . .” (powerful to be able to SHOW them, just like you would in the regular classroom). 
  • You modeled how a reader adjusts or modifies her theory/opinion as she continues reading. “As I was reading more . . . I’m going to change my theory. . . I’m going to show you the part [of the text] that changed my mind. . . There’s something more about Dog that I’m noticing. . . Can you see how I changed my theory based on the text in the book?” You had the page from the book ready to reference (via Kindle). (Such great prep for this lesson!!) Your written response then captured that revised thinking. So powerful! 
  • You offered a choice of multiple stories that kids might access and read to do this thinking/reading/writing work. They were already posted in the classroom, ready to go. 
  • “Here’s what done is going to look like by tomorrow.” Again, such clear language and models. 
  • You didn’t get ruffled when things didn’t go according to plan (Fox read aloud/video not being available, when you thought you were showing the screen and realized you weren’t so you went back to show, that crazy few minutes when the phone caller was disrupting things). You kept your cool, and as a result, kids settled down quickly. 
  • At the end, when there were lots of questions, it was a smart move to prompt kids who were good to go to sign off. That gave you some time with a smaller group. You made sure to personally check in with each of them by name and made sure to answer their questions. It is clear that this is exactly what a couple of kids needed today. As always, you are tuned in to the relationship layer of teaching. 

Dari, again, way to go! This was a super successful writing lesson, AND it was a chance to connect with your kids. I am so appreciative of all that you are learning and the risks you are taking to engage and interact with kids. Thank you for inviting me in for the lesson—I’m so glad I got to be a part of it. 

Please know I’m here—anytime, whatever you need. We’re all in this together! 

Amy

I realize this might seem over the top. It is a lot of feedback. And yet, based on the difficulty of what teachers are being asked to do right now—on the fly and with varied levels of support—they deserve this kind of feedback. This experience for me was the first time in this remote learning experience where I felt like myself as a coach again; I could measure my impact on a learner. It reminded me of the power we all have to support and affirm each other. 

As Lanny pointed out last week in his post, feedback motivates learners—especially when learning is difficult. We are all in the deep end right now, with authentic reasons to learn learn learn. Teachers need to be reminded that they HAVE specialized skills and expertise. We cannot fixate on all the things we feel like we do not know how to do (yet). So much of what we already understand about strong instruction will transfer to this new model of emergency remote learning. (This is equally true for best practices in coaching. . . something crafting this post has helped me to reflect on.)

It is definitely scary to be doing this new learning so publicly, isolated in our own homes. However, what we can do is reach out to be cheerleaders for each other. 

What we offer each other doesn’t need to include this volume of feedback. . . there is rarely time for that. In this particular case, the volume of feedback was intentionally proportional to the level of anxiety that Dari expressed going into the lesson. It was absolutely my goal to make her day.  

A thoughtful sentence or two can have an equally powerful impact on a fellow educator in need of a boost.

I would encourage everyone to find that “wing-person” you trust who can be side by side with you in this work, whether it is a teammate, colleague, or coach. We’re all virtual now, so don’t feel limited by the walls of your building either. Let’s open the “doors” of our classrooms so that we can learn from each other. That’s always a goal here at Two Writing Teachers!

Most importantly, pour on the feedback.

Notice.

Name.

Affirm.

Encourage.

Shout from the rooftops all the things that are working, so that we can build each other up and cheer each other on.