Mentoring: Sprouting Student Writers

I bought a bag of sweet potatoes some months ago. I added them to our meals over the course of a week. I never got to the last one. We must have grown tired of them, so I just let it sit. I began to notice shoots beginning to grow from the vegetable which shouldn’t have surprised me as we were actually eating the plant’s tuberous root. But it did surprise me, and I became fascinated by the direction the leaves began to take. I expect it will eventually grow as a vine and maybe sport some flowers.

Watching this sweet potato grow has made me think of our students as writers. There is so much inside them already that can sprout in their writing. Ralph Fletcher says it well in What A Writer Needs when he writes “Most students write far far better than they will ever know. We have to let children in on the secret of how powerfully they write. We need to let them take inspiration from what they already do well.”

How do we as teachers of writing help sprout students as writers? Going back to my tuber, I didn’t put it in water or feed it plant food. What I did do was put it on a window sill in the sunlight. What sunlight do the students need? Certainly not writing assignments structured around topics the teacher selects. The sunlight is our ability to mentor a writer in the process of writing what the writer needs to sprout.

In his chapter on mentoring in the above-mentioned book, Fletcher describes four abilities a mentor needs. A mentor values originality and diversity, even when the writing is not the kind of writing we like. A mentor encourages a student to take risks. A mentor is passionate. A mentor looks at the big picture.

What a Writer Needs is the book that our faculty began to read in a study group as we began to move toward a writing workshop model. Many of us concluded that we had never had such mentors ourselves as student writers. For me in grammar school it was diagramming sentences. And so we read and talked and began to write ourselves. And we began to mentor each other. And we began to build our own confidence as writers.

We gave each other sunlight to sprout our own writing sweet potatoes. We began to understand what it takes to mentor our students writers.






Hey, When Is It Coaching And When Is It Supervising?

I taught myself how to swim when I was a young girl. How? I watched others. Then I tried. I managed to coordinate my body in a way that kept me afloat and moving through the water. Yet, I never felt I swam efficiently. When I decided recently to change my exercise routines by adding swimming once or twice a week, I hired a swimming coach.

“Let’s see what you got,” she said as she watched me swim in the pool. “Not bad.” She now knew where to begin. She told me I could become a better swimmer by keeping my knees from bending and learning how to breathe properly as I swam. I appreciated the feedback, and our lessons began. I’ve been practicing between sessions. She keeps seeing progress.

Our sessions are working because I was ready to learn. I had a goal. I requested coaching.  James Flaherty in his marvelous book Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others calls a request for coaching an opening. These openings can also include performance reviews, the need for a new skill or finishing a project. We as coaches need to understand that the opening exists with the client and how a potential client interprets how coaching may support him or her.

The tricky part to openings in coaching is not letting the opening be centered on ourselves as coaches when we feel it is time for us to help improve a person’s performance. I already see this happening in education with all the teacher evaluation mania occurring these days. I received a call recently from a school asking me to coach teachers who were receiving scores of 2 or 3 rather than a 4 on specific criteria on their teacher evaluation instrument. What they were requesting was an intervention and calling it coaching. Flaherty points out that what I was actually being asked to do is “behavior modification with all the accompanying techniques and coercive force of that approach”. I also view intervention as a supervisory issue, not a coaching issue.

So let’s be careful what we’re calling coaching.


Differentiating the Coaching Needs of Teachers

I’ve been coaching in a charter school with 26  teachers in teams from kindergarten through fifth grade since September, 2012. The focus of my coaching has been best practices in teaching reading, writing, speaking and listening. The teams ranged in size from eight to four members. As a coach, I differentiated each session based on the issues presented by group. Sometimes I brought in resources that would meet the group’s needs. Sometimes I modeled lessons in one of the teachers’ classrooms while everyone observed. We would then debrief. Sometimes I planned individual sessions to address private school-related  concerns with which teachers were struggling.

Things were humming along until recently. That’s when the charter school learned their license was not going to be renewed. Shock all around. The politics of the non-renewal are beyond the scope of this blog.

I received my training as a coach with The Coaches Training Institute. They state that “the client’s wants and compelling desires are the topics” and that “the ongoing relationship between coach and client exists only to addres the client’s agenda.” And what was the agenda right after the shock in learning their jobs were only secure until the end of June? Of course, the obvious answer is they wanted to find another job. I couldn’t help them do that. Yet, what I could do was help them process their feelings, so they could think things through to find another job.

And that’s what I did. I used Fredrike Bannink’s book 1001 Solution-Focused Questions. Teachers selected partners. I turned to two sections of the book: 1. Questions for Clients in a Crisis Situation and 2. Questions for Increasing Hope. I selected a half-dozen questions and asked the teachers to process each one before I moved on to the next one. This visibly grounded the teachers. Before we began I had asked each teacher if zero were sheer panic and ten were a complete state of calmness, what number would they give themselves. No one was above a three, many at zero.  After processing the questions, everyone’s number moved up. Yes, they were now breathing!

As a literacy coach, I was again reminded what it means to differentiate the needs of the teachers we are coaching. Sometimes it’s not about the curriculum.