Author Archives: Kenneth McKee

Three Growth Mindset Lessons from My Journey as an Instructional Coach

The following post was my share about growth mindset as an ASCD Leader at ASCD L2L in Arlington, VA on July 23rd, 2015.

I am Kenny McKee, and I am a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader. I want to share 3 lessons I’ve learned on my  growth mindset journey from when I shifted from being a classroom teacher to a high school literacy coach in my district. I hope that regardless of your position, that these leadership lessons will resonate with you.

Lesson 1:  You can’t do it alone.

Before the instructional coaching program in my district expanded, little progress in literacy had occurred at the high school level. Although I had success in my classroom, influencing instructional change at such a vast  level intimidated me.  My first “a-ha” was I couldn’t do it alone, which as someone who occasionally suffers from “perfectionism” was very hard. I reached out to others in my position, scoured professional literature, and found an amazing online community of coaches on Twitter.   I learned that I must  truly partner with teachers because the top-down approach our district had used in the past had made little impact. And in that process, I learned from the teachers I worked with as well.  If you are open to learning from everyone you work with, I believe that you’ll find that there are many people who will go on the growth journey with you. And you need them.

Lesson 2. The rhetoric of “best practices” can stifle growth.

The approach to literacy our district had used before emphasized a fixed “right way”  that was actually holding back progress. The content-area teachers had vast, and often untapped, knowledge of how experts read, write, and think in their disciplines. Rather than the prescriptive “one-size-fits-all” approach previously dictated to teachers, we focused on what mattered most, students’ learning, and that led to subtle shifts in culture and instruction. School-based, cross-content literacy teams began to influence both what forms of instruction would impact all disciplines and how literacy looked different in math, English, history, and the other domains.You see, I think that sometimes the phrase “Best Practice” can become the epitome of a fixed mindset, as it implies that things cannot get better. It also implies that what is best is the same for all students, subjects, and classroom contexts is the same which is simply not true. Focus on “better” to continually improve — not “best”.

11800158_10207057608060066_8002370731518309674_n (Photo Credit: Thanks to 2015 ASCD Emerging Leader, Michael Matera (@mrmatera), for the great photo.)

Lesson 3. Change can’t occur without conflict.

Those literacy teams’  ideas  and new district leadership collaborated to create an instructional framework that asked that students read, write, move, speak, and think in each class every day. The framework would empower teachers with the autonomy in how those activities would happen.  This work was not easy. Some teachers did not want to take up the challenge of diversifying their instruction — even if they had control over how they would do it. I had been rather naive, believing that my politeness, professionalism, and a supportive stance would avert all conflict. Because of that anger, I had to personally grow by finding ways to  become more resilient and navigating conflicts that emerged.  I have learned that any time your position yourself as a leader, whether formally or informally, you are inviting conflict, and sometimes that can result in greater solitude. So, it’s important to effectively communicate with all stakeholders, especially the naysayers.  If you do, you’ll find that there are many people willing to take the journey with you.

Turn and Talks are a quick low-prep strategy for assessing students, having them share background knowledge or clarify thinking, and increasing student engagement. However, it doesn’t always work well. Sometimes it seems like, when asked to turn and talk, it is the only time students are quiet! Other times what they talk about is completely off- topic!

Here are some suggestions for making “Turn and Talk” more effective.

  1. Set a time limit.

A turn and talk shouldn’t last longer than a minute or two, or students will lose focus. Using a visual timer such as Online Stopwatch works even better. Most students (and teachers) don’t have a good sense of passing time while engaged in an activity.

  1. Use a sentence starter or sentence frame.

Tell students to use the starter to begin discussion. Sometimes“turn and talk” doesn’t work because students don’t know how to begin academic conversations.

  1. Try A-B Dyads.

A-B Dyads are a specific type of turn and talk. One student is named A, and one is B. Tell each student what they are to do. For example, you could say “Student A, discuss any word choices in the text that could reflect the tone. Student B, repeat student A’s words and add your own. Then provide a word that describes the tone, and provide a justification. Student A, offer your tone word and justification.”

If you’ve been frustrated by “Turn and Talks” in the past, don’t give up without trying one of these high-leverage strategies.

Blogging Etiquette for Instructional Coaches

After a recent Twitter conversation with some of my #educoach colleagues, I was asked to share my thoughts about the etiquette of blogging as an instructional coach. As a coach, sometimes your work is shared with classroom teachers. The students you work with aren’t your “own.” You may have a wide lens of your school or district. People place their confidence in you to maintain confidentiality. It can be sticky.

I reflected and shared some of my unofficial “rules” for blogging as an instructional coach. Whether you are a content coach, literacy coach, digital learning coach, teacher leader, or administrator, I hope these guidelines can help you in your blogging.

1. Write mainly about lessons you teach, resources you made, and strategies you use.

There is never a problem with claiming your own work. Educators are often modest, but please share the things you have done that have helped students be successful. It’s how we all grow.

2. When you write about collaborations with teachers, clearly give credit to what the teacher contributed.

There are many reasons. Intellectual property. Common courtesy. Showing yourself as a learner from your colleagues. Give credit to those who did the work.

3.  Never use the teacher’s name or photos of his or her work without asking for permission.

Brag about the awesome lessons your colleagues are teaching, but please ask for permission from them before you use their names. As seen in#1, many teachers are modest. Please ask them, and allow them to make a decision about whether they want their work to be widely distributed in the blogosphere.

4.  Write about situations in generalities. Readers paint their own characters.

Talk about situations without naming names. Oftentimes, we see others’ struggles in the context of our own. Not only does this strategy protect colleagues and students, it can actually encourage more reflection from blog readers as they personalize the situations you present.

5.  Never write about teachers or other school staff in a negative light.

Never. It WILL come back to haunt you. It could be an administrative discussion, a miffed teacher, or, worst of all, a call from the media.  If you need to vent, your blog is not the place…unless you are observing Rule #4.

6. Focus on your own experiences, reflections, and  advice about coaching and teaching without critiquing others.

Your own experience is valuable. Many people can learn from what you have learned. Writing about what you have learned as a coach is a very personal part of the work. However, always emphasize that your views are your opinion. Just like teaching, in coaching, there are many ways to “skin a cat.”

I hope theses suggestions might help you in your blogging. please contribute more ideas by leaving a comment.

Four Easy Tools for Teaching Research

Research is one of the most exciting activities for students. They can select a topic of interest and become experts on it, which is incredibly empowering and motivating.

Research can also be unwieldy. And that’s OK. It should be. The surprising turns of the research process helps us develop important life skills like perseverance, problem-solving, organization, and discernment.

However, scaffolding for research is essential. As one of my administrators always says, “We have to paint the parking lot.” If we don’t provide tools for the research process, students may produce inferior products, or even worse, become so overwhelmed that they won’t begin.

With that in mind, here are four tools that will make research more achievable for your students.

1.  Five Quick Questions to Evaluate a Website

These questions can help students quickly and easily assess the quality of information on a web page. In a digital age, much of our research is online. However, the ease of online publishing results in a wide range of quality. These five simple questions help students feel much more confident about when they should use an online source.  They are essentially a variation of the CRAP test that many teachers use, but I find that students are more likely to use this concise and targeted sheet.

2.  Finding Dulcinea

Finding Dulcinea’s developers call it “the Librarian of the Internet.” It’s a site that evaluates different online sites and articles for quality, and then collects them.  When you complete a search, Finding Dulcinea will present its collected sites to you. If there are no collected sites, it will offer you an option for “selected” sites, which directs you to generally reputable sites like CNN, the New York Times, and the Smithsonian. Finding Dulcinea doesn’t suit the needs of every student’s topic, but it’s always worth checking out.

3. Cornell Note-taking Google Doc

There is nothing cutting-edge about this form. It’s simply a digital variation of Cornell notes. I have students make several copies of the form in their Google Drives. They use a copy for each promising source they find (which is cited at the top of the form). Students list subtopics of their research in the far left column if they already have an outline. If they haven’t gotten that far, I simply ask the to write questions they have about their topic in the left column to get them going. Once they have determined if a source is of adequate quality, they read with the purpose of looking for information about those topics in the left column. When they find a good source and have cited it, they can copy and paste information directly form the source into the second column. What teachers like most about this form is that the third column prompts students to paraphrase the quotes in their own words. This process reminds students both to avoid plagiarism and develop their own writing voices.

4. Former Students’ Papers and Products

Many students feel uncertain of what the expectations are for their final products. Having them examine successful examples from other students helps them feel more confident about the process. These papers and products can serve as mentor texts that help students better understand important research writing components like theses and citations. Check out this post about a lesson where I used former student papers to teach research writing.


Prezi’s Features Integrate Content and Pop Culture

A while back, I co-planned a thematic unit on heroism for ninth grade English students . The students were reading excerpts from Homer’s The Odyssey, and the classroom teacher and I hoped to introduce the concept of archetypes to them in an interesting way.  Learning about archetypes helps students understand how universal themes, symbols, and conflicts repeat across cultures and time periods.

Because students are usually motivated by media (a “super peer,” as Renee Hobbs calls it), we decided that connecting traditional archetypes with modern-day film archetypes might help students activate and connect to background knowledge. In the past, both of us have discussed film connections with students, but using clips allowed us to build concepts from mutual, shared experiences. We decided that Prezi would be a great presentation tool for this goal.

Prezi can seamlessly integrate music, film clips, and photos into presentations. Due to the wide array of presentation options, Prezis often take longer to create than PowerPoints. However, the results  are dynamic presentations that engage students. Prezi can also be utilized as an instructional tool for students participating in online courses.  In addition, students love creating Prezis themselves. Prezis can easily be shared through e-mail addresses with collaborators, and they can be worked on simultaneously by several members of a group.

We were really proud of the product we created, and I’ve shared it with several colleagues. The presentation can be used as one interactive lecture, or it can be broken down to be used as mini-lessons as students encounter new archetypes as they read The Odyssey. 

Students have found it fun to discuss the examples in the Prezi, and they have readily identified other examples of archetypes from other print and non-print texts. In the future, I’d like to have students build a similar archetype presentation with their own selections of cultural images.

Check it our archetype Prezi, and please use it if you like it!