coaching · collaboration · literacy coaches · Stronger Together: Involving Other Professionals in Your Workshop Blog Series

Coaching à la Carte: Stronger Together Blog Series

The past couple of years have been tough for educators, and I’ve noticed a change in teachers’ (and instructional coaches’) capacity for engaging in high intensity professional learning experiences like coaching cycles.

I define a coaching cycle as a shared commitment between teacher(s) and coach to work with intention toward a teacher-directed, student-centered goal, typically lasting 4-6 weeks and including regular time together to plan, work side-by-side in the classroom, offer feedback, and reflect. For context, some of the mentors who have influenced my stance as a coach and my approach to coaching cycles include Diane Sweeney, Samantha Bennett, and Elena Aguilar

This shift away from coaching cycle work is discouraging for me personally, because it is my favorite (and, I would argue, the most impactful) way to collaborate with teachers. . . and, I understand. Expecting overwhelmed educators to opt in to extra learning—even when that learning is embedded in the daily teaching with kids and is designed to be energy-giving—can feel like too much to ask. 

As a result, there have been many times in the past 2+ years where I’ve found myself feeling starved for the coaching cycle work I was lucky to experience regularly pre-pandemic. If I’m being honest, there have also been moments where I have been painfully aware of my own dwindling capacity. . . so there’s no judgement here at all.

I know plenty of teachers who feel the same way. They value opportunities to collaborate with a coach. They know that collaboration has a powerful and positive impact on students. They have experienced how investing in that collaboration feeds them. And yet. . . it’s still just too much right now. 

In this post, I’ve curated some quick coaching possibilities: coaching à la carte, if you will. Each offering on this menu has the potential to have an immediate impact on student learning in the workshop with a minimal time commitment from teachers. It might not be the gold standard, four-course meal of a coaching cycle, but each option is designed to nourish and energize teachers, students, and coaches with a quick burst of meaningful collaboration. 

And like those tempting à la carte items on a menu at your favorite restaurant, you might find that once you sample one of these ten offerings, you are more likely to try another! 

Starters: Before a Unit Begins

1. Prep for Conferring

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Co-create a form for collecting conferring notes for an upcoming unit of study. Having a thought partner as you name and prioritize the outcomes for writers in the unit—anticipating the conversations you will have with writers and the goals you’ll be setting together—this collaborative task will ensure that you enter the unit with clarity and intention.

This menu item is especially powerful in combination with offering #5: Up Your Conferring Game. 

2. Teacher-as-Writer

Gather your team and your coach to DO the writing project you will be asking students to craft in an upcoming unit. As you work, keep a running list of what you notice. Where are some places you can anticipate writers getting stuck? What intentional teaching will support writers as they engage in this work? What surprises you? If you’ve never tried this before, you’ll be amazed how it impacts your lesson planning and teaching. 

3. Unpack a Mentor Text

Choosing a mentor text to serve as a touchstone throughout a unit of study is a key part of the unit planning process. I know for me, noticing and naming the places in a text I see potential for teaching points helps me to clarify my thinking and streamlines my planning for minilessons and small groups. When I know at least one text this deeply, it becomes a quick reference during conferring to bring a teaching point to life. If you’ve already selected your mentor text (or texts), invite your coach and team to a collaborative “sticky-noting” session before the unit begins. In 20 minutes, you’ll leave with clarity and vision around how you’ll use the text(s) in different ways across the unit. 

An alternate version of this amuse-bouche might be to ask each teammate and coach to bring 2-3 of their favorite mentor texts for the unit, pre-sticky-noted to annotate how they’ve used them with writers. As you share and compare your texts, you’ll double/triple/quadruple your menu of mentor texts while clarifying and calibrating teaching points across the team. Win-win! 

Side Dishes: Collaboration Mid-Unit

4. Fresh Eyes

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Pull a work in progress from each student, and sit down with your coach to sort and reflect. What do you notice in the writing? Strengths? Needs? Plan for your next series of minilessons and/or small groups, based on the celebrations and needs that you elevate.

A modification for time: Pre-sort and bring just one particularly challenging subset of student work to plan for collaboratively (e.g. students who need extension or one group of writers with a similar need you’ve tried unsuccessfully to address). 

Pro tip: Once you’ve done this work in collaboration with your coach, you have an open window to invite your coach (or for your coach to invite themself) in to the classroom to teach/co-teach one or more of these small groups.

5. Up Your Conferring Game

Invite your coach in so you can watch each other confer with students. What do you notice about your writers when you can just listen while they confer with someone else? What instructional moves do you notice from your coach? What might you try? As you reflect afterward, what instructional moves of your own are affirmed when your coach watched you confer? Even a single day or two engaged in this process will infuse your conferring with new energy and insight.

6. Feedback-pa-looza

Bring your coach in to support with feedback during key points within a unit. This is especially efficient when the coach has been involved in the unit planning process, so there is already a shared understanding of outcomes for writers.

For example, in an informational writing unit, it might be important for all writers to receive feedback around the structure of their pieces within a short period of time. Your team might have identified two key elements at your grade level for students to master by the end of the unit (e.g. information is logically grouped into paragraphs and use of transitions). You might invite your coach into the classroom to confer specifically around these two elements over a couple of days. Or, the coach might dip into your Google Classroom and offer that same feedback digitally outside of workshop time.

As a coach, I love any opportunity to work directly with writers, and it’s always more impactful when I can be invited in to offer feedback on something strategic that supports the goals of a unit. 

7. Reflecting Conversation

Instructional Coaches with a background in Cognitive Coaching are skilled at being thought partners who can support teachers in noticing and naming what is working well, as well as organizing their thinking around places they might be spinning. Investing 20 minutes in this type of conversation can be a time-saver in the long run, when a teacher walks away with greater clarity.

For example, a teacher might notice a subset of students who have lost engagement in the current unit. A Reflecting Conversation could help that teacher to think through what might have changed for them that is leading to their disengagement. Often, a reflecting conversation leads seamlessly into a Planning Conversation—priming the pump for next steps.

The beauty of either a Reflecting or a Planning Conversation is that they can happen at any time. It’s a flexible, differentiated coaching tool whose only purpose is to make a teacher’s own thinking visible to them. What a gift! 

Desserts: Finishing a Unit Strong

8. Authentic Audience

Think about how your coach might support writers in finding another authentic audience for their writing. Invite the coach (and other staff members) in to your whole class celebration at the end of a unit. Their affirming feedback will help to make sure every writer in the room feels seen and heard. You can divide students across classrooms into small groups for sharing and feedback, and your coach will likely be delighted to be asked to facilitate a group. 

9. Keep, Drop, Create

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This is a strategy I regularly use with teams at the end of a unit. I originally learned about it from Tom Many, an expert in the world of Professional Learning Communities. It’s absolutely as simple as it sounds. Teams (plus coach) take 10-15 minutes post-unit to reflect on what parts of their instruction were most effective, based on what students learned (as demonstrated by their writing).

To be clear, it’s not about what teachers liked/disliked, but what worked/didn’t work, and how do we know? What do we want to make sure to include again next time we teach this unit? What can/should we let go of? What will we need to add or create next time? This small investment of time, in the days when the unit is fresh, pays off when a team approaches the planning of the unit the next year. 

10. Doggie Bag

Before student work is sent home, schedule a time to choose a few samples to keep as exemplars for future years. As the team and coach sift through this authentic kid work, notice and celebrate the ways writers grew. Point out specific places where student outcomes matched goals set during the unit planning process. Consider which samples might make these learning outcomes clear to other student writers. Sharing student work in this way helps teachers to calibrate their understanding for what it actually looks and sounds like when writers meet standards at their grade level(s). Bonus points if you also discuss which lessons or instructional practices led to this growth.

Closing Thoughts

These quick bites of collaborative work are motivating, because impact is immediate and visible. It’s energizing to see evidence of our actions on student learning. Educators are working hard every day to support writers, and it’s important to respect their time while honoring their drive to continue growing as professionals. While I might argue that there is no replacement for the pure coaching cycle, each of these à la carte offerings has the richness and complexity necessary to fuel powerful collaboration between teachers and instructional coaches—the kind of collaboration that leads to a measurable impact on student learning.


Book Cover of Your Students, My Students, Our Students: Rethinking Equitable and Inclusive Classrooms
  • This giveaway is for a copy Your Students, My Students, Our Students: Rethinking Equitable and Inclusive Classrooms, by Lee Ann Jung, Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Julie Kroener. Many thanks to ASCD for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Your Students, My Students, Our Students: Rethinking Equitable and Inclusive Classrooms, please leave a comment on any of our blog series posts Sun., November 6th at Noon EST. Sarah Valter will use a random number generator to pick the winner whose name will be announced in the blog series wrap-up post on Mon., Nov. 7th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Sarah can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at ASCD will ship the book to you. 
  • If you are the winner of the book, Sarah will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – STRONGER TOGETHER BLOG SERIES. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

16 thoughts on “Coaching à la Carte: Stronger Together Blog Series

  1. Thank you for sharing all of these great ideas! We are starting up coaching cycles in the next two weeks, and these are some great options for those who may struggle to come up with ideas for goals. I love the menu idea!


  2. I love these ideas- thank you for sharing them in such a descriptive way. I really appreciate how you were able to articulate the frustration of missing the coaching cycle work along with the absolute understanding of how at capacity teachers are. I’ve been trying to ramp up my coaching cycles this year, and these ideas are just exactly what I needed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice to be validated on the “post pandemic” life of the coaching cycle. It’s good to know I don’t struggle to regain momentum alone. Thanks for the reminder that bite size is often the right size for the situation. It often opens doors to deeper collaboration opportunities.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the idea of your themed series of blogs! This one looks fantastic! We just used your “Resetting Workshop Practices” series with district wide grade level teams. We jigsawed the articles and each teacher picked next steps to improve their practices. It was great reflection and conversation!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As a coach, I am acutely aware of the mantra “There’s not enough time.” I hear it regularly. These tips make coaching accessible, manageable, and impactful for all involved. Thank you for sharing this – it was the little burst of PD I needed right now!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. These are great points. Unfortunately my district no longer has a Lit Coach, however I am going to share this article with my principal and my co-teacher and grade level team. The timing couldn’t be better as we are getting ready to start our next writing unit. Thank you for invigorating me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you mentioned this, because it doesn’t take a coach to initiate and facilitate these collaborative options with teachers. As leaders, teachers can advocate for time on the calendar to engage in this work together. I’m so glad you’re feeling inspired to do so!


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