“The role of a writer is not
to say what we all can say,
but what we are unable to say.
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
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
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:
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.
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 questionswith tips and feedback on instruction.
Coaches typically work with small teacher groups over a period of time.
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
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.”
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 ateacher.”
Read on for more details about WriteSteps system of coaching!
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.
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.
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!”
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
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
“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
“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.
“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