Attitude Shift

Spanish IV chart picture (2)For teachers, August means the excitement of new students, new classes, new lesson plans–and the end of long mornings, lazy afternoons, and late nights.  For teachers in many school districts, August also means developing goals for the coming year–and then working all year to achieve them. In many districts, such goal-setting is a part of the evaluation process. To be successful, teachers must show not just that they did what they said they’d do, but that their goals had a positive impact on student learning. They need to demonstrate with data that students learned or that what the teacher did had a positive impact on student learning.

Sometimes, the goal is to change students’ attitudes. Quantifying an attitude shift–in a simple and direct way–is harder than, say, reporting the average percentage increase on vocabulary tests. This post is an update on a strategy I developed for documenting such attitude shifts. The update comes at the end and describes a speaking goal that a Spanish IV teacher in my district set and achieved.

A couple of years ago, in my capacity as an instructional coach for teachers in my district, I hit upon a use for Post-it Notes that involves measuring shifts in attitude. I wanted to know, originally, where the secondary teachers I was working with stood vis-à-vis implementation of the Common Core, and then, after I had finished with my professional development presentations on the subject, whether what I’d said and had the teachers do had had an impact. I wanted to know if what I was doing was changing attitudes.

How do you measure an attitude shift?

Furthermore, I wanted to share that information with the teachers.


How could I do that?

Somehow, I hit upon the idea, at the start of my Common Care presentations, of giving everyone in attendance a Post-it note (all the same color) and asking them to array their notes along a spectrum from left to right. I drew a line across the whiteboard at the front of the room and at strategic points along the line, I wrote the following summations of opinion:

  • Far Left: This is just one. more. thing.  It’s all going to go away, so why should I change?
  • Left: You’re kidding? Really? Okay, but where do I start? I’ve got a lot to learn.
  • Center: I’m on the fence.
  • Right: I’m just over being on the fence. I have some reservations, but all right.
  • Far Right: Let’s go! I’m excited! I’ve read a ton, know the standards, tried out a few things. I’m ready to jump in!

The teachers had no idea that I planned to ask the same question again at the end of my sessions. They assumed my visual survey was just a way to assess prior knowledge (which it was) and take a reading on staff opinion (which it also was). They did not write their names on the Post-its and I didn’t watch while they affixed theirs to the wall.

When the workshop was finished, several hours later, I gave everyone another Post-it—this time in a different color—and asked them to do the same thing: Place their Post-it on the wall somewhere along the same spectrum. I deliberately turned my back so I couldn’t see who put theirs where.

P1030326Here’s what the Post-its revealed. (Pink is “before”; blue is “after.”) Of course, the response wasn’t universally enthusiastic—I didn’t expect that—but I was gratified to see that the overall shift was from left to right, proving, above all, that understanding something goes a long way towards supporting it. Or put another way: Education matters.

P1030328Since then, I’ve shown teachers who are trying to measure an attitude shift in their classes this same (quick and non-scientific) strategy, and it has worked for them, too.

For example, here’s one from a business teacher who wanted to know if her financial literacy course had made an impact on her students’ spending habits. She extended the concept to measure the shift in two classes simultaneously.

At the start of the term, the five points on her line were these:

  • Far left: Spend every cent I can get my hands on—and more.
  • Left: Hmmm. Maybe I should save some.
  • Center: Save half (if I can). Spend half.
  • Right: Budget for expenses. Save all I can.
  • Far Right: Invest so my money can make money.

Freeeland 2In this picture, you see the results from two classes: one pink, the other yellow.  The spread on the bottom is the beginning of the semester; the one on top, the end. Notice the movement to the right in both classes–although the two yellow Post-its on the left represent the same two students, before and after. (Ah, well. Some people never learn.)

Because these Post-its would be up on the wall for the whole semester, we both assumed students would forget where they’d placed theirs. So the teacher had her students write their names on the backs of those little pieces of paper. That way, by turning them over at the end and finding their names, the students could see how far they’d come individually.Freeland 1

Last year, another colleague, a high school Spanish teacher,used the strategy to measure the development of her students’ comfort level with speaking Spanish. The purpose of learning a language is to be able to communicate in that language, but developing speaking skills is usually a challenge—for both the teacher and the students. Adults (and I’m counting high school students as grown-ups here) often feel inadequate when they open their mouths to speak in a foreign language. They know the words they use are basic, and the grammatical mistakes they make are embarrassing—because they wouldn’t make those same mistakes in their native language. So my colleague and I brainstormed a long list of opportunities, first just to hear spoken Spanish outside the classroom and then to interact with fluent Spanish speakers—a list of possibilities that grows progressively more interactive and engaging as the year goes along. Of course, the activities were a requirement of the course because her hope was that through authentic speaking experiences, students would become more comfortable—and ultimately more fluent.

To measure the students’ growth, here is the 4-point continuum my colleague used:

  • Far left: Silencio! I’m scared to open my mouth!
  • Left: I’ll speak if I have to, but I don’t like it.
  • Right: Comfortable—as long as it’s memorized conversation!
  • Far Right: It makes me nervous, but it’s fun at the same time!

She planned to have the students chart their progress three times during the year: in August, in January, and in May. That meant three colors of Post-it Notes. Except that a good idea just got better! Fearful that after a whole year the Post-its would lose their sticky and flutter to the floor, my colleague wrote the attitude points on pieces of construction paper, laminated the paper, and had the students use large Avery dots to mark their progress.

The first time she had the students place their Avery dots on the continuum, we both experienced a minor panic. So many were already on the right hand side! Room for growth was minimal. Perhaps the problem could have been avoided by having a 5-point continuum. Perhaps it was something in the wording that yielded so many “3s.”

A little nervous about what a mid-year reading might yield, my colleague decided not to take a reading again until the end of the year. By the time she did, the students had forgotten all about the tally in the fall. During class, she sent her students, one at a time, outside the classroom where, they posted their new blue Avery dots. At the end of the class, when she looked at the results, she saw that every one of the students’ attitudes had shifted farther to the right. The goal had been achieved; the students had developed the confidence they needed to be, not just comfortable, but enthusiastic about speaking Spanish with native speakers.

This year, my colleague is expanding her list of activities and recruiting Spanish-speaking adults in the community–many, the parents of students in our school–to be the language partners for her students.

So here is my question: What attitude shift would you like to effect that the Post-it Note strategy could help you document?

Spanish IV chart picture (2)

How to Use an Instructional Coach

Athletes—including the very best—use coaches regularly to improve their performance. Surgeons bring coaches into the operating room to observe them as they work and make suggestions for perfecting their technique. Social service agencies employ coaches to help caseworkers develop communication skills, especially with difficult clientele. In  schools, coaches serve a variety of purposes.

Sometimes we are called literacy coaches. In that case, we work with teachers to develop instructional strategies vis-a-vis reading and writing in all the disciplines. Sometimes we are called curriculum coaches, and then the focus is on the district’s learning goals and standardized assessments of those goals.  We might be called technology coaches—where the emphasis is on the obvious. Or, we are called instructional coaches—and then it’s all about what happens in the classroom. The truth is, most of us do some of all of this. The name doesn’t matter. We know what we do, and what we can do.

But often, the classroom teacher isn’t certain what our role is or could be. Coaching is still relatively new and teachers aren’t used to built-in support systems.

The last time most of us had any help in the classroom was during our student teaching experience. For  some, that may not have been a productive experience. Whether the student teacher is cut loose and expected to sink or swim or guided skillfully in an orchestrated co-teaching environment—or experiences something in between—the fact is, the status of a student teacher is just that: student. Novice, beginner, apprentice, neophyte. The relationship is unbalanced: The cooperating teacher is the old pro, and the student teacher is the greenhorn. The one tells the other what to do.

The relationship between a teacher and an instructional coach is much different. The coach is a colleague and a peer. The teacher is a professional and an equal. It’s the teacher’s classroom, not the coach’s, and the coach is invited to interact. By the teacher.

Oh, sure, sometimes the principal has expectations that his or her staff will use the coach, and sometimes the principal is even more directive than that, but in the end, the teacher invites the coach into the room and into the relationship.

But what can a teacher ask a coach to do?

To answer that question, I thought about how I would have used me at various times during my career.

In the beginning, I sure could have used help organizing my classroom. It took me a long time to develop systems for collecting papers, storing them, returning them. I needed a template for putting assignments on the board and a system for conveying missed information and assigning make-up work to kids who were absent. I even needed help with room arrangements. I didn’t have the backlog of experience that would have told me how to break up cliques without making kids mad and how to move a student’s seat without giving him (or her) an audience.

At the start of my career, I could have used a coach to help me put a lesson together.  I’d have an idea of what I wanted to communicate, but I didn’t have a repertoire of activities to draw upon. I could have used someone simply to help me plan a lesson, a week of instruction, a whole unit. To help me see the flow of instruction over a semester’s time. To set goals. To develop activities to communicate those goals. To plan tests to measure how well the students had learned. Really. None of that came easily in the beginning.

I could have benefitted from having a coach watch me teach and make suggestions about pacing, about questioning techniques, about checking for understanding. It’s true that I figured things out on my own—eventually—but a good coach could have kick-started that process and made me a better teacher, faster.

Shoot. I could have used a coach’s help in planning and delivering lessons right up to the end of my time in the classroom. Not because I was bad, but because I wanted to be better.

As time went along and I grew more comfortable with planning and delivery, I could have used an extra set of eyes—not on me, but on the kids. Someone to watch social interactions–in some cases, to identify the primary troublemaker. I remember the frustration of knowing a group of kids was cutting up when my back was turned—but turning in time to see only the last participant, not the instigator. I could have used an extra set of ears: Someone to listen for the under-the-breath remark that would tell me a student didn’t understand but wouldn’t ask a question. So many times I could have used an extra set of hands. Whenever I put kids in groups, whenever I wanted to conference with students individually, whenever I set up learning stations, another teacher in the room would have been a boon.

And I could have used a shoulder to cry on. The relationship with a coach is a confidential one. We listen. We don’t take sides. If we can, we offer suggestions.

I would have loved, loved, loved to co-teach with a coach. Once, I had a paraprofessional in my classroom who was more like a co-teacher than an aide for one of my students. We dialogued about content with the kids as our audience—delivered a relaxed, two-person lecture, really. Other times, she’d ask a question that would prompt me to clarify a point. Once we even planned a tag-team presentation. Now that I’ve been a coach and had the opportunity to co-teach with colleagues, I know I would do it myself whenever I could. Sure, it takes planning—you have to meet and discuss the objectives, plan the activities and decide who’s going to do what, figure out how to assess what the students have learned—but you have to do that anyway. It’s more productive with a colleague because two heads on a topic are usually better than one—brainstorming and piggybacking on each other’s ideas usually yields rich discussion in the classroom. The same is true with lesson planning.

Co-teaching would have built my confidence when I was a novice, but I would have thrived on it as a veteran.

I could have used someone to help me make sense of standardized test data. Someone to research topics for me. Someone to look for alternative titles for theme-based units.

In short, a coach’s job is to make a teacher’s job easier. Whether that is doing research, co-teaching a lesson, refining a strategy, figuring out technology, solving a problem, or working with kids, coaches are there to help.

We don’t have all the answers—but we do have the time to find answers to yours. We’re not outside experts, not even consultants. We’re teachers—just like you—but teachers without our own classrooms. Invite us into yours.

A Six-Box Year

The principal at the middle school where I spent yesterday morning brought donuts for his 35 teachers to mark the approaching end to the school year.

The size of the donut array took me by surprise. Apparently, the teacher standing beside me was surprised, too.

“It’s a six-box day!” she exclaimed.

A celebration!

For teachers, the end of the year brings celebration, but it brings emotional overload, too.

There are the usual worries over final exams, the routine but nonetheless draining dismantling of classrooms, the extra stress of tying up myriad loose ends, and lots of anxiety about the first year of the new evaluation system we’ve all been through.

There’s the excitement of culminating projects—the videos, the newscasts, the high-spirited presentations in front of the class–and celebrations, like the ice cream sundae fest that I just witnessed in the school library for the kids who read 20 books in a semester.  Awards ceremonies,  talent shows,  and field days, even—in one school I visit—a field trip after school is over!

There’s saying goodbye to students whom teachers have come to love—or even just learned to tolerate—and that brings another emotional reality.  In a way, teachers are preparing for the grief they’ll feel when school is over, even if they’ve never thought of the inevitable letdown as being a kind of loss.

Many of them pause in this busy time, though, to ask me how this year has gone, whether I have enjoyed my work as an instructional coach, whether I miss the kids.

Did I feel productive? Of course.

Was the work satisfying? Yes.

Did I miss the kids? Certainly.

Especially in the beginning and particularly when I was at “my own” high school and would see the kids I’d had in class just the year before.

In August and September, a lot of shrieking and embracing went on when we’d run into each other in the halls. For them, it was like I’d come back from the dead. They hadn’t expected to see me again, so when they did, the remembrance of all we’d shared would take them by surprise. I’d fly high on those days–but I would bring myself down to earth pretty quickly by remembering that were I at the front of the classroom still, all those displays of affection would not be happening.

And increasingly, as the days went by, my delights rested on the victories of the teachers whose professional lives I touched even lightly as well as those I coached intensely.

A first year industrial tech teacher who felt awkward at the beginning of the year is moving with confidence in her classroom today. The other day she even videotaped the class while they tested the strength and durability of bridges made with cardboard, styrofoam, tongue depressors, and fiberglass. The students were in teams, eager, excited and energized by the competition.

A social studies teacher who’s been struggling all year to marry a set of academic standards that honor recall of a thousand facts with the Common Core emphasis on big ideas and essential concepts has found a path forward.

A special education teacher whose students wrote whole sentences, not fragments; pages, not paragraphs beamed ear-to-ear with them as she returned their papers and complimented them on what they’ve done well.

A world language teacher whose dialogue journals are proof positive that students have increased their vocabulary and their ability to write in Spanish directed her students to look back at their entries from the beginning of the year. What they saw is what they hadn’t realized: their skills had crept up on them.

An English teacher with whom I co-taught a strategy for reading poetry reported that when her students encountered the poem on the standardized state test, they used the new blocking ruler to read the poem line-by-line and reported it was easy!

A science teacher discovered a penchant for etymology–for telling stories about word origins—to help his students learn vocabulary. He plans to spend the summer preparing more lessons about word origins to help his students learn the roots and prefixes that are the building blocks of scientific terminology.

A 7th grade math teacher, after my work in her school on vocabulary acquisition now directs her kids to look at words in a whole new way—quartiles, she told me, for example, made sense to her kids when they made the connection with quarts and quarters and quarterly.

A chemistry teacher developed a modification of the Frayer model—a strategy for teaching vocabulary—and told me her students’ vocabulary scores went up!

Collaborative successes—like the World Food Prize endeavor—have brought utter exhilaration, and I’ve drawn satisfaction from departments that have begun work on curriculum articulation, K-12. Vertical teams have formed in middle schools and horizontal ones in high school disciplines. I’ve had a hand in those endeavors and that’s been cool, too.

How do I measure success at the end of the year? Is it in the number of professional development presentations I made to whole faculties? Is it in the number of team meetings I facilitated? Or the number of individual conferences and observations I conducted? Is it in professional development conferences I attended and learned from myself or the quantity of professional books I read? Is it in the curriculum documents that teams of teachers produced? The web site I created?

The numbers don’t lie; the documents that have been produced, the charts and calendars I’ve kept, the book reviews I’ve written, the photographs I’ve taken are all concrete evidence of productivity. They’re pleasing to look at—but it’s the cumulative impact of teachers’ victories, whether large or small, that makes me smile, that brings me satisfaction and delight.

Tomorrow is the last day of school in my district. I’ll be at “my” high school tomorrow, and I’ll be giving a lot of high-fives, I know. But it’s their current teachers the students will be hugging hard.

I’ll miss that.

I’ll be proud of the kids, for sure, but it’s their teachers’ joy I’ll feel tomorrow.

Anybody asks me now how I’ve liked my job as an instructional coach and I’ll have to say, “It’s been a six-box year!”

Candy in My Mouth

April is National Poetry Month, so it was a perfect time for my colleague (a middle school English Language Arts teacher) and I to plan and present a lesson on how to read a poem. I’d been talking about one of my favorite methods for unraveling meaning in poetry, and she invited me to demonstrate for her 6th graders.

Offer me a chance to teach?  It’s like giving me candy.

I selected three poems, two from the textbook, and a charming one I remembered from a  long time ago, Eve Merriam’s lovely invitation to enjoy poetry, “How to Eat a Poem”:

Don’t be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.

You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.

For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.

I have always loved this sweet, delicious comparison between a poem and a piece of fruit—especially juicy fruits, like peaches and pears and watermelon, where the deliciousness runs like a river, all down your front. The poem seemed like a great hook.

The second poem I chose was from the text: Gary Soto’s “Ode to Family Photographs.” Soto’s poem is a list of images—descriptions of bad family photos—images gone awry because the photographer was no good with a camera.

This is the pond, and these are my feet. 
This is the rooster, and this is more of my feet. 

Mama was never good at pictures.

This is a statue of a famous general who lost an arm, 
And this is me with my head cut off. 

This is a trash can chained to a gate, 
This is my father with his eyes half-closed. 

This is a photograph of my sister 
And a giraffe looking over her shoulder. 

This is our car’s front bumper. 
This is a bird with a pretzel in its beak. 
This is my brother Pedro standing on one leg on a rock, 
With a smear of chocolate on his face. 

Mama sneezed when she looked
Behind the camera: the snapshots are blurry,
The angles dizzy as a spin on a merry-go-round.

But we had fun when Mama picked up the camera. 
How can I tell? 
Each of us is laughing hard. 
Can you see? I have candy in my mouth.

I expected opportunities to talk about the individual pictures; to notice the two switches to italics (not italics, here) whenever the narrator stops to explain about Mama; to look at the possible meanings of that last line, candy in my mouth; to examine the writer’s tone—nostalgic about those family moments, kind—even amused—in his assessment of Mama.

The third poem was Emily Dickinson’s 4-line nugget, “Fame is a Bee,” all about the allure of fame, its glamour, its backlash, its transitory nature. Perfect for kids in thrall to performers on American Idol.

Fame is a bee.
It has a song–
It has a sting–
Ah, too, it has a wing.

As I planned it, we’d do the Merriam poem first, then the Dickinson one, and end with Soto. I’d lead the students to learn and use the words ode, stanza, image, voice, metaphor, and tone. The objective—beyond making the terms a part of their working vocabulary—was to show them a method they could use on their own to figure out the meaning of a poem. What I wanted above all was to excite the students about poetry. I planned to leave them at the end with a little present—a personal poetry reader for each child—a bright yellow card decorated with a fruit sticker and the words, “Bite in!” A reminder of Merriam’s poem; a reminder of our class period together.

My sequencing of the lesson would have been good—it would have worked—but when I met with my colleague to fine tune the lesson, “good” turned into “outstanding.” That’s the beauty of instructional coaching—two heads are better than one. I knew the strategy and I picked the poems, but she had the genius to put it all together in a way that would capture the kids.

When we started talking about the lesson, we knew we’d need a hook. My colleague had just the idea. She loves games. In fact, her classroom is decorated with boxes of games, game boards, game pieces. And she had a wonderful one she had grabbed at a garage sale: Awkward Family Photographs, a collection of perfectly awful family pictures. Her idea was to have a handful of cards on each table when the kids came in. We’d let them look at the photos for a few minutes, talk about why they were funny or scary or stupid, and then launch into the Soto poem. P1020407

So that’s what we did on the appointed day. She set up the hook and after a few minutes of laughing together at the pictures, I read the Soto poem aloud. The kids followed along.

“I don’t get it,” Daniel said flat out at the end. We loved that. It was the perfect entrée to the slow reveal.

I moved to the interactive whiteboard, the centerpiece of the strategy. The “screen block” tool would cover the poem and I would expose one line at a time, asking questions of the students to show them how the poet constructed meaning, line by line by line.

And the technology failed. It had worked in the morning before class. What had happened?  No time to twist our hands, throw them up in despair. Gamely, we went on, directing the students to look at each line of the poem in turn until we reached the end.

Of course, because of the Awkward Family Photographs, the kids caught on to the images immediately. That meant a lot of fun conversation about what was happening when Mama snapped the picture—what she intended to capture with her camera and what she actually got. Favorite line? This is me with my head cut off.

“How could he take a picture of himself with his head cut off?”

“But remember the line, Mama was never good at pictures?

“What new piece of information did you get there?”

“Oh! Mama’s taking the pictures!

We lingered on the stanzas about Mama. “How does he feel about his mama?” I asked at the end of the second one. “What’s his tone when he talks about her?”

“He isn’t mad at her!”

“He thinks she’s funny. He says, Each of us is laughing hard.”

One girl said, “It’s kind of like when people say, ‘You gotta love her!’ when they mean a person drives them crazy but they love her anyway.”

And what’s this last line: I have candy in my mouth?


Think metaphor, kids.  Poets and words…children and candy.  All sweet.

“The experiences were sweet and he’s writing about them.”

“Uh-huh. We call that ‘nostalgia,’ when you look back on something and remember it so fondly.”

“He enjoyed those times.”

“Maybe it’s just candy in my mouth.”

“Either way.”

We looked at “Fame is a Bee” next.   The poem seems so obvious that I was surprised the kids were puzzled when I read it through. But they remembered the word metaphor, could tell me it was a comparison, so I called on them to brainstorm the pros and cons of fame.





“No privacy!”

“Stuff on the Internet.”

“And what if you don’t make it on American Idol?”

“People forget you.”

And then we started brainstorming the attributes of a bee: the buzz, the sting, the pollination—good for the flowers—honey…and…

“I got it!” Clayton shouted out before we even finished. And line by line, he explained the connection. He was popping up and down in his seat he was so excited.

Alyssa, the thinker: “But you know, wings can carry you anywhere. The wing doesn’t have to mean ‘forgotten.’ It could mean carrying you to another place…”

I love an independent thinker.

Finally, “How to Eat a Poem.”

An implied metaphor, we said, when they saw there was no “one thing is another” as a metaphor lays it out.

One boy was sure the juice was from a cheeseburger, but the unraveling strategy worked like it should when someone else pointed out ripe. “Cheeseburgers aren’t ripe.”

“And ready when you are! It’s always there, just waiting for you.”

“It’s definitely not a cheeseburger. Cheeseburgers don’t have pits or seeds or stems!”

“But the poem isn’t like a fruit because there’s nothing to throw away.”

Not a word or a punctuation mark or a break in the page to spare. Yep, they got it.

My colleague and I had a ball. I did the lesson myself the first time through, but with the next class, she was asking the kids questions, too. The third time around, even more so. The technology never did work. No matter. She did the next two presentations solo (I was somewhere else in the building), but for the last period (she has six classes and 170 kids!), by which time I had returned, we decided to function as a tag team. By then we had expanded the lesson so much that we only got through two of the poems! That was okay. She would do the third the next day. The students would be reading more poetry, using their texts and the poetry readers I’d made for them. P1030329

“I wish we could always be two heads on a lesson,” she said. “What’s our district thinking, not hiring two teachers per room?”

What are they thinking, indeed?  That’s what coaching is all about.

It was sweet all day.