Christy and I are just thrilled to introduce you to Melanie Levy. She is the guest writer of this post. Melanie is not only a great friend of ours, but she has been an inspirational literacy coach and is currently our biggest teacher crush. Melanie’s insights about her return to the classroom after years of coaching are honest and heartfelt. You’ll find yourself nodding your head as she shares her reality checks of teaching in today’s elementary school classroom. Thank you, Melanie, for reminding us of the true essentials of literacy instruction. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for inspiring us to Teach, actually!
What I Know To Be True About Teaching:
Reflections of a Literacy Coach’s Return to the Classroom
After being a literacy coach for seven years, I decided to return to the classroom. It was Sharon Taberski who first planted the seed of this idea in my head. I had the opportunity to work with her for 5 days at our school in 2012. She candidly asked me one day, “So, what’s your long term plan? Do you want to go into administration and be a principal?” I was taken aback. I mumbled something about either wanting to go into academia to teach in a school of education or to do what she does, consult and work in schools across the country. She replied by saying, “Well if you want to do what I do, you really need to go back into the classroom. It’s the best place to practice. I taught for 7 years, then I became a staff developer, then I returned to the classroom for 20 years. And in that time I wrote On Solid Ground (2000). My classroom became a lab site for my school and for visitors.” I was stunned. A strange feeling came over me, my heart started racing, and I literally stopped in my tracks as we were walking in the hallway together. I thought about what she said for weeks afterwards, not able to get the idea out of my mind. Could I really go back to the classroom? This idea tugged at me for two years and this September I dove back into it. I knew Sharon was right. It was time for me to merge theory with practice.
In the summer leading up to my new role as a fourth grade ICT teacher, I daydreamed about all that I wanted to accomplish in the classroom. Specifically, I was interested in trying out the use of the TC checklists for opinion, narrative, and informational writing; grand conversation and interactive read aloud; shared and close reading in the upper grades; using knowledge of text complexity to inform my conferences/book club discussions; and keeping a readers notebook to document active thinking and writing about reading. I haven’t even done half of those things yet! Reality check. A lesson in theory vs practice: the daily realities of classroom life, especially in the fall, tend to thwart your plans! Checklists? Close reading? Book clubs? They weren’t even on my radar until at least October. Instead, I was consumed with helping to integrate a student whose mom had left the family unexpectedly over the summer. I was finding a rhythm with my new co-teacher in our ICT classroom. I was thinking about how to help a girl who didn’t quite have the social cues to find playmates at recess, and stood alone, trying to fit in but not knowing how. Our class pet Tomato, a fighting fish, died. Field trips. Curriculum night. Parent emails. You all know, you’ve all been there or are in it right now! This is not to say that these become excuses for not reaching to attain the goals that I have set for my teaching; it is just a reminder of the reality of the classroom. Plans are put on hold to meet the needs of students and families. Sometimes what teachers need the most in a literacy coach is someone that can support them emotionally.
Teaching is an art because it’s about balance. In the first weeks of school, people asked me how it felt to be back in the classroom. “Humbling,” I said. It is truly humbling. It is easy to have a vision for what’s possible and forget all that teachers are responsible for in a days work.
We need the vision. The vision is what inspires teachers to do better, even if they can’t do ALL of it. The vision is what you think about in your morning commute, in your sleep, in your heart of hearts. How can I get there? How can I get my students there? And so I feel strongly that as a literacy coach one of the things we need to bring to teachers is the vision for what’s possible. And what comes along with vision, is of course, the path of how to get there. I always tried to stay close to that reality as a coach. I always tried to provide teachers with some practical ways to implement the big idea that we were studying, whether that was through charts, checklists, mentor texts, concrete strategies that outlined the what, the why, and the how of the teaching. And steps. Knowing that if you’re a new teacher or new to the work you’re just not going to be able to implement everything at once. To me, it is more important to understand the power of mentors, student engagement, and accountable talk in a classroom than it is to make sure you have a system for conference notes.
I have the privilege of working with Monique as my TC staff developer. She led a lab site in my classroom for the fourth grade team in early October. At the time, I was feeling overwhelmed about the status of things in my classroom. There was so much work to be done! And there didn’t seem to be enough hours in the day to do it all! The best compliment that my co-teacher and I could have received from Monique that day was that she felt like the tone in our classroom was that of kids “cheering each other on” to the challenging work at hand. That compliment meant the world to me because in all the craziness of back to school and the pressures that come with teaching in the upper grades, it meant that we were doing something right. Another thing that has come to light for me in my experience going back to the classroom after 7 years, is that nothing can replace classroom culture. I may not have graded every single math homework this fall, but I did spend time honoring the voice of each and every student in my class in some way.
One of the ways that I’ve reflected on my experience so far is thinking about what I know to be true about teaching. And as I compare my experience of classroom teaching seven years ago with my experience now, what really resonates is that the tenets of good teaching haven’t changed. Now, there is no doubt that a lot has changed in the past seven years. The new technology in the classroom alone has blown me away! (You should see me trying to use the new Eno board in my classroom! It’s kind of like me watching my mom trying to use her new Samsung tablet). The implementation of the Common Core Standards. The high-stakes testing. The use of the Danielson Rubric to formally evaluate teachers.
The day-to-day truths we know about sharing a classroom community with children are the same. Children need to feel emotionally safe. Children need powerful mentors. Children need to make connections across all academic areas. Children need time to read, write, solve problems, talk out their understandings, question each other and texts, reflect on their successes and challenges. Children need choice. Children need to play. Even when they’re 9 and 10 years old! In order for children to take risks, teachers need to take risks. One of my most powerful moments so far this year was when I shared with my students the story of finding out that my grandmother was illiterate. I could have chosen a safer topic, but it wouldn’t have been as raw and as real as that one. It also forced me to do some of the cognitive work for my own writing that I was asking my students to do for theirs. Taking risks as a teacher means opening yourself up to your students in ways that are personal and real. I felt that way seven years ago in my classroom and I feel that way now.
Do we need standards, continuum, and research-based practices? For sure. In many ways, goals for our students now are clearer than they have ever been. The work of John Hattie highlights the importance of crystal clear goals and timely feedback. I know I’m a better teacher today because of his research. Stephanie Harvey’s work on reading achievement tells us that readers grow when they are exposed to the explicit teaching of reading strategies, when students read with volume, and when students read just right books. The Common Core State Standards give us pause to look at our teaching and make sure that we are addressing elements like craft and structure, synthesizing ideas, and reading and writing widely in all genres. Books like Pathways to the Common Core (2013) by Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Chris Lehman, help us have a deeper understanding of how to use the CCSS in meaningful, rigorous ways.
But I do wonder if in today’s educational climate, teaching is becoming more formulaic and less organic. I wonder if we are actually giving students too much feedback. Are checklists necessary for EVERYTHING we do? I have to admit that at times, I think checklists and assessments get in the way of kids simply having time to read and write. When I think about balanced literacy, I always come back to that word balance. It feels as if the bigger work can get lost in all the well-intentioned efforts to keep track of every aspect of every student’s work. As a classroom teacher, I often feel that there is an overwhelming amount for students and teachers to keep track of between all of the pre, mid, post assessments and checklists. Sometimes the most powerful teaching can come from in the moment, informal assessments. I find that I’m often most interested in the organic work that is happening each day in my classroom, the “status of the class” with the work at hand. Is the constant use of checklists, rubrics, and continuum getting in the way from us clearly seeing the students that are right in front of us? That balance is something I know I’m still figuring out.
Brian Cambourne’s Conditions of Learning help to ground me in what I know to be true about teaching. Whenever I’m feeling that tension that exists between making sure students have clear goals that they’re working towards and feedback with the need to simply give them time to be responsible for their learning, time to use what we’ve taught them, time to approximate in ways that are true to themselves as learners. Would I be a rebel if I said that sometimes kids just need time to READ and WRITE without us getting in the way? I believe that approximation, practice, and powerful modeling/mentors = a recipe for volume and risk-taking. Sometimes the most powerful thing we can do as teachers is to step back and give our students time for their work to unfold. Seven years ago as a classroom teacher, I felt like I had this time. Today I don’t, and it’s a tension that I struggle with each day.
There is no such thing as a perfect classroom. I definitely felt an element of pressure going back to the classroom after having been the literacy coach at my school. I wanted to be the perfect teacher with the perfect classroom. And yet. That is just not realistic. The messiness of it all is what I am going to learn from the most, and ultimately sends a message to students that it’s all a learning process. We try something, it doesn’t work, so we alter the path and try something else. At the end of it all, hopefully we’ve learned something about ourselves and our students. At the end of our personal narrative unit, my co-teacher and I decided to celebrate the process of our students’ work. They had generated ideas, developed their ideas, drafted their stories, used the narrative checklist from TC to self-assess and set goals, revised with those goals in mind, and edited. It was time to publish. Rather than have them laboriously recopy their revised drafts, we decided to leave them as is. Some of them were messy indeed! But the work was uniquely theirs. When parents came in for our publishing celebration, the students presented a folder brimming with all of the work that had gone into their final drafts. This was not the norm for a publishing celebration in the upper grades at our school, so we were nervous. But it was the perfect way to end our first unit of study.
Some Advice to Literacy Coaches
If I were to become a literacy coach again tomorrow, I would prioritize….
- Building a strong vision for the work
- Building trust and strong relationships with teachers
- Teaching teachers that no classroom is a perfect classroom
- Coaching into teachers in the moment. Just as our students sometimes learn best from us in the moment, so can teachers.
- Valuing time and effort in the classroom. Even though teachers may not feel they have time to honor stepping back and giving students time to approximate in reading and writing – finding ways to do so will pay itself forward, even at the expense of some assessments and/or parts of units of study!
- Working with teachers to build confidence in the choices they make as teachers, whether it’s in their methods, book choices, systems in place, etc. Always asking teachers, “Why? Why are you doing what you’re doing and how is it meaningful to your students?” If you can answer that, it’s usually the right choice.