Professional Development & Common Core Writing: What Works?

May, 2012

Professional Development & the Common Core: What Works?

WriteSteps Coaching: Practical, Personalized, & Collaborative

Staff Spotlight: Ben Kutz

“The role of a writer is not
to say what we all can say,
but what we are unable to say.

~Anaïs Nin
Professional Development & Common Core Writing: What Works?
A quiet, sub-rosa fear is brewing among supporters
of the Common Core State Standards Initiative:
that the standards will die the slow death
of poor implementation in K-12 classrooms.
This warning from an April article in Education Week may seem overly negative, but other reports have sounded similar alarms. The fact is, there is a huge gulf between the ideal curriculum implicit in Common Core Standards and the real curriculum that teachers are actually prepared to implement.

Standards Accomplish Nothing Alone
We know that standards cannot impact student learning if they’re just sitting on the shelf. We need teachers who can teach them. But a recent survey by the Center on Education Policy showed that most school districts haven’t yet trained teachers to teach the Common Core standards.

This has big implications for all educators, especially those in elementary schools. Elementary teachers will be implementing new standards across the curriculum in their classrooms. That’s a tall order.

Sit & Listen PD vs. Coaching as Best Practice
As the clock ticks toward Common Core testing in 2014-2015, school leaders should bear three things in mind:

WriteSteps professional development takes the form of small-group coaching for a Common Core writer's workshop.
  1. The SIT & LISTEN model is not an effective way to train teachers. Thanks to studies by The Consortium for Policy Research in Education, we have known this for a long time. Although districts continue to favor this passive, large-group model, it’s clear that it doesn’t improve student learning.

  2. The COACHING model works best.
    • Coaches take teachers to their growing edge by helping them to analyze their students’ work and devise plans to keep improving it.

    • Coaches respond to specific teacher questions with tips and feedback on instruction.

    • Coaches typically work with small teacher groups over a period of time.

      Image of passive, large-group professional development. WriteSteps PD takes the form of collaborative coaching, which fosters high performing teams.
  3. The biggest challenge in teaching the K-5 Common Core ELA Standards is WRITING. Even more than making the leap to reading complex texts, teachers will be hard-pressed to meet the new writing standards without significant help.
Why? There are three reasons.
  • Writing was not part of No Child Left Behind, so it hasn’t been given priority in many schools. Many teachers will be playing “catch up.”
  • Writing is one of the most difficult subjects to teach because it requires higher order thinking and offers no “right” answers.
  • The Common Core restores writing to its fundamental place as one of the 3 “R”s. Make no mistake about it: the Common Core expectations for writing are high.

High Performing Schools Use Coaches
Coaching provides the best teacher training when the expectations are high. Jean Rutherford, who studies high performing schools at the National Center for Educational Accountability, notes that high performing elementary schools consistently value coaching over other forms of PD.

WriteSteps teachers and principals echo this sentiment. “The WriteSteps coaching was of great value to me,” says Dr. Paul Merritt, a K-5 principal in Dearborn, Michigan. “It gave the teachers security, and I didn’t have to worry about the way in which the program was being implemented. I was assured it was being done correctly.”

Image of a student writing. The Common Core Standards restore writing as one of the 3 "R"s. WriteSteps coaching helps K-5 teachers be ready for one of the most challenging subjects to teach.

WriteSteps Founder Suzanne Klein developed WriteSteps’ coaching program in order to provide professional development that can make the greatest impact on student learning. The WriteSteps approach draws on Suzanne’s background in Cognitive Coaching, and also utilizes some of the principles of Critical Friends Groups.

“When I was in the classroom, I’m sorry to say we positively dreaded those all-school staff development workshops,” Suzanne says. “Our coaching system is based on what I found helpful as a teacher.”

Read on for more details about WriteSteps system of coaching!

WriteSteps Coaching:
Personal, Practical, & Core Focused

It’s a cloudy morning in May, and WriteSteps Coach Arlynn King pulls into a busy school parking lot at Conner Creek Academy East, a K-5 charter school in the suburbs of Detroit. It’s 7:30 a.m., a half hour before the start of the school day, but already, cars are lined up in the driveway and uniform-clad children are pouring out of the buses, dodging puddles from last night’s rainfall.

It’s a noisy scene, quite familiar to Arlynn, who will spend the day helping teachers here hone their instruction for the Common Core writing and grammar standards.
Image of WriteSteps Coaching Director Arlynn King, who helps grade-level groups of K-5 teachers deliver strong Common Core writing instruction.
She checks in at the office and heads to a meeting room with the school’s curriculum director, Danielle Haag. Danielle works with her staff on instructional issues, so she’ll be sitting in on today’s sessions. The two women make their way to a small meeting room and chat while Arlynn sets up her materials.

The bell rings, and moments later, a kindergarten teacher arrives proclaiming, “My students love to write!” Her kindergarten colleagues file in talking about their lessons, raising questions amid introductions. The group dives into a busy hour. Arlynn answers some questions directly, but at least as often, she looks to the other teachers in the group and asks, “What have you been doing?”

Fostering exchange among teachers about successful practices is one of the goals of WriteSteps coaching. In this sense, it draws upon the Critical Friends Group model, which encourages collaboration within grade-level teams to improve teaching.

Fine-Tuning Writer’s Workshop
“I never had this kind of PD when I was in the classroom,” says Arlynn, a 30-year teaching veteran. “Occasionally, we did get grade-level PD, but it was in very large groups. We didn’t get our questions answered, and we certainly didn’t feel like the consultant was someone on our side, someone we could go to for help.”

At Conner Creek today, Arlynn spends an hour with each grade-level group. Those hours are spent polishing instruction. There’s no need to spend time re-creating lessons for the Common Core – WriteSteps has already done that, providing lesson plans, visual aids, and teaching demonstration videos in an online teacher portal, eWriteSteps.

Image of WriteSteps Common Core lesson plan viewed on an iPad. The lessons utilize the Madeline Hunter lesson steps to maximize learning.

The writing and grammar skills students need to meet the Common Core Standards are embedded in the WriteSteps lessons and spiraled across the grades, so these teachers can trouble-shoot areas they want to improve. Today, a number of teachers raise questions about conferencing techniques. It’s an important part of writer’s workshop, allowing teachers to differentiate instruction to help each student to take their writing to the next level.

“In coaching sessions, we start by addressing the individual teachers’ questions and concerns,” says Arlynn. “This way, each teacher can go back to the classroom with practical tools that make them more effective and make their students’ learning experience more complete.”

Another topic that comes up frequently today is assessing student writing. A fourth grade teacher enters the room and spreads out her students’ work on the meeting table. She has scored it with the 6-Traits rubric provided for that unit, but she’s still frustrated: “I don’t know how to give this a letter grade!”

Use this handy WriteSteps Common Core conversion tool to convert 6-Traits scores to letter grades.

Arlynn passes out a new WriteSteps chart that converts the rubric scores to letter grades, and more discussion follows.

“When I have a chance to work with teachers more than once, we spend time scoring student samples as a group,” Arlynn says. It gives teachers confidence using the 6-Traits rubrics, and they can also develop a shared understanding of what “good” writing can look like at each grade level.

Image of WriteSteps Coaching Director Arlynn King meeting with a grade level group of teachers to hone their Common Core writing practices.

Meeting the Needs of a National Audience
With its fall, 2011 Common Core release, the WriteSteps system is now in classrooms nationwide. As a result, the WriteSteps team is exploring new ways to offer coaching. Online sessions are one option that could allow districts to assist their teaching staff while eliminating travel expenses.

“We are exploring online coaching,” says Suzanne, “but we want to preserve the interactivity that has brought us so much success. We’ll be testing some technologies during the summer and are optimistic about the possibilities. Stay tuned!”

Staff Spotlight: Ben Kutz
Welcome to Ben Kutz of Missouri, the newest member of our team! Suzanne met Ben while presenting at the Missouri Association of Elementary School Principals and was impressed with his sincerity and warmth.
“Ben has a great combination of qualities which make him a wonderful Awareness Ambassador for WriteSteps,” Suzanne said. “His track record of bringing meaningful educational tools into schools throughout Missouri, his appreciation of the power of writing, and his integrity make him an asset to our team.”

Ben says he was attracted to WriteSteps by Suzanne’s commitment to helping teachers give children a skill he wanted but never got.

Photo of Ben Kutz and his wife of 37 years, Yvonne. Ben is spreading awareness of WriteSteps Common Core from his home in Missouri.
“I have always been interested in writing, but truthfully, I never learned how to put together an effective piece,” says Ben. “I have ideas for writing, but I struggle to get them down. When I saw WriteSteps, I was really struck by how good it is. I wish I had gotten this instruction when I was in school.”

In his free time, Ben enjoys cycling, especially riding the Rails to Trails along the Missouri river. He also enjoys canoeing, participating in church activities, and working with his Lion’s Club to raise money for charity.

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”


~Nathaniel Hawthorne