Today on the Heinemann podcast: What’s the role of technology in literacy coaching? It’s a question that gets mixed responses from teachers and coaches. If you ask Stephanie Affinito, author of Literacy Coaching: Transforming Teaching and Learning with Digital Tools and Technology, she would say “it depends.”
Technology is always changing and learning how to integrate it into your practice can feel daunting. Stephanie says to “infuse your coaching with technology to match the right tools with teachers and help bring teaching ideas and goals to life.”
Our conversation begins with how Stephanie defines literacy coaching...
Below is a full transcript of the conversation:
Stephanie: It's really hard to define a moving target. And to me, that's what literacy coaching is, it's this constantly shifting role and constantly shifting idea that responds to the teachers and students that we work with, to support the culture of learning within an individual school, or even a district. It means that every literacy coaching position is so unique and therefore often times very hard to define the kinds of work that we do in schools.
But I do stand on ILA's definition of coaching which is that we are specialized literacy professionals who have multiple roles in schools. Some of us are literacy specialists who work with kids, as well as having a coaching role with teachers. Some of us are full time coaches, and we get to work with teachers most of the time, and some of us might even be literacy leaders or even some administrators who are trying to take on a non-evaluative coaching kind of role.
But in my work, I've found really the common bond that holds all of us together is that we share that common bond and goal of leading literacy forward, whatever that happens to look like, in each of our individual schools.
I do have a couple of core beliefs about what coaching is, just like most coaches do. I truly feel that coaching should focus squarely on teaching and learning. So often coaches are pulled in so many different directions, and so many different tasks in their buildings, but true literacy coaching is all about the teachers, and all about the students that are in front of those students.
So, any role that can focus on teaching and learning, whether it's classroom coaching, professional development, informal collaborations with teachers, those are what I feel are really the heart of what coaching is, and we respond to teachers and students in lots of different ways, ideally focused on teaching and learning in our schools.
Steph: Yeah. How has that developed over time? How has literacy coaching changed?
Stephanie: A lot.
Steph: I'm sure.
Stephanie: My very first coaching role started in 2003, back when coaching was very, very brand new, and if you asked someone what a literacy coach was, the kind of looked at you funny, and kind of tilted their head like, "Um, yeah. I'm not sure." I think coaching has evolved as our profession has evolved, as teachers and kids have evolved, and it changes as we learn more about the kinds of professional support that teachers deserve, and the kind of collaboration that we know moves learning forward, and certainly, given the topic of the book, coaching has certainly changed in response to technology.
Tech has been a game changer for life, and certainly been a game changer for education as well. For me, technology really, it brought in what my idea of literacy coaching is, and what it could be. It showed me how we can make strong connections with teachers, both inside of our classrooms and outside of them, and it just gave some new opportunities for collaboration, and new opportunities for forming learning communities with teachers that could have a real lasting impact.
Because we're literacy coaches, and literacy is this constantly shifting and changing idea, that shifts in response to our world, shifting coaching along with it means that coaching can truly be a model for teaching and learning, with those kinds of practices and digital tools in the classrooms as well.
Steph: With technology, how do you utilize it? What have you found most beneficial?
Stephanie: I have a couple of key areas that I tend to use tech in my work. I think my favorite way of using it is to bring teachers together in a learning community, so to reconnect with our reading lives, our writing lives, to help create spaces for teachers that are both in person in our schools, but also digital and virtual. I think there's real possibility for developing authentic connections with technology, just as we often do in our social lives. Doing the same for our coaching and our own learning.
I often find when I work with coaches, we tend to have a think tank around PD a whole lot, and how can we make PD more authentic and just plain old better, so that it actually can connect to teachers and students in their classrooms? I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how we can redesign professional development with tools of technology to first transform teacher learning, and really show them the power and possibilities of using tech, so that they can then do the same with their students in their classrooms.
Steph: You just mentioned physical spaces as well as digital, and you speak about that a little bit in your book. How do the physical coaching spaces impact students' learning?
Stephanie: Well, I've learned as a coach that every interaction that we have with teachers and students really has the potential to change who we are as educators. It could be the planned conversation about a coaching session in the classroom, to the unexpected hallway chat. It could be a scheduled classroom visit versus the time that you're just called in for a quick classroom coverage, and learn about teachers.
Every interaction we have has the potential to help teachers connect together and collaborate, but as coaches, and I have found this to be true of most coaches, we're planners, and we're thinkers, and organizers, and fantastic multitaskers. I'd probably add, even a little bit of a worrier, as we try to make the best kinds of spaces and places and experiences for our teachers.
Those choices that we make matter, and those spaces that we create for teacher learning matter, physical and digital. And I've been lucky enough in my position to get to work with many literacy coaches, and get to travel to multiple schools and see the kinds of spaces that they create. There's a couple of key things that I've found really matter for our coaching, and that's having a space where teachers can just unwind and come together in this safe haven, comfortable space, to relax and reconnect.
The really effective spaces I have seen, they are spaces that are inviting. I joke that every PD needs to have either some sort of chocolate or something on the table, as though little choices matter, of how to invite teachers into your learning space. Think support collaboration, everything from teacher sized tables, and not the little tiny chairs that we're trying to cram ourselves in, all the way to the basket of colorful Post-it notes and really cool colorful gel pens to do some sketch noting when the idea strikes.
They give us a little bit of renewal, and ideally they also act as models for the classroom, so that when teachers are there, they're continually thinking about their own reading and writing lives, and their own learning, so that they can go back and apply that to the classroom, as well.
Steph: What advice would you have for coaches, but also teachers, utilizing technology to advance their teaching?
Stephanie: I have one guiding principle that I share often, and it's four simple words. Privilege pedagogy over technology. If we do that, everything else will just fall into place. I have a quick story, because this one teacher had something to me after a professional development session I did that just really put things into perspective, and solidified that philosophy for me.
It was a summer professional development session and I offered teachers a session on building the reading community in their classroom. We spent about half a day together and we talked about how to cultivate both ourselves and our students as readers and writers. As soon as the session was over, this one teacher came up to me very quickly, beelining from the back of the room. I thought, "Oh goodness," but she came up to me and thanked me for the session and said she really couldn't believe the amount of technology that she used in the session.
She said, "You know, if the title of your session was 'How To Use Padlet In Your Classroom,' or, 'How To Use Flipgrid To Do Book Talks,'" she said, "I wouldn't have attended, because I don't know what Padlet is, and I don't know what Flipgrid is, and I'm already overwhelmed enough that I don't need to worry about something else I'm supposed to be using." She said, "But instead the title was, 'How To Build A Reading Community In Your Classroom'" and she said, "That was a pedagogical goal that I was working on, so I wanted to come to the session."
And she said, "I was shocked by how technology helped me to do that rather than me thinking of it as this more troublesome add-on that I had to do in the classroom." That for me really summed up my philosophy of using tech. We want to start with a goal. Every teacher has something that they're working on, and if you start with that goal and think about the different possibilities available to you to reach that goal, some of them may be tech based, and some of them might not be, and that's okay.
You want to choose the tech tools that you try based on those goals, and if it doesn't help you to connect with students or help students to connect with other students, if it's not authentic and it doesn't feel right, then don't use it. Just don't use it. Try something that is more better aligned to your technology comfort level, to your own experiences, and especially the students who are in front of you.
I would recommend that they explore things and they try things, they reflect, and then they repeat the whole process, but above all, honor your own teaching philosophy, your own experiences, and make sure that you're the one that's in the driver's seat with the tech, instead of letting it overwhelm you and your teaching.
Steph: Right, right. It's more of a tool instead of just the thing itself.
Stephanie: Absolutely. I'm hoping that this book will help coaches rethink and reflect on their coaching practices, not just in relation to technology, but in relation to the teachers and the students that we currently work with. That does mean reimagining our coaching position over and over and over again, based on every new year, and every new set of teachers we work with, and every new set of students we work with.
What I have found for my own personal learning is that technology really has been a game changer for me, and it is my hope that I can share that with others. I have a really great in person personal learning community, my own PLC, or my PLN, that I'm lucky enough to work with every day. But it wasn't until I just went out there and took a risk, and participated in an online book club, just for the sake of my own professional learning, that I realized the power that technology held for me and for my own learning, even as a coach, and even as a literacy teacher educator, because we are all continual learners.
So really living it first and seeing how technology was a game changer for my own learning, and really showed me that all of us have a story to tell, and all of us have a voice, and technology is a real force to give us an audience for all of those teaching stories. I feel that's where the power that tech can hold for literacy coaching, and so I'm hoping that when people read the book and think about the ideas, they'll use tech to actually share those ideas and the things that they're trying with the world, so that we can keep connecting and continuing that kind of collaboration. That's what I'm really excited for.
Stephanie Affinito, a former classroom teacher and literacy specialist, is a literacy teacher educator at the University at Albany. She has a deep love for literacy coaching and supporting teachers’ learning through technology, and she presents nationally on this topic. You can find her online at stephanieaffinito.com and on Twitter @Affinitolit