I’ve just entered a 5th grade classroom with two site-based Academic Coaches. We are doing a version of instructional rounds as a team—discussing instructional practices aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). We’ve been here before, we’ve been working together to support our district implementation of the English-Language Arts (ELA) CCSS. The teacher is open and welcoming, the coaches are eager to coach and to be coached; in fact, the coaches invited me to visit today. The teacher’s lesson is focused on the fifth grade reading standard six for Informational Text — Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent. As the lesson progresses, I see that the direction the teacher is headed is not aligned to the standard and I coach the coaches into this same realization. As we discuss how to provide support in this teachable moment, the teacher begins to direct the students into practice that will further their misunderstanding. I look to the coaches—they share my understanding that this is a pivotal opportunity to support the instruction of this teacher. They know her well, and with that knowledge they encourage me to offer immediate side-by-side modeling. I am able to talk to the teacher and model a quick direct instruction example with the students to redirect the focus to align with the standards.
As a district, we created a system-wide support for our Common Core English-Language Arts implementation through professional development, coaching, and support. Every leader and coach in our district participated in over 40 hours of professional development during the 2012-2013 school year to prepare for our CCSS ELA roll out. We front-loaded our leadership staff with learning and then supported them through the facilitation of that learning at their sites. Each teacher participated in at least eight hours of professional development over the summer. During the first year of full implementation, 2013-2014, we continued to provide professional development at the district level for leaders and coaches, with site-based support as needed. Our board goals were rewritten to focus on CCSS alignment within classrooms, as opposed to previous goals around Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) measures. This system was designed to support the instructional shifts necessary to meet the expectations of the Common Core.
As a district administrator, I work closely with our instructional coaches. We fund at least one coach position as each school to support teaching and learning. Our coaches receive professional development along with their principals through our leadership work. In addition, we meet monthly for our own professional learning as coaches, participating in book studies, professional readings, twitter chats, blog writing, and content learning. We spend much of our time discussing research-based instructional strategies and the ways to support teachers to incorporate these strategies into their daily practice.
Guiding my work each day is the belief that “To be productive and to accomplish organizational goals, schools need cohesive and cooperative relationships. Trust is essential to fostering these relationships” (Tschannen-Moran, 2004, p.16). I visit schools to work directly with our coaches. During site visits we observe classroom instruction, discuss instructional strengths, and determine coaching messages that will enhance or improve instructional practices. It is through multiple site visits a year, personal conversations with coaches, and individual feedback to coaches and teachers that I developed collaborative, trusting relationships that allow me to support instructional shifts through on-the-spot coaching.
Instruction does not change overnight. Fully aligned CCSS instruction does not happen by accident. Intentional professional development with on-going coaching and support are critical. Research shows that on average it takes “20 separate instances of practice for a teacher to master a new skill, and this number may increase if a skill is exceptionally complex,” (Gulamhussein, 2013). The skills required for teachers to align their instruction to the complex expectations of the Common Core State Standards demand multiple practice opportunities for teachers and coaches. Coaching to support CCSS-aligned instruction requires in-depth knowledge of the standards as well as the instructional shifts necessary to meet the expectations of the standards.
Let’s return to the classroom example I mentioned earlier. The Common Core State Standards call for major shifts to our instructional practices, with a greater focus on text complexity, deeper levels of student cognition, and more analytical reading and writing. The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Reading Standard Six calls for students to, “Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text” (Core Standards, 2014). There are many misconceptions about this standard. Teachers familiar with the idea of first person versus third person narration are teaching a limited version of their grade level’s expectation. As students progress out of the primary grades, this standard, especially in Informational Texts, requires students to understand point of view in relation to the author’s perspective, which is a new and unfamiliar concept to many teachers.
The 5th grade classroom we entered that day, was struggling with this concept. The teacher, while dedicated and embracing new learning, was still emerging in her understanding of this standard. She was directing her class to identify the author’s point of view, but students’ interpreted that direction to mean “state the opinion of the author”. The students were, at first, using a text that was not complex enough to do the thinking or analysis required of the standard. As we coached the teacher, she provided her students with a much richer, more complex text. I modeled, for the teacher and the students, a connection between “point of view” and “perspective”, asking the students to take a moment to read the blurb about the author (who happened to be a holistic doctor) before reading the article. The students had been studying the use, or over-use, of personal devices. I asked the students to think for a moment about what point of view, or perspective, this particular author might bring to the topic. This slight shift reframed the purpose of the standard for the teacher and gave the students a more authentic purpose for reading the article.
It was only through direct contact with the teacher in the act of teaching that we were able to positively affect this instructional shift. While professional development opportunities, supported planning time, and ongoing site-level support provided the structure for this lesson, it was the one-on-one teachable moment that truly turned the tide. From there, the teacher and the coaches were able to share their new learning with the entire 5th grade team during their PLC later that same day, affecting a larger instructional shift at this site. In fact, I received separate emails from both of the academic coaches as well as the teacher after this visit. In each email, my colleagues shared their new understandings of the standard in question as well as the instructional shifts necessary to meet the standard.
Fisher, Frey, and Uline (2013) define five shifts in literacy instruction with full alignment to CCSS:
- Focus on reading and writing to inform, persuade, and convey experiences
- Focus on increasing text complexity
- Focus on speaking and listening
- Focus on text-based evidence for argumentation
- Focus on academic vocabulary and language
In addition, the authors highlight the critical importance of PLCs as teachers begin to examine their current practices and prepare for the instructional shifts necessary to meet the demands of the Common Core State Standards. In our district, while we created ELA Units of Study at the district level (with teacher teams), we left the day-to-day planning for instruction at the site level. The process we introduced in our professional development highlighted the importance of PLCs to ensure that no teacher was working in isolation and that, as a team, teachers were unpacking the new standards. The more we know about the expectations of the CCSS, the better we are able to align our instruction to both the standards and our students’ needs.
The job of school leaders, and every day practitioners, is to translate these theories into meaningful practice in the classroom. On-going, job-embedded professional development, through coaching, instructional rounds, lesson study, and high-functioning PLCs, is the structure we have created to support our district on this journey. As I visit classrooms, coaching teachers and coaches, I am reminded that this is a journey we are all on together.
Core Standards (2014). Retrieved on March 28, 2014 from http://www.corestandards.org/
Fisher, D., Frey, N., and Uline, C.L. (2013). Common Core English language Arts in a
PLC at work: Leader’s Guide. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Gulamhussein, A. (2013). Effective professional development in the era of high stakes
accountability. National School Board Association: Center for Public Education.
Tschannen-Moran, M. (2004). Trust Matters: Leadership for Successful Schools. San