When You Are Put On the Spot While Presenting


You are standing in front of colleagues presenting important content in an interactive format. It’s going well for most of the participants, although you’ve noticed one woman scowling. You wonder if that’s a reflective look or one of dissatisfaction. Soon you find out. During the whole-group time she zings you. She delivers that put-you-on-the-spot question or comment that can cause your mind to go blank and wonder: what do I do now?

The question is not: will someone put me on the spot? If you work with adult learners–it will happen. The question is: how will you respond?

The first thing to consider is, did you set yourself up for success? From the beginning of a workshop, be clear about how and when questions and feedback will be facilitated. Is there a parking lot provided to post questions that will be answered after a break? Is there an interactive time planned into the agenda? Should participants be encouraged to catch you and talk during a break? If so, say so. Be upfront if you aren’t planning to answer questions in the very beginning. I’ve seen masterful presenters who have been interrupted early in a presentation who have said, “Thank you. Your question will be addressed when we talk about logistics. Let us know if for some reason it doesn’t get answered then.”

Here are some additional questions that I ask of myself:

Did the asker get the opportunity to answer his/her own question?
Just last week someone asked me if fidelity to our writing resource meant not teaching students to write in complete sentences. I smiled and took a deep breath. “Based on what we’ve been reading about meeting students’ individual needs, do you think so?” She shook her head, “No, I guess I just need to know how and when to teach those lessons too.” In the past I might’ve jumped in to reassure the teacher that’s not what was meant, but now I’ve learned that if I offer the question back I’ll often get a different, more specific question in return. You could say, “What do you think?” or “Let me reflect that question back to you.”

Is the question/comment yours to answer or facilitate?
Working as a district coach I often get questions that aren’t mine to answer. “Isn’t my principal going to get mad if I make all these copies?” or “Why do the administrators want us to collect the information this way?” or “Is this going to affect my evaluation?” These questions are always my opportunity to remind colleagues of my role. Often I’ll say, “That’s a good question. The person to ask directly would be so-n-so.” If the answer to the question is an obstacle for many folks I will often say, “I’ll see if I can get you an answer.” During a break I might send a text, make a phone call or send an email to someone in-the-know. If the query can’t be answered quickly, I’ll often send out the information via email to follow up with the participants.

Is the question/comment worth everyone’s time?
I agree that there is no such thing as a stupid question if the asker is taking a learning stance. However, not every question is designed for an audience. For example, if a teacher asks me, “Why aren’t we grading this first on-demand writing piece?” after I’ve already explained why we aren’t grading the piece, I may choose to say, “Let’s talk, the two of us, on break.” Or if a teacher says, “I have a student who has a specific handwriting disorder and has a paraeducator who works in my room for thirty minutes a day during reading/writing workshop, what should I be having the para do?” I’ll say, “How about we use the independent work time to talk more about that?” Questions that are facilitated in a large group should appeal to a majority of the participants. Other questions that are focused on individual and smaller groups’ needs should be addressed that way. Your audience will greatly appreciate you attending to this issue.

Is there information that needs to be corrected?
If a teacher says, “I know we aren’t supposed to have the kids do sustained silent reading anymore, but how are we supposed to get these informal assessments done?” I may say, “Before we talk about the assessments, let’s be sure we are on the same page. Students will be doing sustained independent reading and sometimes it will be silent. I think what you are referring to is that fact that your school dropped the 15 minutes obligatory SSR in the morning after announcements, but it’s important to discuss that they will be reading for sustained periods of time, often silently within the context of reading workshop.” I have learned the hard way that if I don’t take the time to correct misinformation, the effects are exponential. Someone could walk away from that presentation saying, “Heather agreed that our kids aren’t reading independently anymore. It’s all whole group.” Yikes.

Is being put on the spot an opportunity?
My colleague Sean and I were leading a workshop a few weeks ago when a very distraught teacher shared how frustrated she was with how her lessons had become mega-lessons with the new standards. We both nodded and shared how we were experiencing the same thing and also that a large portion of the workshop was devoted to planning and prioritizing to address that need. It gave us the opportunity to hear her as well as articulate how our time was structured around the very obstacle that was frustrating her.
In another workshop across the district, one of our fellow coaches was zinged with the comment, “Teachers shouldn’t be expected to meet standards when kids are entering with such a deficit of skills.” The coach took the opportunity to say, “It’s really hard work and we can’t control what a student has or hasn’t experienced before they come into our classrooms, but we certainly can control what happens once they are with us. Having the expectation that students will reach the standard is an important mindset for the challenges in front of us.” After, another teacher thanked her for speaking up. At the time the coach felt shaky about basically saying, “It’s not OK to have low expectations for kids who start with less,” but she realized it was an opportunity for her to speak her truth.
In another situation I was leading a workshop with coaches and I described a scenario of a teacher who was using popcorn reading as her main way of instructing students in literacy. “BUT WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN SHE DOESN’T KNOW THAT IT’S NOT EFFECTIVE INSTRUCTION?!” cried out an exasperated coach. I grinned and said, “OK, let’s go there.” We took a 10-minute detour and roleplayed a scenario that I’d never planned. It was an opportunity to address something that was real and alive in the moment. I was so thankful for being put on the spot in a good way. Spontaneity is a gift.

How can co-facilitators share spotty Q & A work?
Being a co-facilitator is the best position for dealing with on the spotness. More and more we strive to present to groups in pairs or triads as coaches. When I know my co-facilitators well, I’m able to step back and say, “I think Samantha could answer your question best” or “Amanda had a recent experience that addresses this issue.” It also allows the facilitator who’s not on the spot to listen to what’s being said and take time to think about a response. Sean will often take a step in my direction in a way that says, “I’ve got your back” and after I respond he’ll say, “And just to follow-up on what Heather is saying…” It’s a gift to have more than one voice to acknowledge concerns and express ideas in different ways.

What about if the participant’s goal is really just to put you on the spot?
I’m going to suggest that 95% of the time when people put you on the spot they just want their questions answered and their angst reduced. But 5% of the time there may be something else going on. It’s unusual, but I’ve had participants ask questions like, “Who was the brainiac who came up with this idea?” or “And why do you think that every child is exactly the same and every teacher needs to be a robot?” One way to respond is, “I’m going to take some time to think about your question because I can tell it’s really important to you, check in with me after the workshop.” After the workshop and without an audience, sometimes the participant has had a chance to step back and think about communicating differently.

Another way to respond is to acknowledge that the question is an indicator of a much more complex issue, “Wow. There’s a lot going on with that question. I have a feeling it’s connected to a bigger issue with (the administration) or (a change in standards).” If I guess right, I’ll get a nod. It’s important for me to state what I can and can’t do in these situations. I can’t change the standards. I can’t change the administration. But I can partner with someone to problem-solve what’s best for kids. In extreme situations I’ve contacted the teacher the next day or the next week to check-in. Often they’ll say, “I was really upset that day, it wasn’t even about you or the class, I was just at my limit.” While I understand I’ll say, “I’m always happy to process with you in person, but in front of our peers that’s tough to be put on the spot like that.” Having others consider your perspective as a teacher leader is freeing. Whether they choose to or not is their business.

Did you adequately answer the on-the-spot question?

If the question is an important one to answer in the moment, I’ll often transition with, “What I know right now is…” or “The best answer I can give at this point is…” which helps me to say, I’m giving the best I’ve got. When I’m finished I’ll check-in and say, “Does that answer your question?” Most of the time I’ll get a “yes,” but sometimes I’ll get a “no” and the asker will restate their question in a way that helps me respond. I can also be honest and say, “I don’t feel like I’m articulating myself very well, so let me think more about this.” As an introvert I feel I’m much more articulate once I’ve had a chance to quietly consider my response. Often an additional ten minutes is all I need to compose my thoughts.


The most important thing is to have a person or a process to deal with the shaky feelings that may come after being put on the spot. Going for a walk or run or dancing to Def Lepard are all good options for me. Talking to another colleague who listens well is a huge relief too. It’s helpful to recognize that it does get easier with time and experience, but it’s still hard and I have much to learn.

How do you deal with being put on the spot when you are presenting?


Rule-Following Rebels

Consider the following:

A campus squad car on top of the Great Dome

A replica of a Dalek (the robotic character from Dr. Who) on top of the Stata Center

Cal Tech’s cannon appearing on “The Dot” of lawn

These are historical hacks (ethical pranks) that occurred on the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). During our tour, the presence of highly creative practical jokes on a college campus didn’t surprise me, but the posting of hack ethics did. Here are just a few of the ethics:

* Be safe. Your safety, the safety of your fellow hackers, and the safety of anyone you hack should never be compromised.
* Be subtle. Leave no evidence that you were ever there.
* Leave things as you found them (or better).
* Do not steal anything.
* Above all, exercise common sense.

Hacks are committed by rule-following rebels—a total oxymoron. Hackers accomplish amazing feats while following the established expectations. Just a few weeks ago I was reading a young author’s piece when I realized I was in the presence of a hacker. This young student was responding to an assessment that asked him to read a short article and watch a video clip on both the Great Wall of China and the Pyramid of Giza and decide which ancient structure he’d recommend for his town. He read the articles, watched the videos and then proceeded to write an essay advocating for the Great Wall of China to be built in his town to protect against future zombie invasions. Zombie invasions? Yes! To my delight, the student made the assessment his own and educated me on all things zombie. For example, he described how the Great Wall could provide a defensible compound–a necessary component of preventing a total zombie takeover. Throughout the essay he supported his thesis with reasons, details and facts. Elaboration and writing craft was present in each paragraph. His transitions moved us smoothly between well-organized ideas. He even followed the sixth-grade standards for conventions.

Whether hacking on a college campus or in writing, good hackers seek a fine balance. They know which rules are for following and which are up for interpretation. Are your students successfully committing writing hacks? Have you ever committed a hack as an educator?


Healthy Practice


The trainer at the YMCA said to his new recruit, “It’s pretty simple. There are two ways to get out of shape: eat worse and exercise less. And there are two ways to get in shape: eat better and exercise more. There are many shortcuts that may give you temporary gains, but for transformative health you’ve got to figure out a way to do both of these things. Every. Single. Day.”

For the rest of the personal training session he gave strategies and encouragement, but it was pretty clear his speech was done. There really wasn’t anything more to say.

“Thank you,” the exerciser said at the end. “I feel great. I’ll see you next week.”

It had obviously been an effective coaching session.

I tried to imagine what that would sound like in teaching. What does it mean to have a healthy practice? To be in great teacher shape?

“It’s pretty simple,” I could say. “There are three ways to get out shape: forget about relationships, stop growing and ignore feedback. And there are three ways to get in shape: focus on relationships with kids, continually deepen your content knowledge and pay attention to what kids say and do that shows you what they know. There are many things that can distract us on our path, but transformative teaching demands those three things. Every. Single. Day.”

I’ve had this on my mind lately. Am I focusing on relationships? Am I learning about my content daily? Am I kidwatching and kidasking every time I’m in a classroom? While I’m in pretty good teacher shape, fitness opportunities await me today.


What’s New On Our Mentor Text Shelf?


My good friends and fellow coaches, Sean Moore (left) and Linda Karamatic (middle), launched a class with me called “What’s New in Mentor Texts?” this fall. The class filled in less than a day with several waiting list requests like, “I know I can’t have a spot, but can I just stand in the back?” It was popular because we promised to share our current favorite mentor texts and circulate them among the schools and teachers. Everyone loves to talk books. Just by luck, our first class was attended by the warm and generous-of-spirit Ellin Keene, co-author of Mosaic of Thought and author of Talk About Understanding (and many more). After consulting on thinking strategies and touring our classrooms during the day, Ellin cozied up in a third-grade classroom after school and added her ideas and laughter to our group.

Each month we have a one-pager that highlights the books and how we’d use them in reading and writing. (Click for PDF) Mentor Texts We’re Circulating –November Originally we were going to pick just one book each and go into depth, but then we decided there was always the one book you picked and then the other book you came really close to picking and still wanted to include. So we agreed to share two: the “one we picked” and the “one we didn’t pick.” Then we do a book talk and get the participants involved in thinking about how else they might use the book. At the end participants sign up on a clipboard and we rotate the books from teacher to teacher.

We are loving the class and wanting to share our mentor text love with you too.

What’s new on your mentor text shelf?


Holy Unanticipated Occurrences


Disclaimer: Holy Unanticipated Occurrences is not my phrase. As much as I might like to have penned it, I did not. Kate DiCamillo did. Ahna and I are reading her latest book Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures Flora and Ulysses Book Trailer. We highly recommend it.

There are the fictional Holy Unanticipated Occurences (HUOs) like when Flora revives a squirrel after it was attacked by a vacuum. Then there are factual HUOs that sound fictional. Recently I read that fly-tying fishermen were fuming because of the new hair feather fad. Apparently, the feathers–designed for fly fishing–are also perfect for hair because they can be blow-dried, curled and last for many weeks and sometimes months. Hairdressers are competing with fisherman to get their hands on the popular feathers driving up the prices and creating shortages. Who would’ve ever expected Hannah the Hairdresser to be fighting over feathers with Frank the Fly Fisherman? Definitely a holy unanticipated occurrence.

A real-life holy unanticipated occurrence happened to me a few years ago with a student I’ll call Jeff. Jeff had been accepted into a special after school program for homework support. The teachers gave the students quiet time, snacks and supplies to get their homework done. It was perfect for Jeff because he was capable of doing the work, but just didn’t have a home life conducive to setting him up for success. The only problem was day after day Jeff “forgot” to go. He reassured me that he wanted to go, but he just couldn’t remember. On one particular day I’d reminded Jeff at the end of school to walk to room 7. I watched him head that way and then duck out a door and start heading home.

“Jeff!” I yelled. “Homework club!” I could tell he heard me because he picked up speed toward his house a few blocks from the school.

So I decided to run after him. He looked back wide-eyed as he saw I was gaining on him. I imagined how ridiculous I looked running after an eight-year-old. To give himself an advantage, he dropped his heavy backpack by a tree. I stopped, picked it up and started walking back to the school.

“Hey!” he yelled. “Hey Mrs. Rader you can’t take that! It’s got my cell phone.”

“It’ll be in room 7 at homework club,” I hollered back and kept walking.

“Why are you doing this?” he asked as he got closer.

“Because I care about you enough to want to give you this opportunity,” I said.

Jeff attended homework club that day with his backpack and then remembered for the rest of the week. I have no idea what possessed me to chase him down and use his backpack as bait. I do know that he told the other kids, “You better not forget to go to homework club or Mrs. R will run you down.”

Flora didn’t expect to give CPR to a rodent. The hairdressers couldn’t have predicted they’d cause problems for fly fishermen. I didn’t anticipate heading through the neighborhood to get my point across to a third grader. Holy Unanticipated Occurrences are both divine and unpredictable. I love our new phrase.

What HUOs are you reading or thinking about?





Is There Such a Thing as a Coaching Fail?


“Coaching fail!” is a phrase I’ve heard some of my teammates say after a non-productive planning session, a disastrous demonstration lesson, a co-teaching nightmare or a painful debriefing experience. Sometimes coaches think they asked the wrong questions. Other times they think they weren’t explicit enough. Perhaps there was too much rescuing and not enough scaffolding? At one point kids were making growth but then there were big, obvious steps backward. What went wrong?

If every experience contributes to learning, is there really such a thing as a coaching fail?

I plan to write about this in a future post, but first I wondered what you have to say.


Pajama Pants State of Mind


I come in the door and unload. I hug my kids and husband. I take off my shoes and jacket and as soon as possible I put on my cozy pajama pants.

The pajama pants are a signal: I am home.

I’m not talking about the hot pajama pants with “pink” spelled out on the cheeks, I’m talking about the fuzzy, fun-loving pants that clearly say, “I’m not here to impress you. I’m very comfortable with myself and I’ll accept you just the way you are.”

Although I dress professionally at work, I’ve been carrying the spirit of my jammies with me during the day; I call it my pajama pants state of mind.

I think of Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote, “To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.”

We know this work of coaching is about building trusting relationships, being authentic, listening, leading and following through. And it all begins as an inside job. Knowing our weaknesses, laughing at our shortcomings and making repairs when needed are part of self-acceptance. Another part is knowing our strengths, being willing to share them and not playing small.

When I go to work tomorrow I’ll worry less that you are impressed with me and more that I am genuinely myself. To borrow from Billy Joel,

I know what I’m needin’, and I don’t want to waste more time.
I’m in a pajama pant state of mind.


Kut the Letter C

I’ve kept many of my teaching journals. Recently, I stumbled upon an essay that I’d written with my fifth graders in 2004.

One day during writing time I said, “I have a very strong opinion about a change that needs to happen with our alphabet. It has bothered me for years and I’m now ready to talk about it.”

They looked at me, waiting.

“I think we should get rid of the letter C.”

“Why?” they asked. As I explained my reasons, they began to nod and see my point. When Carly said she’d be OK with changing her name to Karly, I knew it would be a great opportunity to write it together.

Now nine years later as I get to know the Common Core State Standards in writing better, I see how this opinion piece addresses many of the sub skills of writing standard #1. From an introduction and concluding section that relate to the opinion, to words and phrases that link the opinions, reasons, facts and details, I realize I found a new mentor text in my old notebook. Here’s our work:

Kut the Letter C

“A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I…” You know the song, but what you may not know is that there is at least one completely unnecessary letter in the alphabet. Do you know what it is? It starts words like cat and circle. Yes, it’s the letter C, and I think we should eliminate it from the alphabet.

The letter C makes two sounds, the hard sound of K and soft sound of S and we already have those letters. In a word like circumference, the C has both of those sounds in the same word. It’s very confusing. While sirkumferense looks strange now, we could get used to it. How many times have you had to stop and ask yourself, “Is that with a C or a K?” or, “Is that a C or an S?” If it was clear, you wouldn’t even have to ask.

There are many advantages to having 25 letters instead of 26. Teachers would have more room on their walls due to a shortened alphabet strip. That’s six to nine inches of wall space reclaimed. In addition, the alphabet song would be quicker. “Now I know my ABD’s,” even sounds right! Kindergarteners would also have less to learn. We often hear that there is too much expected of five-year-olds. Well, let’s take out a letter and give them more time to figure out which way those b’s and d’s go.

Having no C’s would shorten a variety of words. Some basic words could be shortened by up to 25%. Duck becomes duk, for example. It will take less time to write or type and cost less money to print. If you were purchasing an Oregon Duck sweatshirt, you could buy one less letter. Anything that saves money is important in today’s economy.

The saying goes, “less is more” and it’s true. A 25-letter alphabet would help us a lead a simpler life with clear sounds. Now that I know my A…B…D’s, I’m thinking we may also want to consider losing the letter Q too!

Feel free to share our work with your students and colleagues. I encourage students and teachers to play with opinion/argumentative writing the way they’ve had fun with narrative writing in the past. Experiment with opinions both serious and ridiculous. When writing the ridiculous, find reasons that make it plausible. Try taking a side you don’t agree with and challenge yourself to argue.

What are you enjoying about writing and teaching opinion/argumentative writing?