The Paper Test

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During our coach-to-coach time, my colleague Sean was discussing a teacher who had invited him to coach in her classroom. They’d been working together for weeks and were making good progress. Still there was something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

“She really appreciates the planning time. Especially when we anticipate how things will go and what might pop up as obstacles during the lesson. When we are co-conferring she’s always so grateful when I take the lead and she talks about what she’s learning. It seems like we have such good conversations, but then when I’m away for a day or two she doesn’t always take action on the things she says she wants to change. I’ll go back to my notes from the previous week and say, ‘How did it go when you met with the three students we spotted doing fake reading?’and she’ll admit that she didn’t get to it. Or I’ll look at the word wall we talked about making more student-friendly and it won’t have changed.”

I studied Sean’s neat, copious notes.

“How often does she take notes?” I asked.

He lifted his eyebrows, “She doesn’t really take notes. Sometimes she even asks for copies of mine, but I don’t know what she does with them.”

I thought back to a conversation I’d had with Clare Landrigan. She’d explained how she uses the “paper test” to see what colleagues find most powerful in the collaborative process. It was a professor at Tufts, Donald Wertlieb, who first explained the paper test to her.

Since that conversation I’ve been more attuned to teachers’ notes. Just last week I was reflecting on a writing share session with a colleague. I agreed with her thoughts and said, “Right. It’s not about applause, it’s about feedback.” She wrote down “FEEDBACK–NOT APPLAUSE” and underlined it. I knew that had hit home. The next hour I was debriefing with a fifth-grade teacher and asked him what he was taking away from our meeting. He glanced at his notes and read back three ah-has he hadn’t considered before. It was helpful to my work to know what was resonating with him.

When a teacher (like the one in Sean’s example) takes no notes I consider these questions:

*Did they come prepared to take notes?

If I don’t see teachers with something to write on and something to write with, I now take a moment at the beginning of our work to invite them to prepare by asking, “Did you want to get paper and pen so you can take notes too?” Often teachers will say, “Thank you, yes!” or ask to borrow paper from me (I keep an abundance of lined paper in my notebook).

*Do they have a purpose for taking notes?

Not everyone feels comfortable writing and talking at the same time. “I’m going to get down the points of what you just said so we can come back to it later,” can be an invitation that reminds them that if we note it now, we will remember it later. At the end I’ll write very specific actionable statements based on the teacher’s goals. “This way we’ll be able to look back and see the change.” Sometimes teachers, especially beginning-career teachers, will ask if they can copy my notes.

*Or are they really-really not into note taking?

I have a colleague who doesn’t ever take notes. That’s worked for her for years and she has always relied on her memory–that’s her preference. I don’t worry about the paper test with her because I know it’s not something that works for her learning style.

But the paper test is an effective measure for most.

Sean reflected on his work with that particular teacher. “When she comes up with a bunch of goals, but she doesn’t write any of them down, she can’t possibly remember them all. It’s like the one taking the notes is the one doing the accountability work. It’s important for me to take notes as a coach, but it’s most important for her to take notes.”

We talked about two strategies he could use at their next meeting. He liked the idea of simply pausing and thinking aloud saying something like, “I’m going to write that down about changing the word wall so the words are accessible to kids.” Studying his own notes, he recognized that he often used two columns. On the left he recorded discussion and on the right he left room for upcoming changes or actions. He commented that it would be easy to make an additional form to offer for her use.

“I’m going to start paying closer attention to what teachers are noting during our sessions. I think that will tell me a lot.”

What do you notice teachers taking notes about? What do you do that invites effectively taking notes? How does the ‘paper test’ serve you in your coaching work?

And thank you to Sean and Clare!

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