Better Observations


Jenga, the stacking-crashing game, is highly interactive. But one summer after a day of cutting and sanding, we discovered Big J’enga was even better.

Seven years ago when I started facilitating teachers observing teachers, I believed observations were one of the best types of embedded professional development. Then I experienced the reality. At one of my early coach-facilitated observations the two teachers with me talked to each other–and not even very quietly–throughout the observation. I was thoroughly embarrassed for the host as it became apparent that it knocked her off her game. Another time the observing teacher became so fixated with the unique seating arrangement he only questioned the host teacher about her environment and we didn’t scratch the surface of instructional conversation.

Today I still believe that observations are crucial to a coaching culture, but I’ve learned there are necessary building blocks that make observations effective for teachers. Diane Sweeney, author of Student-Centered Coaching and other great books, helped me along my path to better observations.

Check Out Diane Sweeney’s Sweet Site

She writes, “More often than not, inappropriate behavior is the result of a lack of information among the lab participants. Therefore, it is up to the facilitator to frame what is expected among the observers.”

Yes, norms are critical for observations. Here are Diane’s:

*Record detailed notes that are aligned with observation and will inform the debriefing session
*Stay close to the action so you can see and hear what students are doing as learners.
*Only talk with students if it has been established as part of the learning process for collecting evidence by the lab host and facilitator.
*Avoid being a distraction in the classroom. Maintain silence and do not take it upon yourself to teach the students.
*Maintain a positive attitude and respect for the lab host.

(From Figure 6.6 on page 122 of Student-Centered Coaching shared here with Diane Sweeney’s permission)

We borrowed much from Diane and then elaborated in a couple of places where we addressed needs we saw in our district:

*Take a learning stance. We are not here to compare, compete or judge.
*Stay close to the action so you can see and hear what students are doing as learners.
*Record detailed notes that are aligned with the observation and will inform the debriefing session.
*Maintain silence while in the room. Only talk with the other observing teachers before and after the lesson outside the classroom.
*Only talk with students if it has been established as part of the process for collecting evidence by the host teacher and facilitator.
*Avoid being a distraction in the classroom. Do not take it upon yourself to teach the students even if one says, “Can you help me?” Redirect them to the teacher.
*Maintain a positive attitude and respect for the host.

We review and discuss these norms each and every observation we facilitate. We also discuss look-fors during our pre-observation time. I often say something like,

“Observing a classroom is a lot like watching an adventure movie. There are so many things going on and we can’t pause or rewind the action. To make the most of the time, we’ll each commit to watching one particular part of instruction. A teacher who is interested in pacing could note when the minilesson starts and ends, the timing of conferences and the length of the share. Someone else might be interested in how the teacher uses questioning to get students thinking deeply about content and would transcribe student and teacher talk during the inquiry phase of the lesson. Let’s brainstorm what we each might attend to during the observation.”

These are watch-and-listen fors teachers have chosen:

* “I’ll record student talk, what kids discuss during the active engagement part of the lesson.”

* “I’ll note the pacing of the workshop.”

* “I’ll list what students are writing/reading to get a sense of the status of the class.”

* “I’ll write the dialogue of what is said during conferring. Especially the teacher’s questions.”

* “I’ll sit with one particular group and note the cooperative actions and language.”

While I once felt anxious the night before I was facilitating observations, wondering, would the teachers be respectful? Would they focus on the important teaching and learning at hand? Would we have a focused and purposeful debrief? And ultimately, would it be worth their time? Would they have big ah-has? This year I sleep soundly before the observations I host. With an understanding of my role to set norms, focus watch-fors and debrief in a  very specific way, I watch teachers walk away from observations saying things like, “I got what I came for. And more.”

In a future post I’ll reflect on better observation debriefs.

What are you thinking and wondering about better observations?




For many months I had emoticon envy. In three-way texts between Sean and Linda, I watched them communicate with smilies, frownies, animals, foods and even small piles of poo (with eyes). One night at dinner my friend Beth changed my phone settings so I had emoticon abilities too.

“Look who is one of the cool kids now!” I messaged Sean and Linda followed inexplicably by a revolver, hypodermic needle, pencil, monkey covering its ears and that small pile of poo (with eyes).

Linda immediately replied with a fictional story behind my emoticons. “And the coach pulled his gun out of his duffle bag and aimed it at the kids shooting up behind the bleachers. ‘Stop monkeying around’ he said…”

Thus began our exchanges of random emoticons and the short stories they tell.

On our one Teachers-as-Writers Saturday a month, I wake up and never know what my class opener will be. I like it that way because it’s always spontaneous and inspired. Since today was the day we’d be reading the chapter on voice from Ralph Fletcher’s book, What a Writer Needs, I decided we’d write emoticon stories with voice for our warm-up.

Messaging several strings of emoticons to myself, I wondered what would become of these combinations. How might a gas pump, a dentist’s chair, a slice of pizza, fries and a baby bottle be synthesized? I took a screen shot of my emotostories, printed one for each writer and set off for class.

After choosing a set we each wrote for ten minutes. We could use all five emoticons or just a couple. They could be resequenced or reinterpreted as the writer saw fit. Here is what I drafted. Do you recognize the catalyst for my emotolit from the opening image?

It was July 17th and I remember that because I’d written: Adam–Dinner on the calendar square in hot pink pen. Adam the Vegetarian was going to make me dinner. Growing up in Omaha with a steakhouse on every corner, I was not, shall we say, excited about this meal. In fact, I had a back-up T-bone in the refrigerator.

He arrived with a handful of wildflowers tied up with lavender ribbon and I thought, “Laura Ingalls Wilder would love these.” But he was charming and energetic as he sliced and salted the eggplant for the Parmagiana he would make. “It needs to sweat,” he said.

At that point I splashed a heavy pour of the wine he’d bought into my stemless glass.

“Save some for the marinade,” he winked as he told me about his hike that day.

Leaning on the kitchen counter, I watched him work through the lens of my friends. He was muscly, fun, thoughtful, healthy and yet all I could think was, “How much of that red wine does he really need for the marinade?” He exhausted me.

Dinner was fine if eating sweaty vegetables is your thing. About thirty minutes after though my stomach lurched and bubbled dangerously. We were playing Yahtzee and I fingered the die on the coffee table. If an even number landed face up I’d sprint for the bathroom. Odd number? I’d walk slowly with my legs close together.

My writing group is full of talented, wonderful people who laughed at the right moments and hummed in appreciation of others. What I liked best about my piece was that it took me by surprise. I didn’t expect this cranky character to start complaining to me about her vegetarian suitor. She intrigued me.

Now I’m curious what students might do with EmotoLit. How might this stretch their writing muscles?

I invite YOU to share your own EmotoLit story for fun in the comment space below. Pick from one of mine or choose your own combination. Surprise yourself.


Archie Meets Glee and Text Complexity


Knowing Ahna’s affection for all things “I Love Lucy” from the 1950s, it didn’t surprise me when she squealed about the Archie Meets Glee comic book. It’s not because she’s a Gleek; she’s never seen the show. No, the appeal is that the mash-up of Archie/Finn, Veronica/Rachel and Reggie/Puck connects the new to the known.

I take a similar approach to my study and teaching around text complexity. Last month Amanda Adrian and I taught the text complexity class in our ELA Common Core Shifts course. We opened up with a chapter from Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp titled, “Text Complexity Is the New Black.”

One of our favorite lines is, “Unlike a pendulum, which is often how reading instruction is described, we see this continual research process as a drill, with each subsequent return to a topic resulting in deeper knowledge.” Since college I’ve known that text complexity is more than a number spit out by a computer analyzing word counts, types of words, mean sentence length etc. Through continued professional development I understand more that, “Text complexity is (also) more than an analysis of the current skills of readers.” But as we grapple with the current three-part model, teachers want to know, “How is this different from what I’ve been doing?”


Great question.

To encourage discourse, we shifted to a Teaching Channel Let’s Chat Core segment and watched the first five minutes with time to talk with colleagues.

Teaching Channel Text Complexity

Then I talked about the book Holes by Louis Sachar that Ahna started and had difficulty comprehending. The quantitative (computer) assessment of the book is a 5.2 grade level equivalent, which is close to appropriate for her. But looking at the variety of qualitative attributes that only a human reader can identify, we begin to see that the structure of the text is quite complex. There are frequent manipulations of time and sequence–it’s unconventional. Further when we consider the reader and task we ask:

Is she reading for pleasure?
Or is she reading to track the changes of the main character, Stanley Yelnats?
Or perhaps analyzing the theme?

All of these components play a role when we decide what to put in front of kids.

From stacks of literary and informational texts Amanda and I brought, we had teachers choose a text and a text complexity rubric to analyze the books.

One Literary Text Complexity Rubric

One Informational Text Complexity Rubric

Upon completion, one teacher said it best, “This is really hard, but I’m glad we are thinking about the texts we are putting in front of students. I don’t want to see them stagnate in my room, I want them to keep growing. But I also don’t want to put text in front of them just because it’s difficult. I want to be intentional.”

While some people may see this work with text complexity as the pendulum swinging again, I see it as an opportunity to drill deeper and use what we’ve learned over the past decades to teach smarter. Like when Archie Meets Glee, we can appreciate the new and connect it to the known. We can feel curious about the unfamiliar within the familiar. And we can ask ourselves this crucial question, “How can knowing more about my students as readers and the texts I put in front of them help them grow?”

If you are thinking deeply about text complexity too, here are some other blogs on the topic that have stimulated my thinking:

Burkins & Yaris: Think Tank for 21st Century Literacy Four Types of Text Complexity

Vicki Vinton’s To Make a Prairie Looking at Complex Texts

How are you thinking about text complexity as a coach?




When a company sets out to make unique eyeshadow colors with names like “Girl on Fire” from the Hunger Games collection, there are bound to be some flops. Some sixes when the goal was tens. My daughter informed me that these are called derps–foolish mistakes. Instead of tossing the derps, one company, Shiro Cosmetics, offers them up to the public.Shiro Cosmetics Flirtatious Failures

Derps are incredibly valuable. When working with adult learners I find our conversations focused on “what it is not” are just as thought provoking as “what it is.” For example, independent reading time during workshop is not SSR (sustained silent reading) and guided reading is not popcorn reading in a small group. These distinctions are important to building a common language among colleagues.

Some time has passed since I did this podcast with Katherine Casey but it’s got me thinking again about how I can share derps more often with teachers to deepen our learning. Katherine facilitated my first training as a coach and I read her book, Literacy Coaching: The Essentials every year that I work with a new coach. She’s got smart advice about using derps to our advantage.

Heather’s Podcast With Katherine Casey


How do you use derps in your work?


I Still Got to Golf

We won a dream golf trip at a charity fundraiser five years ago. That’s how I found myself–a total nongolfer–at a luxury course with my husband arranging for an hour-long golf lesson. My coach helped fit us with clubs and then had us hit a bucket of balls at the driving range. “Hitting straight is better than hitting hard,” he encouraged. I didn’t really hit straight or hard, but I did take some chunks out of the turf. He taught me good habits and gave me a crash course on etiquette. At the end of the 60 minutes he pointed to our cart and the course beyond and said, “Have fun.”

What he didn’t say was, “No heading out to the course until you hit these 50 balls correctly.”

Can you imagine? I was practicing my shots so that I could head out to course and play–albeit badly–a round of golf.


When a teacher says to me, “I don’t let my struggling second graders plan across multiple pages because they aren’t even writing complete sentences yet.” What comes to mind is, I couldn’t hit the balls well, but I still got to golf. Even without perfecting my driving range abilities, I chose my irons, drove a golf cart and walked… a lot. For that entire afternoon, I was a golfer and learned about what golfers know.

The teacher’s intention is to have her students experience success before she asks more of them. I wonder though, what more might those writers do in the context of the real work?

So let them write, I say.

Let them write words before they can form all the letters perfectly and have all accurate sounds.

Let them write strings of words and thoughts before they know for sure what a complete sentence is.

Let them write groups of sentences before they are certain on how to paragraph their writing.

After all, what’s the worst that can happen? If we ask too much of them, we “catch them back” as Debbie Miller says. We reteach and scaffold. The other option is to expect too little of them and make every learning attempt super safe.

Thanks Coach for letting me approximate golf. In return, I’ll let them write.


What’s New On February’s Mentor Texts Shelf?


It’s that time again. This week our friend and colleague Amanda Adrian was our guest reader. She shared two of her current favorites that please her student audience and her boys at home. I was delighted when I discovered that Maribeth Boelts author of Those Shoes has a new book out called Happy Like Soccer that addresses issues that face many of our students. There tends to be friendly behind-the-scenes battles over certain books when we prepare for this class. While Amanda and I tugged on Happy Like Soccer, Sean was thrilled to have Bluebird all to himself. In the end, we were happy with our mix of informational/literary and primary/intermediate selections so that everyone might find something new to try.

Click here for a PDF of our handout.

Whats-New-One-Pager-Feb copy

What are you using for mentor texts?


The Days I Quit

“I wanted to quit yesterday,” a coach confided in me.
“I saw such awful treatment of children. I wanted to tell the teacher she was no longer needed and I would take it from there. I could quit my coaching job and give those twenty-six students a year they deserved.”
I nodded solemnly.
“Isn’t it awful that I thought that?”
“No,” I said. “No. Not at all.”

I have had many days that I’ve decided to quit in the course of this job. And it’s not for the reasons you may think. Yes, I get bogged down by the negativity. It’s difficult to be ever-the-professional in the face of individuals and teams who seek first to assume the worst, not to understand. The work with adults is extremely hard, but seeing students wither in their classrooms is much, much worse.

“Just the transition, Heather, from recess to math took 20 minutes. And the teacher spent most of the time scolding kids, berating them saying ‘You are causing the problem,'” The coach continued.
“They are just little kids!”

Until you become a coach you may not have experienced a classroom like this in real time. We tend to live in our classroom bubbles thinking that educators experience the world much like we do. Thankfully classrooms where kids aren’t nurtured are rare, but likely in the course of our careers we will encounter work in a troubling environment. I’ve come to the difficult realization that underestimated students live up to those teachers’ expectations. “Slow” kids take on learned helplessness. “Bad” kids continue to seek negative attention. Teachers who say, “I’ve tried everything. There is nothing that works,” are correct.

“I have to go back next week,” lamented the coach.
“What am I going to do?”

There is something freeing about the ability to let myself quit for an hour–or four. I imagine myself back in the classroom doing what I know how to do. Visualizing how I’d set up my classroom library, create my writing center and the way we’d start building community from the moment students walk through the door is good therapy. I remind myself that I can go back at any time. And then I think about my motto, “Stay curious” and my belief, “Every teacher deserves a coach” and I wonder how to make sense of it all. “You can’t coach someone who doesn’t want to be coached” is also true. So what can we do?

I didn’t have anything wise or inspiring to say to the coach. I simply said, “You aren’t alone with those feelings. It seems to come along with this work. Explore the feeling of wanting to quit and see what else comes up.”

I find if I give myself time, strenuous exercise, people who listen and dark chocolate, the obstacle in front of me slowing transforms into my opportunity to be a professional. To use integrity, questioning, patience, content knowledge and my understanding of children to move forward. It’s OK to mentally left yourself quit and then come back to the place of “What if…”




Not long ago I used the book “!” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal in my training. I heard one young man talk explicitly about how he’d use it with his students. “I need this book tomorrow!” he joked with his group. Opening the book, I wrote an inscription and gifted him with my book (using several exclamation marks for effect).

He was surprised. “Why me?”

There’d been no drawing; no mention of a giveaway.

“Because you need it tomorrow.” I said.

People I know buy coffee for the person behind them in line. A friend with young kids had an anonymous person pick up their dinner tab. Inspired by these unexpected gestures, I began gifting books to random recipients. When I heard a fifth-grade teacher talking about her search for a new read aloud, I knew she needed Wonder by RJ Palacio. The Plot Chickens by Mary Jane and Herm Auch went to a fourth-grade teacher who said her students were struggling to keep their story lines simple and clear. Another colleague was chastised for being too positive (I know, can you imagine?) and I knew he needed Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea. My shelves ebb and flow as I find recipients for “just the right book.”

Garrison Keillor said, “A book is a gift you can open again and again.” I feel like a detective sleuthing for the next opportune time to gift the right book at the right time to the right person–when they most need it and least expect it.


Moment of Truth

“If you did nothing but pursue the truth about yourself for the rest of your life, you would never run out of fresh discoveries.” -Martha Beck


On December 21st, I posted Do Nothing as the first step in the Joy Diet I was following.

Do Nothing

While I had a stretch of days and weeks of consistent nothingness, I haven’t “done nothing” all week–and I can tell. Today provided me the opportunity to renew my commitment to the Joy Diet and enjoy the next entrees. The second menu item is Truth. Martha Beck writes that she spends time in locations like What If, Should Be, I Wonder When and If Only instead of Here and Now. One of my best strategies to center myself in Here and Now is to tell the truth about as many things, as often as possible. The Joy Diet prescribes that after Doing Nothing for 15 minutes, you take time to give yourself a “moment of truth.” I’ve created a visual reminder of these questions alongside an open hand so that I work through this series of questions at least once a day:

What am I feeling?
What hurts?
What is the painful story I’m telling?
Can I be sure my painful story is true?
Is my painful story working?
Can I think of another story that might work better?

This Saturday morning after my nothing, I paused for my moment of truth. When I listened in, this is what I heard:

What am I feeling? Distracted.
What hurts? My stomach hurts a little, maybe I’m hungry.
What is the painful story I’m telling? I’m thinking I’m not going to get everything done today.
Can I be sure my painful story is true? No, likely it’s not.
Is my painful story working? Nope. It just makes me feel more distracted and less focused.
Can I think of another story that might work better? Another story comes from my meditation: There is no place to be; there is nothing to do; there is no one to be. That brings me much more peace.

Right after the moment of truth, Beck requests that you offer yourself compassion. I do a little self-hug by wrapping my hands to grab the opposite shoulder and remind myself that I, like everyone else, am worthy of love. Join me on a moment of truth if it brings you joy to do so. Here’s to Saturday…

Picture Credit: Artist Liliana Porter, Untitled (Hand).