Journey of Discovery – Instructional Coaching

May 5, 2017 by     No Comments    Posted under: Classroom

Instructional Coaching is an idea I have heard a lot about over recent years and while I thought I had an “idea” of what it was I now realise I didn’t see the full potential. That all changed when I decided to take the leap and give it a go. Like all good learning experiences the true growth happens when you dive in head first. Instead of going into details about how it came to be (you can read about that here) I am going to share one of the experiences from my “coaching” journey.

I am currently working with the amazing Grade 3 teacher Mary Bellone (@marybellone) and her students. Mary is an expert teacher who is an experienced Teacher’s College Readers & Writers Workshop teacher and she had tried a number of strategies to help her students document their thinking whilst they were reading independently. “Post It” notes have worked well and bookmarks with a note taking section have also worked but she had a feeling that these techniques are not supporting the thinking of all her students. As well when student’s completed a book they didn’t know what to do with these notes – leave them in and the next person who gets that books has all the notes or remove them but where do you put them?

Using Diane Sweeney’s Student Centred Coaching model we developed a plan of how we would explore if Mary’s hunch was correct. We got the ball rolling as her class started their Information Text unit. Mary did a mini lesson with a “Places Worth Stopping” anchor chart and modelled how to use these strategies when documenting their thinking whilst reading.

Over the next few sessions we documented the number of notes, what strategy was used and the level of detail of the note. It was very interesting to observe the level of engagement over a series of sessions as student wrote notes furiously but as they got further into the unit the number of their notes declined.

We then introduced the app Padlet as an alternative way to note take. We gave an overview of how the app works and allowed the students some time to explore. We didn’t say to students that they had to use Padlet, instead we allowed them to use the tool that they felt most comfortable with.

During the next few sessions we recorded and observed how the students were taking notes. From a teacher’s perspective we had the feeling that making notes on the iPad might not be the most effective way to take notes. Some students had trouble maintaining their concentration when switching between the physical object of book and iPad. Others took a significant amount of time with the layout of their Padlet.

After a few sessions, Mary posed the question which tool for note taking the students preferred and interestingly enough most of them said they preferred using Padlet. They said it helped them to recall more information during their discussion and also allowed them to keep their notes organised when they started a new text. The students were then given the choice to use which tool they preferred for a session and then the following session they were asked to try the other tool. The discussions the students had showed the depth of their thinking and highlighted that they used each “tool” slightly differently.

As a final piece to the puzzle Mary dedicated some time to the art of writing effective notes and rating the quality of notes. Both Mary and I made the same connection during a PD session with Christy Curran (@christy_curran) and we discussed that this would be an obvious area for development. We wanted the students to develop their note taking skills to expand their conversations and providing them with a simple tool to evaluate the quality and effectiveness of their notes would give them a measure with which to improve their note taking. Once again the students were highly engaged during this activity and were able to highlight the features of an effective note.

This journey has been amazing. I have to admit I went in with an idea of what I thought would be the most effective note taking method but throughout the process I worked hard to suspend my judgement and let the students actions and data do the talking. Surprisingly enough when we conducted exit interviews with the students they unanimously preferred using Padlet. They found it easier to write more (spell check helped them out and they weren’t limited to a post it notes) and they found it easier to organise their thinking throughout a book. Both Mary and myself reflected that this might have been influenced by the fact the students were working with non-fiction texts where there was a lot of new information and wonderings about this information. So we will continue to track the development of the students note taking skills when they move back into a fiction unit.

I feel a little guilty as I reflect personally on this coaching cycle because I feel that I might have got more out of the process than the students and the teacher. The reflections from them doesn’t reflect this but it has been an amazing professional development opportunity for me. Seeing how the class was organised, the routines that the students moved so seamlessly through and the depth of their learning was amazing. But like Jim Knight says one of the features of an effective partnership is “reciprocity” – everyone needs to gain/develop from the experience.


Exploring the grey

Nov 20, 2015 by     No Comments    Posted under: Be Responsible, Classroom

Have you every thought about how many of the decisions we make live in the “grey” space between right and wrong? This is one of my favourite topics to explore with students as it is an invitation for them to explore the process that they follow when they make decisions.

Think about this: You get a phone call in a public place. It is from a friend you haven’t talked to in a long time. You are excited. You proceed to talk loudly as you walk around. Is it ok to talk loudly on a phone in a public place?

This is how I opened up a discussion with a group of grade 5 students the other day and their viewpoints were interesting. Within moments a mini debate had evolved with students providing strong reasons for their belief.

Digital Citizenship Debate

This prompt was just a lead in to an inquiry about decision making in the online world but it forced a “rethink” about how we would address this issue.

As this discussion highlighted the students already had the background knowledge in what was “wrong” (black) or “right” (white) but what was interesting was how they navigated the “grey” in between. It was only through this invitation to share their thoughts that they were able to refine their thinking and make a more informed decision.

Luckily I work with a fantastic group of teachers and we went back to the drawing board and thought about how we could help support the student’s inquiries. Could we really just open this topic up to a series of deep discussions where we weigh the various viewpoints and then try to make an informed choice? We thought so, so we dived straight in.

We used Mike Ribble’s Digital Compass as a guide to help students with decision making and then we had students brainstorm potential situations that they might face online. They did an amazing job identifying the type of situations which really get at that “grey” area of decision making. Then a colleague, Jamie Raskin, had a great idea to turn these scenarios into a debate/game situation where students would pick a viewpoint and justify their opinion.

You could see the power of this activity when you heard the student’s debating/discussing these scenarios. They were able to identify all the issues that were involved and as a collective come to an informed and appropriate decision.

This experience has totally shifted my thinking about how to explore digital citizenship issues. Yes of course the students need some background knowledge but because these kids live and breath this world they are quick to pick up the basics. The issue is giving them experience with how to make appropriate decisions whilst they are there.

We all know that in theory some decisions should be “black” or “white” but in reality the choices people make fall somewhere in the middle. Why not help the students explore and grapple with this “grey” space?

Digital Compass

Body Breaks

Sep 21, 2015 by     No Comments    Posted under: Classroom

Movement is such an important part of life. I am one of those people bouncing off the walls if I have to sit still for an extended period of time. With the move back to the ICT world I Ikea Hacked a standing desk which has been amazing.

Just today I came across an awesome idea for Body Breaks in class. As a classroom teacher I tried to get my kids up and moving as often as possible but @BES2F has taken it to another level – bringing Just Dance into the class.

Inspired by this here is my Just Dance greatest hits for Body Breaks:

The Move Back In

Feb 21, 2015 by     No Comments    Posted under: Classroom

It has been a long time since post and so much has happened. I have become a father, moved countries and moved back into the classroom. Despite it being almost a year and a half it feels like time has flown.

I will be back here more regularly again and in the meantime if you are interested to see the work I have been doing with my class of grade 5 students take a look at our blog –

Classroom Connection: Deep Discussion

Oct 8, 2012 by     2 Comments    Posted under: Classroom

“The last activity for this unit will be to complete an essay. This will be the major assessment for the unit.” This seems to be a memory I have from my schooling experience. The final essay was the thing that rounded out a unit and made up most of your grade. At the time I really didn’t give much thought to if this was the best way of doing things. It was just the way it was done.

Since moving to the other side of the fence, becoming a teaching, I have thought often about what is the most effective way (or combination of ways) to assess student understanding. A lesson I recently saw has made me once again rethink the traditional model of assessment with the essay falling at the end of a unit.

This class of senior IB Diploma students has been studying Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” and were at the stage of turning in one of the major essays for the unit. Instead of simply handing their essays in and starting up on a new theme, the students were given five minutes at the start of the lesson to summarize their essay into four to five bullet points. They then had to share their bullet points with the class.

Arts Education Schools London

At first the students weren’t sure about the activity (as it was something new to them) but they quickly got into it. The five minute preparation time limit forced them to quickly identify their main points – basically they had to get to their heart of their essay, “What were they trying to say?”. Their brief presentations were interesting for a number of reasons – there was such a variety of interpretations, their were interpretations that supported and contradicted another person’s view and all students had a thought grasp of the main themes of the play. The biggest highlight of their brief activity was the type of questions that students found themselves asking each other. The students were listening intently to one another and were asking questions of the presenter in order to clarify their own understanding but also to help further the presenter’s understanding.

This idea of explanation, clarification and justification was then furthered as students were asked to play chess. You heard right, “chess“. Students paired up and then began a game of chess. They had to speak about their understanding of “Measure for Measure” non-stop while it was their turn. Then their opponent would have to speak non-stop (or interrogate their opponent) about their impression and so on.

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by angeloangelo

As I was joining in on the discussions that were going on I was thinking about how rich an assessment of student learning this was. The essays was only one element of a student’s understanding that the teacher was collating. As the students were sharing their summaries and exploring their understanding during the chess game the teacher was questioning, probing and clarifying the student’s understanding. The teacher was able to truly get an idea of where his students were at. What a great lesson – a fantastic play, engaged students, thoughtful teaching and rich learning experiences.

Classroom Connection: The Art of Poetry

Oct 4, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Classroom

I realised I haven’t been in an IB Diploma English class for a while as I sat in on a discussion the other day. Would it be similar to the English classes I used to be in or would things be totally different?

This was a IB Diploma Literature class and they were using poetry to explore language structure and presentation styles. From first glance thing seemed pretty similar to my old English classroom but as I got more involved in the session I began to realise that there was a significant shift. The students were working with a series of poems by Mary Angelou. They were working in groups on a specific poem – annotating, discussing meaning and exploring the structure of the piece. As the groups were working the teacher was probing their understanding. Nothing so new here but then a simple flip occurred.

The teacher then asked the groups to pair up and their task was to brief/teach the other group about their poem so they could give a presentation on it. They we given 20 minutes to develop their presentations. This was when the really interesting discussions occurred. Students were now forced to get to the real meaning of the work and put it into their own words. It was amazing how powerful such a small shift in the activity had on the whole class. All group members were engage as they were trying to be both understood and trying to understand.

It was great to get back into a higher level English class and find out what was going on. It was also a plesant surprise to see some great teaching strategies used to help further student’s understandings.

Classroom Connection: Playdough in the Diploma

Oct 3, 2012 by     1 Comment     Posted under: Classroom

Who would have ever thought “playdough” would make a come back in a year 13 IB Geography class? I certainly wasn’t expecting it.

The students are currently working on a unit on “Urban Environments” and have been exploring a range of different development models which look at how cities expand. As you might guess there are a number of different models and theories behind urban development but at times it is difficult for students to grasp how these models work in the real world.

So to help students see how these models work in practice they have been looking at the development of Bangkok. Bangkok is a huge place and doesn’t perfectly fit one theoretical model. This is where the playdough comes in. Students were ask to use playdough to create a model of how Bangkok has developed. To do this task they were given a variety of colours of playdough, a paper plate (for the base), and a range of maps of Bangkok.

Listening to the discussions that were going on whilst they were working on the models it was easy to see that not only were the students engaged (they loved the chance to make learning “dirty”) but they were focused on the content they were working with. The models they created ranged in a design quality but all the models demonstrated a detailed knowledge of urban development in Bangkok. So the activity wasn’t only fun but the students fully grasped the concept they had been presented with.

This activity has made me re-think the importance of concrete, hands-on activities in classrooms.  Why are there so few hands on activities in secondary school classrooms?

Classroom Connection: Map Overlays

Oct 2, 2012 by     14 Comments    Posted under: Classroom

This post is a follow up to “Mapped Out

“What is this students are still using paper maps?”. This is the thought that was going through my head as I walked into this humanities class. The ICT coach side of my brain was set into action as I saw small groups of students huddled around photocopied maps of Asia. How could this be so?

On closer inspections I saw that this activity was a balance between high and low tech – a perfect blend of the old and the new. Students were trying to identify why the borders of the world were drawn up they way they were. They had to find out what affect physical geography, religion and politics had on the borders of countries.


Each small group was given a large map of Asia and a plastic overlay for the map. Then using Google Earth they needed to identify which physical features affected the borders of a country. The teacher had already found a Google Earth Layer which allowed students to select various physical geographic features to be displayed on the map. By comparing these features with the borders of the world, students were able to locate and identify which features might have influenced the location of a countries border.

This is where the big maps and plastic sheets came in – the students had to mark the feature/border on their map (on the plastic sheet in case they made an error). As they marked more and more features their maps started to take shape. Right before their eyes they were able to construct their own map where they were identifying why a countries borders were where they were.

Couldn’t this activity been done online? Yes it most defiantly could, but I feel the combination of digital maps and the actual creation of a physical map has enabled the students to create a deeper understanding of the concept that the teacher had introduced – how geographic features, religion and political factors have influenced the creation of the world’s borders. At the end of the day this conceptual understanding is what all teachers are aiming towards and at times a combination of strategies and technology can be the most appropriate means of achieving it.

Mapped Out

Sep 25, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Classroom

I wish I was a student in a classroom today. I would be so engaged. The number of learning experiences that involve a visual element is amazing.

Over passed few weeks I have been involved in a range of sessions which have involved maps. When I look back on my education I remember sitting in class looking through an atlas and thinking about different countries. How things have changed?

Be it investigate data from around the world through Gapminder and Worldmapper or exploring cities and creating tours with Google Maps these experiences are so visually powerful. Students are instantly engaged with the content of the lesson and asked to look beyond their initial impressions. This would have suited me perfectly when I was a student. How lucky students of today are?

World Leader Pretend, 25 January 2009

Classroom Connection: Expression

Sep 16, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Classroom

“I wish I was encouraged to express my feelings more when I was younger”

This is the line that really caught me in this class. An IB student was talking to a room full of year 7 students about how expressing herself through her writing and performances has changed her life. Her comment was not made as a slight against her previous experiences but more a call to action to these year 7 students to share their passions. She challenged them to write about the events and friendships that they are involved in now.

“Do you need to write a poem about the flowing blue water? Why don’t you write about the experiences of one of the characters from a Halo game?”

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Visualogist

This discussion made me realise the power of real life examples, role models, play in a student’s development. Having a person who students can make a connection with whilst also pushing the student’s thinking is an empowering thing. Students need to see that their learning can make a difference – not just to the world around them but also to themselves.

If you want to hear more about this student’s thoughts take a look at her TEDx talk from last year

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