This year I’m in a new role, and it has broadened my perspective a bit. Rather than serving as a building-based instructional coach (K-5), a job I loved for the past 11 years, I’ve shifted into a district-based coaching role. My primary focus is supporting school leadership teams (principals, coaches, teachers) with the implementation of the PLC process (Professional Learning Communities) in grades K-12. To people outside education, I describe myself as a collaboration coach.
I believe deeply in Professional Learning Communities, especially the horizontal grade level team PLC. This is where decisions are made and adult learning happens that has an immediate and direct impact on student learning.
An effective PLC team is where good teaching becomes great. This is especially true for teachers of writers, since teaching writers is so challenging and complex. We genuinely need each other to continue getting better at what we do.
My holy grail: What is the highest leverage collaborative work? What will produce the most growth for learners, as well as for the teachers investing their precious time in this team meeting?
With that context in mind, my school district is engaged in collective work around strengthening the instructional core of all classrooms, K-12. Picture the instructional core as a triangle with three sides: student engagement, rigor and relevance, and teacher knowledge and skill. In the middle of the triangle is the student task. (This comes from the work of Richard Elmore.)
Administrator and coach learning has centered around key questions to ask when considering the task in which students are engaged:
- Does the task connect to a grade level standard?
- Is the task rigorous?
Important questions, especially for educators tasked with offering feedback and support to teachers. But as someone coaching collaboration, my question is: How are we partnering with teachers to build understanding of what “grade level” and “rigorous” really look and sound like in the classroom?
If we’re not providing opportunities for teachers and administrators to build a common vision of what this looks and sounds like, then it’s the equivalent of testing and retesting learners on a skill without offering instruction. It becomes a gotcha for individual teachers, rather than an opportunity for growth in the system.
I don’t believe any teachers are intentionally teaching down to lower grade level standards. I think teachers recognize gaps in student understanding, and they attempt to differentiate to be responsive to those needs. However, that line can become fuzzy when the perception is that a large subset of students require differentiation below grade level. It can create a situation where whole group instruction shifts down to meet this need, inadvertently lowering the bar for all students. This obviously becomes an equity issue when all learners do not have access to grade level targets and tasks.
I do think this happens disproportionately often in writing classrooms in which students underperform on pre-assessments, perhaps due to a perceived lack of purpose. . . but that’s a blog post for another day. However, I have experienced team meetings in which teachers are justifiably alarmed by students’ performance on writing pre-assessments, frustrated to see third/fourth/fifth graders who respond to an on-demand writing task with a sentence or two.
“They can’t even write a paragraph!”
“There is no punctuation in the entire piece!”
“I’m going to have to back waaaaaaay up.”
The difference between “can’t” and “didn’t choose to on this particular assessment” is vast. Before we have a knee-jerk reaction and downshift our learning targets (and the rigor of the entire unit), let’s get eyes on more kid writing. Let’s see what kids write when they are invested in the task/unit. Pre-assessment data is only as valuable as its reliability. If it is not truly a measure of a writer’s abilities, then it is the wrong data to be guiding our instructional decisions.
So. . . what are some ways that we can leverage the power of the PLC team to ensure that our writing instruction is planned (and remains) at grade level? What are the checks and balances across a unit that keep our learning targets and tasks rigorous, even as we recognize the need to meet writers where they are?
I acknowledge that this question is worthy of an entire book in response. Rather than trying to cover every possible strategy, I’m going to choose one small routine that, when added to the collaborative work of a grade level team, has the potential to positively impact student learning while supporting teacher teams in building a common understanding of rigor and grade level standards. I took a similar stance in my post “Coaching à la Carte,” in which I shared ten powerful (and quick) ways to collaborate with an instructional coach or teammate to have a big impact on writers. Like the strategies offered in “Coaching à la Carte,” this routine serves multiple purposes.
A revealing data point on the level of rigor in a writing workshop is the feedback being offered while conferring. This offers teacher teams a powerful opportunity for collaboration.
Crafting Feedback Together Protocol
Purpose: To refine our craftsmanship around offering specific feedback for writers. To build collective understanding around feedback aligned to our grade level standards and expected unit outcomes.
Before the meeting:
- Each team member selects at least one piece of student work in progress.
- Choose the work of students you plan to confer with soon after the meeting.
- Choose work that you might be unsure what feedback to offer.
- Make a copy of the work for each teammate (or plan to use a doc camera to project the work).
- Ideally, the team has already co-planned the unit, so bring any shared documents that will ground the team and help everyone calibrate end of unit expectations (e.g., co-created rubric, learning targets, exemplars, conferring notes template, etc.).
During the meeting:
Step 1: One teacher shares a piece of student writing in progress. (1 min.)
Step 2: What is this writer already doing well? The team rainstorms to put multiple ideas on the table. (2 min.)
- How would you name that affirming and/or descriptive feedback for writers?
- What is the learning target connected to the feedback?
- Is the feedback being offering at the level of the grade level standard? If it’s not, it’s likely the writer has heard this same feedback in prior years. It’s important for writers to see evidence of their growth. Use your team unit planning documents as needed to help identify and name what the writer is already demonstrating connected to current learning targets.
Step 3: What does this writer need? The team brainstorms to put multiple ideas on the table. (2 min.)
- Which need is the highest leverage, most transferable skill?
- How would you name that teaching point for writers?
- Is that teaching point at the level of the grade level standard? If it’s not (yet), how might you intentionally make a connection to a current learning target? Is there a goal that student might set that would be a clear step toward an end of unit outcome, a way to make the path visible?
Step 4: How would you teach this skill? Take a few minutes for each team member to script out what they would say/do. (3 min)
Step 5: Take turns practicing your teaching point. Use the words you would use with your student. (8-10 min.)
This is the step we most often skip or gloss over when we collaborate. And yet, it has such potential power, when we make space to get into this level of specifics, to build a culture of practice. For example, a common need for many teachers of writers is to streamline their conferences. To use fewer words. Sometimes we don’t even realize how many words we are using, how overwhelming that river of words can be for kids. Hearing ourselves (as well as our teammates) in action can raise our own awareness and lead to more intentional language.
Step 6: Repeat the process with a new student work sample.
I would recommend using this protocol/process at a couple of strategic points in the unit. For example, you might schedule time to engage in the process early on in the unit and then again midway through. Near the end of the unit, your team might reflect on the impact of spending collaborative time in this way. How did it affect your efficacy during conferences? What did you feel better about? In what ways did you find yourself more prepared? What impact did you notice on student writing?
Could this process happen individually for a teacher, reflecting and planning alone in a classroom? Yes, of course it could. Could it happen with a teacher and a coach? Yes, absolutely. However, the power of this process on a grade level team is that the system learns and becomes more aligned together. This type of collaboration leads to sense making of district initiatives where it matters most: in the daily work of teachers and students.