What Happens After You’ve Gone With the Go-ers?

Go-­ers: teachers who are willing to revise their practice and/or try something new when they see the potential benefits for their learners. They are veteran, beginning and mid­career teachers and they spread new learning like a healthy virus. (­Heather’s definition)


The exciting thing about blogging is the opportunity to have conversations across schools, districts and states. In this manner, a new literacy coach named Diana got in touch with me and said she spent her first year working with go­-ers. She knew going with the go-­ers is highly recommended for a first­year coach and for many new initiatives. Starting with the educators who are most ready is a great way to get traction. You typically have teachers with the deepest content knowledge and most positive outlook on board. As a result, coaching tends to go smoothly because the go­ers don’t expect perfection and they are flexible problem-solvers working with you.

But going with the go-­ers left Diana wondering what to do in her second year. “What happens after you’ve gone with the go­-ers?” she asked. What a question! The educators who are not go-­ers can end up receiving less professional development because they come to the work later. Often they are the ones that need the time and resources most. Without that support, they may be reinforcing habits that don’t improve student learning while the go-­ers forge ahead. It’s also exciting to be part of fresh, new work with an opportunity to build community. Those left out of the launch can feel behind and forgotten. It can be difficult to bring them into the conversation later.

Many instructional leaders find themselves in Diana’s shoes. They work with the dream team of Jan, Katie, Maria and Thomas and now it’s time to focus on Bev, Char and David. The opposite of go­-ers aren’t the slowers or even the stoppers. We might call them the step-backers, which, let’s remember, in many cases is very smart. I’m a step-backer when it comes to technology. Does this work better than what I have? Will it help me be smart with time? Who else is using this? What do they think? What problems have they encountered? Is the benefit worth the cost? In the end, is it good for kids?

Go-­ers might be willing to jump in with some ambiguity because they trust the process. Step-backers? Not so much.

So consider these tips when working with step-backers:

1) Remember that we are all step-backers in some area. If coaches see legitimate reasons for holding back instead of resistance, it helps us stay open.

2) Some step-backers like research and statistics, but not many. A few want to see how it’s worked for their colleagues. Most want to know why it’s good for their practice and their students. Appeal to the heart and mind of the step backers. Find out what will help them commit to the work.

3) Be sure to enact your confidentiality clause.
I’ve had step-backers say to me, “I don’t want you judging my teaching and having my principal on me about it.”
I’ve said, “First, I’m not here to judge your teaching. I’m here to work with you to improve student learning. That’s the same purpose I have in every classroom. I hope that my behavior as we work together will demonstrate that. And second, everything that we say and do stays here. I let your principal know my schedule and the subject matter we are working on­­and that’s it. That allows us to be honest with each other and know that our professional conversations aren’t about evaluation.”
Then stick to the confidentiality promise. When the principal asks, “How’s it going?” with that knowing look, you say, “I’m coming in three times a week working on writing. I love working with your staff.” If they press beyond that response, encourage them to ask the teacher how it’s going. You can say, “I’m bound by my promise of confidentiality. It helps me earn the trust I need to do this work.”

4) When entering the step-backer’s classroom as a coach or beginning to look at student work, it is imperative to honor what they already know and can do. You may say things like, “Since you already know so much about reading instruction, you’ll be able to add this strategy to help improve students’ comprehension of new vocabulary.”

5) Know the signs. Early on, step-backers may cancel when you are supposed to be collaborating. They’ll forget a planning meeting or you’ll find the lesson/focus changed at the last moment. In that situation, I’ve found patience and honesty are my two best tools. After one cancellation or interruption I keep my positive presuppositions that it was necessary. When it goes beyond that I state, “I noticed we’ve tried to collaborate three times and you’ve had something come up. How can we move forward? I want to make the best use of our time.”

6) When teachers see a difference in students’ learning or the efficiency of a curriculum or pacing, these early wins can turn a step backer into an enthusiast and prime supporter of coaching.


Grammar Pop: A Review


In honor of National Punctuation Day I thought I’d do something “conventional,” so I decided to post my review of my new iPad app called Grammar Pop. I first became a fan of Grammar Girl’s writing and podcasts years ago when she helped me FINALLY understand the difference between lay and lie.


Last spring I had the pleasure of doing a podcast with Grammar Girl (aka Mignon Fogarty) and she told me she was in the development phase of a new grammar app. Now 14,000 words in countless combinations are available for $1.99 a pop.

Right away I liked the visual layout. On a bright blue screen, bubbles float among word clouds with rainbow colored parts-of-speech buttons to the right. Grammar Girl’s caricature is poised at the left with books hugged to her chest and a ready pencil behind her ear.

I started at level one. The wolves drank appeared in the word clouds. I touched the article, noun and verb button and then selected the corresponding cloud.


Grammar Girl exclaimed and lifted her arm as I completed the first level. I got a “tutor” and later a “professor” rating. Yes, that’s Professor Rader. As I progressed through the levels, new parts of speech were added. At first it stayed simple with helping verbs, adjectives, adverbs and pronouns, but then it advanced to gerunds, participles and infinitives. Grammar Girl’s “no” and “bummer” gave me direct feedback when I needed to reconsider my choices. The sound effects of bubbles popping, coins jingling and Grammar Girl’s exclamations caught my son’s attention and he came over to watch me play.

“How did you know the word ‘today’ was an adverb?” he asked.

“It just made sense in the context of the sentence.”

“Why aren’t you swiping those coins for points?” he asked.

“I guess I missed that. How did you know to do that?

“Uh…because I’m from this generation,” he said.

Oh, right.

He took a few turns and enjoyed the game alongside me. We both agreed that the downside of Grammar Pop is it’s habit-forming. Classroom teachers with one or more classroom iPads will want to check it out too. Grammar Pop is to writing what math facts are to computation. The better we understand the basics, the more fun we can have with the complexities of language.

So check it out. Enjoy the game and let me know what you think.



Writers Are Liars


My daughter went on a Coming of Age retreat last year and I gifted her with the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith to take with her. Two decades had passed since I read it and I remembered holding the finished book to my chest as if I could absorb it. It ended up that Maya didn’t read it on her vigil. Somehow my endorsement of “It’s about a turn-of-the-century girl named Francie Nolan who is saved by books,” didn’t sell it. So I picked it up myself and started rereading.

The main character of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie Nolan, was poor. Francie Nolan was so poor her mother used stale bread as a staple for most meals. Sometimes the bread was kneaded with any meat that could be purchased from the butcher for ten cents and baked for dinner. Other times it was tossed with some sugar and fried for dessert. So it’s no surprise that when Francie’s teacher offered a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie to anyone in the class, she desperately wanted it.

“I don’t want it for myself,” lied Francie proudly. “I know a very poor family I’d like to give it to.”

She was given the pie and on her walk home from school that afternoon she ate it all.

The next Monday the teacher asked how the poor family liked the pie. Francie created an elaborate story about the fictitious family with twins who were saved by the pie. Instead of humiliating Francie for her departure from the truth, her knowing teacher explains the difference between a lie and a story.

“You know, Francie, a lot of people who think that these stories that you’re making up all the time were terrible lies because they are not the truth as people see the truth. In the future, when something comes up, you tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story. Then you won’t get mixed up.”

I loved that line, “Write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened,” and it opened up writing possibilities for two young writers I conferred with this week.

Kira was a first grader writing about her Kindergarten birthday party.

“I’m stuck because I can’t remember what the theme was,” she said.

“What do you think it probably was?” I asked.

“Well…I would’ve liked My Little Pony,” she admitted.

“So put that down and keep going,” I said.

Her grin showcased a newly missing front tooth.

In the classroom down the hall, Carlos was invited to write about an important person. Ten minutes after everyone had settled down to write, his paper was blank.

“I am not allowed to live with my mom anymore so I live with my grandpa, but he’s not a very nice guy,” said Carlos. “I don’t have anyone to write about.”

As we talked he rejected several possibilities so I said, “Maybe you can write about an important person you’d like to have in your life. One who is a nice guy.”

He looked at me and said, “So is it OK if I lie a little bit about my grandpa?”

I nodded.

Carlos wrote about a grandpa with a big house who shared his ice cream and even read it out loud.

Learning to tell the truth and getting as many details correct as possible on the paper is a noble pursuit. Writing how you wished people and events had turned out can also be a powerful practice.

In Betty Smith’s words as the author closes the chapter, she writes about the effect of the teacher’s advice, “From that time on, she (Francie) wrote little stories about things she saw and felt and did. In time, she got so that she was able to speak the truth but with a slight and instinctive coloring of the facts…If she had not found this outlet in writing, she might have grown up to be a tremendous liar.”

When is speaking the truth with a “slight and instinctive coloring of the facts” helpful in writing?


Got Students?


We know that choice for young learners increases achievement and engagement. When we empower students to choose their own topics for research, decide how to best organize their results from a science experiment and choose the text type and form for their writing, we are saying to them, “we trust you to make decisions about your learning.”

Yet in most of the professional development I’ve attended, I’ve been guided through a powerpoint or given specific things to read or analyzed one particular piece of student work. I remember my first year as a kindergarten teacher being told I could “modify” assessments that were shown to me at the third-grade level. Modify? As a beginning-career teacher that wasn’t part of my skill set. No, that year a lot of professional development didn’t seem to apply to me and there was little choice. Certainly there are times for classes that give you direct information and keep everyone on the same page. I’ve attended, led and will continue to lead trainings that meet these needs, but there are alternatives.

In the last few months I’ve insisted that “students” are present at the professional development I offer. Because it’s not often feasible to bring in our actual students, I make sure they are represented by their work or on video. And when I bring student work, I bring multiple pieces and offer choice to the participants. For example when we are discussing opinion/argumentative writing, I’ll bring kindergarten, second-grade, fourth-grade and sixth-grade samples from the writers with whom I’ve worked. I’ll suggest that teachers look for claims, reasons and elaboration at the level that most interests them and study what the writer is doing well. After they’ve had time to peruse and annotate the sample, I’ll have them go to different corners of the room to discuss the piece other professionals to get new perspectives. In this way educators choose what is most meaningful for their learning and leave the training with a vertical alignment of student writing. Yes, it makes more work for me to gather those samples, but the payoff in engagement from adult learners is well worth it.

How do you incorporate students into adults’ professional learning?


It’s the Little Things


Ahna flips over the cinnamon granola bag, sees the barcode and says, “That’s cool. Look.”

The package designer used the lines to both display the code numbers and outline sticks of cinnamon. For most people that detail will go unnoticed. After all, it’s on the bottom. We scan barcodes, not study them.

But for a few of us, the unique detail delights and intrigues us.

“Little things” have a place in big professional development too. Last June we were introducing the principals in our district to our new writing resource. They were gifted notebooks and given time to write in them. In the back of each one I penned a personal message to that principal. During the workshop we never mentioned the notes.

Fast forward to August when one principal brought her notebook to training and gasped as she paged through it, “I never knew this message was here! Thank you!”

“It’s the little things,” I often say. In a world that competes for our attention constantly, those small, quiet details that suggest thoughtfulness and consideration are the ones that grab my attention.

What little things delight and intrigue you?


Connection Before Conventions


“Connection before direction,” I murmur when I get home after a long day and there’s a big stack of dishes, an even bigger pile of laundry and my three kids lounging on the sectional. It’s a parenting mantra I heard years ago and it’s stuck with me. Not only does it represent the positive parent I want to be, but it’s also more effective.

Picture this. I walk into Maya’s room and she’s watching How I Met Your Mother. The floor of my artistic high schooler is strewn with colored Sharpies, magazine confetti, open scissors and uncapped glue sticks. Her “project” has been there for two days.

“What are you doing watching a show when your room looks like a badly maintained preschool?” is what comes to mind. Instead I step over the disaster area and say, “How was that math quiz you were worried about?” After we talk for a few minutes about friends, lunch, the incident with the jerk in the hallway and what’s for dinner, we’ve had our connection. On the way out of her room I’m able to say as if it’s an aside, “I’ll expect to see your room tidied up before we eat.” She may still roll her eyes or sigh as per the teenage code, but she’s much more likely to acquiesce.

Relationship research from John Gottman shows that successful marriages have a ratio of 5:1 positive comments to critiques. That seemed high when I first heard it. Five thank-you-for-doing-the-dishes connections for every please-pick-up-your-socks directions. But it makes sense.

This concept also works well when conferring with writers.

Imagine if you sat down to share your writing with me. You’re nervous; you care about what I think. You’ve been working very hard on using specific words to capture an image. And I say,

“You don’t have any periods at the ends of your sentences.”

Do you listen to anything I say after that? Probably not.

Like the mess on Maya’s floor, it can be hard for many of us to step over the obvious convention errors in students’ writing. But step over we must if we want to have our writers think and do themselves instead of fix and correct for us.

“Connection before conventions” means one conference, three conferences, seven conferences with a writer about what’s working well in writing and one idea to grow on. Then you can add the little comments like, “Where might a period go in those first lines?” or “What’s another way ‘favorite’ might be spelled?” Like it’s an aside. Conventions are used to convey ideas in a conventional way to a reader. Good talk about writing must come first and more frequently than anything else. Not only does that represent the positive writing teacher I want to be, it’s also more effective.

When conferring about writing, what does “connection before conventions” mean to you?


Hobbies I’ve Stopped


Weeks before our move, I cleaned my bedroom and studio. In the beginning I rewarded myself, “Only thirty minutes of cleaning, then you can have the rest of the day off.” Each day got a little easier because I could see the work in front of me. This necessitated many difficult decision-making conversations with myself. For example, I had a chifferobe full of knitting supplies. I was a poser knitter for about two years after the birth of my third child. At some point I realized I’d spent six precious writing hours knitting a holey baby hat. With limited time on my hands the knitting phase passed and I was left with all the “stuff.” What would I do with the beautiful baskets, the bamboo needles of various sizes, the instruction books and the richly colored skeins of yarn? I took a deep breath and gave it all away. As I did I said, “I’m no longer a knitter.”

A similar situation presented itself with my scrapbook supplies. I’d been a scrapper for almost ten years when I started working with online photo books and saving precious hours. If I wasn’t spending time on stickers, colored paper and dry embossing, what would that open up for me? Like knitting, scrapbooking is a wonderful hobby for many, but not for a full-time coach, wife, mom of three and passionate writer; I don’t do it all.

We often announce when we take up a new hobby or activity.
“I’ve started juicing!”
“I am doing the couch to 5K” or,
“I’m taking a class to make decorative cupcakes.”

Those are all fine and good things to do, but I think it’s also important to celebrate when we’ve stopped too. When we raise up what we are saying “no” to, we can better say “yes” to other life-affirming opportunities.

It’s official. I’m no longer knitting or scrapping, which is why I’m blogging to you now.

What have you stopped doing lately? What possibilities does it open up for you?


Trust: Article Smorgasbord


On our annual Labor Day trip, my son and I drove down the dusty drive to the Krueger Family Pepper Farm to get produce to make fresh Pico de Gallo. After bagging up bells, aconcoguas, jalapenos, roma tomatoes, onions and garlic, we discovered we were short on cash.

The cashier quickly dismissed our concern, “Just send us a check when you get home from your vacation. We trust you.”

“That just doesn’t happen,” my son said. “We don’t come across trust like that often.”

In professional development I want the teachers in attendance to feel like we did—that they are trusted to know what they need for their own learning. Article Smorgasbord is a small- and large-group activity I’ve been perfecting to meet this need.

If you think of a smorgasbord you probably envision a multitude of dishes crowding a table. That’s the idea. I’ll take a topic like research, for example, and provide five or six different articles exploring unique aspects of the topic. If I have a diverse group, I consider brand new teachers and veterans as well as kindergarten teachers and middle school folks.

Before inviting participants to the smorgasbord, I do a quick article talk explaining what each choice is about and why it might be appealing. Then I place several copies in different locations on tables or around the room as if I’m setting up a buffet. When I’ve finished, participants stand up and take the article or two that whets their learning appetite. After about ten minutes of independent reading time, adults congregate where they picked up their article and have a chance to discuss it with one or two others.

Here’s an example of four free online resources that might work if you are discussing elementary research:
Student Research: The Right Information at the Right Time
Doing Internet Research at the Elementary Level
Research IS the Project
Why Kids Can’t Search

As a professional developer I want my participants to hear the message loud and clear: I trust you to know what you need and I’m attending to your learning.

What ways are you trusted in your own professional development? How do you apply that in your own leadership?

And while Pico de Gallo means “rooster’s beak” in Spanish, there are no animal parts to be found in this delicious fresh salsa. Here’s a recipe and some beautiful pictures from the farm we visited:

Pico de Gallo Recipe
Krueger Family Pepper Gardens