As part of our series, Coaching in Action, we profile an ELA coach working with teachers of English learner students in grades K–2. While Beth Smith had been asked to provide coaching on implementing a five-day writing model, she arrived at the school to discover a much different need. In keeping with the HMH coaching mission, she was able to listen to the specific needs of the teachers and their students and adapt her planned agenda to guide them to success.
After serving as a kindergarten, first, and fourth grade classroom teacher for 14 years and a school library media specialist for 12 additional years, I recently refocused my career on instructional coaching. At the start of this school year, I was assigned to help coach eight first-year K–2 teachers in a school identified by the district and the state of Texas as being at risk for failure. I began by meeting with them as a team in September. At that time, when we began the discussion of the program-specific writing model we were intended to work on, it became very apparent that these students were going to need some additional support before they were ready to begin the five-day model of instruction we had planned to cover.
Flexibility Is Key
As with many aspects of life, with coaching it’s important to expect the unexpected. On day one of this coaching effort, I learned from the teachers that most of their students were in their first school experience and didn’t know how to hold a pencil or write their name. They were clearly not ready to hear about writing models or other ELA strategies until I was able to give them some practical advice on how best to work with the students on learning those basic foundational skills. I told them that you couldn’t expect a baby to eat steak if they didn’t have teeth. They all seemed to be able to relate to this saying and often during my visits with them they quoted it back to me.
We discussed how to support these students and meet them at their point of need. I modeled this for them as I set aside the meeting agenda and offered practical, useful advice on helping students learn the basics of how to write. We also talked about how the teachers could model the writing process throughout the daily activities of the classroom. They were not currently doing a morning or daily message. I encouraged them to include this activity in their instructional day so they could model basic grammar, simple capitalization, and punctuation and allow the students to observe them writing. Before I left the building that first day, I went into one of the classrooms and modeled with the class how to write a basic daily message while the teachers watched.
As they prepared to leave that day, one of the teachers stopped and said to me, “This is the first time during staff development that someone let us tell them what we needed and didn’t just tell us what we had to do. Thank you. “
On three subsequent visits with these teachers, I continued to give them practical advice; and I was also able to incorporate more coaching on the writing process and share ways to adapt their day-to-day instruction to include writing activities. We talked about having free writing journals where the students could “write” a message and draw a picture to go with the message. This allowed the students to begin to see that expressive communication could be written as well as oral. I encouraged the teachers to go around the room and ask the students to “read” their entries. They also began to have students use sentence stems and write short, complete sentences. Often the teachers would collect these papers and put them together in a class book to include in the classroom library.
Coaching Brings Three Levels of Satisfaction and Pride
The teachers have reported that their students are excited to be working on writing and learning to express themselves in a new way. I watched in each classroom as students discovered how writing could help them send a message to someone, express an idea they might have, or simply relay useful information. They are growing curious about how to spell words and their teachers guide them to further achievement by reminding them to use the “5 rules” of writing and other strategies we reviewed: 1) Start at the top of the page; 2) write left to right; 3) use capital letters at the beginning of each sentence; 4) end the sentence with a punctuation mark; and 5) leave a finger space between words.
These students are now eager to share their newfound skills, and they proudly share their success with me when I circulate around the classroom. Most of the students are writing simple three- to four-word sentences—amazing progress! This is why coaching is such a satisfying role—I see an important need, I can provide the exact level of support that’s needed, and then I am privileged to experience the achievements with both teachers and students!
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