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Gratitude

grat·i·tude

ɡradəˌt(y)o͞od/

noun: gratitude

The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. “She expressed her gratitude to the committee for their support.”

I recently moved after living in the same neighborhood, same building, practically same apartment (we moved several times within the building) for over ten years. Sure the moving is treacherous… we have so much stuff! But the real difficulty is the new everything. New grocery store, new park, new subway line, new dry cleaner, new restaurants, new drug store—new everything. And as when you learn anything new, it feels hard. Our grocery store is NOT Fairway (the best grocery store in NYC in my opinion), the drug store is not across the street, the train doesn’t come every 5 min., and the dry cleaning doesn’t deliver. Yeah, yeah…spoiled…Yes, I was spoiled for 10 years, and was probably not very grateful.

I am realizing something big in this move about gratefulness and gratitude…in order to have these qualities, you have to be positive.

I can focus on what I did have (and, believe me, I have been doing that) or I can focus on what I do have, and look at the positive in that. An apartment with lots more space, a private patio, my own office, much more affordable, and a beautiful park with stunning sunsets two blocks away.

Change can be tough. When I first left the classroom to be a district staff developer. it was hard. I was housed in a massive office building, I wasn’t at schools often, and adjusting to working with teachers vs. kids who hang on your every word was not fun. I longed for the classroom, I ached for it, really. My kind, concerned boss would do anything to make me happy. She even allowed me to set up a model classroom at my old school and let that be my office instead of the sterile department of education building. I wanted back into my classroom. I couldn’t see the gift I was given. Of course I was beyond honored to take this new position. I didn’t have to interview. I was asked to take it. How could someone say no.? How could someone not be grateful?

Which leads me to the other realization around gratitude—be present.

So many things occur when you are a thirteen-year-old girl. You body is becoming an adult, your hormones are raging (which means you are starting to notice this guy—or girl– is HOT!), and you are discovering what matters to you. The summer I was thirteen we moved to a beach house in Fort Myers. At first it was devastating. I made All-stars in softball that year, but couldn’t play in the tournament because my father transferred to Fort Myers for work. I left my friends, my school, and the one thing I knew I was good at to move three hours away. Little did I know that summer I would not just discover the most beautiful blond boy, but I also discovered my real passion—walking on the beach at sunset (in hopes to see that blond boy). From that summer on, sunset walks became a ritual. The beach was my sanctuary and the one place I could think. I am still figuring out who I am, but I am grateful for this passion I discovered at thirteen to help me. We need to be passionate.

I am finishing up my second full year in a district in Maryland. This is a district where the coaches and curriculum leader are the best of the best and the teachers are even better. I met one of the teachers at my first summer writing institute/retreat I did there two years ago—Kim. After that summer, I saw her a few times across the year when she visited schools where I was doing classroom demonstrations. She was always positive, and always passionate, and always present. A joy to be around. However, I didn’t really know her. This year, she became one of the literacy coaches and she taught me the true meaning of gratitude. She was brand new to coaching. She loved teaching, but she was honored to be a coach. From the very first institute she attended as a coach, she stood out. “Christy what can I get you? What do you need? How I can help?” She jumped in and just did things. She carried chart paper, passed out handouts, and encouraged participants to sit up close. Whatever I needed, she did. And with a smile on her face and thrilled to be able to do. I kept thinking, was she for real?

Then she started her coaching job. Sure, she had some hiccups at first, but she knew—be positive, be passionate, and be present. Luckily for her, she worked with a team of amazing and supportive coaches. She worked hard to gain the trust from her teachers. She went into classrooms always working with kids, or asking teachers what she could do. She asked them “how can I help? Can we plan together? I have a cycle scheduled with you, how do you want that to go—we can side by side teach, we can jigsaw the lesson together, we can plan it together—how can I help?” She works at an amazing school with a super supportive principal who lets her shine. He said to me in September, “Kim works hard, and when she says she will do something, she does it. She is present and doesn’t let the teachers down.”

I just finished my last visit at her school. Kim sits right next to her teachers proud and tall and makes everyone of them feel special. The teachers applaud her in front of me and thank her publicly for all that she’s done. Teachers who were quiet last year, are talking and positive. Like Kim.

That same week, I taught at another school in a brand new teacher’s third grade class. She came to the institute last summer and implemented everything right down to the love of the notebooks.

writer's notebook

When I told her how impressed I was with her kids writing volume, her classroom environment, and her notebooks, she replied, “it’s all them”—pointing to the kids. Kim was her supervising teacher. Gratitude spreads.

What can we do to spread this attitude of gratitude:

Be Positive:

  • Compliment teachers whenever you can
  • Highlight the work teachers are doing–create bulletin boards with pictures of teachers teaching, kids writing, charts, classroom environment
  • Compliment when grades work collaboratively at a faculty meeting
  • Compliment at a faculty meeting when a teacher tries something new, a lesson or a unit
  • Be in awe of student work and compliment what the teacher must have done to make this happen
  • Give notes of gratitude to teachers
  • Read the The Thank You Book by Mo Willems at an end of the year faculty meeting and have teachers stand for who/what they are thankful for

Be Present:

  • Listen more and speak less at team meetings
  • If you are able, get what teachers need immediately (books, lessons, charts, units, etc). Quick follow through goes a LONG way
  • Recognize that the work is hard and problem solve and compromise

Be Passionate:

  • Share writing mentors (student work, articles, picture books, teachers’ text) and read them as if they’re gold.  Then share some teaching ideas from them
  • Model lessons for teachers that highlight that teaching writing is life changing–actually use those words with kids–life changing, powerful work, this work matters, you have a voice that needs to be heard, you have the power in your heart and brain and magic pen!
  • Share writing gurus and their works of art.  Gurus such as Ralph Fletcher, Georgia Heard, Don Graves, Roy Peter Clark, Katie Wood Ray, Lucy Calkins, Don Murray and Anne Lamott

I am so grateful for the opportunities I have had in education. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that a young mom and wife who went to college a bit late would be able to work in a district like Pinellas where writing and the best writing mentors supported you, for an organization like Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and live in New York City, and then to independently consult traveling all around the world meeting the most fascinating people. I am truly grateful for that, but mostly I am grateful for Kim and her grace. She reminds me to be positive, passionate and present especially when things are hard like a move and oh yeah, teaching, coaching, and leading.

Share who and what you are grateful for, actually,

Christy & Monique

 
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A Room Of One’s Own

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Many of us spend lots of money and time getting our homes to look just right. We spend hours pouring over catalogues to find the perfect sofa and furniture, or spend hours at Home Depot deciding on just the right paint palette. And then when we have all of this stuff, we then face the daunting task of deciding where to put it all. We arrange our furniture one way, and then another, trying to ensure that the lighting is just right or the angle of the T.V. matches up. And it’s an ongoing process, right? Once one room is done, we look at our other rooms and start the process all over again.

We teachers spend over 1,000 hours in our classrooms every year, and yet arranging our room to make it supportive for learning, and as inviting as a home, is all too often the last thing on our mind. Which is understandable, with all of the things sitting on a teacher’s plate, but it’s still so important for us to make our classrooms to be the best they can be for our kids.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of doing a room makeover. Amanda, one of the teachers I work with, told me that she was struggling with how to create a gathering area in her room that was large enough to fit all her kids. So, since I was going to be teaching a demo lesson in her room, I asked this amazing second grade teacher if I could do some rearranging before my lab site — and she said YES! Can you believe it?— So trusting.

I was in my element once I got started, and boy, did it bring back memories. I was a classroom teacher for nine years, and probably rearranged the desks 10 times each year. At least. I decorated everything. I was fortunate to be in a building that had offices for teachers attached to the classroom, and was even more fortunate that I share the office with my teaching partner, Jozelle. In addition to our classrooms, we decorated that space up nicely.

Ahhhh…the memories…

My class was fortunate enough to have its own restroom, and I loved whales, so I even decorated the restroom with whale posters and inspirational quotes. I was out of control.

The old skills came quickly back, and it took me no time at all to move Amanda’s u-shape arrangement of desks into groups of four, which allowed for more room. It was so fun. I arranged the groups, and then rearranged every which way to be sure kids had enough room to slide in and out of their space. When I finished, I crossed my fingers that it would work. You never really know until the kids arrive.

Now time for the gathering area. Amanda had created the cutest little reading nook in the corner of her room. However, she wanted her gathering area to be in front of the smart board. So I took apart the reading nook, spread her large carpet under the smart board, moved her beautiful whicker chair as her teaching chair near the carpet, moved the easel next to the chair, and then pulled over her bench and cute chairs to surround the rug and carve out the area. Voila! The whole exercise took me about 20 minutes from start to finish.

Then it was time for the kids. They entered the room saying…”Look at the room! It’s awesome! I love the space! Can we keep it like this?” We discussed how we might use the furniture when we meet (sitting in your space with your partner for a week then switching), how we want to keep the area permanent, so we need to take care of it, and how it will help us to really get down to learning. They loved it!

frankfurt-make-over

Amanda’s space…book tubs will soon be replaced with shelves.

I am forever grateful to Amanda. I’m in classrooms all the time, but I never had the opportunity to do a classroom makeover. It was an awesome experience — especially seeing the kids’ response to it.

I work with schools and educators all over the world who thoughtfully consider how best to use classroom space. In Ocean City, MD this year, we decided to name what matters most when teaching writing and supporting independence. This is what teachers and administrators came up with up:

  • A large open space (after all you do most if not all of your teaching there)
  • The space includes a large rug, an easel, and a permanent chair
  • A writing center with paper choice (a range of three to five choices), pens, revision strips, and mentor text
  • Tables and desks in set -up to form small groups (as close to four as possible)
  • Charts that support the kids and the work they are doing cluster together. For example, writing charts stay together, reading charts, and math

In the teaching of reading, schools that I work with are always perfecting their libraries and creating space to support independent readers. Some tips:

  • A large open space
  • The space includes a large rug, an easel, and a permanent chair
  • Small book baskets and low shelves –many surrounding the gathering area to allow easy access to the books
  • The baskets are neatly labeled and easy to read from afar
  • Small baskets work better than large tubs where books often get lost, tub is over stuffed, or messy and overwhelming
  • The books are organized by level, fiction, nonfiction, poetry
  • The titles of the baskets which are not leveled are catchy and engaging such as The Most Disgusting Creatures on Earth OR Girl Drama OR Read Every Magic Tree House Book

As for me as a classroom teacher, I often thought that my kids and I spent so much time in the classroom that it should feel inviting, exciting, and, for me, have a feeling of literacy permeating the space. Below is my room the last year I taught:

christyc-classroom

Monique’s Kindergarten Classroom–Lots of space!

gathering-area-moniques

Here are a few other picks of the classrooms of many teachers I’ve worked with over the years:

Flexible seating in K! Thanks Staci Stonnell!

In Worcester County everyone is pitching in to support classroom environments.  My friend, Chrissy McQuaid (see her room below) spent lots to create a space that works for her and her kids.  She didn’t mind.  She just wanted to do this for her kids.  Her new principal, Matthew Record started and told the teachers to save their receipts.  Whatever they spent on their classroom environment he would refund. Wow!

chrissy

My friend and inspiring NYC principal, Amanda Blatter, told me that the first thing she did when she started at a low performing school in the Bronx was to buy rugs, bookshelves, and books for every teacher. Then she purchased new furniture for the office staff. She told me that when children and educators come to a place of warmth and beauty, they feel respected. Who doesn’t want to be in a place like that?

Coaches, do you have any classrooms that need a fresh look? Offer to makeover that classroom. That teacher will be forever grateful — and you will have a blast. After all shouldn’t we teach in a place that feels good to us and to our kids?

When we take the time to make our environment into a place of warmth, excitement, and inspiration, we say to our kids, “You are only worth the very best.”

Before every game coach Taylor gathers his players into a huddle and they chant together:

“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose!”

Together they gather, hold each other up, and believe in the work at hand. When we come together every day before reading and writing workshop and call our kids “readers and writers,” we send them off believing they can do this big work. That they’ve got this. What better gift can we give them.

Let me know if you want support with literacy and room makeovers!!! We would love to visit your district!

Create a room of your own, actually~

Christy & Monique

 It Is All About Trust

 

What the Summer Taught Me About Being a Leader & the Importance of Creating Trust~ Christy

This past summer was one of the most rewarding summers I have had in my career.  I worked all over the place sharing what it means to be a writer, and a teacher of writing–all in this new space that one of my teachers coined a “writing retreat.” Calling my work a writing retreat is just one of the things I learned from the 200 plus teachers I worked with this summer. Here are some others.

Number 1: Be transparent:

On the first day, I told the teachers that we will write.  One of my friends and writing mentors, Roy Peter Clark, always used the analogy that if our kids are taking swimming lessons, we expect the instructor to be in the water.  If we are teaching kids to write, we need to take the plunge and do the same.  So we will all write.  However, no one has to share if she or he doesn’t want to.  My third or fourth year of teaching, the great Barry Lane taught in my classroom.  What a gift.  One of the first things he said to my kids was “you don’t have to share if you don’t want to.”  Teachers (and kids) have told me over and over again that hearing that single sentence helped them to breathe.  I was working in Bonn, Germany for a short two days, and the teachers wrote.  A teacher came up to me at the end and told me that those words made all the difference in the world when she was asked to write.  She also said that when I asked them to count lines, and that a single word counted as a line, she was thrilled.  She felt as if she had accomplished something.  She still hates to write…I just need a few more days with her…

Number 2: Share your writing even when you don’t want to:

Every year I make a promise to myself that I will share a new story with my teachers.  I use the same strategy: Writers Generate Ideas by Thinking of Issues in Their Life, and Moments Attached to Those Issues. I then model issues that have had a big impact on me—Divorce, Adoption, Bullying, Fitting-In, What it means to be a woman—the beauty and weight factor, Death/loss, Moving, Sibling Rivalry, etc.  I select moments. Some moments have to do with loss, others around tension with family members, but usually they are issues that affect me and often I don’t like “me” in them.  This makes it hard for me to share, but it also immediately makes me human and flawed and relatable.  And so I share.

Number 3: Be vulnerable:

Last week was my last real summer retreat and I was fortunate enough to do it with one of my best friends and colleagues, Monique Knight.  We spent every second together.  It was a blast.  It was like having a girls’ weekend away.  We talked about moms, spouses, and of course work.  One morning when we were driving in together I asked Monique, “What is your story about?”  She told me the moment and it was a doozie. It was intense with strong emotion.  Perfect.  However, she wasn’t sure what it was about.  So we practiced my favorite upper grade strategy (she teaches kindergarten—not a common strategy with K) asking, “What’s your story really, Really, REALLY about? What is it teaching you about you, others, the world? What lesson are you learning?  Can you say it in three words or a sentence?” So fun!  Then she realized she had to be vulnerable.  She didn’t see it was about something hard, something she is wrestling with, something she may not want to see.  Of course being the amazing teacher that Monique is, she did the lesson and went there with her participants.  They saw her differently, they saw themselves and others differently, they saw the teaching of writing differently.

Number 4: Celebrate that vulnerability: 

Laurel’s Celebrationfullsizerender-3

We always celebrate at the end of a retreat.  My celebration is typically the same: teachers go off with their writing partner to join another partnership and then they read their writing ALOUD.  That’s important.  I did work in Zurich this summer and met the most amazing human being—David.  This assistant principal taught me so many things—one thing he taught me is that it is okay to work with privileged kids, actually it is a must because they need to know the larger world out there.   He also taught me the power of reading the piece aloud. He read a very sweet piece on marmalade.  And when he got to the part about his grandmother, he began to choke up and he couldn’t finish it.  That moment, those words, brought him back to her, his childhood and affected him in a way that simply writing it couldn’t have.  Sharing it not only affected others but surprisingly him, too.

Angie in Delaware Laurel School District shared a piece of writing of the moment her father passed.  It was so raw, so honest. Her colleague Diane sat next to her and comforted her ready to take over, but Angie read it, she sobbed and read some more and we were all with her wrapping our arms around her, holding her in this moment of loss and pain and unbearable sadness/grief.  I will never look at my friend Angie the same.  I asked her to read it to the group, her colleagues supported her, and she courageously honored her father that day.   

Two years ago, my last time teaching a summer institute at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, a participant shared what a moving experience it was to hear such raw emotion from other participants.  He said he regretted not writing in honest ways. How this experience was one he couldn’t brave and he was mad at himself for not trusting himself.  He said that will never happen again.

Number 5: Trust the big work and let it affect all: 

basma-pic

Writing is hard and lonely.  Recently, thanks to my partner in this journey and dear friend Monique Knight introduced me to the writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I am in the mist of reading her book Americanah, but Monique also introduced me to the TED talk that she gave around The Danger of a Single Story. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en

She says, “Stories matter.  Many stories matter. Stories can be used to empower and humanize.  Stories can break the dignity of a people.  Stories can also repair that broken dignity.”   This TED talk about a single story immediately helped me reflect on the summer and the many educators I worked with.

One in particular Basma. I met Basma through my work at her school in Cairo, but I didn’t really know her.  I knew she wore a hijab, she taught Arabic at her school, and she was Muslim.  The danger of the single story. Then Basma came to my retreat in Ocean City, and during that week, Basma and I spent many meals together, shopped together, and shared many stories together.  Her many stories mattered and I no longer will ever see her (or hopefully anyone else) as a single story.  When we write and share we see people.  We understand people. We hear their many stories and see who they REALLY are.

During that same summer retreat, at a time not too long after the killings of black men by police officers in Minnesota and Baton Rouge (and of police officers killed in Dallas by a black man), a women shared a story of how she is a policeman’s wife.  She said she never saw color before and now she does.  I heard this and did nothing. Said nothing. I am mad at myself and her, but mostly at me.  I think of her one way.  I only know her single story.  If I would have said, “Turn and talk about what she just said. Do you feel that way? Do you see her differently because she is married to a police officer.” I had a precious moment and I let it go.  And now others and myself will not see her multiple stories and for her, she isn’t hearing those stories of others either.  If only all of us kept in mind the danger of the single story. If I can keep that in mind.  The big work is that when we write and share we see people differently.  We understand them.  And we know their many stories.

What I’ve Discovered About Trust: A Dynamic of Learning ~ Monique

Trust in the work, the process and the learners:

 

The most publicized moments in a school seem to happen when something dynamic has already happened.  We celebrate writing at the end of a unit of study.  We look at bulletin boards after the fact.  A class favorite book cover is posted on a ‘hall of fame wall of read alouds’ long after the teacher has introduced the book to the class for the very first time and many moments after a heated class discussion occurred.  High frequent words end up on the Word Wall after they have been “taught”. Much of the heart, nuance, and struggle of learning is less public, if not mystical and invisible.

 

This can create a sense of distrust from those who are trying to get to the same ‘finish lines’.  You have probably looked at a piece of student work, a test score or reading data, and asked, “What did the teaching/learning look like, sound like, feel like?”  Perhaps you were skeptical or unsure of the heart and energy put into the learning, from the teacher, student, family, or anyone involved in the process.  Several people have asked me, “How did you get (this writer/reader/child/teacher) to this place?”  It is a mystery.  And I don’t think these questions are bad or offensive or wrong to ask.  They’re good questions, in fact. How can you trust something you don’t see? How can you trust a curriculum when you’re not quite sure about the philosophy or intentions of the architects of it? How can we, as teachers, trust that the next teaching point is what our readers truly need? Below are three tips that I’ve found to help with building trust in a teaching and learning community.  

 

Tip 1: Say what you’re going to do and then do it

This one is a two-for-one tip. It is important, when writing curriculum or when introducing concepts to state your intentions, up front, to the learners.  Learners need a vision- or a path or example of what they’re about to try.  It is comforting to know the turn by turn directions before starting on the journey, not while you’re driving at full speed.  Classroom teachers do this with new units of study, a new lesson (“Today, I’m going to teach you…  Watch me as I ….”). Leaders, coaches, we need to do this with teachers as well.  Not just the what (we are going to teach), but the turn by turn directions. Last school year, I tried my best to build trust with a team of teachers I work with.  As their new kindergarten teacher colleague and coach, I shared with them my daily plans on a shared drive. Sharing plans and ideas is essentially “saying what you’re going to do”. Many of them also share their ideas and plans. We see each others ideas before the ‘finished product’. We can ask questions and reflect about the process along the way. Little by little, we’re building trust among us as a team of teachers.

 

Tip 2: Keep track

Artifacts help to tell the story and to uncover the mysteries of learning. If you were to adopt a classroom and take a 3 minute video of the same part of the day in September, and then again in November, then in February, March, and once more in May, chances are you’ll see trends, struggles and growth. These are the dynamics of teaching and learning. Perhaps the video would be the 3 minutes of a teacher delivering a reading lesson, or a share session, a writing conference, playtime, independent problem solving in math, whole class discussions.  Whatever it is you’re trying to build knowledge and trust around, it is what you collect and keep track of.  Part of the keeping track is being transparent around the purpose and reflecting often and openly.  The hardest part of teaching or the hardest parts of our days are what we should be studying to see not only what we’re doing wrong, but also to see what is working so that we can do more of the latter.  This helps to build trust because the purpose is clear.  You are committed to it. Therefore you are responsible.

 

Tip 3: Help

Offer it, give it, seek it. I’ve learned that for every teacher who will call out for help, there are about 5 more nearby who need the same help for that very issue but don’t know it or won’t ask for it. Helping teachers can be the most challenging part of building trust because it exposes and requires vulnerability on their part.  What we do with that information can also break trust forever. Over-helping learners can enable teachers to not have to be proactive or make them too dependent. We practice release of help or scaffolds for children in classrooms. We need to do the same for the teachers we lead. We, as leaders, also need to recognize when we require help as well, and feel free to reach out to our colleagues.  

 

Finally, trust is not only the responsibility of the teachers or learners.  As a leader, we also need a bit more trust in the work. Trust is not something that happens overnight, or even in one school year.  It takes time, and frequent positive interactions.  We are responsible for making sure we are working and serving in environments that we trust. If you do not trust the environment you work in, you should not be there. How else can we stand up for the work and advocate for the vision of our organizations or schools or causes?  Trust is not quiet and passive.  Rather, it is present, steady and obvious.  As I embark on this next year of teaching, leading and learning, trust is at the forefront of my priorities.  

 

Let’s continue to lead and build more trust, actually

 

Monique and Christy

A Risky Business          

Mary Osborne is one of my earliest and most influential educational mentors. She influenced the way I taught writing to my fourth graders from my very first year of teaching and beyond. She influenced my passion and love for the work, and always directed me to the very best educators (she included me on yearly dinners with her close friend Don Graves—Donald Graves! I had dinner with him. He talked with me about running 7 miles a day. To little old me!). She influenced the way to be around teachers—love and honor all of them, and always try to walk in their shoes. When I left Pinellas County ten years ago, the hardest part about leaving was saying goodbye to Mary. There isn’t a day that goes by in my work that Mary isn’t a part of my words, a part of my actions, a part of my thinking…her presence is constant. So you can imagine the joy and honor I have in sharing this post from the educator to whom I owe everything. Enjoy, readers. Let Mary impact you, too. She is a gift.            

 

When my daughter Maggie was three years old, she began taking ballet lessons. At about age five, she took swimming lessons in a friend’s pool. Next came cheerleading. That lasted the longest, almost six years. At age sixteen, she became engrossed with her acoustic guitar. Each time my daughter ventured into some new passion she was fortunate to have instructors or teachers or coaches who were willing to take risks. You see in each instance whether ballet or swimming or cheerleading or guitar lessons the teacher actually modeled that skill for the students. This takes bravery and so could be considered risky business.

 

The first time I felt at risk was when I attended Writers Camp in 1983. I hadn’t written like that since high school and even then I didn’t exactly write the way we did at camp. In high school writing seemed more technical somehow–more focused on form and correctness than on ideas and personal meaning. At camp the first priority was choosing a topic we cared about. That left us vulnerable. It put us at risk. If we truly wrote about subjects close to our hearts, colleagues we barely knew would become familiar with us at a rapid pace. And then we were told that this behavior wasn’t just for camp but in fact was a behavior we should adopt in our daily lives in the classroom–in our classrooms with our students. Not only did this mean opening our true selves to our students but it also meant revealing to them our weaknesses as writers. Huge risk.

 

In her book, The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts) Katie Wood Ray says, “I believe that to set the best tone in our writing workshops, then, our students need to see us as people who write, just as we see them in that same way. Now take heart. It is not at all necessary that they see us as great writers. It is fine for them to see us struggle as writers, to see us write things that make us (and them) say, ‘Oh my, that’s awful!’ What is so much more important than that we be great writers is that our students see us as people who think writing is a worthwhile thing to do, as people who believe in the effort it takes to write things that really matter.” I know Katie’s words speak the truth, but that doesn’t lessen the risk.
One day a teacher I had modeled a lesson for commented, “Some of the kids were not writing while you had your back turned during conferring.” I reassured him this was not a problem, but rather it was a behavior writers of all ages exhibit. It’s called thinking. I realize this may not have been completely true for all of those students that day but I can pretty much guarantee it was true for one or two of them. I told him that when students finish their stories and proclaim, “I’m done,” what they really mean to say is, “I don’t know what else to do.” Students have to be taught through mini lessons and conferences those things writers do when they too are done getting their thoughts onto paper. The problem begins here for teachers who don’t write themselves. How can they know what writers really experience if they never put their own thoughts to paper? This teacher couldn’t understand why some students weren’t writing that day, but teachers who do write know that they sometimes have long gaps in the physical act of writing because they are thinking about what they’ll say or do next.

 

The most important thing teachers can do for themselves and for their students is to write. Writing with students creates a supportive tone in the classroom. Composition researchers and practitioners have generally agreed that, as effective “facilitators” in the writing process classroom, writing teachers need to engage in writing activities themselves for two important reasons. First, as teachers of writing, they should practice what they preach. Second, when teachers really do write with their students, they develop better insights into the challenges and rewards their student writers face. Teachers must write in order to inspire their students to write. Students learn from watching. In addition, when teachers show their excitement about writing and write alongside their students, students realize and react to that energy in positive ways. It has been said that there is no more powerful way to inspire our student writers. However, most teachers feel inadequate themselves as writers.

 

Many years ago, a Writers Camp teacher reflected, “Never have I expressed a passion for writing. My commitment dealt with reading others’ writing, “teaching writing’, and pretending to write when my students write. Now, I ask myself how it is possible to get anything out of another’s writing when I have never experienced real writing? How in the world could I have taught writing all these years when I never wrote myself? Most importantly, what did I learn from pretending to write? Reflection on my prior commitments finds emptiness, shallowness, absurdity. ‘Snippets’ of writing strategies have guided my teaching. These fragments developed from a thirst to find a better way to help the young writer who also hated the process. I now know that personal real writing is invaluable to the teacher. Students imitate their role models. Effective teaching stems from effective modeling. Teachers can’t model what they don’t do.”

 

Downhill skiing, bungee jumping, and most certainly sky diving can all be considered risky business, but there is no riskier business for anyone, especially a teacher, than putting yourself on the page in the fragile form of words–however the brave teachers who do, know the rewards.

 

By Mary Osborne

Instructional Staff Developer

Pinellas County Schools, Florida

 

A Distributive Leadership Model

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I had the great fortune of meeting and working with our guest blogger, Keryn Dowling of the Zurich International School, earlier this year. Keryn and her colleagues in Zurich introduced Writer’s Workshop to the teaching staff this year. The way they decided to do it was through a Distributive Leadership Model. Keryn so passionately explains it all below. Great model—one you might want to try.

 

Whilst I am not new to instructional coaching, I recently added the area of literacy to my list of responsibilities when our school decided to implement Writers Workshop this year.  Given that this was not my ‘real job’, and I had other content areas I was still responsible for, I quickly realized I could not do this alone and would need to establish a distributive leadership model within our building.  This team of literacy leaders quickly proved to not only be my lifeline in ensuring our new approaches to literacy, using the TC writers workshop model, could be well implemented, but also my favorite time in the week.

Teacher literacy leaders’ are smart. These teachers are at the front line.  They haven’t become diluted in their understanding of the demands placed on teachers today, and so they get it.  They know what needs to be done in the building, and more importantly know how it needs to get done.  Following the advice of these teachers, I know when to push, know when to pull, know when to advocate to the building administration, and know when to back right off!  Relying on their advice and really listening to what is happening in their teams has given me a deeper understanding of both practice and needs within the classrooms.

However, this role is not their ‘real job’ and so their time, their input, their support and their leadership needs to be carefully monitored and appreciated to avoid burn out and frustration.  Any school thinking of implementing this model should be very clear on the criteria for selection of these literacy leaders, as well as expectations and support for the role they will play.

I think we got super lucky with our fabulous group this first time around, but for schools heading this way its important to consider not only their professional abilities, but also their personal relationships and connections.  These leaders need to have the respect and trust of their colleagues and so that may mean that the best literacy teachers in your buildings are not always the best choice.  Trust and relationship building takes time, and this has to be the foundation for any coaching, literacy or otherwise.

Balance, particularly gender in the make up of this group could help.  We are all women, although that hasn’t actually held us back!  A final key factor in selecting this group is to be clear and transparent with groups’ purpose.  Other teachers may experience hurt feelings as they observe literacy leaders meeting, and by default, receiving more professional development around the area of workshop.  If you are intentional with communication and expectation, everyone in the building can come to understand that this is intentional, so these teacher leaders could in turn, support others.

So at our school it has become a cycle of support where I support the literacy leaders, the literacy leaders support the teachers and the teachers support the change.

We put in a plan where one literacy leader from each grade level (K – 5) is released from teaching for a 2-hour block per week.  In that time we come together to meet, to plan, to develop our own coaching and leadership skills, and most importantly to talk, share and celebrate.  Then these literacy leaders go back to their own teams and lead their literacy planning meetings and professional development.  At times we also have planned for team teaching as well as conducted our own lab-sites where we are observing one another’s teaching and conferring practices and providing feedback on these.  This practical professional development has helped make the most gains in transferring excellent workshop teaching strategies into more classrooms, pulling apart the architecture of a mini-lesson as well as trying out coaching moves such as freeze-framing and voicing over.

 

Zurich teaching

The conversation at these literacy leader meetings is intense.  It is high level, fast paced and can even get heated; teacher leaders are typically type ‘A’ individuals.  Whilst that is not a bad thing, it can mean for incredibly fast and furious paced work.  This is mostly because these teachers care and want to make a difference.  And this all works for us, because we have established a community of trust; the more these teachers talk, and share, the greater the opportunities they have to support one another, and me, as we try to implement change in our building.

Distributed leadership works, because it is teachers who care leading their colleagues.  Accountability is becoming high. Threat and insecurity is slowly becoming minimized and this is helping bring everyone on board.  Sure we have some bottom lines in our building, but for now, these are less important in this crucial initial year of implementation as everyone giving Writers Workshop a go.  Yes, we are approximating; our whole building is approximating – but we are moving forward and changing – and with the literacy leaders leading the way from within, this is working.

 

The Power of Partnerships

I recently had my last day of the year working with a district. Prior to this last visit, we had established partnerships. This was a pilot year of launching writers workshop for the district, and they decided to have two teachers from each grade level participate in this pilot. The partners were soul mates in the teaching of writing for the entire year.

On this last meeting, we celebrated. Often with celebrations, I ask teachers to bring in a literary gift for their partner–something small, like a decorated quote or poem, nothing too expensive.

We went out for a long lunch (something educators never get to do) and celebrated. I gave each writing teacher a quote on writing, and then told them to exchange their gifts with their partner. Before they wanted to do that they brought over a HUGE bag for me to open. I sat there stunned. “This bag is for me?” I asked. The bag was spilling over with gifts that reflected the school, the town, (and of course) writing. It took my breath away.

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Then each teacher gave their writing soul mate a literary gift. And let me tell you what, these were gifts. I could not get over how extravagant these gifts were. From gift certificates, to inspiring bracelets, to journals, and even a beautiful canvas bag saying “Writers Rock.”.  It turned out that these partnerships were more than writing partnerships, they were close friendships. And now I am fortunate enough to have that whole Laurel community as my close friend.

This literacy work is hard. When I first started teaching reading workshop, I had to have a partner. I would have given up without one. My partner, Holly Slaughter, and I would greet kids at the door at the start of each day (her room just across from mine) and chat about reading workshop. What is your teaching point today? What read aloud are you using? What part of the read aloud did you use to help you teach that? What about the active engagement? What did you have the kids do for that?  We were always talking reading. We were always trying to figure things out. We are forever partners in literacy.

Who is your partner? Find one or two or three. And help create and nurture other partnerships. As coaches, we can create partnerships in a building. We can invite mentorships, or simply nudge two people to be part of an inquiry. We can give them a professional read (Katherine Bomer has a great new book coming out this week The Journey is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them), meet together and discuss it, and send them off to practice with their kids. Invite them to meet periodically about their findings and then come back and meet with you. We might encourage a partnership to write and submit an article around the study. In two months time, you (the coach) have created a lasting partnership, empowering teachers, and engaged, excited learners. This model can be done in every grade staggered across the year.

Literacy leaders have lonely jobs. We need to stay passionate about teaching and learning and literacy, but that can be difficult when you are the only you at your building. Get energy from your staff in creating these kinds of models of partnerships and relish in the fact that you created these models. But also take the time to create something for yourself.

I have been consulting on my own for two years now, and even though my districts are the best and most beautiful that I have ever worked with, I am lonely. I have strong relationships with my schools, and they feed me, but I need something more. So I decided to form a group of strong, smart, loving women to be my partners. We all have different strengths. We are all have slightly different jobs, yet we are all strong, smart, and loving. That last part really mattered to me because I wanted to be around women who would support me, not tear me down.

Leading, teaching, and coaching, are all lonely jobs. Find someone to support you so you have the energy to do the best work of your life. After all, we are doing big work—don’t do it alone.

Always partnering, actually~

Christy & Monique

 

Leadership from the Bottom Up

They say teaching is a lonely job, but I think coaching can be even lonelier. One reason that it can feel lonely is being unable to find your identity and voice. Am I teacher or a leader? The teachers see me as “one of them” (an administrator), and the principal sees me as a teacher. If I am trying to move a building by supporting growth, but it is not my building, how do I do that?

 It is not easy, but he best coaches make it work. I (Christy) have worked with Worcester County District for almost a year now, and it has been the greatest gift to me as a consultant. The district supervisor who found me and hired me is a gem, and the coaches follow her brilliant leadership style—“roll up your sleeves and get in.” At a recent principal meeting that was said with great admiration.

 Ali Giska is one of those kind of coaches. She took every suggestion I gave, and made them all better. And she is l-o-v-i-n-g her job—which is so nice to hear. Ali is an advocate for teachers and kids and principals and schools. She’s in a new position, out of her comfort zone but still giving it her all—wow. Enjoy this guest post by one great leader.

Leadership from the Bottom Up

As a new literacy coach, I value my comfort zone. I stay safely inside unless I really, really have to step out. And even then, it is only with my big toe. So when the building principal breezed past me on my first day coaching in his school, I gave him a bright smile and quickly chirped, “Today went great!” He nodded and gave me a thumbs up. I should have felt relief. No conflict, no questions, no problem. I left that day feeling nothing short of disconnected.

Three months passed before two important mentors told me, “Get close to the principal. The principal will move your work forward.” I knew they were right and I knew what that meant. Goodbye, cozy comfort zone.

This is what I learned when I started regular meetings with the building principals and took my first step towards leading the leader.

Set an agenda and send it before the meeting

An agenda lets a principal know that there is a purpose for the meeting, the work matters, and that I respect his time. I stuck to the agenda and took notes to help build a meaningful direction for the next meeting. Possible topics for the agenda can vary but here are some ideas I used to get our meetings started:

  • Artifact Share- Take charge of bringing the artifacts (student work, teaching charts, data collection sheets, photos, planning documents) and use them as evidence for celebrations and concerns.
  • Teach Content- Explain a rubric or student checklist, demonstrate a teaching point, or review the focus of your work in the classrooms.
  • Classroom Tours- Walk through classrooms and share compliments with the principal about what you see.
  • Next Steps- Where can you direct your support in the school, what goals should be the focus of the next month, and what does the principal hope to see?

Look forward and make concrete plans

I made sure I did not leave the meeting until the next meeting was on the calendar. This was as simple as saying, “Same time next month?” Highlight future plans and what you will accomplish next time you meet. I let the principal know how excited I was to reach our goals together. Before leaving, I made this very clear. “I love the direction we are going, and I would love to get more specific when we meet next month!”

Find the person behind the principal

Relationships are everything. Leading a school is high-stress, demanding work. Yet, principals have families, plans to drive to Florida over winter break, hobbies outside of school. Remembering this helped me see the person behind the desk. I asked a few non-school related questions before jumping into the agenda. It turns out, I now know who to ask for advice when my son is ready to learn how to surf. This conversation only took a minute or two, but in the end, relationships hold up all of the other work we do as coaches.

Be kind, be positive, be assertive

When I walked in to meet with my principal for the first time, there were fires going on all around him. A critical staff member was out on extended sick leave, a new teacher had resigned, and his phone was flashing urgently. I kindly thanked him for his time and I sincerely meant it. I complimented the perseverance of his teachers and the masterful scheduling he had done to allow teachers from each grade level to collaborate weekly. And then I asked for his support in areas where we could change and grow. This was the tricky, hard part. I know he is busy, and I know this is one of many items on his plate. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother him with this….

This is when I left my comfort zone completely….(deep breath)“I would love to create more opportunities for teachers to see model lessons. I was thinking of mini lab sites. Do you think we could arrange coverage and make this happen?”

Kindness and respect are paramount, but it always okay to ask for what you need if you know it is best for kids and teachers.

Dig Deep and Get Support

While there is no doubt a principal meeting can move your practice, it still takes a vast amount of courage. I was anxious and a little fearful. Would I be wasting this principal’s time? Do I have anything important to say? Will I be respected and valued by this administrator? I had to really dig deep and remind myself that I am a leader too. I also knew I needed support and validation from the people who do what I do everyday—my fellow coaches.

Through an email chain with my peers and mentors, I was able to get feedback on my agenda and many reminders that meeting with an administrator was scary but absolutely necessary. Knowing that this made other coaches uncomfortable as well somehow made it easier. This can feel like a lonely job, but a network of brilliant colleagues can create a home away form home.

Once I got that first terrifying meeting accomplished, the positive feedback from my county supervisor and literacy consultant gave me the confidence to enter the second meeting with a little less anxiety. See, that is the thing about great leaders. They show you that there is a light, and then they let you shine.

Ali Giska

Literacy Coach

Worcester County Public Schools