Monthly Archives: September 2008

Special Guest Blogger: Katherine Casey

I am thrilled to have my esteemed colleague, Katherine Casey, as my first guest blogger! Katherine is a nationally-acclaimed literacy coach and author of Literacy Coaching: The Essentials, and will lead the Promise of Coaching Institute in Seattle (January 8-9, 2009) and Portland (January 29-30, 2009).

For her first guest blog, I have asked Katherine to share a little bit about what she’s been reading:

What professional texts are you currently reading?  Your thoughts on them?

My stack of professional texts keeps growing as I try to keep up with the fantastic new titles being published.  Right now I’m reading texts to shore up some of my areas of weakness – early childhood and high school.

Katie Wood Ray and Matt Glover’s Already Ready: Nurturing Writings in Preschool and Kindergarten brought tears to my eyes within a few pages.  What I found moving is the deep respect Ray and Glover have for very young children as readers, writers, and learners.  This book is a must read for all educators who come in contact with young children.

I’m a big fan of Emily Kissner’s Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling:  Skills for Better Reading, Writing, and Test Taking and just received her newly published The Forest AND the Trees:  Helping Readers Identify Important Details in Texts and Tests I’m only a third of the way through the text and it looks like a post-it pad and highlighter exploded on the pages.  There are many practical, elegant lessons to try.

Do you ever find yourself mourning the education you wish you could have had?  I attended an “excellent” public high school in a town with “outstanding” test scores, lots of AP classes, and college bound students.  I was expected to read and write a great deal, yet was not actually taught how to read critically and write effectively.  Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman, and Nancy Steineke’s Content-Area Writing: Every Teachers Guide made it painfully obvious how lacking my high school education was.  Their lesson ideas are fantastic!  I taught a few while coaching at a high school this summer and not only did my students learn to write more strategically, I learned as well and actually looked forward to working with the high school students each day so that we could learn together.

A number of the school districts with which I work are using Fountas and Pinnell’s The Continuum of Literacy Learning, Grades K-8: Behaviors and Understandings to Notice, Teach, and Support.  What a rich, valuable resource!

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Who Deserves the Best?

I’m sitting here with a friend in a coffee and art shop, digesting one of the best burgers I’ve had in a while. My friend teaches at Madrona K-8 School in Seattle, and we’ve been chatting about her school which is comprised of mostly low-income African American students.  What is particularly striking about Madrona K-8 School is that their current 8th grade class boasts the highest writing scores in the city. In the city! Higher than the affluent schools in Queen Anne!

What is the secret behind Madrona’s success? There are many contributing factors, to be sure, but it is clear that their teachers offer quality instruction. More specifically, they offer what I would argue is the best pedagogical approach to teaching writing, namely, writing workshop.

Tonight’s conversation harkens me back to a previous conversation I had with some educators on a trip to Manhattan to see writing workshop in action in District 2. One individual remarked, “This writing workshop approach might work for these kids, but I’m not sure it will work with ours.” On another occasion, a teacher exclaimed, “Writing workshop may work well for white students, but not for…” 

Beginning with his book Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol has long argued that certain educational structures reinforce a “continual and standardized underrating” of young people where adults believe, “They can’t do it, couldn’t do it, wouldn’t like it, don’t deserve it…” (p. 52).  Writing workshop is often dismissed due to this pervading underestimation of students of color, which I believe is one of the underlying mendacities that further reinforce and legitimize the inequitable distribution of high quality instruction in many of today’s schools. 

In my work with the Center for Educational Leadership, we believe the achievement gap will be eliminated when the quality of instruction in the classroom improves. Schools like Madrona K-8 School powerfully demonstrate this. The administrators, teachers, and students that make up Madrona K-8 School inspire me. No child deserves a one-size-fits-all literacy program. Every student deserves thoughtful, non-scripted curricula. And it is the privilege and responsibility of literacy coaches to help teachers make this a reality on a daily basis.

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It’s Normal to Feel Overwhelmed

My current role as a literacy coach is different from the one I played in Baltimore City Public Schools.  In Baltimore, I was a school-based coach, working in two schools.  Now, I serve as a consultant, working with an entire school district that has officially adopted the writing workshop model.  Of course, a handful of incredible educators in this district were already doing writing workshop prior to this year, and it has been a privilege and joy to share in their journey of helping colleagues discover what is possible.

So what does it look like when an entire district decides to take on writing workshop?  Excitement. Hope. Fear. Doubt. There is so much to learn in so little time, and it’s easy for teachers to feel overwhelmed. What follows is an excerpt from an email that I sent my teacher leaders that addresses this point:

I am delighted to hear how each of you are taking steps forward to meet the needs of your students! One of your colleagues emailed me yesterday to share that some teachers at her school were feeling a bit overwhelmed incorporating all the elements of writing workshop, to which I responded: It is perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed, that is how I felt back in 1996! But hopefully, with time, we as a team can work together in facing this steep learning curve.” It takes both time and hard work to successfully implement any best practice, and I congratulate your district for taking the courage to push your professional learning forward, for the sake of your students.
As we move forward in our professional development, I am trying to strike a balance between pushing teachers to take new risks in their teaching and reminding them that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”  If I push too hard by failing to set realistic expectations with teachers, the ideals of writing workshop may appear unattainable (which typically results in teacher resistance). If I don’t push teachers beyond their comfort zone, I do not move professional learning forward (which typically results in, well, nothing).  Just like I provide scaffolded instruction for students, I want to provide the right structures and support for teachers so that they can feel successful in trying new things in their classrooms. 

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The new NCTE Ning!

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has a Ning!  What is a Ning, you ask?  It’s an online networking community like Facebook and myspace, but designed just for literacy professionals.  On Ning, you can network and share files…you can even ask Kylene Beers to be your “friend,” which I think is so amazing.   

With that said, I just created a special Ning group for literacy coaches. Please check it out!

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Assessing Student Writing with Teachers

As you begin to set professional development goals with your teachers, you may want to consider helping them use ongoing writing assessments as part of their curriculum planning.  The K-8 Continuum for Assessing Narrative Writing (downloadable pdf file) was developed by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project is a valuable tool for introducing this practice. This tool is particularly helpful for those who are familiar with or are using Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study.

I have found this tool instrumental in helping teachers understand the difference between formative and summative assessment.  In an age of high stakes testing, we are often tempted to mainly associate the word “assessment” with final writing products. But as we know, ongoing assessment invites us to meaningfully tailor our instruction. And because many teachers are unfamiliar with this practice, it is our responsibility as literacy coaches to model and guide them through it.

Here is one suggestion for how you might introduce and reinforce ongoing assessment–I encourage you to regularly examine students’ works-in-progress with teachers in their grade level teams, preferably focusing on a few students over the duration of the school year in order to observe and document growth. Using the K-8 Continuum for Assessing Narrative Writing, you may want to facilitate a discussion around the following questions:

  • What do we notice about this student?  Growth?  Needs?
  • What teaching points have taken hold for this student?
  • What teaching points need to be introduced or re-taught?
  • What kinds of conferring questions would benefit this student?
  • What might this work-in-progress tell us about the classroom community at large?
PLEASE NOTE: Teachers College Reading and Writing Project requests that the aforementioned pdf file “not be duplicated.”  

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The First Week of School

Sharpened pencils, stacks of crisp paper, and eager faces.  Aren’t these the images we have in our minds before the school year begins?  For me, there is something about an unopened box of Crayolas (especially the 64-crayon package with the built-in sharpener) that stirs both nostalgia and excitement. By the first week of school, of course, these images are quickly taken over by the mental to-do lists in our heads as we do our best in wearing the many hats labeled “literacy coach.”  

As you already know, the work of a literacy coach is hugely rewarding, but also rigorous and challenging. Similar to teaching, literacy coaching can feel isolating at times…even amidst a sea of teachers and students. These are some of the reasons behind why I started this blog. Beginning this first week of school, I will document my own lessons and adventures in literacy coaching, and share them with you.

I hope the resources and encouragement from this blog will make you laugh, reflect, and deepen your practice as an educator.  I welcome your thoughts and ideas on future posts!

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